Dichotomies have been preoccupying me this week. Maybe it’s the back and forth of recent days – from Spain to Scotland, Edinburgh to Glasgow (confusingly guised as Philadelphia), Uggs there to sandals here. Either way, contrasts and contradictions seem to be hunkering mulishly in my cerebellum. On the metro each morning I’m entertained by endless difference…my pale skin with the honey-coloured bodies around me, conversations in Spanish with posters in Catalan, the itinerant unemployed and their begging bowls with the static seats of office-bound workers and their iPods.
Against this backdrop of nugatory notions, there’s one particular twinset of distinctions that my brain keeps snagging on. I live in Poble Sec; a traditionally working class barrio of Barcelona that nowadays contains a mixed population of natives and foreigners. Next to the Catalan hairdresser’s beneath my flat there’s a fruit and veg shop run by an Indian family, and down the road there are a couple of halal butchers. Go a few blocks south and you’ll be in the midst of a big South American community. And then there’s me, the redhead.
The night I moved there the taxi driver raised an eyebrow on hearing of my destination (ironically as we travelled up Parallel Avenue). “What?” I said, “is it not a decent area?” “Bah”, he scowled, “it’s full of bloody immigrants”. “Like me?” I said. “Not at all”, he hastened, failing to perceive my sarcasm. “You’re different.”
What makes me an expat but my neighbour an immigrant? And whose definitions are these? When I googled the terms I was heartened to see that others have been asking the same questions. ‘Expat’ has the smugness of a self-conferred term, whereas ‘immigrant’ is a label wielded exclusively and usually pejoratively by others. As has been pointed out, ‘immigrant’ tends to be used in relation to minority ethnic groups. Although as the apparently sole Scot in Poble Sec, and exhibiting classically Celtic physical traits, I fear this is a tad disingenuous.
The whole issue has a particular relevance and sensitivity in Spain, with its borders so strategically inviting to Europeans and Africans. Cataluña itself has seen decades’ worth of people from more rural parts of Spain flock here in search of work.
Personally, the word ‘expat’ gives me shivers. Not just because it conjures up, at least within the Spanish context, images of hoary-haired pensioners of particularly Western privilege in cliquey communities, muttering about how the locals no speak English, but because of its very etymology.
First there’s that seemingly innocuous prefix ‘ex’, which turns out to be freighted with insinuation. Its emphasis is on what you have lost, left behind, and are now excluded from. You are defining yourself by absence. Then there’s the stem of the word – that pesky patria (fatherland). Patriotism and patriarchy are bedfellows, both of which I would cross the street to avoid.
Selves in exile
On another taxi ride (where I seem to get most of my education here) I got talking with the Uruguayan driver. Fifteen years he had spent in Barcelona, and he responded enthusiastically when I asked if he thought he would ever go ‘home’. “Oh yeah, I’m only here temporarily” he said. I felt sorry for him, and ever sorrier for the Pakistani taxista I quizzed later on that night. He’s been here for 11 years, and I asked him what native languages he spoke. He paused before replying “Urdu and Punjabi”, and went on to say “do you know, in all my time here, no-one has ever asked me that before?”
A shaman once said to me “With our thoughts we create the world”, and I think that’s nowhere truer for me than here. Always hankering to go ‘home’, and the halcyon times of yore, can’t be healthy. I spent a year in Madrid like that and the experience was miserable. This time round, I guess I think of myself, more than anything, as a guest. No idea how long I’ll be here, but while I am, I want to feel settled, and ideally integrated. And try to remember that being here is an experience, rather than an identity.