Category Archives: Society

Does living abroad give you a split personality?

A few months back, as I was cursing the detritus of a burst teabag in my morning cup of Earl Grey (in shall-we-say somewhat brisk Glaswegian), a Spanish colleague piped up from across the desk with an unexpected appeal.

“Julie, por favor, habla en español.” Looking a bit sheepish, his tone verged on imploring.

Now, this particular colleague speaks excellent English. The request was not prompted by frustration at not understanding.

“Ooh, yes”, every other colleague suddenly tipped in their tuppence, “you sound much nicer in Spanish”.

Guardedly spooning out the teabag gloop, I probed for further details.

Earl Grey by Anaulin

It seems that when I speak in my native English – on the phone, to one of the few fellow Brits in the office – I sound “harsh, hard-nosed, intimidating”. My colleagues didn’t quite go this far, which was considerate of them, but the message was clear – I assume a different personality depending on whether English or Spanish is coming out of my mouth.

Couple this experience with my last trip home to Scotland at Christmas, where even in mundane social interactions I was stunned at my alterity, and I’m really starting to wonder.

Does living abroad end up giving you a split personality?

Identity crisis

Let’s be honest, those of us who have upped sticks and fled our native shores. An appealing perk of relocating abroad is the opportunity it affords you to slough off an old self and reinvent yourself into a shiny new one.

Oh the untrammelled ontological possibilities that await. You can be anything!

Sort of.

Trouble is, before you can don the garb of a brand new foreign self, at least in any way convincingly, you have to shed a lifetime’s worth of cultural tenets and assumptions.

Precisely what you as an individual have to give up, of course, depends on the country you’ve come from and the one you’re trying to settle in. But I think it’s fair to say that whatever your particular set of circumstances, there’s likely to be some common ground in this psychological no-man’s land.

  • Mostly you feel like a pair of scissors. Each blade is a separate self, and on the rare day that the two come together, you could actually kiss strangers in sheer joy.
  • Mostly you feel like a fake. Coping with your new culture’s demands while trying to stay true to your home culture’s values inevitably means you always feel like you’re letting one of them down.
  • You’re perpetually mentally knackered. The daily abrading of two different cultures produces a constant, low-level anxiety, on top of the big things in life that everyone else has to worry about. As Petya Kirilova-Grady puts it so succinctly on her blog: “I feel that as expats/immigrants, etc., we often get pulled in multiple directions, which tends to keep us busy at best, anxious at worst.”
  • You’re constantly sidestepping the somatic tripwire. Sniffles that would have been trifles back home suddenly have the power to land you in bed for days.
  • At work, you’re now a nobody. Your professional identity has been defenestrated. Unless your employer in your native country has posted you abroad, you’re starting from scratch – in a foreign language, in a foreign country – and having to accept that no-one has a clue how good you really are. Your degrees and professional qualifications? They don’t mean a thing.
  • Your social status got chucked out behind it. The way you’ve always traditionally defined yourself (relationships with family, friends, community) is history.
  • You will be labelled in a way no-one has prepared you for. In your home country, you were simply ‘yourself’, and never really gave it much thought. In your adopted country, you may be, variously, a foreigner, an expat, an immigrant, a Scot/Brit/American/whatever, and if you’re in Barcelona, pejoratively, a guiri.
  • Some traits will never transpose. The sooner you accept that if you greet people with just a handshake in Spain they’ll think you’re socially frigid, and, conversely, greeting your elderly neighbours in Scotland with a bear hug and a huge smile frankly distresses them, the better. 
  • You don’t even recognise yourself when you do go ‘home’. Even there, you’re now an outsider looking in, questioning quirks and idiosyncrasies, wondering why your country people have no equivalent of ‘buen provecho’ before tucking in to even the most insignificant snack.

Give us this day our daily dialectic

Even after almost three years in Barcelona, there are days here I feel I’m operating under a mere veneer of authenticity.

Of course, part of the reason I moved abroad in the first place was to gain exposure to people with a whole other mindset, in an attempt to grow as a rounded human being. But being surrounded by folk who are constantly challenging your accepted view of the world can be wearying and unsettling.

Last year, for example, when my Cocker Spaniel was reaching puberty, and every male dog in the neighbourhood was hassling the hell out of her, I took her to be spayed at my trusted local vet’s.

“If you only knew”, he sighed, “how hard it is to convince Spanish people to get their dogs neutered. You’re saving her from countless cancers, unwanted puppies and a lifetime’s grief from other dogs, but try telling locals that.”

Cocker Spaniel relaxing

One hassle-free hound.

This was brought home to me repeatedly throughout the day. As I fretted, imagining her on the operating table, anguishing over whether she’d come round from the anaesthetic, my Spanish, Italian and Portuguese male colleagues didn’t hold back. “You’re evil for doing this”, one said. Another, slathering slabs of ham over his bocadillo, stated point-blank in all seriousness that he would never speak to me again.

“It’s even worse when it’s a male dog”, the vet told me later that evening as I collected my cone-clad Cocker. “Don’t even get me started.”

Even basic daily assumptions don’t go undisputed.

For example, when the pedestrian crossing light changes to green, you put one foot in front of the other in the full belief that the driver will honour your recognised right not to be mown down. But in reality, this is far from a given in Barcelona.

This constant challenging and up-ending of ingrained cultural assumptions gets downright tedious, and on days when linguistic issues come to the fore, it can quickly become overwhelming. To speak another language successfully, it’s not simply a case of conjugating the imperfect subjunctive at the opportune moment. You actually have to adopt a different personality – and way of thinking – for it to come across convincingly.

As a Scot living in Barcelona, it gets even more complicated. Apart from the problem of whether to sign off with an adiós or an adéu, there are macrocosmic cultural questions at work. Spain is a country with a serious split personality of its own, while Scotland currently finds itself in the approach to a historic referendum on independence from the United Kingdom.

With both of my wider environments embroiled in identity crises of their own, is it any wonder I’m confused?

Inscribing identities

So with your identity in freefall on foreign soil, how do you recognise your ‘real’ self?

The deep-rooted cultural values and beliefs that make you you are the bedrock of your identity, and you will fight to retain them at all costs. Look out for the ones you let go, though…who knows – in the long run, maybe those are the parts of your personality you’re better off without.


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13 things I would change about Spain

If you’re reading this from the UK, I can imagine what you’re thinking right now.

Churlish bint.

She gets to live a life of sun, sea, sand, sandals and sangría – what has she got to complain about?

In contrast, what I’m thinking is – how can I shrink my myriad gripes and grievances, accumulated over more than two years in Spain, into a palatable baker’s dozen?

te-amo-Barcelona

Claro que te amo  – now can you just work on these points?

So – in a very particular order – here we go.

1. Machista men

Every single day, Spanish men stare at me, make sexual gestures at me, make sexual comments to me, and generally make me feel like a piece of walking prey. On more than one occasion they have followed me, called me a whore, and even snuck into the lift of my building to molest me.

It’s a constant barrage of sexist crap, and for me it is the singularly worst aspect of living in Spain. Machista men, you’re not impressing anyone.

2. Sunday opening for shops and supermarkets

As a Brit, I admit I’ve been spoiled by our 24-hour, tat-on-tap culture. In Edinburgh I celebrated the fact that my local supermarket was open 24 hours, so that if I needed paracetamol at 3am, or whatever, there it was.

I also took for granted that after working full-time all week, I had two (two!) full days at the weekend to get all my shopping done, whether for groceries or anything else.

Not so in Spain. Unless you live in Madrid, where restrictions on Sunday opening were lifted a year ago, you can forget about buying anything on the Sabbath. Most visitors to Spain assume this is because of the country’s religious bent, but in fact, this doesn’t really come into it.

The thinking goes that if large stores and supermarkets were allowed to trade on Sundays, this would disadvantage smaller retailers who can’t afford the staff.

Hmm. These are the same smaller retailers, often family-run, who gaily shut up shop in August and award themselves a month-long holiday?

3. The autónomo (self-employed/sole trader) laws

Next up in my major grievances category are the laws surrounding any poor sod who thinks, in a mad moment of entrepreneurial inspiration – I know, I’ll go freelance.

In the UK, I understand the logic and agree with the sentiment. Set yourself up as a sole trader and you will pay income tax and national insurance as a fixed percentage of the profits you make.

Hacienda tax office

The annual tax return

In Spain, however, individuals working as sole traders are required to pay currently 256€ per month towards social security. Regardless of how much they’ve actually made in that month. Even if they’ve made nothing at all.

This fact is mind-blowing to most foreigners who arrive to settle in Spain. (It’s fair to say it’s not loved by the locals, either.)

In practice, what this means is that most autónomos refuse to register as such, and either invoice illegally or else get a friend within a big company to do it for them. Thus doing the Spanish tax office out of much needed VAT.

Rather than reform the situation for the better, the Spanish government is currently talking about upping the fixed monthly social security contribution.

4. Customer service (atención al cliente)

It’s diabolical. Don’t even start me.

5. Bank holidays that fall on random weekdays

Spain, like several other European countries, sticks rigidly to its national holidays on the actual designated dates. (So if you go for a job and they say you’ll get 32 holidays a year, bear in mind that if one of the bank holidays fall on the weekend, you ‘lose’ that day. Not like in the UK, when you get the following Monday off in lieu.)

In December 2011, two bank holidays fell within the same week. It just so happened that the 6th was a Tuesday and the 8th a Thursday. 

In faintly ludicrous fashion, we all went to work Monday, stayed home Tuesday, went to work Wednesday, stayed home Thursday, before heading back to the office on Friday. Genius.

I believe there’s talk of moving certain bank holidays to Mondays, but, you know, let’s not rush things.

6. Failure to accept responsibility

In what I’m well aware is a sweeping generalisation, my impression is that Spaniards are convinced they are never wrong. It’s never their fault. Forget humility – you better start searching your own soul to see how you screwed things up.

Neglected to read the small print and were mis-sold a mortgage? Bank’s fault.

Still living with your parents at 38? Society’s fault.

Could this phenomenon be the result of Spanish society surviving for years under dictatorship? Where individual citizens are lumped into one big lumpen mass, collectively tarred with the same brush, and subject always to the whim of a higher authority?

Blame the system, blame the politicians, blame your next-door neighbour, but don’t expect anyone to hold their hands up and admit to any personal shortcoming any time soon.

7. Attitude to dogs

Dogs in SpainSpain, unlike the UK, is not a nation of dog lovers. Don’t get me wrong – Barcelona has plenty of dogs (most of which seem to be French Bulldogs named Elvis, inexplicably).

And yet…they’re not exactly welcomed with open arms.

You can’t take your dog on the metro, on the buses, or on the funicular trains (up to Montjuïc or Tibidabo, for example – exactly the spots that are ideal for a walk). Nor can you venture down to the seaside without fear of a hefty fine.

So to go anywhere with your dog, it’s taxis a plenty (if you can get one to stop when they spy the canine, that is).

8. The all-encompassing Castilian compulsion

As an amante of all things Hispanic, even I have to balk on occasion at the unrelenting supremacy of the Spanish language here.

Spain is a composite nation, made up of 17 ‘autonomous communities’, several of which have their own languages (Catalan, Basque, Galician, Valencian, Asturian). A Spanish friend of mine, who speaks three of these languages herself, made a brilliant point in conversation the other day.

Why don’t residents of Spain have ready access to all of these languages on TV?

Here in Barcelona, TV channels are beamed out in Catalan and Castilian, but that’s it. Having exposure to all of Spain’s languages in this way would be a really positive step in encouraging a bit of cross-regional understanding.

9. Risible inability to cope with rain

The rain in Spain falls mainly in the metro, it would seem.

sawsust Barcelona metroFair enough, we Brits don’t exactly cover ourselves in glory any time we’re hit with adverse weather conditions.

But Barcelona seems particulaly ill-equipped to cope whenever one of its almighty downpours grips the city.

Sawdust strewn on the floor to tackle puddles – truly a 21st-century solution.

10. Mad motorists

I’m thinking of taking driving lessons here later on this year so include this point in the vague hope that the entire nation of drivers sorts itself out before I hit the road.

Red lights here are like red rags to a Spanish bull. They exist to be jumped. Hapless pedestrians attempting to cross the road are met with conspicuously ramped-up revs and the realisation that they’re risking their lives on a daily basis.

Road rage is such a part of life here that it puts most foreign drivers off ever getting behind the wheel. Which is a real pity, given that so much of the Costa Brava is accessible only by car.

11. Dubious dairy products

Why doesn’t Spain do cheddar? Why is it impossible to buy proper cream? Why does Manchego cheese taste consistently of cardboard? Why is ‘nun’s tit’ cheese so highly prized?

12. Refusing to pay for a round

To be fair, this may well be a Barcelona rather than Spain-wide issue.

Back in Scotland, if you’re out in a bar with a group of friends or workmates, it’s the done thing to ask everyone what they want to drink. You get your round in. Some people may leave the group before reciprocating, but no-one really cares. You assume they will return the favour at some point in the future (if you even think about it all).

Here, they’re having none of it. Whether you go for lunch or for a few drinks after work, the procedure is identical: everyone queues up afterwards to scrutinise the bill and then duly hand over their part – and not one cent more. For a Scot, this is a staggering display, and one I complain about vociferously as much as possible.

13. Dirty cutlery

Spanish restaurants, at least in Barcelona, expect you to use the same set of cutlery for your main course as you did for your starter. I know this is no earth-shattering issue, and yet it irks me regularly.

Even after two years I still automatically offer back my starter plate with fork and knife included, only to be rebuked or glared at and handed back the same manky set of cutlery ready for round two. I can’t quite fathom where this custom comes from – surely it can’t be to save on Fairy Liquid costs? Anyone out there who can shed any light, adelante.

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Two years in – how Barcelona has changed me

A colleague of mine took the day off work recently. This wouldn’t have been noteworthy in itself, except that it was a random Wednesday, we were in the middle of a big project, and he was uncharacteristically cagey about the occasion.

After some gentle probing the next day, it turned out that Wednesday had been his one-year anniversary living in Barcelona.  He had wanted to mark the day with self-reflection. The females in the office cooed sweet things at him on hearing this. The men, meanwhile, rolled their eyes.

I smiled wryly at the sentiment, remembering my own one-year anniversary last April, and fast forwarding mentally to the second.

With mixed feelings.

A recent run of seriously dodgy incidents in Barcelona has put my commitment to the city to the test. After being attacked both in the street and inside the lift of my apartment building, it’s easy – and tempting – to write the place off as a ne’er-do-well destination. (Morten was right. These are scoundrel days.)

View from Barcelona observatory

Sure, from up here it’s shiny…

But hell, no-one said moving abroad alone was ever going to be easy, did they?

The Spanish me

Pours olive oil over everything. Mayonnaise, when it does put in an appearance, is reified in the form of ajo-laced allioli. If it can’t walk on its own, it doesn’t count.

Has a vague idea of what’s going on in the League. (Vague, mind.)

Automatically looks to the left first before crossing the road.

Tenses up instinctively whenever she hears footsteps quicken or someone breaks into a run.

Never wears a watch. Has the feeling that doesn’t matter.

Touches and hugs people constantly, even strangers she meets for the first time.

Unconsciously veers to the right on escalator queues.

Never watches TV.

Always clutches her handbag firmly to her lap in bars, restaurants, metro journeys, parties.

Scales at Barcelona Maritime Museum

Weighing up the options at Barcelona’s Maritime Museum

Has an irritating tendency to exclaim “Uff, qué frío!” whenever the mercury dips below 15 degrees. Centigrade.

Frequently finds herself questioning what day of the week it actually is.

Can not remember the last time she saw the iron.

Has seriously considered buying one of those little pull-along trolley things for the supermarket.

Has no qualms about using exclamation marks and effusive emoticons liberally in email communication.

Is inured to the chronic reek of dope on the breeze.

Never goes shopping for clothes.

Is no longer afraid of speaking Spanish on the phone.

Has packed away the microwave. Gluten-free frozen ready meals simply do not exist in Spain.

Is losing her grasp on the English language at a rate of knots.

Finds herself, for the first time in her life, questioning how to spell certain words. Responsible responsable? Cemetery cementery? Hostel hostal? Japanese Japonese?

Has discovered that it is physically impossible to eat lunch alone (some apparently deep sensibility of Spanish colleagues and friends prohibits it.)

Never saves any money. Ever.

Is genuinely starting to consider the possibility that chilly temperatures in and of themselves may cause the common cold. Despite undisputed science that says it’s a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract.

Will never get used to the sight of people scrabbling in wheelie bins looking for food.

Isn’t fazed by working with colleagues from every conceivable corner of the world.

Rainbow over Barcelona beach

Is, most of the time, on reflection, glad to live here.

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Scunnered in Barcelona

Or, how a peace-loving vegetarian was turned into a screaming banshee googling ‘shooting ranges in Barcelona’.

This wasn’t the post I was expecting to write.

What I actually wanted to talk about were the best apps for living in Barcelona. That was the plan. However, for that you need an actual iPhone.

Deserted Barcelona street

Arriving home from a night out last Saturday, having got a taxi home, about a block from my flat I was attacked and mugged. The guy came up from behind, from the shadows, from nowhere. Luckily I had just taken the (only set of) keys out of my bag a split second before, because he made off with the whole handbag – all cards, all money, new iPhone – in tow.

I gave chase but he was fleeter of foot. Something about not wearing high heels. And having done all this before.

I staggered down to Consell de Cent, a main street, well lit-up, where a few men and women were still strolling around. “I’ve just been mugged!”" I screamed. “Help me find the thief!”

Bear in mind, at this point I’m a foreign single woman, alone, clearly traumatised, on the street at night holding nothing but a bunch of keys.

They all glanced at me and kept on walking. No-one gave a shit.

Sunday

The police the next day were sympathetic and apathetic at the same time. It was quite a  feat to behold.

Clutching my passport, my NIE certificate and my insouciant Spaniel, I answered all of their questions by rote, having internalised it all already. No, I couldn’t recognise him again. Yes, he had hurt me physically. Yes, I think he was Spanish. Sorry if that doesn’t fit with the stats.

Inca was a big hit in the station. Burly policemen in uniform, passing by, did a double take on seeing her there, and stopped in their tracks to tickle her head. “Hola, perrita!”. I smiled, they smiled, everyone smiled. The pup gladly gave paws a-plenty.

The aftermath

This city needs to get its hands off me. That’s now twice in under two months I’ve had to defend myself physically, either inside my own flat or just a block away. Having got a taxi home both times.

I’m still processing the rest. No doubt in future I’ll publish something a little more coherent.

For now, I’m still jumping at shadows. Everyone is a potential aggressor. Shame on you, Barcelona. You’re changing me in ways you were not supposed to.

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