Category Archives: Society

Is Scotland set to break Catalonia’s heart?

It’s not a good sign when you sit down to write a blog post and your heart is already sinking.

Alliterative reasons aside, not for nothing is my blog subtitled ‘from Caledonia to Catalonia’. But as a Scot who’s spent the last almost three and a half years living and working in Barcelona, I have to admit that I’ve tried my hardest to steer clear of the entire socio-political morass developing on both sides of the Channel.

Why? Because I can’t win. Catalans, on hearing that I hail from Scotland rather than England, invariably assume I’m on their side (i.e. a raging nationalist). Scots, meanwhile, on hearing that I forsook the homeland in pursuit of Spanish fluency, deny me a vote in a historic referendum on my own country’s future.

Not to mention the countless Catalans – in Barcelona’s bars and on Twitter – who assure me that “Scotland is not even a country – everybody knows that.”

But with less than two months till Scotland goes to the ballot box, I’ve run out of excuses to sidestep the minefield.

I have no idea which way Scotland will vote in September (have I mentioned I don’t even get a vote?!), but I do want to talk about my experience here in Catalonia in the run-up to the referendum. And why I think Catalans might be backing the wrong horse.

Inca-Catalan-Independence

Precisely.

Two anecdotes to warm us up…

Around a year ago, I was heading home from work on the Barcelona metro and reading some research in English as I waited for the train. A fair-haired tourist walked up to me and, clocking the report, chirped, “Ah, are you English?” Without thinking, I smiled back “No, I’m Scottish”.

In a second, his demeanour changed. (He, apparently, was English.)

“You Scots” he sneered contemptuously, “you always have to make that point, don’t you?” And with that, he stormed off.

Left stunned on the metro platform, it occurred to me that if the situation had been reversed, and I had seen his appearance and fact he was reading an English report and said “Ah, so you’re Scottish?”, he would naturally have replied “No, I’m English”, without thinking any more of it. Yet as a Scot, I was not afforded the same courtesy.

More recently, I was talking to a Catalan friend on WhatsApp, and made some typically sarcastic joke about some nonsense or other. Failing to grasp the sense of humour (that’s a whole other blog post, believe me), my friend texted back “Exagerada”. “Of course I exaggerate”, I replied, “I’m British!”

His comeback was swift.

“You’re not British” he replied, in all seriousness. “You’re Scottish.”

The two scenarios have similarities. Firstly, the arrogance of someone presuming to correct what nationality you think you are. Just imagine the scenario in reverse – me saying to a local, “you’re not Catalan, you’re Spanish”. The fallout would not be pretty. Secondly, and this is where it gets fascinating – why is my nationality so important to both of these people from different countries?

Scotland – from touchpaper to touchstone?

On 18 September this year, around 4 million voters will head to the polls to have their say on whether Scotland, already a country in its own right, should opt for out-and-out independence from the United Kingdom.

As a Scot living abroad, I’m not entitled to a vote, as the Scottish government has decreed that only those people living in the country and registered to vote on Referendum Day can take part in the democratic decision.

(Bit unfair, eh? Yes and no. There are days it still rankles that I won’t get to cast a vote, as someone who was born and brought up in Scotland, is likely to move back one day and still owns property there. On the other hand, I can appreciate the administrative nightmare the Scottish authorities were presumably faced with. How do you decide who’s ‘Scottish’ enough to vote? What exactly are the criteria?)

Meanwhile, in the run-up to Referendum Day, my Catalan compatriots, most of whom have never set foot in Scotland, haven’t given me a minute’s peace. Say you’re Scottish (I try not to, but I fear the myriad mosquito punctures betray me) and their eyes light up.

Them: “So you’ll be voting for independence then?”

Me, patently trying to dodge the question: “Um, actually I don’t get to vote, because I live here.”

Them: “But if you did, I assume you’d be voting for independence, right?”

At this point, the smart answer would be to say aye of course, kick off my flip-flops and dance a Highland jig, but something in me resents the assumption that as a Scot I am automatically a nationalist.

Because nationalism is not a notion deserving of inherent trust. I’m Scottish, I’m British, and I’m most definitely European, but for the life of me I can’t see the sense in defining ourselves even more narrowly than we already do.

Agitating for autonomy

Support for secession has been on the up in Catalonia ever since the start of ‘La Crisis’; the dire state of economic affairs in which Spain has been floundering since 2008.

It’s no exaggeration to say the effects here have been devastating.

Every day in Barcelona I walk past people – of all ages and backgrounds – hunting around in public wheelie bins for something to eat, or to sell. The numbers who’ve lost their homes and jobs have all swelled the ranks of the vocal and visible supporters of Catalan nationalism, many of whom joined hands last September to form a 300-mile human chain in support of Catalan independence.

Catalan flag Girona by Keith Ellwood

The recession has been that bit harder to bear in Catalonia because, and here’s the rub, many locals see themselves as contributing disproportionately to Spanish state coffers, receiving a paltry molt poc in return.

You can see their point. In fact, Catalonia contributes around a fifth of Spain’s GDP and accounts for roughly a quarter of its taxes. It has a rightful claim as the economic powerhouse of Spain (although scant few Catalans seem willing to chalk up any part of the Crisis blame to the spending decisions of their own regional government, the Generalitat).

Catalan president Artur Mas has announced a ‘consultation’ on Catalan independence to be held two months after the Scottish ballot, on the 9th of November. It’s a ‘consultation’ rather than a referendum as the Spanish government has avowedly refused to entertain the idea of a legally sanctioned vote, leaving campaigning Catalans somewhat in no man’s land in the interim.

The confusion even among Catalanists is palpable, with some pushing for outright sovereignty, others for greater devolutionary powers and still others for the ‘third way’; a negotiated solution that would bring about an end to the impasse.

Scotland and Catalonia: two very different situations

The Scottish bid for independence is often held up by Catalans as the great aspiration, but my experience of both locations is that the comparison is inappropriate.

Catalonia’s cultural identity is deeply pegged to its language, with most inhabitants of the region enthusiastically speaking Catalan alongside Spanish.

Not so in Scotland, where Gaelic is most definitely relegated to the ranks of a romantic linguistic relic. (Don’t be fooled by cheery signs of ‘Failte!’ in Edinburgh’s Waverley station. The tourists may love it but only 1% of the Scottish population actually recognise it as their native language.)

The Catalan language, in contrast, is thriving. Enter Barcelona’s metro system and you’ll be greeted by ticket-vending machines that talk to you exclusively in Catalan. Get admitted to Barcelona’s hospital system (as I was for over a fortnight), and you will be given medical paperwork exclusively in Catalan. Send your kids to school in Barcelona and they’ll be taught in Catalan, with a tiny percentage of time devoted to lessons in Spanish.

Many Catalans here are grudgingly admiring of Scotland’s ability to have negotiated its right to a referendum, but many fail to realise what a phenomenally long road it’s been to achieve it. It’s taken over 100 years to get a legally recognised referendum on Scottish independence, something which Catalan nationalists, keen to highlight the British government’s graciously accommodating stance towards the Scots in comparison to Spain’s absolutist intransigence, tend to overlook.

I remember a visit from SNP activists when I was in primary seven, aged 10, and one of my classmates took full advantage of the Q&A session to ask “Do you think Scotland will ever be independent in your lifetime?” This was the late 1980s, long before the days of devolution, and as the question reverberated around the room even a bunch of school kids knew that it was in all likelihood rhetorical.

Going from that to September’s referendum is not the result of an overnight negotiation.

Not to mention the absence of a written constitution in the UK, unlike in Spain, whose constitution specifically forbids autonomous regions from holding referenda on self-rule.

But perhaps the most obvious – and yet, inexplicably contentious – difference is in the current legal status of both territories. Scotland is a country, a constituent nation within a united kingdom of four countries – Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Get off the plane in Glasgow and you’ll be greeted proudly by signage welcoming you to “the best small country in the world”. You’re free to contest the adjectives, but the noun isn’t a matter of debate.

Catalonia’s status is rather different. Like it or not, vote for it or against it, Catalonia’s current legal situation is that of a region within a country. Which means that right from the get-go, the two situations are not on a level playing field.

So wha’s like us, then?

I have no idea which way Scotland is going to vote on the 18th of September, but despite not being able to participate, I am extremely happy that the referendum is going ahead. I sincerely hope Catalonia is afforded the same right, so that we can all just vote and move on.

If they are granted the right to a legally valid vote on independence, I expect to be allowed to take part in it, as a full-time citizen and taxpayer of Catalonia. At the moment, this is not on the cards. If not, the ridiculousness of the situation would be thrown into sharp relief – a Scot living in Catalonia who’s barred from voting in either referendum. Now there’s democracy.

Meanwhile, if it’s a no from Scottish voters in September, I suspect Catalans will be at best crestfallen and at worst completely crushed. Maybe they’d do well to remember the words of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet.

“Wha’s like us,
Damn few,
And they’re a’ deid”

 

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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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