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After three years living in southern Spain and working as a journalist here, I recently took a trip back to my native UK. It was a weird experience, and one that gave me a whole new perspective on the country of my birth.
When I moved from London to southern Spain in March 2015, I intended not to go back to the UK for a long time. I had spent 10 years in the capital – first as a philosophy student and then as a journalist – and was through with it: with the existentially draining commutes and the laughable prices. With the sheer size and impersonality of it, and with the unceasing misery of the weather. At the end of 2014, also, I was in a bad place: I’d been through a nasty breakup and lost a job that I was bored of anyway. This was the time to leave – and so I left, bound for Granada via a one-way ticket to Málaga.
The other aspect of my growing dislike of London was a strong suspicion that I would love living in Andalusia. Ever since spending long summer holidays here as a young teenager, this feeling had never left me. I loved the dramatic countryside of southern Spain, with its bare, sun-baked mountains, endless olive groves and spectacular coastline. I loved how warm and friendly the people were, the sounds and rhythms of Spanish, the fact that the evenings don’t end at midnight, and of course the weather. And I was also becoming more and more interested in the bulls, and Andalusia is steeped in the bulls.
Moving to Granada, then, didn’t feel like a wrench or a leap into the unknown, although of course there are always uncertainties about moving abroad. It felt like doing what I should have done years before. I have always remembered the brilliant first sentence of Jason Webster’s Duende, a book about his own experience of moving to Spain from the UK: “Often we end up doing what we almost want to do because we lack the courage to do what we really want to do.”
After three years’ immersion in Andalusia, I visited the UK for the first time last month, and it was a surreal experience. The first thing that struck me, waiting in the bitter cold at Stansted for a bus into London, was that I understood, without thinking, all the conversations going on around me. I can understand a lot of Spanish now – although naturally I am still foxed by the strongest Andalusian accents, such as that of Cádiz – but I still have to tune in and really concentrate to eavesdrop in a bar or on a train. Yet here I was in the UK, and it was like I’d been given auditory X-ray equipment, giving me effortless access to the conversations of people around me.
Everything seemed quieter, too. Anyone who has visited southern Spain will be familiar with Andalusians’ habit of speaking to each other – whether in person or on the phone — very loudly. This is one aspect of living in Granada of which I am not completely enamoured, but I have become accustomed to it, and now I don’t notice the ramped-up decibels in the bars or on the street.
But I noticed the lack of noise when I ducked into a pub in Mile End for a much-anticipated pint of ale (one of the few things I had really missed about the UK); for one thing, people were sitting down at tables, not crowded up against the bar, and they were also speaking quietly to one another, so that only they could hear their conversation. I savoured the ale and the relative silence, realising that I’d forgotten what English pubs were like, and that I’d actually missed them.
In southern Spain, it’s not just the volume dials that are turned up to max. One thing I have come to adore about this part of the world is the colours – the big, happy colours that characterise cities and landscapes. There is the white and yellow of traditional Andalusian townhouses, which are decorated with bright red flowers in summer; there is the jet black of bull hide and the cinematic yellow of the sand in the bullrings, and the dazzling red of the torero’s cape; there are the browns and reds of the sun-scorched mountains, especially in Almería; and over all of this is the infinite blue of an Andalusian sky – a shade of blue that is to other blues as the colour of blood is to other reds, as Gerald Brenan wrote. The vibrant hues of southern Spain reflect the vitality of the life here, the directness of it and yes, at times, the shocking primacy of it.
Back in the UK, by stark contrast, I found only gradations of grey. I don’t just mean the weather was awful, which of course in January it was (and weather is a profoundly important part of life), but I was expecting that. I was more affected and surprised by the lack of colour around me. The sky felt so low I could reach up and touch it, and it was a dull, billowing grey. In fact, it was just how Martin Amis described English skies, as “a negation of the very concept of colour”. London, too, presented itself as a forlorn, rainy city of white and grey, as the bus from Stansted came though the relatively unlovely areas of Bow and Mile End.
Yet I don’t want to be too harsh on my country of birth. I have a newfound appreciation for the famed politeness of the English, and after three years surrounded by Andalusians, who can often be breathtakingly direct, I noticed it more than ever. In pubs and shops, people were unfailingly polite and cheerful. From the lady who served me my first pint in Mile End, to the taxi driver who drove me to Birmingham airport for my return flight to Málaga, I couldn’t fault anyone for courteousness. It prompted me to realise, on the plane home to all that colour and noise, that living abroad is not just about discovering a new country; it’s just as much about rediscovering your own.