What Spain Has Given Me

This morning I was walking back from dropping my son off at school with a Spanish dad, talking about food in the north of Spain – how incredibly good it is, and what insanely abundant portions they give you.

A ‘menu del día’ in Asturias might involve a light soup for starters, followed by a mighty ‘fabada’ (bean stew with chorizo, black pudding and ham – and the serving bowl is left on your table so you can serve yourself as much as you want), then comes the main course… I usually, prudently, go for fried eggs and chips, though there’s usually a vast steak on the menu.

Then pudding, often a home made ‘flan‘, egg custard. All for ten euros, bread and a bottle of wine included. The trick is to leave not feeling completely overwhelmed from overeating.

When I first got to Spain 18 years ago, I couldn’t understand why the Spanish talked about food so much. I couldn’t eat olives either. Or start a night out at 9 or 10pm (“what am I going to do until then?!” I used to think). And now having lunch at 2pm, chatting about food for hours, and eating every kind of olive under the sun, is the most natural thing in the world.

18 years in Madrid… after I decided, aged 26, that I couldn’t face another winter in London. So I jumped on the Eurostar, then an overnight train from Paris to Madrid, and, intending to do a TEFL course for a month then head on to the coast, have been here ever since.

I’ve got a Spanish wife, children, have been an English teacher, a travel writer, a translator, and for the past ten years my wife and I have run Notes in Spanish, an online business teaching Spanish via podcasts. I’ve helped run mindfulness retreats round the country, and am on the committee for the school fete.

Increasingly I feel sort of half Spanish. I never feel that there’s any barrier between me ‘the foreigner’ and the other parents at school for example. There are occasional jokes about English habits, and jokes about the Spanish from me in return, but I feel absolutely accepted here, and absolutely part of the fabric of school and family life. That took a while. The first five years I kept catching myself walking around Madrid and thinking “what on earth are you doing here?! How on earth did that happen?!”

Someone suggested I write about what living in Spain has given me, to encourage people to see the benefits of the UK staying in Europe. After so long away I admit that I feel very disconnected from the whole debate because my life is now so centred here. It did occur to me that if the UK leaves the EU I might one day need a visa or something to stay here, which seems a bit crazy and unlikely, and is purely a selfish concern.

As a foreign person living in a close-knit school community, and benefitting enormously from that, it also seems a bit mad to want to leave the support a community provides, even if the other members drive you mad sometimes and do things you don’t like. But that’s about as far as I get with the politics of the whole decision.

But certainly I can talk about what being an Englishman living and working in Spain has give me. It’s given me everything. Work, family, friends, food, landscapes, olives, the streams and forests of the Sierra de Madrid, the joy of running the school fete, a whole new language, a sort of surrogate Catalan family in a small village north of Barcelona that I visit often. Spain has enriched my life more than I could possibly have dreamed when I wandered over here 18 years ago, and I’m immensely grateful for that.

16 thoughts on “What Spain Has Given Me”

  1. Great story and well told – thanks for sharing.

    I lived in Lanzarote for eight years and the only regret I have is not immersing myself in Spanish, sorry Canarian (!), culture properly.

    I fully agree too on the amount of time it takes to feel at home in a new country – definitely years rather than months to feel wholly comfortable.

  2. Totally agree, Ben. We’ve lived near Cartagena, Murcia for nearly 16 years after visiting here for holidays for 12 years before permanency. The Spanish people are so warm and friendly that we still can’t understand those many Brits who won’t try to communicate, after all, no one forced them to be here and they really do not know what they’re missing.

  3. Americans here in Madrid and we are coming up on our one year Spainaversary. We absolutely LOVE our life here in Majadahonda. Of course there is a steep learning curve, that which we are still climbing. We have made every effort to immerse ourselves in Spanish life and culture and it is paying dividends! Ben, my husband and I have been using Notes in Spanish for years and still enjoy, and recommend your program to friends. Thank you for sharing your life with us!

  4. I needed this today, thank you! I’m a few weeks shy of leaving home in NYC for Spain myself without any plans beyond a Celta course and “look for a job” and my anxiety has been increasing steadily. This post helped me take a deep breath and remember that beautiful things can happen when you open up to the next step with an open heart and mind. One day at a time. Thank you also for all the help in learning Spanish! 😉

    1. The original last line for this post was “How funny life is, how wonderful to have no idea where we are going to end up!” – When I got to Madrid I nearly went straight home on the first day, I was terrified – and look where I am 18 years later! So good luck, anxiety is all part of the process!

  5. Thanks for sharing! As a Brit living in Norway for 29 years, I totally relate to your post. Best of both worlds. Now that we have a small apartment Spain for holiday use, so 100% fanatically agree that you have to learn the language to really be able to understand the culture and the people. Thanks for helping me with that!!

    1. Thanks to you, and all the others above, for the comment. Yes, learning the language makes a HUGE difference.

  6. I have been in another European country for 22 years and can relate so much to what you say here. I love my job, my life, maybe even the gripes about queuing (or not)…I read your book a year or so.back, and am another one who uses the pods regularly to dust off my 1988 graduate Spanish!.

  7. Hi Ben, that’s great.

    Like you, I went to Madrid to teach. I was 24 years old. Only then, Spain wasn’t in the EU and I wasn’t allowed to stay for more than 28 days consecutively, so I’d hop on a train to Lisbon every month! It took two and a half years to get my Residencia and loads of queuing and paperwork. We were restricted on the amount of money we could take out of the country and needed private health insurance.
    I have had a little house in the provincia of Cádiz for many years , loads of Spanish friends and cannot imagine losing the freedom to live as a local. Spain has been the biggest single influence on my life, and my children’s. I can hardly bear to think about the consequences if the UK leaves the EU.

  8. That was excellent Ben! I’m going to sit down now and reflect on my own “What Spain has given me”! I’m now just into my third year of living in Ibiza: I moved here to retire and it’s an island where many Brits don’t even try to integrate, but I was determined not to be like that and I’m loving exploring the Spanish language (no-one is too old to learn) and culture, here and in visits to the peninsular. Ten days ago I discovered Notes in Spanish, which I am absolutely LOVING! I set myself the target to complete the Intermediate podcasts (and notes) at the rate of one a day but I’m ahead of target because they’re so enjoyable. So a sincere and very big thank you to you and Marina for helping me on my way to becoming ‘sort of half Spanish’ too!

    1. Thanks to you too Geoff for your great comment. I’m so glad you are taking that approach to life in Spain, really getting into it rather than staying on the outside. Good luck with the next three years and all that follow after that!

  9. Hi Ben. It’s rare to read words expressing gratitude to a place and people who have enriched one’s life in the way you have done here, and which also conveyed the warmth of the community you live in. It was also good to read about how you felt when you first went to Spain and wondered what you were doing there.
    I started teaching English, the late 1980s, to academics in the north of Poland, where I stayed for three years. It was odd at first and I often wondered why I was there, but at the same time, it felt very much like home. If I hadn’t returned to the UK to do my Diploma, I might have stayed for good, but other directions beckoned. Since those days, I’ve continued to work in England, but with the sure knowledge I wouldn’t stay. Last year, I planned to move to Pais Vasco but put it off until later this year, not even imagining how events here would turn out.
    After 24th June, I can say I’m not alone in not feeling I belong in the UK anymore. It feels like a very different place now, even in London. For so many people, it’s been the norm to travel freely to and within Europe and to take that for granted, and be a European. When I visit the north of Spain -just to wander and look and absorb the place – I speak Spanish – a beginner, but it feels good to speak the language of a country you’re visiting. Your and Marina’s “Notes in Spanish” podcasts have been my best teacher and I’m determined, even as a much older teacher than when I started (how did that happen?!), to move to Spain. I hope I’ll be able to stay.
    I fell in love with beautiful Basque Country – its mountains, wildlife, coast, people, food, – and would hope to give something back to the people I would be living among, become one of them and blend in with them. I’m worried now that I’ve left it far too late and must get my skates on (how do you say that in Spanish?).
    Huge thanks for your blog. What you’ve written really gets to the essence of life’s meaning, especially in your “Expressions of Life” post. Best wishes for a happy and simple life in Spain.

    1. Thank you Barb for such a lovely comment. I’m so sorry to hear that life feels so different in the UK after the vote, I can totally understand what you say though, the UK feels very different to me now as well as I contemplate it from here.

      I don’t think it’s too late at all though for you to come over to the Basque Country, and I’m sure you’ll be allowed to stay afterwards without too many problems, no matter how the Brexit turns out. I agree with you, the Basque Country is the most wonderful place – it’s what got me to Spain, after spending New Year there when 1997 turned to 1998. I knew I HAD to get back to Spain asap after that! And 9 months later I did.

      Good luck, and of course, I say go for it!

      1. Thank you Ben for your very uplifting comment, also! It’s made me feel a lot more positive about moving out. I will certainly be going for it after I work summer school here in London. I’ve been packing up stuff for charity shops for ages, to lighten the move. Basque Country certainly is very special. Best wishes to you and your family!

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