In the 20 years I have lived and worked in Spain (in Madrid and Barcelona), I’ve always tried to avoid reading any British newspaper article containing the words ‘expats’ or ‘costa’ in the headline, especially if illustrated with an image of a sunburnt-tattooed beer-gut in Union Jack shorts, or someone vomiting on a hen-night in, say, Magaluf. It’s not easy to avoid it, though – even more so when the word ‘Brexit’ is thrown in alongside ‘expats’ and ‘costa’.
This week, I could sense something very wrong had been written about ‘expats in Spain’, simply from all the comments on social media. By ‘wrong’, I mean not totally ‘balanced’, nor totally fair or honest. When I traced the reason, it turned out to be a video, not an article.
Look … I am actually a ‘fan’ (if that is the word) of The Guardian (if it is possible to be a fan of a newspaper). I admire it. I always have done, despite a lot of Private Eye/Grauniad spelling mistakes. I know (or knew) people who write and work for it. As far as Spain is concerned, I also believe that The Guardian, at least traditionally, has been one of the best British newspapers in its coverage of historical, political, economic or cultural issues across the Iberian Peninsula. The Guardian has boasted excellent foreign correspondents in Madrid over the years, as well as historians and professors as regular contributors – experts in their field who have written authoritative works on Spain, or about the Spanish civil war, or biographical gems on Franco or Spain’s monarchy. So why, I wondered, did The Guardian descend upon the ‘San Miguel Bowls Club’, which apparently lies adjacent to ‘Cheers Bar’ in the Urbanization of ‘Eagles Nest’, on the Orihuela coast in Alicante, and then publish a 7-minute video, practically describing it as a definitive portrayal of ‘British Expats in Spain count the Costa Brexit’? (And the ‘Costa Brexit’, gettit? Very effing original. Did someone come up with that headline before actually shooting and editing the video?)
Above the video there is a quote: ‘Effectively, they are living in little Britain.’ Below: ‘How do the largest community of British expats living in Spain feel about Brexit?’ Does The Guardian really, seriously, believe that the San Miguel Bowls Club on the Orihuela coast in Alicante is the largest community of British expats living in Spain?
The video starts off by stating there are approximately 900,000 British citizens living in the EU, with a third of them living in Spain. An ‘expat’ at the San Miguel Bowls Club is then asked to explain the difference between an ‘expat’ and a ‘foreigner’. ‘First of all, expats are British,’ he says, ‘and a foreigner is probably someone living from another country in Britain. They become foreigners. The British are never foreigners, wherever they go.’ He grins and laughs whilst saying all this, but he seems very serious. It is quite worrying, and it gets worse.
This lazy, shabby, almost cynical ‘video journalism’ from The Guardian tries to investigate how ‘the largest community of British expats living in Spain’ feel about their rights to healthcare, pensions and their British citizenship, which are all ‘hanging in the balance’ with Brexit. Where these expats live is ‘effectively a British enclave’ and ‘effectively a Little Britain’ – ‘they have British TV, British newspapers, British shops, British bars’. The expert-expat who can perfectly distinguish himself from a ‘foreigner’ goes on to say that where they live is in ‘posh ghettos’, and that they hardly speak to any Spaniards, and that many there ‘can’t leave the coast, because once they leave the coast, they can’t use English, and they can’t speak Spanish, so they are confined to the coast.’
The whole thing is hideous, and it is accompanied by soft Gypsy King-style background music … it is embarrassing, it is cringing. The worst bit, however, is when a red-faced beer-gut expat lounging around at the sun-drenched San Miguel Bowls Club says, ‘I voted for Brexit because I thought it was right for the country. What the UK needs is control of its own borders, its own land.’ When asked if he’ll move back to the UK, he laughs and points at the sun, saying, ‘No, I can’t take this with me!’ Well, I’m still trying to recover and come to terms with this part of the video. I feel traumatised. I can’t make sense of it at all. It baffles me.
Anyway … I’m not saying these pockets of ‘enclave’ expat communities don’t exist in Spain. They clearly do – and I’m sure they exist in France, Italy and Greece, too. But a newspaper like The Guardian could have at least come up with a more balanced video-documentary of ‘expats’ in Spain … surely? Surely? In fact I’d like to insist that they do.
I realise that the popular media only feel they’re covering Spain if they can also show a stereotypical backdrop of the beach, the sea and the sun, preferably with some paella, flamenco, ‘fiestas and siestas’ all thrown in. They see Spain as the ‘costas’, the south of Spain; they want to show expats in Andalusia or Murcia, and not in cities like Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao or Valencia. But, hey, you Guardian video-‘journalists’, do some bloody research, at least.
If you need to be in Andalusia, then why not take your cameras along to somewhere like Marbella Rugby Club for the weekend, and see how ‘expats’ and ‘foreigners’ have integrated perfectly with the native Spanish down there for nearly 30 years, and in fact with the entire Federación Andaluza de Rugby (which means the Rugby Federation of Andalusia, for the benefit of members of the San Miguel Bowls Club).
Or take your cameras to film some of the ‘expats’ who have set up many excellent cooking schools or culinary tours and businesses in Andalusia, immersing themselves entirely in the local language and culture (as well as the region’s delicious ingredients, wine and sherry), all the time employing locals, collaborating with locals, living and working with locals. Go to Sotogrande, to Seville, to Granada, to Cádiz – see how the ‘expats’ and ‘foreigners’ have integrated there, setting up Spanish businesses, working with Spaniards, and even (God forbid) learning Spanish. I can point you Guardian video-journalists to film and interview Andalusian-based ‘expats’ working in the media, in PR, in advertising, in photography, in property, in finance, in law firms, even in the business of international polo, and I know they could all talk about healthcare, pensions, and ‘citizenship’, in perfect English and fluent Spanish. Or, hey, come to Madrid or even (dare I say ‘better still’), Barcelona …
You know, I’m not even sure about the word ‘expat’, which is why I keep putting it in ‘inverted commas’ (but I’ll stop now). I don’t know if we are really expats, foreigners or immigrants (and some of us, me included, often travel backwards and forwards to the UK, thanks to the low-cost routes). I personally like to simply refer to myself as a ‘guiri’.
Some of us expat-foreigner-immigrant-guiris I even like to label as ‘F-I-L-T-S’. I believe I invented the term – it was for an article I once wanted to write for a UK glossy magazine (but I won’t now, obviously). It’s not even that original – there was a term used for expats once called ‘F-I-L-T-H’s – which meant, ‘Failed in London, Tried Hong Kong’. I thought I’d identified a new species called ‘F-I-L-T-S’ … ‘Failed in London, Tried Spain’. Most of them were (or are) chinless, crushing bores – and for some bizarre reason they always seem to target me at parties, as if they know I will be sympathetic and listen to them. Some of them are even FILTHs who have become FILTS. They’ve Failed in London, Tried Hong Kong, but then Failed in Hong Kong and so finally Tried Spain. Good for them, but you know the sort (yah?).
Anyway, where was I … yes, Barcelona. The place to be.
Come here, you Guardian video-journalists, you. Come here. Come to Barcelona, come to Catalonia … we’ve even got a ‘costa’ here, as well, so you can also get some shots of the beach and sand (and calçots).
Here, I can introduce you to expat-foreigner-immigrant-guiri-FILTS who’ve not only integrated into the Spanish culture, but the Catalan culture, too. A lot of them could talk to you for hours about healthcare, pensions and citizenship, in perfect English, fluent Spanish, and some Catalan. I can introduce you to people who have moved here to work in the media, launch magazines and newspapers, start radio stations, work in graphic design or advertising – actors, comedians, musicians, DJs, film directors, casting agents – entrepreneurs who’ve organised comedy festivals, music festivals, short film festivals, or set up dance schools and performing arts colleges – health and therapy professionals who’ve set up dentistry practices, or yoga, pilates and mindfulness classes – pilots, lawyers, journalists, career-CEOs, cruise and travel reps, international trade executives, foreign office staff and diplomats – professional sports coaches, start-up venture capitalists, economists – people who’ve renovated old masias and created new businesses for events and weddings – builders, drivers, hairdressers, photographers, teachers, web designers, models, bar staff, charity workers … the list goes on and on and on …
Every single one of them has integrated, works or collaborates with Spanish and Catalan businesses, or employs Spanish or Catalan staff, and pays taxes, or sends their kids to local schools. These are the people creating jobs, culture and trade. Please do some research before you publish or illustrate any more expat articles with boozy-sunburnt Union Jack images. Talk to the British and Spanish Chambers of Commerce, the UKTi in Spain, the British Consuls or Embassy. Talk to the ‘Bremain in Spain’ group. Talk to the Anglo-Catalan Society, the British-Spanish Society … in fact talk to anyone other than the members of the San Miguel Bowls Club on the Orihuela coast in Alicante. Por favor.