To change or not: that is the question!

December 2010 The Expat Telegraph published an article I had written called Thoroughly Modern Expats.

For a number of years following I was a regular monthly columist for them.

Reading through the original articles that I submitted recently, I was taken by a) how relevant many of them still are today, and b) I had no online record of them of my own.

So I have added the original submissions to this blog, so if you want to read more of them just search for telegrapharticles, and while you are at it you may want to search for expatarticles as well to see other columns I wrote in the past for various newspapers in Spain.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma in essence is a use of game theory that shows that while it would be in the best interests of both parties to co-operate, they don’t. I was reminded of this last week here in Spain when considering many an expats reaction to the ongoing crisis facing Spain.

It really was depressing here last week in Spain with the general Strike taking 800,000 Spaniards onto the streets to protest at the labour reforms, and the following day the Government announcing around 27€ billion of budget cuts and taxes, including a 7% increase in the cost of electricity. The number of new mortgages issued fell for the 21st consecutive month, 51% of drivers tested for drugs failed, although rarely bizarrely given the circumstances Spain is considering increasing the speed limit on motorways to 130km/h, and it was announced that Spain is the European country with the second highest spend on private healthcare.

Throw in the fact that the Bank of Spain has announced that Spain is about to return a second quarter of negative growth, which means that a second recession is about to start, and the news that a leading economist from the financial group Citi, Willem Buiter, believes that Spain will require emergency help (aka a bailout) this year and things are looking far from healthy for Spain these days.

What I have found most interesting though has been the differing attitudes displayed in general by the expats and the Spanish. While 800,000 is a lot of people, from a population with in excess of 20% unemployed it isn’t that large in reality, and it was confined primarily to the main cities across Spain and to put it into context 400,000 people protested across 31 towns and cities over ill-treatment and neglect of animals, calling for such actions to be made a criminal offence in Spain punishable by prison. And this from a nation renowned for it’s cruelty to animals! The general consensus amongst the Spanish seems to be that while they don’t agree that the Labour reforms will in fact generate any jobs as has been hinted, hence the protests, they do recognise the fact that the previous laws were outdated and were one of the main reasons that many an expert believed contributed to Spain’s inability to react quickly to the previous recession, making the impact much worse and leaving Spain in this perilous position.

The expats on the other hand seem to have been more agitated about the proposals to allow shopping on a Sunday in Spain, with the majority I have heard from saying it is ‘about time’, one suspects because it is one more aspect of life here in Spain that is becoming more like home. The Spaniards on the other hand don’t seem to be in favour of it at all: the shops don’t want to open, with the manager of a local Mercadona Supermarket close to us telling me that they didn’t expect to see many Spanish in on a Sunday, but thought the expats would come as it was ‘something to do’. I would name the manager but the Mercadona are intensely protective, having once asked me to leave for taking a photograph of the empty shelves during a strike a couple of years ago.

On the surface Sunday shopping isn’t something that I should really care about: I do the vast majority of my shopping online, buy the few ‘English’ items that we like to have on my trips back to the UK, and tend to take the view that if people want to shop on a Sunday that means that there will be fewer people in the places that I want to be, like restaurants or the beach!

But the more I have thought about this the more I have realised that I do care, and rather passionately it transpires. Not so much about the Sunday shopping debate, but more for what it represents: another erosion of the cultures and traditions that attracted me to a life in Spain in the first instant, but even more worryingly another example of the growing divide between the expats and the Spanish and the potential harm I think this is doing to both groups.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love life in Spain, and wouldn’t want to be back in the UK. By way of example I recently bought a coffee in the UK. I stood in line for ten minutes, handed over my £5, waited five minutes for a table to come free, sat down and drank my by then cold coffee, and then looked up to find someone hovering above me waiting for me to leave so they could have my seat. In and out in less than twenty minutes, with fifteen spent waiting. Back in Spain I went for a coffee: picked my table in the sun, opened my paper, waited patiently for the waiter to take my order, drank my coffee, ordered another, finished the paper, asked for the bill, paid the 2€ and left, ninety minutes later!

My concern though is for how long? Between the EU trying to homogenize the whole of Europe, and Spain’s politicians desperately chasing every revenue opportunity, Spain is becoming confused and disorientated and without doubt is losing its identity, fueled by many an expats desire for fish and chips, a Sunday Roast, and the conveniences they were used to back home.

By way of example in a local bar recently I stood and listened in total amazement while two expats waxed lyrical about an injury lawyers site. Such was their passion I even remember the name of the company, Irwin Mitchell, which I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find was number one on the speed dial on their phone, but what really stuck with me was their bemoaning the fact that Spain doesn’t have them, or at least in anything like the number you find in the UK. They just didn’t get the fact that Spain doesn’t have them because the Spaniards accept that accidents happen, that pavements become uneven and take time to be repaired, that children fall of swings, that life carries a few risks. And the reason for their discussion: a pensioners dog had nipped the finger of a cold caller dropping a leaflet through the letterbox: that is the finger of somebody that had entered onto someone else’s property uninvited and stuck an unrequested piece of marketing material they were aiming to make money from through a private letterbox. Madness!

Personally I want things to be significantly different in Spain to the UK. On a recent trip back to the UK a friend was telling me that they had recently used a site to help them find a band for their wedding anniversary party. They were raving (excuse the pun) about a site called Knees Up which provides music for weddings, corporate events or private celebrations, and according to my friend are brilliant. I am sure they are, and I can just about see why in the case of my mate with his long working hours and busy family life, he was tempted to use them, but I couldn’t help shuddering at the thought at having to use a site to find a band for a party. Here in Spain bands have started to use the likes of Facebook and Twitter, but walk down any street and you will still see posters, strips of paper with phone numbers fluttering from lampposts and if you are still stuck wander into a bar and ask around. I mention this because he was convinced that it was something that could be made to work here in Spain, and the sad thing is I think he may be right, whereas a couple of years ago I would have said he was mad!

So this is the question: what type of Spain do expats want to live in? The vast majority seem to claim they want to come and live in Spain for a change, but do they? The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines change as: take or use another instead of; give up, get rid of, make different.

To the best of my knowledge moving to another country and then trying to replicate the one you left doesn’t qualify as change. I respect that people are entitled to different views, to spend their hard earned as they wish, to need to make a living but I am genuinely concerned that if Spain continues to allow the expats to create more and more mini Britain’s, and even worse set up businesses that are only focussed at fellow expats, while at the same time ‘selling the family silver’ traditions and cultures which have attracted many a tourist and expat over the years, it will end up with no unique identity, and if at the end of the day Spain becomes the ‘UK with sun’ then why not stay in the UK and buy a sunbed?

How passionate am I about this? I hate bullfighting with a passion. I do understand and appreciate the culture and tradition as well as any non Spaniard can, but hand on heart I can’t see any need for it in this day and age and would happily see it banned. But if I was Spain I wouldn’t ban it. Nor would I have imposed the smoking ban or removed the Chiringuitos from the beaches or stopped making every tourist buy a Sombrero. As for the expats if they want a vibrant Spain, a Spain that the new generation of tourists will want to come to, a Spain with a economy that will sustain their businesses, I think the time is right to change: to stop trying to force the country into becoming something that they want it to be, to stop turning it into a mini Britain, to stop moaning about what it isn’t and to concentrate on what it is, and it is time to help Spain retain it’s cultures and traditions.

It is in both Spain and the Expats interests to work together, but will they, or will they become victim to the Prisoners Dilemma?

Please feel free to search on Google for the published versions of these columns.

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