Saturday, 8 December 2012

A sense of belonging

I have been away from Spain for most of the last week, coughing my way around England and paying very little attention to what was going on at home. If, indeed, Spain constitues "home". "Home" is the house in which I live: if we extend its meaning to "the place where I feel I belong", however, then I have never, yet, felt that I belong here.

There is familiarity, and there is belonging. You live in a place for a while, perhaps for a long time: after that while, you don't need to look up when you're walking somewhere. Your feet just take you there without your consciously taking any decisions. That's familiarity. But the feeling of belonging, of being an inseparable part of a place, that is deeper, almost entirely intangible. I felt it in Oxford, where I lived for fifteen years, but never since. I am very fond of our village, but I do not, as yet, belong here, nor feel I belong in Spain.

Maybe one day, if and when I am ever fluent in the language, that will change. Or maybe one never really feels more than once that they belong. Or maybe one's very awareness that one is a foreigner, that one possesses some degree of otherness, prohibits the feeling of belonging. I never felt so English, in England, as I have done in Spain.

Not because of any act of exclusion, nor because of people's attitudes. though some foreigners are more foreign than others, in many people's eyes. Africans are more foreign than Latin Americans, East Europeans are more foreign than Western Europeans. Signs at Zaragoza Airport may be in Romanian as well as English and Spanish, but Romanians are not viewed in the same way as the English.

I cannot imagine, for instance, an email hoax circulating claiming that a band of English people were dressing up as officers of the Guardia Civil and robbing people by persuading them to leave their cars for a breath test. But such a story has happily circulated for close to a decade about Bulgarians, Poles and Romanians: I saw this version in 2009, and Spain being a country of local variations, the local variation was that it had come from the Guardia Civil in Graus, and been disseminated via the Tourist office in Boltaña.

If this makes very little sense to you, this is because it makes very little sense. The modus operandi of the villains makes no sense, nor that of the cops, unless the police have started issuing warnings via tourist offices. A moment's Googling would reveal it to have cropped up in different places, over a period of years, and that it was an urban legend: but checking is not what sort of people who forward these emails actually do.

One version - not the one I received - includes this paragraph:
Si permitimos que un grupo de rumanos, búlgaros y polacos campen a sus anchas, todos los rumanos y demás delincuentes querrán venir a España.
"If we allow a group of Romanians, Bulgarians and Poles to do whatsoever they please, all the Romanians and other criminals will want to come to Spain." That's the sort of thing which many people are prepared to say about Eastern Europeans, and which I can't imagine them saying about English people. Just as it is hard to imagine the police torturing a British rather than (as in the current scandalous case) a Romanian citizen. Harder still to imagine them then being pardoned for it.

Whether you could ever feel you belonged, in circumstances like that - not circumstances of personally being tortured, but circumstances whereby it was possible torture your countrymen on account of their nationality, to slander your nationality as criminal in nature - that, I don't know. I don't suppose I ever will, because English people are not made to feel like that. We're never really one step down the ladder from our hosts, people who they feel able to look down on, people who have come to them to do the menial jobs.

Of course if Spain continues to get poorer at the present rate, then soon people in England will be circulating emails about bands of Spaniards, Portuguese and Italians. Or making comedy programmes whereby the dozy Spanish immigrant is the butt of the jokes.


It occurs to me that Manuel's English is no worse than my Spanish. But it is not really the absence of language, but the absence of status, which causes Manuel to be depicted as he is.

You cannot make yourself feel at home, and you cannot make yourself belong. But people can be made to feel that they don't belong, where they are far from home, and where they are far from home because financial circumstances have dictated their movements. We have a fine sense of other people's vulnerabilities, and the more vulnerable people are, the more we seek to punish them for it, the more we seek to stigmatise them. And who can be stigmatised, can never properly belong.

There are ways of getting your own back. When I was up in the mountains a few weeks ago, a friend of ours told a story about a man in the next village, who complained loudly and long about two Bulgarians who, he said, had burgled his house. As Bulgarians are wont to do, or so runs the common prejudice.

So they had. That part of the story was true. But, as my friend explained, there was more to it than that. The Bulgarians had been employed by the man in the next village, and like many people in Spain today had found, when the time came to be paid, that their wages were not forthcoming. And were, indeed, not going to be paid at all.

Consequently, the Bulgarians burgled the man who was cheating them - and took wine to the value of the wages they were owed. Or so the story goes. It is a better story than the email hoax, and more believable one. I'd like to meet these Bulgarians and buy them a drink. If they don't already have all the drink they need.

4 comments:

  1. Tangentially, I'm interested you felt at home in Oxford, despite (I think you said) not having felt comfortable as a student there. I spent a night last week in Cambridge - at my old college, in fact - and felt utterly, blissfully at home; this despite not being welcomed by anyone in person in any way, not seeing anyone I knew, and knowing perfectly well that I was a one-night paying guest. I wonder if the combination of being surrounded by very old buildings and knowing your way around somehow evokes a sense of belonging - I can remember one-week holidays in Edinburgh that seemed much longer (in a good way).

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  2. I think in Oxford it was something very different, and not really connected to the place suiting me, which in some ways it didn't, or my fitting in, which I never have done anywhere. It was to do with knowing the geography of the city very, very well, so I was never really anywhere where I didn't know what was around the corner (I partly achieved this by making sure I'd visited every pub in the city) and also to do with knowing so many people, after a while, that I would expect to meet somebody I knew almost every time I got off the bus - as if it had been a much smaller and more provincial town.

    There's a strong connection here with Spain, where people in any given town are far more likely to be from there, to have family from there, and to always have lived there (or close by) than I think is the case in, say, England. Any local walking through Huesca will be tripping over people they know all the time - a two-minute walk across the city centre is likely to turn into half an hour once they've finished saying hello to everybody they see on the way.

    This has a corollary, which is that if you are not one of the locals, it may be easier than in England to feel an outsider. Though naturally there is far more to it than that.

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  3. I have to be honest, I dont feel the way you do ejh, I have been going to Spain for years and moved here for good last year, I already knew the area I moved to. My Spanish is quite good and improving with lessons. I dont feel out of it at all. This could be because a lot of my Spanish friends are actually Latin Americanos, there are a lot here in the Canaries. At the end of the day I know what I am, which is an immigrant into Spain, but then my family from Ireland were immigrants into Britain. A bar is a bar, everyone in it has something in common, they like a drink and in my experience that trancends most other differences. Paul Wilson

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  4. Paul - thanks for this. And I belatedly answered the question you asked here...

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