SPAIN – THE PLACE TO LIVE by John Carlin
There’s a character – a French military officer – in Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey who observes - during a discussion on the relative merits of England and France – that, in truth, every nation has its ‘for’ and its ‘against’. “There is a balance of good and bad everywhere”, says Sterne’s narrator, taking his cue from the Frenchman. “The advantage of travel is that, by seeing a great deal both of men and manners, it teaches us mutual toleration”.
I myself have lived in eight countries, if you include Britain, where I was born and - for the most part - grew up. I would not presume to have regarded these nations or their peoples in the generous light that Sterne advocates that each, no doubt, deserved. Indeed, I should confess to a firm prejudice - but a for prejudice, not an against one – in favour of Spain, where I have lived for the past 18 months and where the thought has struck me that I would like to spend the rest of my days.
Spain is the place where, in my experience, the art of savoir vivre has attained the highest peak of refinement. Or, as the Spaniards themselves never tire of saying: “En España, se vive muy bien” – In Spain, one lives very well. Truly, it is remarkable how often I hear people say this. It is a cliché embedded in the national consciousness. Typically, once they have delivered themselves of what I have discovered to be their chief article of secular faith, the Spaniards will explain that they have travelled in other countries and that, enchanting as these might be, they lack Spain’s sheer quality of life. They will tell you this even if they have never set foot outside Spain.
One of those who holds firm to this belief in the planetary superiority of Spanish living is my Spanish uncle. My Tio Gabriel. To illustrate the point, he likes to tell a story:- Several years ago, when he was a young man working as a salesman for a large American engineering company, he was ordered to travel to Saville. He didn’t know anyone in the city and he was sitting in a bar alone, wondering what he was going to do at the weekend, for work required him to stay until Monday, when three old men invited him to join them for a drink. A little while into the conversation, one of the old men asked, “What are you doing on Saturday morning?” My uncle shrugged. “Well, would you like to join us?” My uncle said that he would honoured. “Good. Be ready for us at 5am.” The old men picked up my rather bemused uncle at five sharp and they drove together out of town, pulling up half an hour later at a fig orchard. The old men produced four glasses and a bottle of chilled anis, which my uncle soon agreed was the perfect breakfast accompaniment to freshly picked figs. At about 6.30, as the conversation became more merry, my uncle asked the question that had been preying on this mind. “This is all absolutely delightful but why did we have to come out so early in the morning?” “Ah, my boy”, said one of the old men, “We always come out at this time. You see, the figs need to be eaten when the dew still lingers on the fruit.”
There is a pleasure principle at the heart of the Spanish ethos that the imperatives of the market economy have tried, but failed, to undermine. One thing I have been surprised to discover in the year and a half since I moved to Barcelona – having previously lived nearly four years in the USA – is how hard they work here. I know Spain well. My mother is Spanish and, before I finally settled here, I had been coming on holiday nearly every year of my life. But I had still lulled myself into thinking that the Spanish took a rather more leisurely approach to labour than the Americans. Not so. The only person I know who still takes a regular siesta is my old mum. When my wife worked in an advertising agency in Washington, she could be relied on to be home by seven in the evening. Now she is at an agency in Barcelona and, if she is home before nine, she has had an easy day. Through her, I have come to understand why it is that – after the manic Irish – the Spanish have sustained the highest economic growth in the EU. I understand, too, why it is that Spain manufactures more cars these days than the UK. And there is another similarity with the USA which caught me off guard, something that other foreigners in Spain have remarked on – the tremendous optimism and energy in the air. Spain feels like a country on the move.
You see it in the fabulous motorways they are building; in the projects under way to extend the bullet train now linking Madrid and Seville (full refund if the train is five minutes late); and in the amazing nationwide building boom.
But Spain is not America. The main reason why I like Spain more than any other country in which I have spent more than a year at a stretch is that here they have come as close as I have seen to figuring out how life should be lived. The Spanish have discovered a happy balance, I believe, between the requirements of labour - the ineluctable need to make money - and the no less ineluctable truth that life is short and, where possible, to be savoured.
Spain has wonderful architecture and art, certainly. Go to Seville, Granada, Córdoba, Madrid, Santiago de Compostela, Bilbao (for the Guggenheim) or come here to Barcelona and you will find all that your aesthetic heart desires. Roman, Moorish, Gothic, Renaissance. Modern: Velasquez, El Greco, Goya, Picasso, Dali. The works. Spain has wonderful scenery, too. No European country has a more abundant variety of landscapes. From the desert of Almeria, to the Devon green of Galicia, to the snow-capped Pyrenees. And the less known snow-capped Guadarrama mountains, just north of Madrid, which you cross to get to Segovia, a gem of a town with an impeccably preserved Roman aqueduct and a stunning little medieval castle straight out of the Brother Grimm.
And there is the food, too, which – at the risk of causing offence to the excellent people of Andalucia - improves the further north you go, until you reach San Sebastian, which is not only the most elegant city in Spain, set in a perfect shell of a bay, but is also a place where I defy anyone to find a bad meal. And there is the weather, the beaches of the Atlantic and the Med. – the reason why, after the USA and France, Spain is the country which receives the most foreign visitors every year.
But the best thing about Spain, not necessarily surmised by tourists on the Costa del Sol, is undoubtedly its people. Some might say this about America. Few would say it about France.
I have spoken to other foreign residents here, people untainted with the prejudice my blood lineage might arguably induce, and they agree with me that the Spanish are, as a rule, an exceptionally kind and honourable race. It has something to do with family values – the surest indicator that these are observed being that no politician ever finds cause to talk about them. Old people take part in family life until the day they drop and children are rarely considered non grata anywhere. I remember an American friend telling me how he had been nervous about taking his one-year old child to El Bulli, a sensational Michelin three star restaurant on the Costa Brava considered by some to be the finest in Europe. My friend was as pleased as he was relieved when the cooing staff conjured a high chair out of nowhere. Later, I was with him at a similarly august, if less gastronomically impressive restaurant north of the border. Madame and the chef spent much of the evening muttering among themselves about the impropriety of bringing an infant into their establishment.
A warm family life breeds a cheerful indulgence towards others. There are not too many social rules in Spain, no great stress on doing things comme il faut – which is possibly why they are so extraordinarily tolerant of the beer-drinking excesses of the English youth who visit their shores.
But the main reason why the Spanish way of life is so likeable has to do with the civilised balance they have found in their lives. Money and work are important but they must not be allowed to get in the way of other priorities. Like being humane. Like taking people on trust. Like behaving nobly.
This can be evident in little everyday things. The other day I was at a bar and the bill came to 1,025 pesetas. I had notes but no change. The waiter said just to give him the 1,000. OK, 25 pesetas is barely 10 pence but when I made a show of remonstrating, of offering him a 2,000 note, he looked at me as if I were mad, as if – by the implicit suggestion that I would like to give him a tip – I were somehow offending his dignity.
And then there is the tapas bar down the road from my house. A Basque joint – all roasted red and green peppers, fat olives fresh salmon, lobster and prawn. I could not believe it the first time I went there. The form is that you stand there and just help yourself to the range of sights on display on the glass counter. Without consulting the waiter, whose only job is to replenish the tapas stocks and to serve you drinks. When you are ready to leave – say two hours later – the waiter asks you how many tapas you have had. Oh and to remind you how many glasses of wine you have drunk. He takes your tally and charges you accordingly, on the basis of absolute trust. The bar, whose only defect is that it is always crowded, shows no sign of going out of business. The customer, having been nobly treated by the staff, responds in kind. My instinct, and I am sure that I am not alone, is always – if in any doubt – to overcharge myself. This example – and I could come up with countless anecdotes in a similar vein, is chiefly why in Spain, in my view, we live well. Because of the humanity generally on display. But it is not exactly what Spaniards mean, because they take this humanity for granted.
What they mean is contained, I think, in the culture of eating, drinking and conversation. In the two-hour lunches that, thriving economy or no thriving economy, remain sacrosanct. That is in Barcelona. In Madrid, it is nearer two and a half hours, involving first a half-hour beer and tapas session at a bar before either a meal at a restaurant or, often, at home with the family. Then you go back and work until all hours but that obligatory break has not only refreshed your mind but reaffirmed the profound and unstated conviction that you are a social animal first, an economic entity second.
I always remember with horror – and exhaustion – a travel piece I read in the New York times a few years back by a couple who prided themselves on the extraordinary number of theatres, restaurants, shopping trips and visits to historical monuments they had managed to cram into a long weekend in London. Nothing is more removed from the Spanish way of doing things. The whole point of a holiday, I have always thought, is to unshackle yourself from ‘those terrible notions of duty’. So do not fixate on ticking off every church, synagogue, etc. on a visit to Toledo. Go for quality, not quantity. Have a lunch on the terrace of the parador on a hill overlooking this most picturesque of ancient towns. And make it a long and lingering lunch. Have a brandy or an Orujo (a biting little grape liqueur from Galicia). Chat or read a book and glance over your shoulder from time to time for a reminder of how lucky you are to be alive.
I love the rambling lunches. But what I enjoy most about life in Spain is the ubiquity of the bar. If you are out and about, be it in a big city or a small town, and the urge comes upon you to sit down and to have a coffee or a beer, accompanied by a bite of something tasty, within a 30 second walk at most you will be sure to find a spot that will cater to your whims. And when they serve you your coffee, it will be in a china cup, not a small carton, and your waiter will bring it to your table. And it will taste great. Because coffee in Spain is always great. And you can sit there all day, if you wish, without ordering another thing.
It frightens me, I have to admit, that
it is just a matter of time before I, too, will find myself reciting the
Spanish mantra to locals and visitors alike. I can feel it welling up already
- En España, se vive muy bien.