All too often, the phrase ‘living the culture’ is spoken by immigrants residing in a foreign country, but what exactly does it mean?
Let’s start by examining the definition of the word ‘culture’. The Oxford dictionary defines the word as relating to the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a society and also relating to the arts and intellectual achievements. If the meaning is taken literally, then one becomes totally immersed into a new society, thereby adopting both good and bad behavioural patterns.
As a settler into a foreign country, albeit still within Europe, I see many behavioural differences from those to which I have become accustomed in a period covering well over five decades. Some customs are to be applauded, notably the ‘warm’ greeting one frequently encounters when meeting people, but there are many behaviours that I detest and would never adopt. Driving standards are a classic example. Here in Spain, many drivers show little regard for white line markings on the roads, drive with one arm projecting through the window, talk on their mobile phones, double park at random and on road junctions, and frequently tailgate the vehicle in front.
I am not saying that immigrants should make no effort to integrate into the local culture but simply illustrating that this should be rather selective. I have already witnessed British drivers adopting the inconsiderate practice of double parking, an action that would rarely be done in the United Kingdom. It’s often easy to identify British drivers as many who have moved to Spain have matriculated their UK car, which for those who don’t know, has the steering wheel on the right! Indeed, it is often these people who claim to be living the culture, yet they steadfastly refuse to let go of their UK vehicle. Whilst the costs of matriculation aren’t cheap as it involves new headlamp units, registration documents and a compulsory vehicle road worthiness test irrespective of the age of the vehicle being imported, driving a RHD vehicle on the right side of a road can be hazardous. This is particularly so if trying to overtake, and whilst that isn’t a problem on motorways, many standard roads are very twisty and narrow in places.
An important aspect of integration is trying to learn the language, or at least to gain sufficient knowledge for ease of communication. Whilst I have a basic grasp of Spanish, my knowledge is somewhat rusty and I will soon be attending lessons to improve my fluency. Sadly, there are many who make little or no effort to learn the language and this is not helped by the number of British-owned businesses and native traders who speak a smittering of English. Still, with some 80% of Britons bring unable to speak their own language correctly, there seems little chance of them embracing a foreign tongue! Then there are the British food shops selling familiar products at highly escalated prices. It’s amazing how many people use them on a regular basis rather than patronising Spanish supermarkets which stock most things one needs on a daily basis. The British stores do have their uses for any special foodstuffs or infrequent treats. For example, mince pies are a seasonal tradition in the UK but not generally available in Spain, likewise certain salad dressings and biscuits. However, why people will pay €4 for a packet of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in a British shop completely baffles me when the same size pack is available in a Spanish supermarket for €2!
Some people dramatically change their drinking habits when in a new country. Spain is a vast wine producer, but to be honest, many of their wines are not to my taste. That is not to say that they aren’t good, although bars do have a tendency to serve up the cheaper quality stuff. It’s hardly surprising when you can buy bottles of wine in the supermarkets for under €2 but I’d suggest that, for a quality wine, one needs to be paying upwards of €5. Cava, however, is a different story with many of the cheaper brands offering a very acceptable drink. This resembles champagne as it is made in the método tradicional. So far as food is concerned, I’m a firm believer in eating what you like rather than being forced to embrace dishes that aren’t to your taste. Many local recipes involve copious amounts of seafood, of which I’m not a fan, so my taste in fish is very limited. I’m no real fan of tapas either unless made with wholesome ingredients. I suspect that places selling tapas for €1 are merely rehashing leftovers so thanks but no thanks! As you would expect, there are Indian and Chinese restaurants in the vicinity as well as numerous places offering traditional Sunday roasts with all the trimmings. These are well patronised by many ‘living the culture’!
An activity that many newcomers embrace is participation in ferias or street fairs. This is a very old Spanish custom but I have never been a fan of fairs, even in Britain. The thought of marauding crowds and being jostled about simply lacks appeal and I think they are far more suited to the younger generation. Likewise, I would never attend a bull fight, but thankfully, their popularity is on the wane and I can only hope they will soon be a thing of the past. It is nothing but cruelty to the animals, an aspect of Spain that I abhore. Numerous dogs and cats can frequently be found in the wild, often malnourished and unkempt. Whereas most Europeans are generally accustomed to having animals as pets and part of the family unit, many Spaniards have dogs simply as deterrents against intruders, and they are always kept outdoors. They may have the grounds of the property in which to roam, but taking them for daily walks is not a priority.
Finally, entertainment. I have already encountered several ex-pat homes where there is no Spanish television. I would be the first to admit that Spanish broadcasting leaves much to be desired and anyone watching it for a period of time will be eternally grateful for the existence of the BBC. However, it can be a useful tool in getting to grasp the language, especially when watching news broadcasts. With modern broadcasting technology, people here in southern Spain can watch UK television much as they did at home. There are several systems available, one of which is the trusted satellite dish. It can be quite amusing spotting the British-owned homes by the size of the dishes and sometimes being asked the question ‘how big is yours?’ I jest you not! For some inexplicable reason, both Belgian and Dutch residents require a much smaller dish despite the satellites all being in a similar orbit. There is something rather comforting about being able to watch favourite and familiar programmes, especially during the darker nights of winter.
To conclude, I would suggest that ‘living the culture’ is non-definable as it means different things to different people. Personally, I aim to embrace the aspects of Spanish life that are attune to my tastes and beliefs rather than encompassing everything for the sake of appearances. Conversely, I have no wish to simply emulate my lifestyle as it was in the UK, and I am fortunate in residing in a mixed European community. Whilst the majority are British and Spanish, there are also Belgians, Dutch and French residents so, hopefully, this makes for an entente cordiale! One certainty is that I will not be patronising the large number of British and Irish bars with their third rate performers strangling the hits of yesteryear. Instead, I shall veer towards the typical Spanish bar in the hope of experiencing some Flamenco dancing and music.