María del Pilar and Isabel are Spanish neighbours in Orihuela Costa.
Nothing unusual about that you might think, until you discover that, apart from a small handful of other Spanish families who visit the area in the summer, they live in a neighbourhood where nobody else speaks their language. I wanted to talk to them about how they got on with their English neighbours, expecting to hear all sorts of anecdotes about differences in customs and cultural misunderstandings. I did hear about those eventually, but what they were desperately keen to tell me about were the real difficulties faced by Spaniards when they come to live in areas of such rapid expansion and development.
María del Pilar moved from Albacete with her husband five years ago so that he could work in the burgeoning construction industry. As well as the work opportunities they were attracted by the climate, wanting to get away from the extremes of heat and cold found in inland Spain. They were amongst the first to buy in the area while prices were still reasonable, and they made friends with Isabel who comes from Andalucía, her daughter Soraya and her brother Juan who also works in the building trade. Neither family had any idea that they had moved to what was destined to be a predominantly English-speaking area. Isabel was actually told by her estate agent that the urbanisation would be mainly Spanish and that all the services such as doctors, buses and shops would be in place nearby once the area was complete. As she has no transport this was a main priority for her, but in fact none of these things have happened. María del Pilar now has a two-year-old son and her husband often works away taking the family car with him, so the two women find themselves cut off from the world they are used to - even the nearest chemist is 6 kilometres away – and with local taxis charging prices geared to foreigners. Houses are being built on the land which they were both told was intended as a commercial centre, and bus and postal services are practically non-existent.
In addition, the men have had their share of work difficulties. Juan as a Spanish worker expecting normal rights and conditions has found himself in competition with immigrants who are prepared to accept much less than what is legally owing to them. He has also seen many cases of work going to unqualified tradesmen in order to cut costs. Both Maria del Pilar and Isabel insist that these things do not occur in the towns they come from. Of course there are employers everywhere who will try to get away with things, but in this area there seems to be far less official control and it is very difficult to fight for your rights on your own.
As María del Pilar and Isabel were explaining these and a number of other serious problems, I had the feeling they were relieved to be telling an English person what it was really like from their point of view. They have been very lucky where they live, as they now have a lot of English neighbours with whom they have formed close friendships. However, the language barrier is always there, and they are unable to communicate at any depth about things that really concern them in the local community. They are surprised that English people complain so little. Isabel has been to the Town Hall time and time again to ask for better services and she has always been told to come back with a petition signed by as many neighbours as possible. They asked me with some frustration: "Why do English people accept things the way they are?" A rather difficult one to answer, although I did my best to explain.
Almost shamefacedly I then asked the women to tell me about the positive things they'd found living on an urbanisation of English people. And fortunately there were plenty. One of their new English neighbours, Betty, has got to know them and has introduced them to other people on the urbanisation. As they themselves studied French at school their English is very bad, but they've found that most of the English full-time residents have made some effort to learn a bit of Spanish. Now a group of twenty or so of them, English, Irish and Spanish, meet together socially in a local bar once a week. They have invited each other to birthday parties, and at Christmas they all shared an English Christmas dinner on the twenty-fifth of December and a typical Spanish supper on the fifth of January – the eve of the Kings Day. This social contact, largely initiated by Betty, has made a huge difference to Maria del Pilar and Isabel. They now have friends all around them who they can call on to help them out when necessary, although they are embarrassed to ask them too often.
Certain things about English ways and customs amaze them. At the top of the list – their liberalness. Spanish men can be very jealous and even when they're drinking in a mixed group "they know what is theirs and what isn't." The English seem to have a much freer attitude towards each other. The other huge difference is the timetable. Sometimes the English invite them to share food at six o'clock when they've just had their lunch, and they are unable to eat a thing. But the same happens the other way around, they hold a supper at ten o'clock in the evening and for the English this is nearly bedtime when the last thing they want to do is have a big meal. Nobody takes offence though, as they are all learning about each others' customs and ways of doing things.
Finally, we talked about the children. Again, there are some quite serious problems. Soraya is nearly eleven and goes to the local primary school. In her class there are only four Spanish children so of course the level of education suffers. Often the Spanish children are left to read things and understand them on their own while the teacher deals with the majority of foreign children. Maria del Pilar now teaches Soraya and a group of other Spanish children in her home after school. Their level of Maths and Spanish language is very low, so she is doing what she can to keep them up to the correct standard. She feels very strongly that the school should demand a minimum level of Spanish from the foreign children who attend, so that they can follow the classes in the normal way.
On the good side, all these Spanish children will grow up speaking English, which is so essential for their future. Maria del Pilar's little two-year-old is already chatting away in English, and Soraya is well on her way to becoming fluent as she always plays with English children. Despite all their difficulties, the two women tell me that they have no wish whatsoever to move away. When Maria del Pilar visits her family in the city she is always under pressure and rushing around. She likes living amongst people who are relaxed and have time for you. Isabel says the only thing that would take her away is work. When she visits her family she misses all her friends on the urbanisation and can't wait to get back to them. The only thing that really perplexes Maria del Pilar and Isabel about their new found English friends and neighbours is why they never complain. There is a foreigner's department at the Town Hall, why don't they use it? I made another attempt at explaining it to them, but in the end all I could do was see the situation through their eyes and agree with them.
This article is published courtesy of CB Friday in association with thinkspain.com