Hi I’m Jane, 64 years old (but don’t feel a day over 44), British – half Northern Irish, half English. I’m married to H, a Norwegian, and have a 33 year old son, JB who is married to AK, has two daughters, one ten and the other two-and-a-half, and lives in Oslo. In my hey-day I worked as a journalist, a PR, a publican/restaurateur, a commercial officer in the British Embassy in Oslo, and for the UK Department of Trade. So my interests and work experience have covered fashion, food and drink, the oil/gas sector and travel – pretty diverse but all fascinating in their own way.
The reason I tell you all this is that my background gives me insight into a number of different cultures. During our 34 years of marriage H and I have lived for 17 years in Norway, 15 years in England and the last 2 years in Spain – or I should say Catalunya, but more of that later.
Some eight years ago H and I bought a small apartment in a quaint old fishing village/holiday town called L’Escala. We had just sold a large house in England following the death of my mother who had dementia so had shared the house with us until she became so confused she had to go into residential care. The idea was that it would be a good place to “park” our capital to stop us squandering it on things that seemed a good idea at the time. It would provide us with a holiday home in a place we loved and had been going for holidays for many years, staying in rented holiday flats or camping. H was just about to retire and I was about five years off retirement age so we decided to rent in the UK so I could be more mobile with my job, working with the British government, helping companies to export, and then, when the time came to retire we could either go there to live or sell, making a reasonable profit, and buy something either in England or Norway. In short we thought we had the ideal solution to balancing flexibility with security.
Unfortunately in the intervening years between buying the flat and my retirement two things happened to upset our apple-cart. The global financial crisis caused the property market in Spain to collapse so if we had decided to sell our flat when I retired we would probably have had to knock around €80,000 off the price we had paid for it just a few years before. Considering that house prices in both Britain and Norway have continued to rise, despite the crisis, that obviously wasn’t going to work unless we were prepared to live in a shoe-box in the back of beyond. So we made the obvious choice and decided to come to live here “for a couple of years” to see how things panned out.
Having moved we then discovered the other change that we had missed when we just spent a few weeks a year here. Somehow our flat was no longer in Spain – it was in Catalunya. To the uninitiated that may not sound like a big deal – pure semantics, after all Catalunya is just one of Spain’s autonomous regions, isn’t it? But I can assure you it made a big difference. Both H and I speak (or at least understand) a reasonable amount of Spanish – he lived in the Canary Islands for several years and I went to school in Seville – so we were confident we could pick it up again and become competent in a relatively short space of time. But Spanish is now the second language in Catalunya – no-one speaks it in the streets, bars, public offices or shops. Official forms, letters from the bank and virtually anything of importance all come in Catalan which is a totally different language. Our first experience of the hostility of Catalans to the Spanish language came when we went to register our residency with the Mossos (the Catalan Guardia Civil) in Girona. We went with all our documents and were sitting in front of a Mosso who handed us a form and rattled something off in rapid Catalan – I picked up about one word in six. In my best Spanish I asked if he could speak a little more slowly and repeat what he had said in Spanish. He then told us, again in rapid Catalan, but his voice and body language filled in the linguistic gaps, that if we wanted to live in Catalunya we would have to learn Catalan – end of.
It was a real eye-opener. For over a year we felt cheated – as if someone had moved the goal-posts without telling us. We felt bitter towards the Catalans who had unwittingly ruined our retirement. We desperately wanted to sell up and move on but still couldn’t owing to the continued property slump. To compound our misery our flat, which was ideal for holidays as it was in the centre of the old town and just twenty five metres from the beach, was really too small to live in permanently. We had one, good sized bedroom, and an OK sized living room which had a sofa bed for any guests, but the kitchen was minuscule – just an alcove off the living area, and we had virtually no outdoor space. So to enjoy the only real positive we could see at that time – the climate – we had to go out and sit on the beach or on a bench along the front. Again, fine when you are on holiday but a stress-point when living there. Having lived fairly independent lives when we both worked we were now, literally, on top on each other 24/7.
I am sure you are now wondering whether to go on reading what has, so far, been somewhat negative. But please do – it gets better.
Two years down the line, whilst our Spanish is probably not as good as we had hoped it would be by now (after all, I learnt Norwegian from scratch to pretty competent in two years), we have picked up some Catalan and can make ourselves understood in what can best be described as Spatalan. We have met some lovely people – some Catalan, some Andalucian and some British. This summer we moved house, a little bit further from the sea and the old town, but we now have a three bedroomed house in a quiet area with a swimming pool – the result of some crafty negotiating by the agent in that we made a loss on the apartment but the price of the house dropped even more so we got a real bargain. At the back of the house we can just glimpse the Mediterranean through the pine trees and at the front we have a view to the Pyrenees and the beautiful sacred Catalan mountain, Canigou which will soon be capped in snow until about the end of April.
We take day-trips into the mountains where the scenery is spectacular, over to France to go to typical French markets with the local fruit, veg, cheese and wine. We visit the cities of Girona and Barcelona whenever we feel like a city buzz or we can go to any of the delightful coastal pearls dotted along the Costa Brava. We have discovered the U3A (University of the Third Age) which is very active in this area with groups covering everything from art and crafts, canasta and bridge, to the more active pursuits of golf, walking and cycling. In short, something for just about everyone.
If we want to get away for a bit longer then we go house-sitting – we have looked after properties, and a variety of cats and dogs, in France, England and a bit further south in Spain. All experiences, some better than others.
So, now you know me. I hope you will be interested in sporadic bulletins from Catalunya during which I will tell you of anything interesting we have done, some background and history on the on-going Catalan struggle for independence, and tips on great places to visit should you decide to come to this part of the world. From time to time we go off to England or Norway – usually driving through much of Europe – so I will also send short despatches from our travels.
For now, then, farewell – I’ll be in touch.