I admit it, I’m from the North. I like to know things are organized, I like to know when we take the bus and where, what time we’ll be back and how much it will cost. I like to know where I’ll put down my head at night, and exactly what is expected from me. So you see: I’m from the North.
When many years ago, I came to the Campo de Gibraltar for the first time, I was quite an eye-opener for me. I had had an online contact with someone from a school in Algeciras, and we’d set dates and had reached agreements. So there I came, with 25 students in tow, who did not speak a word of Spanish, and who were as dazzled by the light as me, as we drove from Malaga Airport along the coast road to that End-of-the-World place, called Algeciras.
We were dropped at a God forsaken place, safely guarded by high gates – locked for all eternity, or so it seemed. Behind them we saw a dusty yard that looked vaguely familiar to us – it had something of a schoolyard, but then one that seemed to have been abandoned for ages. Some plants seemed to struggle to survive in the cracks in the pavement; their fight with sand and wind and the sun had not been easy. I had sent my flock off on a exploration mission, but to my utter surprise they were all back in less than 15 minutes. “Sir,” they asked, “Is it normal that everyone asks us if we want to buy ‘Drogas, drogas?’” I found myself lost for an answer, I admit.
After some time a teacher showed up, apparently surprised “we were there already”. When after another hour, parents dropped in, one by one, the teacher got on a forgotten stone lying around to try in vain to oversee her crowd, and started asking “If anyone could accommodate a nice boy for three days?” and “A very friendly girl for four days?”
My heart missed a few beats that day, as I was abruptly woken up from my so organized Northern dream. But then again, people answered “Yes, we can!” and they laughed and kissed those pale-faced long-limbed Northerns, and led them to waiting 4 by 4 cars. There was much shouting and waving and kissing and laughing, and noise, lots of noise.
Well, that was my first encounter with the Campo de Gibraltar, I think now 17 years ago.
I remember the laundry hung out between the houses. The broken tiles in the municipal swimming pool, where the changing cubicles were rotten to the core, but where we had to wear a ridiculous cap to get into the water. I remember nobody could tell me where to get public transport to get to the airport: “It’s somewhere in this street, probably.”
And most of all, I remember how African it all was to me. Nobody on a motorbike was wearing a helmet, nobody cared about parking double, nobody seemed to mind the rubbish or the weeds growing around the pavement.
And yet… Over the years I have come back, sometimes a few times a year, sometimes only once. I have seen how things have changed. Maybe I am the one who has changed, who has learnt to see other things, or see things in a different light.
I have noticed how things get better organized. How people are in time. How they keep their promises. How open and friendly everyone is to each other. In my country, we speak about it (the “inclusive society”), but it is only a theoretical concept, I feel; here it is real.
I have heard so many times here in the north how people in the south are lazy, and sit in the sun the whole day. But what I see with my own eyes is how everyone works hard; how they start at the same time as us, how they take a break when the sun is at it hottest, but how they continue late into the night – when I’m already dreaming the sweetest of dreams.
I remember the first time I came to Spain (I admit it, it was in the previous century), hardly anyone spoke any English. I remember this English teacher in Catalunya who was about as good at English as my students of the second year. I remember in my first exchange in the Campo de Gibraltar, almost no students spoke any English – and as mine didn’t have any Spanish lessons, communication was often a matter of sign language and lots of fantasy… How things have changed! Now it’s easy to find people who express themselves in the language of Shakespeare. More and more teachers, more and more young students, and even sometimes the odd parent too.
And of course, the things that do not change. The stunning scenery: the majestic mountains, the lush valleys, and the deep blue of the sea. The food: the tapas that come in long lists, the wine that should be savoured slowly, and the variety of fruit unknown to us here in the north. The way people live in harmony with nature, gathering caracoles in the mountains, or setas or asparagus.
But the best of all always is the warmth of the people, the flair of passion when they discuss life, or politics, or – with equal seriousness – which kind of jamón serrano is the best. The earnest joy when they meet old acquaintances in the street, the way a friend of a friend almost automatically is your friend, the naturalness of sharing.
Because that is what I most like about Spain: how people share.
So yes, I’ve lost part of my heart in Andalucía, and no matter how often I go back trying to find it again, I never can. On the contrary, every time I lose some more of it!
(Bart George es profesor del Broederschool de Roeselare, Bélgica, y viene organizando desde hace años intercambios de estudiantes con el IES Sierra Luna de Los Barrios y anteriormente con otros centros educativos del Campo de Gibraltar)