This summer, I will have lived in Spain for half my life. This thought set me thinking about living in a foreign country and being an expat. And I started to wonder if you can ever be truly native.
Can you stop being one nationality and take on another one? Or will there always be a part of you that remains irrepressibly original and brands you an expat forever? Is the transformation to do with the length of time you spend in another country? Or is it more a case of ‘feeling’ your adopted nationality until the point that it becomes second nature?
As Spanish as I can be?
As expats go, I’ve shed quite a lot of my British skin. I have Spanish nationality and use my Spanish passport when I travel. My husband and daughters are Spanish, so it’s the lingua franca at home. I speak and write the language fluently and teach it to foreigners.
My preferred newspaper is El País, although I will admit to the Guardian coming a close second here. I follow Spanish politics and current affairs with interest (and, recently, concern) – one of my reasons for taking Spanish nationality was to be able to vote, which I do whenever there are elections.
I cheer on La Roja football feats and celebrate Spain’s other sporting triumphs. I love the Spanish lifestyle and enjoy its relaxed timetable. I couldn’t think of a better place to live than the south of Spain and when I land at Malaga airport, I feel I’ve come home.
But does this make me Spanish? Or am I just a foreigner who has adapted well to Spain?
Still English at Heart and Tongue?
My Spanish is almost as good as a Spaniard’s, but I’m not bilingual. I trip up over the odd gender and occasionally find myself searching for the right verb in Spanish when the English one is sitting on the tip of my tongue. My pronunciation of certain words such as toalla brings a smile to my younger daughter’s lips (she and her sister are bilingual, my proudest expat achievement).
But then my English fails me at times especially when it comes to fish and seafood (I think my English fish list ran to cod, haddock and plaice before I came to Spain). And there are times when there just doesn’t seem to be the right English word.
I’d rather read an English book in its original version. Spanish television has improved 200 per cent for me since the audio button on my remote allows me to watch the original version of films and series. But I’ll admit to switching back to Spanish if the original accent is a bit too much like hard work (Brokeback Mountain is a case in point).
A good cup of tea has yet to find a replacement for me and I couldn’t start the day without my PG Tips (with milk of course) in my giant Emma Bridgewater mug. But Spain introduced me to proper coffee (I shudder to think of the ‘coffee’ I drank in my Sixth Form and uni days in the UK) and I much prefer a café con leche to the lattes etc offered just about everywhere in the UK.
Swings and Roundabouts
Of course, Spain isn’t all a bed of roses. After nearly 25 years, the Spanish are still too noisy for me – a good coffee has been ruined on countless occasions by a bar where I can’t hear myself think and at 1am on a summer evening I despair of the children shout-playing in the square below my flat.
I have yet to get used to the lack of organisation in so many aspects of Spanish life, although to be fair, that’s improved a million-fold since I first moved permanently to Spain. Paperwork continues to drive me round the bend. But this too has improved – the advent of the internet is great for tax returns, social security checks and medical matters (having a Spanish ID card with its microchip really is worthwhile here).
Despite the down sides, Spain delivers the goods and after nearly a quarter of a century, I’m more than happy here. But am I Spanish? Do I even ‘feel’ Spanish? The answer to both questions is no, but then I don’t feel English either.
Maybe we long-term expats sit in a sort of nationality limbo, with feet in two worlds and a unique outlook on life that comes only for joining two cultures. I think we probably do. And it seems that an expat is always an expat, although if you’re happy, it doesn’t really matter.
If you’ve lived outside your country of birth for a long time, what are your experiences? And where do you ‘feel’ you’re from?