A blast from the past

I was searching my emails for something before when I found the start of something I wrote back in July 2010.

I wrote it just after I decided to move to Spain. It was going to be part of a wider piece, maybe a book, but – as is often the case – other events take over. If everyone has a book in them, most of us seem to suffer from constipation (thankfully, give the quality of a lot of books).

Anyway, despite the fact a lot has changed since I wrote this 6 years ago – not least the fact me and Chris are now divorced (although still business partners and, more importantly, friends) – I thought I’d post it. And let’s not even get into the idiotic decision to vote for Brexit…

But while we are still in the EU, I’m probably obliged under the Human Rights Act to warn you that this is long…

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

I think we were watching Eastenders at the time. Or maybe it was the football. It certainly wasn’t anything too engrossing or the conversation may never have happened.

“Why don’t we move somewhere warm?”, Chris casually asked.

We were already sat by the radiator which, on this cold and wet Mancunian May afternoon, was pumping out heat as fast as it could. For a brief second I wondered if she meant we should put the fire on and sit in front of it, but I quickly realised what she meant.

“Are you serious?”, I asked.

“Yes”, she replied, seriously.

“Really serious?”, I demanded to know. It’s one thing being serious about moving somewhere warmer, it’s another thing altogether being really serious.

“Yes, really serious”, she replied, really seriously.

To put the conversation into context, Chris had just returned from the local park where she was involved in the ‘Friends of’ community group. They organised two annual events – a Christmas Grotto and a Summer Fair. Weather wise, there was little difference between the two. Except maybe it rained less at Christmas.

A lot of work had gone into preparing for the day, mainly by Chris and one other active member of the group. It was a total wash out. Months of preparation wasted because the English weather is – well – the English weather.

I don’t in all honesty remember the exact words I used next. I think I was already mentally picking a new country to live in, but for all intents and purposes I said “Ok, let’s go”. Probably as causally as you would if someone asked you if you wanted to go with them to the shops for a few groceries – and with as much consideration.

To say Chris was surprised by my reaction is probably an understatement. To say I was surprised by my reaction is definitely an understatement.

But sometimes I think the decisions that are made the quickest, with the least thought, are often the best decisions. Or the worst. It really depends on how they turn out, I guess.

Bring Me Sunshine

Choosing a country to move to based on climate is a bit like choosing a new coat.

You want one that will keep you warm when it’s cold, but lets you breathe when it’s hot. And even though you pretend fashion doesn’t come in to it you wouldn’t be seen dead in one of those coats that you can unzip the middle from when in gets warm. Even though you know they’re a really fantastic idea. Likewise, you wouldn’t be seen dead in, say, Belgium.

So yes, choosing a country is a bit like choosing a new coat only, maybe, a bit more serious.

All Around The World

I’d been to the Far East once on a three week holiday – Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand – and found it impossible to cope with. The heat and the humidity conspired to keep me locked in the safety of various air-conditioned hotel rooms with only expensive room service and cheap American movies for company. When I did venture out into the “fresh air” it was as if I was walking around in a Snorkel Parka, with the hood up. And a scarf over my face. Like an Arctic explorer who had accidentally fallen out of his aeroplane on the way to the North Pole and landed in, well, the Far East.

A few years later I visited Finland. Unfortunately, given the sub-zero temperatures we faced, I didn’t have a Snorkel Parka with me for that trip. I did have a borrowed Russian fur-hat which kept my head warm but at the cost of all remaining fashion credibility. I may as well have been hanged for a Parka than a fur-hat and Helsinki might have been slightly more bearable with another layer or thirty on. The air was certainly fresh. Which is more than could be said for my head.

It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere

There’s something about Finland that makes you want to drink. Just ask the Finns. Alcohol is the leading cause of death amongst working-age men – and amongst working-age women. Higher than heart disease, higher than breast cancer. Higher than accidents and higher, even, than suicides – which is perhaps the hardest to believe. Maybe genetics plays a part – research shows a link between alcohol abuse and genes – but the double-whammy of the short daylight hours and the bitter cold doesn’t help either (See Scotland).

As a very temporary visitor – I was there for a conference for just a few days – I had no real excuse apart from being in the middle-stages of what I would later discover to be a rather cheery condition known colloquially as “being a pisshead”. It would be another few years before I realised that, so on this trip I merrily carried on downing the vodka. At least the cold air and snow helped me clear my head a little in the morning.

Taxman

Over the years the Finnish government has tried various tactics to reduce consumption including tight state controls on alcohol sales and incredibly high taxes. In recent years they changed tact and tried to fool the Finns into drinking less by lowering the tax substantially.

But even in their inebriated state they didn’t fall for that one.

Consumption went up, along with hospital admissions and deaths.

Crazy experiment over, and the taxes have been raised again. It’s pretty much certain that consumption will fall but, even now as a committed tea-totaler, I have a lot of sympathy for the Finns desire to blot out the miserable weather and I don’t hold out a lot of hope of the situation improving dramatically. Maybe if the earth was hit by an asteroid just big enough to shift the tilt of the planet and put Finland into a warmer climate (but small enough not to kill everyone in the process) that may help. But very possibly they would just celebrate by getting the cocktails and sun loungers out.

It was with thoughts of parkas and (non-alcoholic) cocktails that we set about choosing a country to live in.

The Final Countdown

First things first. We knew we wanted to stay in Europe. America was too far away and Chris, unlike me, had never seen the appeal. Australia was even further away and really didn’t do anything for either of us. Let’s face it, given the number of Aussies in the UK the heat can’t count for much over there. We had previously discussed New Zealand some years ago but that was in a different existence. It wasn’t what we wanted now.

No, Europe it had to be. We had a UK business to continue to run and family we wanted to stay near.

And it specifically had to be an EU member state. We might have been born subjects of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II but, thanks to decades of legislation and rather a lot of unaudited and unaccounted for money, we were now also citizens of the European Union. In the words of the EU, we were going to “strengthen the feeling of Union citizenship and promote social cohesion” – by buggering off from England.

Anywhere northern Europe was quickly dismissed. Scandinavia was an obvious no-no. And although I adore Ireland, country of my forefathers, it would take a very persuasive faery to steal this child back. It was the waters and the wild we were escaping from, thank you very much.

Moving into western Europe, and skipping the sort of minor nations Nigel Farage is fond of not being fond of, we came to Germany. We’d both been to Germany before although, strangely, never together. I sometimes considered Germany a home-from-home and think the Germans and English share more in common than 20th century history books would suggest. I’ve always thought you fight more with those you care about. Although Royal assassinations and invading neighbouring countries don’t help either.

But, anyway, the similarity was the problem. We weren’t looking for a home-from-home. And Germany’s weather isn’t, by-and-large, much different from our own, so we continued our virtual tour of Europe.

If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next

We dismissed the “new” Eastern European countries as quickly as they had seemed to become EU member states, deciding they were either too under-developed, or developing in the wrong way for our liking. And, again, just not as warm as we wanted.

Moving southwards we arrived at France. Now, Paris I adore. Had we been a few years younger the thought of moving to Paris – the wine, the art, the literature, the romance – would have been immensely exciting. I could imagine we would quickly have become rather giddy with the prospect.

But this move wasn’t about wine, art, literature or romance. It was about warmth. And Paris is only marginally warmer than London. And London is only marginally warmer than Manchester. It’d be a big move, culturally, for a small move on the thermometer.

The “Year in Provence” concept had never grabbed us either, so Southern France held even less appeal. I was also increasingly concerned that the French were going through an odd period of trying to defend collective liberties with the surprising tactic of attacking individual liberties. Perhaps they had been speaking to the person responsible for the lowering of Finland’s alcohol taxation.

Either way, I didn’t really want to show my support for that sort of carry-on so it wasn’t going to be France.

And speaking of neo-fascism, we quickly dismissed Italy too. Berlusconi, with his hopefully ironically titled People of Freedom party, and the various Northern League mayors, would have to do without us. I suspect somehow they’ll cope. They’ll probably be too busy chasing gypsies or something to notice our absence, I would imagine.

No, having decided we wanted a country where fascism was in its past rather than its present, we were left looking squarely, and excitedly, at Spain.

Y Viva España

I was eight years old the first, and last, time I went been to Spain.

My Grandmother had just died – the sadly inevitable outcome of a mis-matched fight with a brain tumour. My mother was understandably devastated by it, but it was her brother, who had given up his Priesthood to move back in and look after his dying mother, who had perhaps suffered the most. It was decided everyone was in need of a holiday so my Mum and Dad took me, and my Uncle, for a fortnight in Benidorm. On reflection, I can’t help thinking it wasn’t the best idea ever.

As a socialist, my Dad would never have dreamt of visiting Franco’s Spain. The last time it was okay to be in Spain was as a member of the International Brigade some forty-odd years earlier. But this was the late seventies, Franco was dead and buried, and Spain had a new democratic constitution.

I think my Dad thought it was only right and proper to support them now. And anyway, he’d heard a lot about the sun, the sand and the sangria from less politically-minded work-colleagues and acquaintances who had been visiting for some years. Now it was our time to Viva Espana!

Big Yellow Taxi

Even as an 8-year-old I think I sussed the place out fairly quickly. The hotel was the usual concrete monstrosity that you would imagine they throw up overnight, until you spend all your holiday watching – and hearing – one being slowly built next door. They seemed to ignore any building regulations or accepted structural calculations, instead deciding to use the theory that if the new building survives the noise from the hotel disco, then it’s strong enough.

If you were in your late teens or twenties, the disco was probably the place to be. No doubt many a good night was had there by the hoards of sun-burnt, drunken Brits who filled the place. But if you were eight years old, or in your late forties and trying to relax after watching your mother succumb to cancer, it wasn’t ideal really. More of a nuisance, than an attraction. In fact, more of a nightmare.

Of course, we could shut the windows, but then we wouldn’t be able to breathe. Or we could open them, breathe, and never get to sleep with the noise. In the end it came down to a choice between slow suffocation or slow insanity. So we chose the suffocation and hoped we would die in our sleep.

All By Myself

As I was fond of telling my two brothers, it wasn’t easy being an only child.

A fifteen year gap between myself and my next brother had meant that whilst I was playing alone on the beaches of Spain, longing for a friend to build a sand-castle with, he was working in Ireland, drinking and shagging his way through the local population. The selfish bastard.

And my other brother, slightly older again, was doing the same. Only he hadn’t even bothered to move to Ireland and was working in Manchester, drinking and shagging his way through his own local population, instead of someone else’s. The selfish bastard.

The fact I remember so little about the holiday is probably my brains way of coping with it. I have snatches of memories, as if someone accidentally hit record on an old cine camera, realised their mistake a second or two later and quickly hit stop.

The wall of heat that hit us when we walked to the airplane door at Alicante – like nothing I’d ever felt before. The dreadful pool table covered with torn plastic green baize. The non-stop ‘D.I.S.C.O.’ coming from, not surprisingly, the disco. And the sudden, unexpected and rather unpleasant surprise of the reaction to drinking the local water.

It wasn’t all bad, the huge candy floss in the shape of a sombrero blew away the crappy fun-fair bags we were used to in England.

Waterfall

And then there was an amazing waterslide. It was steep. Really steep. And it ended with a small plunge pool at the bottom. A very small plunge pool.

I begged my Dad to let me go on it but he knew better. Dad’s tend to know better. A truth not normally accepted until either you become a father yourself or your Dad has died, and by then it’s too late to let him know you know what he had known all those years – that he was right.

My Dad knew that I couldn’t really swim and that, how can I put it, that I wasn’t quite as tough as my eldest brother. He would have loved it when he was a kid. Hell, he would have loved it then – if he could have dragged himself away from the booze and the women. The selfish bastard.

Incidentally, this is the same brother who, some years earlier, “taught me to swim” by throwing me in the deep end of the local swimming pool. A technique that would be worth trying in the event of a disaster, say, if a ship was sinking – but one that simply put chlorine in my eyes, water up my nose, made me to cry and set back my development as a swimmer by thirty years or so.

I begged and begged, and probably cried and pleaded with my Dad, to let me go on the slide. There was a big queue and I don’t think he really wanted to stand out in the blazing sun whilst I queued up for an experience he knew I was incapable of doing.

But even when Dads know they are right, they are still Dads and eventually – after a few days – he let me go on it. He paid the man his pesetas and I joined the queue.

If You Ever Change Your Mind

Funny enough, despite wanting to go on the slide for days in advance and having convinced myself I had to do it, it was only then when I was in the queue that I started to think about it properly. It really was a big slide. And it really was a very small pool.

If it were today I would probably have questioned the whole “health and safety” aspect of it, and asked to see their risk assessment and insurance documents. But we didn’t have those sort of things in the 70s. We were too busy back then dying to fill out forms.

I started to do some rough calculations. Nothing specific really, I was always okay at maths but I can’t pretend I did anything more than calculate the risk of me sliding right off the end and breaking my neck a few feet past the target zone. The result I came to probably wasn’t very accurate but it was a non-zero number, and that was enough for me.

True to my Dad’s prediction, when it came to my turn and I was stood at the top, holding up the rest of the queue, I froze.

I simply couldn’t do it. What on earth possessed me to get up the ladder? Why did I even think I wanted to go on this death trap. It was clear no child could survive the drop. The children who I had seen do it and survive were clearly the exception to prove my fatal rule.

I stood there. And I cried. And I climbed back down the stairs, past the other children, queuing up to die, who made way for me whilst laughing their final laughs. At the bottom of the stairs was a very embarrassed and very annoyed father. It wasn’t the best day of my life, or his.

Another Day in Paradise

The beggars in Benidorm were also a rather unexpected and unpleasant sight. My parents were working class and experienced poverty as children, but it’s fair to say I had a pretty easy childhood, at least economically. My Dad had a good job in the newspaper industry, back in the days when the unions were strong and wages were good, and my Mum worked too.

I’m not sure I’d ever seen real poverty, not like this anyway. We had what we used to refer to as a tramp where I grew up (ie, a homeless man), but truth be told he wasn’t actually that poor, he was just very mentally ill. And he was the only one in the area. How times change.

No, this looked like real poverty. And it was shocking. I wasn’t used to the sight of women begging in the streets at night with what looked like dying babies in their arms. Of course, the more experienced – or cynical – claimed the women were con-artists and they drugged their babies for sympathy. I remember thinking at the time that whichever story was true, it wasn’t very nice.

My Uncle didn’t really get much out of the trip either. In the first few days he slipped in the bath while taking a shower and cracked his head open. So much for a relaxing holiday.

And that, to date, was my first and only experience of Spain.

What on earth made me want to move there?

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