Society & Culture
Integrating in Spain - Easier Not To?
By Justin Aldridge
Dec 4, 2007, 06:16

Brits Integrate Into The System
It's true that for many expats the initial intention to integrate is there, but when they realise how much dedication is required to be proficient in Spanish and that you can get by without it, they just don't bother. Instead, they get their bearings and integrate into the system by finding out about "el padron", their entitlement to the health service and generally master the practicalities of everyday life. They just carry on as they would have had they moved to another town in Britain. They seek out familiarity and go to the shops where they don't need to do too much communicating. It's safe and easy to live in a cocoon in Spain. It doesn't matter that it's Spain, it could be anywhere providing the sun shines.

Stick To Their Patch
The truth is they get by fine like this and keep themselves to themselves catching glimpses of Spanish life from the sidelines. If they need to buy clothes they fly back to the UK or those on the Costa del Sol cross the border to Gibraltar for Marks and Spencer and Next. It is easier to stick to what they know and not complicate their lives by incorporating too much spanishness. They may be living in Andalucia but they will probably never venture out of their patch except for return trips to the UK and you will never hear of them planning trips to Cordoba or Seville.

Same Schools, Same Food, Same Friends
If they can afford to they will send their children to private international school so they can continue with their education where they left off. They will continue to cook the same kinds of foods but using Spanish ingredients. Although, they will smile, gesture and wave politely to the locals, it is easier not to enter into conversation. They are happy like this, not bothering anyone as they have their support system. They don't only mix with other expats because they dislike the Spanish, on the contrary, they regard them with great affection as they have never had to get to know them.

The Brits That Integrate
They are not bothering anyone but those Brits who consider themselves integrated are very quick to look down their noses at them in disgust at their ignorance. As far as they are concerned, anybody who comes to live in Spain should immediately learn Spanish like them, make friends with all their Spanish neighbours and only eat in Spanish restaurants. They regard them condescendingly as uncultured and take pleasure at ridiculing their overtly British ways in Spain including their dress sense and feeble attempts at communicating by speaking loudly and flapping their hands about. On the other hand, the Spanish do not object to the British way of segregating themselves and to an extent choose to ignore them. Okay, secretly they might resent the amount of construction that has taken place and the rate of development due to the influx of Brits but they don't protest through the streets or confront them about it. Generally, the non Spanish speaking Brits are made to feel very welcome and the Spanish will usually go out of their way to communicate in their best English.

The Lonely Integrators
So do those who do make an effort to embrace the Spanish language and culture enjoy a richer life in Spain? You would think so as they make their time in Spain a real learning experience. However, I believe that generally the non integrators are happier without the stress of integrating and constantly seeking out ways to improve their Spanish. They are far less vulnerable to culture shock and experiencing the horrible feeling of being the ‘underdog' when trying to communicate in a foreign tongue. In fact, sometimes those who seem to be integrating with the Spanish whilst speaking fluent Spanish with the locals are actually the lonely ones and are missing out on all the networking that goes on amongst the expats.

The Illusion Of The Friendly Spanish
They put themselves at risk of rejection when they try to take friendships to the next level above a quick chat on the street as the Spanish, as friendly and open as they may seem, don't ‘do' friends as we do. On the other hand, the non integrators watching the Spanish from afar, will always maintain this illusion that the Spanish are all warm, open and welcoming as they will probably never get into a Spanish home to see the Spanish in their own environment. We have a reputation of being cold and unfriendly but go into any British pub or bar on a Friday or Saturday and you will find people sitting with a whole different bunch of people by the end of the night, unlike the Spanish who stick to the same group of friends that they have had since they were at nursery school.

It Works Both Ways
I have always taken a great interest in the Spanish, their language and their culture. This is a genuine interest which they are always only too pleased to entertain by educating about different aspects of their culture. However, what I do sometimes feel a bit miffed about is that they have never asked me about my own. They have never asked me why I came to Spain which to me would seem like an obvious question to ask. Surely, they must wonder why there are so many British people here. Even though I have always eaten anything offered to me buy a Spanish person, they have always refused my offers of hospitality albeit a sandwich or a cup of tea. I admit that I have felt hurt on these occasions especially when they weren't willing to try a sausage roll at my daughters birthday party. We Brits criticise each other for not making an effort but we are not always met halfway. I know this because I have tried and although I am included more than many expats there is still reluctance to take friendships further. I have invited children in the local area to my house to play with my children but I am under the impression that the mothers only trust their close families which I can understand but it doesn't mean that I don't feel offended. So my children tend to only play with other expat children after school because their mothers have a similar mentality to my own of getting friends together outside school but the Spanish have no need for this as family is more than enough.

Culture Shock
I have even heard of acts of kindness on the part of British people being shunned by the Spanish such as the lady living in a very Spanish community who kindly offered outgrown baby clothes to a neighbour and was never spoken to again. This is all part of culture shock that those who make a big attempt to get to know the locals experience. It is easy to mistake the warmness of the Spanish stranger on the street with their kisses and hugs for friendship. Although, they will help you with whatever you need in a practical sense you are unlikely to bond in the same way you do with a British friend.

Spanish Students In Britain
If I think back to my days at university, I remember that the behaviour of the Spanish students in Britain was not unlike the typical British expat in Spain. They kept themselves to themselves in their own little groups and didn't make friends with the British students never mind the locals. They had their own hang outs and mixed with other Spanish people despite their reason for being in the UK was to learn English. However, they were very unapproachable always surrounded by at least one other countryman so they didn't get a chance to mix with Brits. The only chance they got to speak English was in shops or with other foreigners as their housemates would all be Spanish too. In fact, they would be better to send them to the Costa del Sol to learn English amongst the expat community. So, if even young people with open minds find it a challenge, it is obviously natural to stick to your own when outside of your comfort zone. I used to be very critical of the typical expat living in their enclave but now I understand that even if the intention is there it can be difficult to find an entry point for even the best Spanish speaker and life is easier not to get stressed by it.

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© Copyright 2007 by & Justin Aldridge