Alegría (Joy)

Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, 25/07/2020

Today is my first St James the Apostle/ Galician national day. Next year - when 25 July will fall on a Sunday - is going to be huge here.

On leaving London

Leaving London in 2015 my stated intention was to travel slowly and fall in love with 'places, paces and faces'. Now, after five extraordinary nomadic years, I have arrived in Galicia and stopped moving. I've been looking forward to this moment since about Peru, I reckon.

I found being stuck in London throughout May and June 2020 difficult for various reasons, mainly the sense of having another journey still to make before I could finally stop, and the fear of being stuck in the UK so long I would run out of time to obtain residency in Spain under the terms of the Brexshit withdrawal agreement. I'm still a Londoner but it's not where I want to live anymore. I will be eternally grateful to the friends who made those two months as comfortable and enjoyable as could be.

As well as two flights to Europe from Argentina I also had two flights from the UK to Spain cancelled. In the end Adrian took me to Stansted and I flew to Porto on 1 July (the very day the Portuguese-Spanish border reopened!). I spent five days cycling north to Santiago via a different variant of the Camino Portugués to the one I did with Rachel in 2017. I must have been one of the first to return to the Caminos this year; I saw maybe two other pilgrims the entire way! I especially enjoyed riding up the Río Miño (Minho in Portuguese) and an inland stretch of single-track alongside a tributary called the Río Tea, where I saw more kingfishers than other humans and got a taste of Galicia at its lush green (and sunny) best.

Arriving in Santiago on 5 July I collected my second 'compostela', which is an official certificate of having walked at least the final 100km (or, as in my case, having cycled at least the final 200km) of one of the Caminos. On 7 July I moved into a room in the 'zona monumental' - the UNESCO World Heritage zone -150 metres from the cathedral.

Why northern Spain?

I've long been fascinated by the question of why people live where they do. My guess is people are only slightly more considered about their choice of place than they are about potential life partners. In my case, though I would love to make Oaxaca (Mexico) and/or Medellín (Colombia) home at some point, for now I am clear that I want to secure residency in a European country while I still can. I want to live in a Spanish-speaking place (so, Spain then!), in or near a progressive city with culture and subculture, and access to hills, woods and rivers.

'Green Spain' (as northern Spain is known) was a no-brainer really; the only question was where exactly to try first! There are several compelling cities in the four autonomous regions along the north coast, including the six cities of Galicia, Oviedo–Gijón in Asturias, Santander in Cantabria and several in the Basque Country (Bilbao being by far the biggest city within these four regions).

Why Galicia?

While I was in Buenos Aires* in April I researched the process for obtaining residency in Spain. I realised I'd have to answer fewer questions if I enrolled in some kind of course. Anne asked what I'd study and I said 'maybe international relations... or something like PPE'. When I discovered the University of Santiago de Compostela - founded in 1495 and one of only 40 universities in continuous operation since before 1500 - offers a one-year masters in 'international studies' (a blend of politics, economics and law) it seemed like another no-brainer. And if attending a masters programme doesn't take my shit Spanish up a notch, I don't know what will.

*Did you know Buenos Aires has remained under strict lock-down (no outside exercise) since the day I was incarcerated in Patagonia, 19 March?

Galicia is a stunning, interesting and affordable part of the world. My only reservation is the weather, as sunlight (and lack of it) affects my mood. Comparing average London weather to the nearest city with which comparison is possible online (Pontevedra), this part of Galicia is:

  • warmer than London all four seasons of the year, though only slightly so in summer
  • MUCH rainier than London three seasons of the year, just slightly so in summer
  • rainy on half of all days, except in summer

Whenever foreigners say London is rainy I feel irritated because - while it does tend to be cloudy - it seldom rains during the day (trust me, I cycled to work for 15 years!). Galicia, however, is undeniably mild and really, really rainy. At this time of year, however, they call it Galifornia; for the past three weeks I've had blue sky and temperatures from 25-35 every day! In short, if I decide to stay in Galicia I may try further inland (perhaps Ourense province) where there's a bit less rain.

Though less known-about outside Iberia than Catalunya and Euskal Herria (the Basque Country), Galiza (Galicia) has a strong independence movement and its own language (NOT dialect). For some reason I am particularly drawn to these three regions! Sadly I think the Basque language would be a challenge too far for me; at least Catalan and Galician both developed from Latin, unlike Basque which nobody can account for! Galician (known in Spanish as 'Galician-Portuguese') diverged from Portuguese in the middle ages, so the two languages are said to be mutually intelligible without too much difficulty. Galician is now considered the first language in the region ('It is spoken by some 2.2 million people of the total 2.8 million people registered in the Galician census' - official data), though as I understand it most Galicians are bilingual. I'm not going to prioritise learning to speak Galician until my Castillian Spanish is a lot better, but I am trying to learn its main features in order to get the gist when I see and hear it, which is all the time!

Apart from rain, Galicia is most famous for seafood, including some things I love (razor clams) and some things I've never even tried (goose barnacles!). I haven't had much of it yet but I will! Throughout Spain people eat Galician-style octopus.

Galicia's coastline is characterised by its 'rías' (like fjords or firths) and its beaches are world-class, according to the Guardian! Inland its highest peaks are 2,000m high, and it's known as 'the land of 1000 rivers'. It has six cities including two large ones (Vigo and A Coruña) with half a million inhabitants each. Starting to get a sense of why I think it might suit me?

Last night there was a huge firework display to celebrate today's Galician national day. (Unfortunately I forgot to find a good vantage point in time but I could see quite well from the traditional glass gallery in my lovely bedroom!) I'm very interested to learn more about the Galician independence movement. They seem to be quite progressive on gender issues, but I still need to investigate where they stand on migration and Europe amongst other things.

On Santiago

I've been in Santiago for three weeks and I think my mood can best be described as 'full-on NRE'. As I walk around tears come regularly to my eyes as I remind myself 'I f**king live here'! I remember similar NRE when I arrived in Oaxaca and Medellín. [Some of you will recall that joy is an emotion I've been able to access quite rarely, for reasons I only partially understand.]

Some of the things I love so far:

  • Gorgeous granite buildings, narrow, pedestrianised streets, cafe-filled squares.
  • 18 tree-filled parks in the centre of the city, to say nothing of its being surrounded on all sides by forests. I've bought a book with plans of all the trees in those 18 parks and intend to notice their seasonal changes. Hmm, I wonder if almond blossom reaches this far north... maybe not.
  • Bookshops (including a feminist bookshop with impressive queer, non-monogamy and children's sections), culture (we're currently in the middle of the free, fortnight-long annual arts festival the council puts on to celebrate the city's namesake/ Galicia day) and subculture (an active non-monogamy discussion group, for example). Not bad for a city of 100,000 people - the same size as Bath!
  • Though I haven't eaten out much yet, the famous market is only 100 metres from my home! Galicia is one of the places where substantial free tapas are still the norm when you buy a drink at a bar.
  • Remarkably relaxed and friendly atmosphere considering everybody is going about their business wearing an obligatory face mask (outdoors as well as in)! I haven't got to know any Galicians yet so I can't comment on them. They are said to be more reserved than Spaniards, which will probably suit this British introvert just fine!

On striving for fluency in Spanish

My only real ambition in life is to be fluent in Spanish. If I'm offered a place on the masters I've applied for I will accept it. I'll then have to take a Spanish language test and if I'm not at B2 level (spontaneously fluent, which I'm definitely not!) I will have to do the masters part-time while I do an intensive Spanish course. That might be no bad thing as I've been stuck on a low-intermediate plateau for a long time now. As I said above, Galician is going to be something of a complicating factor for a while, but it'll be rewarding to pick up.

On living in a seven-bedroom student house in a UNESCO World Heritage zone

Having had most of my savings recently wiped out by non-paying tenants, unexpected major house repairs and cancelled flights I need to live very cheaply for the next while. To this end I've decided to try cohabiting. Having not lived communally since I was last a student more than 20 years ago this is already proving something of a challenge for this grumpy loner! When the couple above me move out next week I'm going to see if I can take their top-floor room in order to have nobody above me and be further away from the bar, whose din bounces off the convent wall opposite! The cathedral bells peal every 15 minutes but they don't bother me at all.

On the plus side, I live in a (pedestrianised) UNESCO World Heritage zone, and everything is within walking distance! I'm a few hundred metres from the neighbourhood rather cutely described as 'the Chueca* of Santiago de Compostela'. (*Chueca is Madrid's queer quarter.)

On staying European

Ceasing to be European due to other people's xenophobia is not acceptable to me. Under the terms of the withdrawal agreement I should be able to secure residency here by the end of this year. That'll be valid for five years at which point I'll be able to ask for permanent residency. Theoretically I could even apply for citizenship, though I can't currently think why I would want to do that. At the moment I feel I'll be getting an amazing 'two-for-one deal' as a resident, namely residency in gorgeous Galicia AND the right to live anywhere in Spain into the bargain! Oh, and I'm 100 km from lovely northern Portugal.

By the end of my first week here I had moved into this house, bought bedding at El Corte Ingles (Spain's John Lewis) and carted a reading chair home from IKEA in A Coruña by bike and train!

By the end of the second week I'd applied for my foreigner ID number (NIE) at the police station, registered as a city resident at the town hall, got a Spanish SIM card and bought a bunch of books.

By the end of this (my third) week I have joined the library, received my box of winter clothes (THANK YOU ANNE <3), collected my NIE, opened a Spanish bank account, and attended a live, socially-distanced Galician-Basque-Catalan folk fusion concert in the Praza da Quintana (90 metres from my home)! I'm thinking this song called 'Alegría' (Joy) could perhaps be my Galician anthem, unless the lyrics turn out to be dodgy.

Contrary to its reputation, my experience of Spanish public-sector bureaucracy has so far been positive. I've been able to make my necessary appointments online and been seen on schedule. Staff have been helpful, efficient and well-briefed about the urgency of getting Brits registered by the end of the year.

The future

Monday is my birthday. One perk of being back in Europe is some very organised and kind friends have actually furnished me with things to open!! Monday won't be a good day to look for seafood (they won't have fished over the weekend) but I'll eat something nice and go for a long walk out of the city and to another free concert in the evening. Since they moved to Brighton I've felt quite envious of Meg-John's ability to walk directly from their home onto the South Downs. Now I can walk from my home straight into mixed (oak, eucalyptus and pine) forests and along clean rivers!

I might be home alone in August - which will be BLISS - before a new tranche of international students fill the house in September (boo).

My intention is to get my head down this year, improve my Spanish and try to get this masters. I don't expect to leave Galicia much if at all, though the high-speed railway network might tempt me at some point! After that, who knows!

2021 is a Jacobean year, and tourism marketing has started already (not sure what's with the naff voice-over). Masters-schedule permitting I'd love it if some friends wanted to make a pilgrimage to Santiago at some point during 2021, if not this year!

¡Graziñas por ler! (Thanks for reading.)