The wounds are still gaping red, raw, and very sore. After years of living abroad, it’s too painful for me to talk about Brexit at the moment. No, painful is not the right word at all. If I let my mind dwell on the subject for too long, a tsunami-sized wave of fury builds and … well, that’s why I’m not going to talk about it beyond saying Brexit has forced us to completely rethink our future plans. At this point it’s more than likely that we will return to Britain before too long – COVID restrictions permitting.
When I mentioned this to my sister, one of the things she said in reply was “you’ll find Britain has changed a lot since you left.”
It’s not the first time someone has said this to us. Then Andy said something which got me thinking: “But so have we. We’re not the same people who left in 2003.”
And she’s right. Living in other countries has changed us in a number of ways.
We don’t take basic home comforts for granted
When your water comes from a bore hole and heavy rain causes the electricity to go off, you soon learn to appreciate having uninterrupted access to basic utilities. When water pressure drops, I head out on a circuit of the farm to see if a pipe has come loose, or a connection has split. When the electricity goes off, so does the water because no electricity means no pump. Many repair jobs are done by knowledgeable amateurs rather than professionals, so repairs can be hit and miss, which leads to the next category.
We’re more self-sufficient
When houses don’t have central heating keeping warm becomes a more time-consuming job. On both Tenerife and Portugal this has involved wood management; chain-sawing and chopping logs for firewood and planning wood supplies for the following winter. If you want to stay warm, you have to create your own heat. There isn’t always a ‘man’ to call to come and fix things when they stop working, even if there is there can be a concern he’s going to make things worse rather than better, subsequently doing-it-ourselves has become the norm. This might involve tackling jobs like replacing the chimney after a storm blew it off, fitting a new flush system in the toilet, dealing with invasions of ants, or preventing the beams which hold the roof up from being devoured by woodworm.
A change of drinking habits
We drink less alcohol. It took some time, but we gradually slipped into the local groove when it came to drinking patterns. We’d go out later, stay out longer, and drink less. This was no conscious decision, we simply started to mirror the habits of those around us – On Tenerife that was Canarians who simply didn’t hammer the booze with the same ‘enthusiasm’ as many Brits. Consumption of alcohol has become a case of quality over quantity.
And eating patterns
In Britain I always preferred the later lunch spot at work (between 1 and 2 p.m.), and by the time both of us got home from work and cooked dinner it was around 8.30p.m. So fitting in with Spanish dining times only required a slight shift. What has changed more is the length of time we spend over lunch and dinner, especially when eating out. Lunches last the whole afternoon, whereas dinner is the evening’s entertainment. Thirty years ago I’d have wolfed done my food to get to the pub quicker. Now if a restaurant meal is over in under an hour I feel cheated and consider the place to be a fast food joint.
Appreciating local produce
Thanks to regularly writing about regional culinary specialities we’ve developed a greater appreciation of products which are sourced locally. Our wine rack on Tenerife was full of Canarian wines, some from the valley we lived in. In Portugal, it’s Portuguese wines, some from the vineyards around us. Most days Portuguese chestnut honey will feature in our food at some point; one of our favourite cheeses is made a few kilometres away; and the meal I’ve missed most during COVID lockdowns is choco frito (fried cuttlefish), a speciality of the nearest town. We still shop at supermarkets, but picking up goodies from specialist producers is one of the things which excites me about a return to Blighty.
Explore our surroundings
I come from a tiny Sottish island. Recently, as a birthday present, my sister sent me a calender featuring photos from around the island. As I browsed through the photos I kept repeating “I’ve never been there.” I was never that interested in the place where I grew up. How I regret that.
Our first writing commission after we moved abroad completely changed how we viewed our surroundings. It was called In Deep and involved getting under the skin of specific towns and villages on Tenerife – finding out about history, culture, gastronomy, traditional activities, fiestas etc. We loved it, uncovering all sorts of things we found interesting. That first experience still acts as a blueprint for how we approach visiting anywhere new to us.
When you stumble around speaking a language you’re not fully fluent in, your personality is stripped away and even the most basic transaction can be frustratingly difficult. Whenever I return to Britain it rams home how much trying to communicate in another language fills my subconsciousness. When doing something like queueing to buy tickets, I find myself automatically thinking ‘how am I going to say this?’ before the penny drops I’ll be asking in English. Most of our transactions in the north of Tenerife were carried out in Spanish; it’s become our default foreign language. The area where we live in Portugal is about as Portuguese as you can get. I have far more empathy with people in Britain for whom English is not their first language.
Two things changed how we view material goods in general. One was going from having a good income to having virtually none. Having no money soon dampens the urge for whimsical shopping sprees. But the main reason has been living in places where people don’t have much spare cash, and haven’t succumbed to materialism. Whenever we return to Britain we instantly notice the marked difference in spending power. As a result, material goods aren’t as important as they once were. We don’t crave the newest version of this or that. As long as things work well that’s good enough. Other aspects of life have simply taken on more value.
Europe has misshapen fruit
Finally, we know bananas in Europe can have wonky shapes. For 17 years our veg rack has been filled with oddly-shaped fruit and veg. But then, you don’t have to live in a country that isn’t Britain to know that European supermarkets/markets aren’t filled with perfectly-shaped food. All anyone on holiday in Europe has to do confirm some papers had blatantly lied to them back in 2016, and beyond, is wander into a local market.
For anyone who wants to take a more in-depth look at what it’s like to live in another country, take a look at my book Camel Spit & Cork Trees; a Year of Slow Travel Around Portugal.