Hugh Reilly: Being an ex-pat has some pitfalls

Hugh Reilly. Picture: Robert Perry
Hugh Reilly. Picture: Robert Perry
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A CURSORY look at the genealogical history of my family highlights our love of travelling.

In 1793, a pioneering antecedent took up residence in Australia for an extended period – seven years to be exact – following some confusion in a London court over the ownership of a loaf of bread. Much later, my father took a five-year sabbatical to tour France, Holland and Germany. Apparently, his visits to museums and other sites of cultural interest were somewhat limited by the pressing need to avoid Panzer tank shells.

In 1988, I relocated to Greece to teach in a private school. After just one year, I had to return to Scotland due to my wife’s homesickness. My joy on returning to north Glasgow only multiplied on discovering that I’d be teaching in Drumchapel, a peripheral housing estate whose residents envied Terry Waite’s cushy, chained-to-the-radiator lifestyle in tranquil Beirut.

Last year, I moved to southern Spain. Living here isn’t easy. For one thing, it worries me that I’m at an age when I consider a natty ensemble consists of sandals, black knee-length socks, beige Bermuda shorts, floral shirt and a Panama hat. Currently, my promenading outfit of rather careworn Adidas Sambas, Primark camouflage short trousers, t-shirt and tatty baseball cap is failing to attract the attention of cruising divorcees. To these playa vamps, my Celt-ish appearance – a freckled body that seems as if I’ve been sunbathing under a tea-strainer – is not so much eye-candy as an irritating stye. Lying on the beach, one has to adopt the hedgehog defensive position when a muscular, steroid-munching Russian passes by, lest any of the sand kicked in one’s face to amuse Igor’s blonde squeeze causes temporary blindness.

A further source of concern is that I have made many friends in the ex-pat community, people I’d once held in contempt for their penchant of exaggerating their previous UK existence. For example, a sailor on a Liverpool-flagged solid waste disposal boat boasts of being a captain on a liner. As a simple owner of a national newspaper organisation, I find this type of hyperbole wearisome.

The majority of Brits out here don’t do heavy irony. Monolingual middle-Englanders bitterly complain they will never return to Blighty as it has been ruined by immigrants who don’t learn English. Secretly, many dream of a budget flight home, landing in any UK airport except, of course, “pure dead brilliant” Prestwick – the humiliation being too much.

My town, Torrevieja, is life in the crawler lane. Unlike other coastal enclaves, Torrevieja still has its Spanish character; there are no cafes offering ‘Full English Breakfast’ and no pubs advertising English Premiership games. It’s the Largs of Spain, a place where the old come to die, ideally after eating a double-scoop ice-cream. I have to say that when a friend popped over for a weekend break, he was . . . disappointed to discover the town’s top entertainment venue made a Labour Social Club seem a seedy den of hedonism. His mood darkened further when I unhelpfully pointed out the pub hosts bingo sessions on Sundays.

On the plus side, after several interfaces with Iberian workmen, my appreciation of British tradesmen has grown markedly. Following several unwanted inundations, local artisans arrived to repair my bathroom. Although both men were in a disconcertingly agitated state, they seemed confident of fixing the problem. Minutes later I heard something that eerily resembled the Berlin Wall being sledgehammered into history. My chicos had decided to smash up the tile floor and replace a waste pipe. Unfortunately, they had neither the replacement pipe nor replacement tiles to hand. Worse, there was a gaping hole enabling a view of my downstairs neighbour cooking. Ever the professionals, my wrecking crew proffered a carpet remnant to cover the gap and afford me a modicum of privacy when availing myself of the facilities. Recognising the urgency of the situation, Juan and Jose only took four days and rectify their vandalism.

I am learning to appreciate cultural differences. For example, Spaniards don’t talk, they shout at one another. On a recent six-day coach trip with 66 Spaniards to the Extremadura region, elderly senoras bawled and laughed uproariously while yours truly and eight grim-faced Germans seriously considered hijacking the vehicle and taking it to that nice clinic in Switzerland; or worse still, driving the whole lot of them to Glasgow.