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Winning Away: Relocating to Spain

22 June 2016

Does the good life abroad really exist? Our writer recently relocated to rural Spain, rented a traditional apartment, adopted a stray kitten and fell in love with Spanish football. Most locals made him feel welcome. One stubborn villager, however, was harder to win over. These are the ups and downs of a fresh start in a foreign country.

The referee blows for halftime. A man sitting five rows back from the pitch slips off his boots without undoing the laces. Perched on top of his head is a pointed hat fashioned from a newspaper. He adjusts the hat with thumb and forefinger, then pulls from his trouser pocket a sizeable knife. The steel blade unfolds from the wooden handle and glints beneath the afternoon sun.

“José. José. Qué tal, José?” There are roughly 1,000 supporters in the 7,000-seater Estadio Príncipe Felipe. Many of the man’s fellow home fans call him by name as they move up and down the aisles.

“Buenas, José!” Knife in hand, José waves a friendly wave, then continues cutting meat and cheese into chunks, eating what he cuts directly off the blade. He washes it down with a mouthful of vino tinto, the red wine arcing into his mouth from the wineskin he holds high above his head.

Some of the fans dressed in CP Cacereño green stop to chat. José talks with food in his mouth and laughs with a rasp in his throat, until he’s distracted by the halftime meat raffle taking place on the pitch. No winning ticket today. José feigns disappointed, crumples up his losing ticket and packs it away with what’s left of his lunch. Boots on, hat readjusted, knife in pocket, he settles in for the second half. José’s side wins, 1-0.

I ended up here by chance and circumstance. For a year I’d travelled the world without a plan. I left Asia before the summer monsoon season really hit and aimed to arrive in South America for the best of the summer trekking. Spain would make a good stop-off point between the two. I’d visit some cities I’d never visited before, brush up on my very bad Spanish and go to a football match.

Cáceres sits out among the plains of Extramadura, the western region of Spain bordered by Portugal. Here I saw third-tier side CP Cacereño snatch a home win. And I saw José and friends, their knives and wineskins, and I saw the meat raffle, drawn by the owner of a local car dealership, and I saw fans shouting “Eeeeeeee” at near misses and “Gol” when the home side scored. I wanted to see more. I postponed my trip to South America and started looking for somewhere to live more permanently.

My search took me to the south coast. I rode the bus from Málaga to Riogordo, one of Andalucia’s White Villages. The bus trundled out of the station, through the city traffic, took the motorway north, away from the sea and up into the hills. I’d rented an apartment sight unseen, in a village I’d never visited before.

At Colmenar, the village before Riogordo, every passenger stood and got off the bus through the middle door. Most of these passengers boarded again through the front door. They each bought a second ticket, this time to Riogordo. I later learned splitting the journey this way saves the Riogordeños one euro.

The bus arrived in Riogordo during siesta time, the main square still and quiet. I asked the first person I saw how to get to Calle Pozo. This weather-beaten man not only pointed me in the direction of my new apartment, but took me to the door. Riogordo is like that. Shops round down the price of whatever you buy. There’s always someone around to give you a ride into the city or lend you a gas cylinder when you run out. People passing in the street say hello to one another – all except the second person I saw after getting off the bus: an older lady who stared right through me and would continue to stare right through every time we crossed paths.

There are more than 200 foreigners in the area, mostly living out in the countryside. The newer homes are usually built well and in keeping with the local style. Their construction provides a boost to employment and the economy. But I heard of some not so well-built places close to Riogordo, houses and villas belonging to foreigners known locally as the “Por Favoures” – because of their unwillingness to learn Spanish and integrate with the community. So I wondered if newcomers, particularly the British, were not welcome by all in the village.

Soon after moving to Riogordo, I adopted the stray kitten that slept behind a recycling bin on my street. With food, water and a bed made from an old jumper, the black and white cat now sleeps on the stairs leading up to the front door of my apartment, but is too wary to come all the way inside. I’m writing this on my roof terrace, up on the third floor of the building, with the sun above striking the whitewashed buildings below.

To the right of the road that winds out of the village and off over the horizon, some goats eat their way up the hill. These black and brown specs ghost over the green grass, older goats leading the way, a dog circling to keep the herd in check. The goatherd watches over them while resting on his crook. Bells tied around the necks of the goats ring, every day, the same time. A long and jagged chain of mountains dominates the skyline, propping up the clouds with peaks that in winter months are capped by snow. Every time I look at the sierras, I get itchy feet.

Some of the most spectacular routes I’ve ever trekked pass through Riogordo. These trails lead along the river and through the valleys and up into the mountains. But the walks I like best are those when I go off-trail, intentionally or accidentally. A slog to the top of a steep hill rewards you with another hill just like it, and another behind that, and another behind that. The ruins of abandoned farmhouses dare you to test their rotten beams and crumbling staircases. Everything grows out here – pomegranates, apricots, peaches, oranges – and in such numbers that they lie unpicked in the trees and squashed on the ground. There are olive trees everywhere. It’s hard to believe a big city is just 40km away.

“Dos Moscatels, por favor.” The barman opens the tap on a barrel made of oak, the wood dark, dirty and full of flavour from years of use. Sweet brown wine trickles from the tap into one small straight glass, and then another. The barman grunts, scrawls the price of two drinks in chalk on the counter and ambles back to his own drink.

Antigua Casa de Guardia served its first glass of wine in 1840 and it appears everything is as it was all those years ago – same paintwork, same furniture, same barrels and same barman. Málaga is one of Europe’s most underrated cities. For food, shopping and particularly art galleries, it’s up there with the best. Antigua Casa de Guardia is near Soho, a district that’s become a huge outdoor gallery, with as its centrepiece a pair of towering murals by street artists D*Face and Shepard Fairey.

I visit the tavern before home games of my new local side, Málaga CF. Tonight my girlfriend joins me in the city for a midweek cup game. I promise her a comfortable win against lower-league opposition. Supporters behind either goal stand with their arms around each other’s shoulders. A man beats a big drum, which echoes through the stadium. Fans sing, and jump up and down in time with the drumbeat. Many of the men take their tops off. One fan stands on a barrier at the front of the stand, facing away from the pitch and towards the crowd. He starts and directs songs, the conductor of an unruly orchestra.

The players can’t match the fan’s passion. Painfully slow, scrappy, full of mistakes, devoid of creativity and ending in a 1-0 defeat, it’s the kind of game that causes you to question not only why you bother watching football, but why you bother doing anything at all. My girlfriend wants to leave from the 60-minute mark onwards and I struggle to find a reason to persuade her otherwise. In the following game, which my girlfriend didn’t attend, Málaga played Atlético Madrid – a side 15 games unbeaten, champions of Spain the year before last, and one of the better teams in Europe. Málaga played well, and won.

Summer changed to autumn, autumn to winter. I never intended to live in Spain this long. I’m part of a growing number of travelling remote workers, mostly self-employed and often named ‘digital nomads’ (a name I loathe). I need only my laptop and a decent Wi-Fi connection to do my job. There’s much to gain from this lifestyle, but as neither a tourist nor a resident, I miss out on some things too. Sitting in the stands at a football match offers a very immediate connection to the people around me, a shared sense of purpose and a familiarity. The shouts are the same the world over and the songs all sung to the same old tunes. We are from different countries and backgrounds, but are all hardwired to find strange pleasures in boring midweek cup games.

There is still no connection, immediate or otherwise, with the lady who stares through me every time we pass on the street. She lives up the road and keeps three lazy, fat cats.

Saturday morning and the Churros Man parks his white van in the small but handsome main square, as he does every weekend, people queuing for his golden pastries, dusted with sugar and drizzled with melted chocolate. The village shops don’t open on Sundays so the main square is busy with shoppers. The dogs are all out, running around off their leads but obediently never entering these shops, some of which are set up in the shopkeepers’ front rooms.

A married couple own the butcher’s over the road from my apartment. The wife speaks slowly and clearly, repeats the names of various cuts of meat to help me learn and remember them. The husband, however, speaks quickly and loudly and anything I don’t understand he repeats quicker, louder. We get by. We find common ground in football. With a deft slice of his knife, he cuts great chunks of cured meat straight off the leg. This is to eat while we talk, a free appetiser before I place my order. If the butcher’s eating, he insists I eat, and that I continue eating until he puts away the leg.

Life in the village settles into a simple routine. I work a bit and walk a lot. If I have no work to do, or have done extra work the day before, I’ll set off at first light and have coffee and breakfast up in the mountains. Locals run Spanish classes for foreigners and foreigners run English classes for locals. There’s a couple of organised get-togethers and many more unorganised ones. At weekends, there are bike rides along Málaga’s coast to eat seafood in the fishing villages, or games at Estadio La Rosaleda.

An older man, slightly hunched, arms behind his back, one hand gripped around the opposite wrist, walks alone outside La Rosaleda. Dusk now. The last of the sun stretches his shadow across the pavement. The man wears no expression, pays no attention to the stallholders selling scarfs and replica kits, soft drinks and confectionary. On he walks, head down, until lost in a crowd of fellow fans all dressed in the blue and white of Málaga CF.

Inside the ground, the same man sits 10 seats or so to my right and a few rows in front. Fans sitting around him stand to shout and gesticulate towards the pitch and then look to the man for approval or agreement. The older man makes his points quietly, thoughtfully, unfolding an arm and using a hand to trace players’ movements on the pitch.

Throughout the game, my eye is drawn to this man. I imagine he has sat in that same seat for years, longer than most of the people around him have been alive, season after season of hope and despair and hope again. Perhaps after a particularly big let-down, the man swore he’d never return, that he couldn’t watch another derby defeat or relegation battle or transfer window in which all his favourite players are sold and not replaced.

Then August comes and he’s back: new season, same seat, hopeful as ever. In La Rosaleda he is someone else. For 90 minutes, every other week, he sits in that seat, his seat, and regardless of what happens to Málaga CF on or off the pitch, he becomes a greater thing. Because there exists in football something the billionaire businessmen can never buy, sell or franchise, and will never understand. Go anywhere in the world where people pay to watch the team they love and you’ll sense it, feel it, see it. Look into the eyes of the man who sits in the Tribune stand at Estadio La Rosaleda and you will see it there too, whatever it is. This man is bound to his team by a lifetime of victories and defeats, and rightfully proud of his chains.

We travel to see the new, but the familiar is just as important. We see that, despite differences in food, culture and traditions, people generally share the same traits, virtues and aspirations. They’re found in the football stadium, as they are on the street.

One day, not long ago, I stood outside on the street trying to coax the stray kitten into my apartment. The lady who always stares right through me approached. I offered a greeting in Spanish, as I always do, and on this day, a cool, sunny, winter’s day, she slitted her eyes, thought for a while and finally gurgled a very quiet: “Hola.”

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