Us and Them, Me and the Locals

Mayfly Lava Skin, Spain

Above, another picture from our recent trip to El Boca del Asno. When you get down to rock and water level, nature is quite endlessly surprising!

Right, what I want to talk about: In the Boca del Asno post, I wrote the following…

…as usual so many people stick close to the car park, that within a few minutes walk up the river, you find yourself with plenty of riverside space…

But what I nearly wrote quite automatically was “as usual the locals stick close to the carpark”… until I suddenly realised how totally ‘us and them’ the locals sounds.

Hang on, I thought, I’ve been living here for nearly 13 years, I’m married to a Spanish woman, most days I’m fluent in Spanish, I eat, live, and pay taxes in Spain, hang out with Spanish people all day long, my son is going to a Spanish school… how on earth can I keep on talking about ‘the locals’ when I am one!

I may not be Spanish, but I certainly can’t continue to set myself apart from the Spanish by using language like that anymore, that much became totally clear in the instant I was about to write about ‘the locals’ again.

Maybe it’s just that I’ve become a local after all this time, or, more importantly, allowed myself to feel like one.

Perhaps the key question then is ‘How long does it take to really feel like one of the locals?’… and in my case, despite the fact I’ve been totally happy and integrated here in Spain for so long, the answer to that exact questions looks ridiculously long at ‘about 12 and a half years’!

Do you feel like a ‘local’, if you aren’t living where you originally came from, did it take you long to become one, will you ever become one? Answers welcome in the comments!

19 Replies to “Us and Them, Me and the Locals”

  1. Good topic! I’ve been living in a small Spanish fishing village for six years, longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere other than my hometown in the USA, and I don’t quite feel like a local quite yet, but I do feel as though I belong, which isn’t the same thing.

    I look forward to the other comments on this post, since so many people will have personal anecdotes about it. Even non-expats can have experience in moving within their own country and feeling like a foreigner.

    1. I know what you mean about feeling you ‘belong’ after 6 years – that’s when I stopped feeling surprised all the time that I was actually living in Spain!

  2. Everyone is a New Yorker on day 1. It’s a dynamic city of immigrants, expatriates, and travelers of all stripes. I was told that if I managed to stay in NYC for five years I’d never want to leave. So I stayed for 15 years, moved near San Francisco and am homesick every frickin day. It’s nice here, it’s much better for the kids, but it’s been three years and I’ll never be a local.

    1. NYC must be similar to Madrid – people go for a short while and end up staying for years! I planned on coming to Madrid for a month, and that was 13 years ago!

  3. As usual Ben, a very thought provoking question. I have lived in Spain for 7 years and don´t feel like a local. When people ask…de donde eres..I sometimes give my current location. This never goes down well and they think I have misunderstood. Erik has a very good point about being local being different to feeling you belong. As yet I don´t feel either, but I have been here long enough that I don´t really feel I am local to anywhere else either. I guess I feel “the locals” should be Spanish, even though most aren´t, and hence exclude myself. I think it is great you now consider yourself a local. Nice one.

  4. We’ve been in The Canary Islands for 11 years and I think you go through stages. For the first couple of years you feel like a visitor or tourist, then you become a foreign resident or “ex pat” and finally at about 9 years we suddenly became locals. Don’t know why or how it happened, but there was a point where I started thinking and talking about Brits as though I wasn’t one.

    1. Quite right! I talk from the Spanish point of view now, but often wonder if the Spanish people i’m talking to will find that odd!

  5. No matter how much time I spent in Zamora, I still never felt fluent. It’s so hard to feel that way when I still struggle with finding the appropriate word, but it’s natural, I suppose.

  6. Interesting thought! I’ve lived in France for 13 years, and I still sometimes find myself falling into that “what the locals do” trap, before thinking, “Hang on, I _am_ local!” (and a French citizen to boot).

    I’ve felt that I’m where I belong since day one, but feeling like a local takes a lot longer! I know there are plenty of people in the village who’ll never see anyone who wasn’t born there as a local, but that doesn’t bother me, because I feel accepted and welcomed.

    On the other hand, I have never, ever identified myself as an expat — I’m an immigrant. The difference is important to me; I don’t want to define myself in terms of the country I chose to leave.

      1. I think it’s important to self-identify as an immigrant. Because that’s what we are, even if it’s in a ‘comunitario’ way. ‘Ex-pat’ seems to imply something different and intangibly ‘better’. Which is, of course, wrong.

        I’ve been living in a town just outside Barcelona for 9 years now. I’ll never be ‘from’ here, but I do feel that I’m now ‘of’ here.

  7. I think in this case we need to distinguish between local and Spanish. Sometimes our guests ask ‘and do you have local friends?’ and the answer has to be, ‘well if I want to talk about the price of tomatoes in pesetas’ I could have. It’s mixing with the more cosmopolitan Spanish which makes me feel at home here as we share more universal values.
    Mind you I was trying to buy art materials over the internet from a company in Barcelona. I made an inquiry in my best Castellano and they wrote back in Catalan! It’s not as if I have a Spanish name!

  8. I’m a native New Yorker, born in Manhattan, live in Manhattan and unless something completely crazy and unexpected happens, will probably die in Manhattan. But my heart lives in Spain, in Huelva to be exact in the capital and in la sierra de Aracena. I live in Manhattan not because I like it here– in fact I DON’T like NYC, but NYC is what I know, it’s familiar, I’m not young anymore and not prepared for major changes or upheavals in my life. Familiarity counts for something [for some people, like me]. I don’t have whatever ingredients one needs to make a change as huge as moving to Spain but that’s not to say that I don’t think about it because I do almost every day. I have some thoughts regarding immigrating, and living in Spain as a foreigner because it’s something that I ruminate upon often. There’s truth to a previous comment made here; NYC is a city of immigrants and after a period of time, people tend to say that they’re NYers [as a native NYer, I think I’m in a minority of “NYers”; most of the people I grew up with fled this %$!!^&%$# place years ago]. So in NY, eventually, you’re a “NYer” and only if asked does place of birth even come up in the discussion. In Huelva, I was and always would be “The Guiri” or “The American” no matter how many years I was there. For some people [me being one of them] that’s not entirely comfortable and runs contrary to what I REALLY wanted, which was to blend in like any other onubense, which, of course, isn’t possible and never will be. So my plan is to visit Huelva as often as possible, to immerse myself in Huelva as often as possible, to pretend, in the recesses of my facile and fertile imagination that I AM an onubense and then to return to the place that’s a familiar, if not a particularly pleasant or easy place to live, New York City. Of course, that is, unless the crazy and unexpected DOES happen, like for instance Sarah Palin becomes president and then I’ll swim to Huelva if I have to.

    1. Or you could just come without the Sarah Palin push 🙂 But I understand, and visiting as much as possible is still a pretty good bet!

      1. ja ja ja ja sí, es verdad, quizá lo haré sin the Palin push. Es gracioso. Pero no nay historia mejor que, “Oh, and why did you move to Spain? The people? The culture? Tha beautiful language? The food? The mountains, the sea, the feeling that it gave you?” “Oh, no, no, nothing like that! It was Sarah Palin!” That said, every time I leave Huelva for Madrid and my flight home, it’s harder and harder to leave. I’m afraid that the older woman in the seat next to mine on the train for Madrid must have thought me utterly insane, weeping like una loca as I was.

        1. Well I know a couple who have lived in Spain for years and when asked why they came, the answer is ‘George Bush’!

  9. I’m not surprised, it’s a miracle that the entire country didn’t empty out during his presidency. Republicans will single-handedly trigger a mass exodus of Americans fleeing for Europe. I remember during my times in Huelva the relief that I felt as I sort-of followed but mostly didn’t the events back home, a relief that I wasn’t there, er… here. Rather than miss the States it felt like a weight off my shoulders to be away from all the quintessential American “stuff,” of which I was, for the most part, blissfully unaware. It was a friend, during my 2010 stay that told me that there had been an explosion of an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Until he told me, I didn’t even know. It went on to be one of the biggest stories of the year, one of the biggest tradgedies, one of the biggest fiascos but until I was back home its full impact didn’t hit me. I can’t see myself moving to Huelva. I’m too set in my ways, too cowardly to do something so drastic and have a strong aversion for upheaval my life. But I sure do think about it. Yet as a native NYer, I was keenly aware of something in Huelva that you’d never find here in NY. {There were MANY things like that}. There was a feeling of intimacy, and being seen, recognized and greeted by people was a joy. Here in NY we rush hither, thither and yon like maniacs and avert our eyes. Huelva’s no bed or roses, it’s a small, industrial city that’s been hit hard by “la crises,” and has a pile of radioactive waste within the city limits. It lacks the beauty of, say Sevilla. But it has a feeling, a lightness, a joy, it’s right on the ocean, it has marismas and farther north is la sierra de Aracena. When a place calls to you and tells you, “You’re home,” you just sigh and say, “Yeaaah. Home.”

  10. i think i never will feel like a local – i live in spain now for nearly 10 years, in a little village at the eastern part of the costa del sol. but do we really want to feel like a local??? sometimes i am not sure about that. it took me years to get in contact with people from the village and of course the first i did when i came to spain was learning spanish. I am german and the spanish mentality is completly different, so i think i never can feel like a local. but after many years i am settled and having many contacts here.

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