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BREXIT

Moving to Spain: Brexit and Covid-19 meant I had no time to say goodbye

Deborah Hill always wanted to make the move to Spain but with a race against the clock as Brexit deadline approached she hadn't planned on being caught up in a global pandemic. Here she shares her experience of moving to Spain with The Local readers.

Moving to Spain: Brexit and Covid-19 meant I had no time to say goodbye
Deborah Hill outside her new home in Alicante province. All photos: D Hill

Long before words like 'customs union' and the 'Irish backstop' came into our daily vocabulary, I had been thinking that some day, in the far distant future, I might like to transition to Spain. 

To be honest it was one of those holiday pipe dreams many of us have after peeking at estate agent windows touting cheap properties in sunnier climes, quickly forgotten upon return to the practicalities of the real world.

When the Brexit referendum went to the polls in June 2016 I never imagined that it would actually pass. I was shocked and horrified at the idea of cutting ties with Europe where I had a lifetime of close ties both personally and professionally. 

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Months later I took the decision to buy a house near Alicante with a view to keeping my Spanish relocation options open. I soon had a long-term tenant and continued my daily life in London while waiting to learn how Brexit might force a decision to stay in London or commit to Europe.

In spite of Theresa May’s oft-repeated reassurance that “Brexit meant Brexit”, I soon realised that Brexit mostly meant uncertainty.

For the next three and a half years I followed the comings and goings of politicians in Europe and the UK increasingly concerned at what rights I might lose to travel, work and access healthcare in a post-Brexit Spain.

With then-mayor Boris Johnson at a dinner and talk for London business owners. I could not have known then that Boris would become one of the main architects of the Brexit withdrawal that would eventually lead to my decision to leave the UK.

 

Finally, following the Withdrawal Agreement of July 2019, and frankly, tired of the anxiety that came with rumours of impending post-Brexit doom, I decided to become a resident in Spain prior to the December 31st deadline. Last summer, I still had the luxury of time to make my transition a lengthy, considered and methodical one. 

In the meantime, news from Wuhan with its virus problems seemed very far away indeed. But, as Covid spread, so did a sense that something big was about to change.


Empty supermarket shelves in London. 

As people started to hoard pasta and toilet paper, I began to feel what many refugees feel, waiting to decide what to do until the very last moment, hoping against hope, that the war (or in this case, a modern-day Bubonic Plague) would not end up on my doorstep. Unfortunately, arrive it did.

On Friday March 13th, Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez declared a State of Emergency which included a total lock-down to begin on the following Monday. Suddenly, I was faced with no time to consider the consequences of making a major life decision to flee my London home for Spain. I now had two days to decide what to do with almost 30 years of accumulated possessions.

Every refugee must decide what they will take, and leave behind. A devotee of Marie Kondo’s advice on decluttering, I had been on a healthy path of recycling or gifting many things I did not really need, while trying to retain mostly things that only gave me joy.

I now found myself at the local recycle centre discarding entire pieces of furniture without even looking at what might be inside. Panic was an amazing motivator – and by 9pm on Sunday March 15th, I was boarding one of the last flights to Spain for the next several months. 


Arriving in an eerily quiet Alicante airport.

 

Upon arrival at Alicante’s normally bustling airport the Guardia Civil hurried us out of the terminal, bypassing passport control. I had a sense in the next few days that I had taken a time machine into London’s future, because Spain’s lockdown was already in full force, with deserted motorways and streets (aside from the lucky dog walkers),  and heavy fines imposed by police on anyone caught breaking the lockdown rules. In comparison Londoners were still functioning relatively normally – even as Boris Johnson himself was in hospital with the virus. 

Spain’s two-month lockdown in April and May was brutal. I counted myself lucky to have had a fresh air balcony, a feature which instantly became a status symbol in Spain.

As in much of the world, everything was closed – and while Spain may be famous for its sunny weather, it was wet and cool around Alicante during the lockdown, while London was enjoying a magnificent warm and sunny spring.

Perhaps it was inevitable that some envy, homesickness and even self-doubt began to creep in as the lock-down and Covid crisis persisted longer than anyone could have imagined. 


A sign in English outlining Covid-19 safety rules on a local terraza. 

 

I am aware that everyone now has their own lockdown story, and my gratitude diary is full on a daily basis compared to what many have had to suffer. I will, therefore, not complain about the bureaucracy I had to face to get all of my Spanish residency documentation in order, during a pandemic.

I also would have liked to share my relocation experience with family and friends who offered to help, all of whom had to cancel their travel plans due to restrictions. I did feel some sense of loss that the relocation that was meant to be a celebration of a new start and the fulfilment of an impossible dream ended up being such a very different experience, albeit one with no regrets.

Like any refugee there was certainly a feeling of relief in having escaped something – in somehow making it to the other side, against all odds.

But there was also a sense that I had lost some of my personal choice in this relocation, and certainly some of the celebration that normally comes with this kind of life transition.

Brexit started my refugee process, but it was Covid-19 that ensured that there was no time to say good-bye to friends, nor were there farewell parties in workplaces where I had known colleagues for so many years. 

Then, one day, after facing the challenge of moving yet another carload of my earthly belongings into my newly vacated home, I experienced a moment of clarity. I was sitting on my patio when I suddenly heard something.

It was… the sound of silence, only broken by the swish of palm fronds from a tree in my back garden. In London the din of megacity noises had become so normalised that this natural sound almost took my breath away.

Like everyone I must now wait for the new year to see what the post-Brexit relationship between Spain and Britain will actually look like on a day-to-day basis.

And, although I did not come to Spain for the weather, the mostly sunny days and a temperate climate have been an unanticipated plus. There are worse places on earth to be marooned.

Deborah Hill worked as a face2face psychotherapist in London for over 20 years and is now working from home as an on-line counsellor. Contact her via email HERE.

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PROPERTY

Why are Spanish homes so dark?

Despite being known for its year-long sunny weather, Spain is the EU country with the fewest homes with natural light, often intentionally. Why is it that when it comes to spending time at home, Spaniards seem to love being in the dark?

Why are Spanish homes so dark?

Spain – the land of sunshine. The country gets between 2,500 and 3,000 hours of sun per year on average, almost double the 1,600 hours the UK gets, for example.

You’d probably assume that finding a bright apartment in such a sunny country would be a piece of cake, but unless you’re renting or buying a modern home, it might be trickier than you realise.

More than one in ten Spaniards live in dwellings they feel are “too dark” – the highest percentage among all EU countries, according to figures from Eurostat.

As far as dark homes go, Spain is head and shoulders above the EU average of 5.9 percent, and higher than other nations with a high rate of gloomy homes such as France (9.5 percent), Malta (9.4 percent) and Hungary (7.7 percent).

At the other end of the brightly lit spectrum, it’s no surprise to see that countries with cloudier skies and darker winters such as Norway, Slovakia, Estonia, Czechia and the Netherlands have homes that let in plenty of natural light, and yet Spain’s sun-kissed Mediterranean neighbours Italy and Cyprus do make the most of the readily available light.

Dark homes are almost twice as common in Spain as the EU average. Graph: Eurostat.

So why are Spanish homes so dark?

Is it a case of hiding away from the sun, and keeping cool during the summer months? Or is it something else? 

Apartment blocks

The vast majority of Spaniards live in apartments as opposed to houses, often in tightly-packed cities with narrow streets.

In fact, in Spain 64.6 percent of the population lives in flats or apartments, second in the EU after Latvia (65.9 percent.)

By contrast the EU wide average is 46.1 percent.

By nature of apartment living, Spanish homes tend to get less sunlight.

Depending on whether they have an exterior or interior flat, they might not actually have a single window in the flat that faces the street.

If the apartment is on a lower floor, the chances of it receiving natural light are even lower. Internal patios can help to solve this to some extent, but only during the mid day and early afternoon hours. 

why are spanish homes so dark

A dark, narrow street in the centre of Palma de Mallorca. Photo: seth0s/Pixabay

Hot summers

During Spain’s scorching summer months, there’s no greater relief than stepping into a darkened apartment building lobby and feeling the temperature drop. 

In southern Spain, and in coastal regions, Spanish buildings were traditionally built to protect against the heat and hide away from the long sunny hours. White walled exteriors and dark interiors help to keep homes cool.

It’s often the case that bedrooms are put in the darkest, coolest part of the apartment, sometimes with just a box-window to allow for a breeze but no sunlight.

Spaniards’ obsession with blinds and shutters

Spain is pretty much the only country in Europe whose inhabitants still use blinds (persianas), even during the colder winter months.

In this case, rather than it just being down to keeping homes cool during the sweltering summer months, their usage is intrinsic to Spain’s Moorish past and the fact that they provide a degree of privacy from nosy neighbours. By contrast, northern Europeans with Calvinist roots such as the Dutch keep the curtains open to let in natural light and because historically speaking, keeping the inside of homes visible from the street represents not having anything to hide. But in Spain, the intimacy of one’s home is sacrosanct, especially when the neighbour in the apartment building opposite is less then ten metres away.

Keeping the blinds or shutters down also has the advantage of making it easier to have an afternoon nap (the siesta, of course) or to sleep in late after a long night out on the town. 

In any case, it seems hard to believe for some foreigners that many Spaniards are happy to live in the dark whilst spending time at home, regardless of whether they’re sleeping or not. 

A byproduct of this? Dark, gloomy homes.

why are spanish homes so dark

Spaniards aren’t fans of airing their dirty laundry, at least metaphorically speaking. Blinds have historically provided the privacy they’ve wanted from their homes. Photo: Quino Al/Unsplash

The long, dark corridors

Spanish apartments have plenty of quirks that seem odd to outsiders, from the light switches being outside of the room, the aforementioned shutters, the bottles of butane and last but not least, the never-ending corridors. 

Most Spanish homes built in the 19th and 20th century include these long pasillos running from the entrance to the end of the flat. They were meant to provide a separation between the main living spaces and the service rooms (kitchen, bathroom etc), easy access to all and better airing and light capabilities. But when the doors to the rooms are closed as often happens, these corridors become the opposite of what was intended: dark and airless.

Navigating these windowless corridors at night is akin to waking around blindfolded.

dark corridor spain

Light at the end of the tunnel? Dark corridors are a common feature of Spanish homes. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)

Are Spaniards rethinking their dark homes?

Times are changing, and modern designs are experimenting with more spacious, light-filled, open-plan apartments, especially as the Covid-19 lockdown forced many Spaniards to reconsider their abodes. 

It’s also increasingly common to see property ads stressing that the property is diáfano, which means that natural light enters the home from all sides.

However, the vast majority of Spanish homes are still gloomy for the most part, often intentionally.

A combination of traditional building styles, the crowded nature of apartment block living, the use of shutters, the desire to keep homes private, and the long windowless corridors mean Spanish flats can seem dark if you’re new to the country, and with good reason.

Ultimately, it is worth remembering that Spanish society is one that largely lives its life outdoors. Living in smaller apartments, Spaniards generally spend less time at home and more time out and about in the street.

Native to a hot and sunny country as they are, Spaniards’ homes are a place of rest, relaxation and, crucially, sleep.

Spanish people have enough sunlight and heat in their lives; they like to live, therefore, in homes designed to keep cool and dark.

READ ALSO: Why are Spanish homes so cold?

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