Sheffield a la mar

I have to confess to having had a fairly sucky 2004. Most of the causes are personal, and frankly not very interesting. But, as an example, my plan to spend the holiday season in Tunisia was abruptly cancelled because my wife got chicken pox. So, needless to say, I’ve been looking forward to 2005.

The wife got over her pox just a few days before Christmas, leaving us scrambling to find a vacation that both fit our respective work calendars, didn’t cost too much, and wasn’t booked solid. Consequently, I found myself at Zaventem airport at four in the morning on Christmas day fighting a miserable crowd so I could spend a week at Benidorm, Valencia, Spain.

I can’t claim I wasn’t warned. I did know that Benidorm – and the rest of the Costa Blanca – is something of a joke in the Dutch speaking part of Europe. After a week there, I still haven’t been in Spain. As far as I can tell, thanks to daily discount charter service between Sheffield and Alicante, the Costa Blanca is simply a warm, low-tax part of Yorkshire.

When I was younger I was something of a fan of Guy Debord. Debord is remembered for his founding role in what he usually called the Situationist International. Ideologically, you could call him “cranky Marxist.” One of the things that always struck me about him was his hatred of tourism.

167. Cette société qui supprime la distance géographique recueille intérieurement la distance, en tant que séparation spectaculaire.

168. Sous-produit de la circulation des marchandises, la circulation humaine considérée comme une consommation, le tourisme, se ramène fondamentalement au loisir d’aller voir ce qui est devenu banal. L’aménagement économique de la fréquentation de lieux différents est déjà par lui-même la garantie de leur équivalence. La même modernisation qui a retiré du voyage le temps, lui a aussi retiré la réalité de l’espace.

167. While eliminating geographical distance, this society produces a new internal distance in the form of spectacular separation.

168. Tourism – human circulation packaged for consumption, a by-product of the circulation of commodities – is the opportunity to go and see what has been banalized. The economic organization of travel to different places already guarantees their equivalence. The modernization that has eliminated the time involved in travel has simultaneously eliminated any real space from it.

Benidorm is a striking example of exactly this. It was like being trapped in an episode of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. Debord isn’t nearly harsh enough – “banal” doesn’t begin to penetrate Benidorm.

From one end to the other, Benidorm is covered in English pubs and restaurants that advertise, out front and in large print, that they serve English food. Starting with English breakfasts (eggs, bacon, sausage, sliced white bread toast, cooked tomatos and baked beans) and continuing with menus that prominently display the ever-present availability of fish and chips or bangers and mash, the cuisine of Benidorm is more English than any I have ever actually seen in England. In most of the world, serving English food is not something one brags about.

Now, before anybody lights in on me for being a food snob (which I unquestionably am), I do in fact realise that British food is somewhat unjustly stigmatised. The awful slop that is generally associated with the British working class is very much the product of the disruptions of the industrial revolution, and the French working class hasn’t always eaten much better. The Campaign for Real Ale has done a great deal to restore traditional English cuisine to competitive quality. Furthermore, I know full well that restaurants in the UK are no worse on the average than elsewhere in Europe and in some cases considerably better. Compare Asian food in London to the tasteless pablum sold in Chinese restaurants in Belgium, and British culinary tastes start to look much better. Britain since WWII has also been the source of some genuine innovations in cuisine. Chicken Tikka Masala is according some very nearly the national dish.

However, until this trip to Benidorm, I did not realise that there really are people who will voluntarily consume bangers and mash rather than paella. Better quality English food was not to be found in Benidorm. Choice is restricted to stomach-turning stereotyped pub food, pizza, the Dutch conception of Chinese food, and Burger King.

Searching for the authentically Spanish in Benidorm is a complete waste of time. When I wanted an alternative to an endless menu of mystery meat, overcooked vegetables and fried potatos, I had to turn to Dutch food. I ended up going all the way to Alicante to find a paella.

Slowly I began to realise: people do not come to the Costa Blanca to visit Spain. They come to find a warmer bit of Yorkshire. The elimination of distance has also eliminated difference. I heard as much English and Dutch as Spanish during my stay. Unlike Debord, I am not inclined to view this phenomenon with quite the same hatred. Coming from a cold country, I know how valuable it is to find a place that is warm, but otherwise hassle-free, in the middle of winter. Sometimes you don’t want to be challenged and you don’t want to learn something, you just want to stop shivering.

Indeed, my only real shock was in finding that some very significant number of people from the UK actually fit what I had always thought were mere stereotypes about British working class life. I haven’t spent a lot of time in the UK. In fact, with the exception of the loathsome Heathrow Terminal 4 (where I have spent far, far too much time) , I think I have spent about 10 days total in the UK in my life. Most of what I know about British life comes from TV, particularly the sitcoms that PBS broadcasts in the US, and from my university roommate’s devotion to Coronation Street. Consequently, I discounted anything I thought I knew about British life as likely to be exaggerated. I was wrong. The English working class really exists in all its stereotypes, and you can find it in Spain.

However, I did make a few interesting linguistic discoveries on this trip.

The largest surprise about British life was my discovery of a lowlands Germanic language whose existence I had hitherto never suspected. It is called Geordie, and apparently most people from Britain can’t understand it. It seems partially comprehensible to people who speak Scots (which I can’t understand very well) and to speakers of something which I was informed is called Tyke (which was mostly comprehensible to me when spoken slowly). There are enough cognate words in Geordie for me to recognise its lowlands roots, but beyond that, it was hopeless. Most Geordie speakers appear to have decent passive knowledge of English, which seems to be their literary and liturgical language, but by all appearances very few of them can speak standard English. Communicating with people from the UK posed real problems in Benidorm. Since English is my native language, I found this rather disturbing.

Also, I discovered that very few people in Spain speak Mexican.

I’ve never really had trouble with my Spanish. I only studied it for a semester, from a missionary raised in Puerto Rico named Señor Yoder. But living in Calfornia, shopping at Mi Pueblo (because they had the best Mexican groceries) and watching Noticias Telemundo, I thought my Spanish was pretty good. Alas, as I discoverd in Spain, I speak Mexican. Valencia, in contrast, is legally bilingual between two languages that I don’t speak: Castellano and Valencià. This was a surprise, for I had previously believed the official languages were Spanish and Catalan.

My Mexican proved far less useful in Benidorm than I had hoped. Spain is clearly not California. However, once we had escaped the airport and saw a bit of countryside, the landscape felt very familiar. The ratio of English to Spanish on public signs in Benidorm wasn’t all that different from San Diego and the dry scrub and orange orchards had a hauntingly Californian quality. It was a bit like being in an alternate universe California where the sun rises over the ocean. I could easily see why the conquistadors felt so much at home in LA that they kept rebuilding after their first two attempts at colonisation failed.

There are even illegal immigrants and barrios. In what really seemed like a twist from an episode of Sliders, the established people in Spain speak Spanish while the illegals speak French. It felt very strange having an easier time communicating with the underclass than the middle class.

Benidorm has also acquired a significant population of Chinese merchants, handling low cost (and usually overpriced) Asian-made merchandise. This is increasingly a global phenomenon. I was surprised to see the same thing last year in Prague and now I was somewhat surprised to find myself buying tourist schlock in Chinese from beachfront merchants in Spain.

Me: 这个衬衫,
Merchant: Sí… um, 对.
Me: 好. 我买这个衬衫, 谢谢.
Merchant: 好.

Don’t underestimate Chinese as the new English. There are a lot of Chinese speakers, they live everywhere, and they are disproportionately involved in business. As far as I can tell, you can shop in Chinese in every city in Europe.

The most productive conversation I had in Spanish while there was at the one and only Spanish language bookstore in Benidorm (which, for some reason, is called Librería Francesa) where I acquired an Oxford English-Valencian/Valencià-Anglès dictionary. I asked the clerk “La valencia y el catalán: es el mismo idioma o no” To which the answer was “Si y no” followed by an explanation that if I was in Barcelona, I might acquire an identical dictionary, from the same publisher, in which the cover pages said Català where the copy in my hand said Valencià.

This struck me as rather odd from the perspective of a language activist. In Alicante province, the Valencian language appears to only have legal and official use. It appears on street signs and in the airport, but I saw no private use of the language at all, anywhere in the region. This situation is quite familiar to me – Valencian in Alicante is like French in Manitoba or Saskatchewan. However, in Canada even people who speak dialects of French which are highly divergent, not only from the European norm but from standard Canadian French, are quite adamant that they are francophones and that their speech is not less French than that heard in Paris. Acadian French, for example, or the French spoken by Métis in the west (not the same as Michif) are hard for me to follow, and unlike English I actually have quite thoroughly studied French dialectology.

Valencian – or whatever name you want to use to refer to the non-Spanish language of Valencia – is clearly endangered. Usually, speakers of minority languages find strength in numbers, trying wherever possible to join other minorities speaking similar languages in hopes of raising their political strength. I don’t quite see why this isn’t the case in Spain. Catalan/Valencian speakers appear to represent roughly the same percentage of the Spanish population as French speakers in Canada and do not appear to be any more diverse in their usage.

Mrs T posted a few months ago on this very issue. It seems the Spanish government feels that it is constitutionally obliged to produce both a Catalan and a Valencian translation of the EU constitution. I can’t judge whether or not it’s the correct interpretation of Spanish law, but it seems they just did a find-and-replace of the word Català from the Catalan translation in order to create the Valencian version.

While this seems pretty silly, if that is an acceptable outcome to people in Spain, it’s not actually a serious issue worthy of wasting valuable public debate time on. The Croatian/Serbian/Bosnian distinction is far more annoying in its abuse of linguistics, potential to create excess costs and encouragement of public stupidity. It seems to me a better solution would be to call the language Catalan/Valencian (or Valencian/Catalan) and just consider it one language with two names.

So, while I wish that I had actually been in Spain over the vacation, I was certainly happy to be out of Brussels. There was even one good, quality sunbathing day. Of course, like everyone else on the Mediteranean last week, I spent it looking at the waves crashing on the shore, wondering what a 10m tsunami would look like coming in. People seemed to suffer from a certain furtive hesitation to get to close to the waterline after the 26th.

New Years is a time for reflection, and I reflected a lot on how it could easily have been me getting washed out into the Indian Ocean. I could have been in Krabi or Phuket for Christmas. If we’d had more available time, or a bit more loose money, we would probably have gone to Thailand. I liked Krabi and Phuket when I was there three years ago and we discussed going to Thailand this winter before settling on Tunisia. I could be one of the disheveled tourists mourning at best lost luggage and at worst lost family, or my wife could be mourning me.

So, 2005 could easily have started much worse for me. As tragic as it is for those who lost homes, friends and family in Asia, I’m taking my absence as a positive omen. Like Nick, I encourage AFOE’s readers to make a donation to the Red Cross/Red Crescent or other charities working the region. Happy New Year, one and all.

24 thoughts on “Sheffield a la mar

  1. “The largest surprise about British life was my discovery of a lowlands Germanic language whose existence I had hitherto never suspected. It is called Geordie, and apparently most people from Britain can?t understand it. ”

    Scott, on this matter try:

    Which will also give you an insight into the err…folkloric qualities of Geordie.

    One quibble. I always thought Geordie dialect was old Norse in origin, since that region was the first to be settled by Vikings. But maybe it amounts to the same thing.

  2. Yes I quite agree I mean what’s the point of being treated like sheep. What’s the pointof going abroad if you’re just another tourist carted around in buses surrounded by sweaty mindless oafs from Kettering and Coventry in their cloth caps and their cardigans and their transistor radios and their Sunday Mirrors, complaining about the tea – “Oh they don’t make it properly here, do they, not like at home” – and stopping at Majorcan bodegas selling fish and chips and Watney’s Red Barrel and calamares and two veg and sitting in their cotton frocks squirting Timothy White’s suncream all over their puffy raw swollen purulent flesh ‘cos they “overdid it on the first day.”

    Haway man, do you not read Viz’s Biffa Bacon? That and the occasional random housemate is all the Geordie I know, which is plenty.

    And Tyke? Be serious! One of my brothers-in-law speaks Scouse, by these such criteria, and (admittedly unlike my li’l sister, to whom he is not married) I rarely have any trouble understanding.

    Mexican:Spanish::AmEnglish:BrEnglish, and you picked the wrong one of each pair, is all.

  3. Jamie – I’m being somewhat facetious. Geordie is as much a part of the insular Anglo-Saxon family as English and Scots. I gather it has some Norse borrowed words, but that’s about it. I was just rather shocked at how very hard it was to understand.

    Factory, biglossia with modern standard Mandarin is pretty widespread in the PRC nowadays. Schools from the first day emphasise learning it, and it is the sole language of university and broadcast media. China is not actively supressing local languages, but it doesn’t go out of its way for them either. I don’t meet a lot of people from China who can’t speak it at all except for folks from Hong Kong and Macau.

    Des, I have a knack for that. I speak Canadian French, American English and Mexican Spanish (and when really pressed, I can understand Brazilian Portuguese.) So what do I do? I live in Europe, where I sound funny to the francophones, flat to the anglophones, can’t understand people from Spain and for three months thought that my Portuguese classmates were Polish. If only I could learn some obscure dialect of Chinese, I’d have it all.

  4. ” I did know that Benidorm – and the rest of the Costa Blanca – is something of a joke in the Dutch speaking part of Europe.”

    I once went there (Benidorm) to see if my prejudices were true. Boy, were they! Beer advertised by the litres, that says it all.

    But it is a cheap holiday destination (and apparently a popular film location) if all you’re looking for is a bit of sun and beer and corny comedy in the ‘clubs’ and beer.

  5. On the issue of the British way of holidaying, I can heartily recommend Christopher Brookmyre’s excellent novel One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night, which takes the ‘Sheffield on Sea’ idea to its logical consequence of a converted oil rig that will be towed off the coast of Africa to provide the perfect holiday experience with no prospect of a local culture intervening.

    I was in Spain back in October and I can attest that Benidorm is by no means unique – the Costa Del Sol offers the same experience of English/Irish/Scottish pubs and cafes obliterating whatever local culture may have been there beforehand. I met someone while I was there who’d lived there for 20 years and did’t speak Spanish at much more than the ‘speak loudly and point’ level, for he had no need of it as he dealth almost continually with English people out there. On top of that there’s an entire English language media there with several newspapers and radio stations entirely in English.

    Having spent time in Barcelona before heading for not-so-little England, it’s interesting to note that Catalan there seems much more widespread in its use than Valencian in Valencia – of course, if you ask a Catalan, they’ll tell you Valencian is a dialect not a language – and I wonder whether the issue of Valencian and its usage is part of the greater issue as to how Valencia positions itself within the wider issue of Catalonian national identity.

  6. “Indeed, my only real shock was in finding that some very significant number of people from the UK actually fit what I had always thought were mere stereotypes about British working class life.”

    It’s often been observed that people tend to conform more closely to their respective national stereotypes when abroad than when encountered in their natural habitat. I don’t know if any serious research has ever been done on this. Plus, a holiday in Benidorm is itself a working class stereotype, so I guess your population’s already selected for stereotypicality.

    I had a Geordie flatmate in college. Nice guy, and probably the most academically brilliant of us there, but I only understood about half of what he said. Always surprising get an email from him, and be able to comprehend it without effort.

    I don’t know that bangers and mash is inherently inferior to paella. Not that I’d order the former in Spain.

  7. Actually, barely half of the Chinese people can speak Mandarin. The official figure of 890 million first-language speakers is apparently inflated. There are 1.3 billion Chinese, i.e. ~690 million Mandarin speakers, mostly nonnative, in Mainland China. This means the language may not even beat Hindi (700-900 million), let alone English (750-1,500).

  8. A wife with the pox always buggers things up doesn’t it?
    When God bombed Benidorm and intalled a Durch government I think he must have been distracted.
    Best Wishes for 2005

  9. I dunno, I was quite charmed by the British radio station in the Costa Blanca, especially at Christmas time. Not that I was in Benidorm; I was having mediocre paella with German retirees up the road in and around Calpe. Die Zeit, by the way, was capable of running articles on the need for foreigners to integrate better in Germany, and on how German retirees could live in Spain with very little knowledge of Spanish, both in the same issue of the newspaper. Maybe they’ll not have that kind of problem in 2005.

  10. I’m surprised you were taken aback at the Sheffield on Sea phenomenon, since Catalan friends of mine told me thirty years ago about a Spanish TV prohramme where they interviewed Swedish package tourists on the Costa Blanca and found that less than half were aware of what country they were in.

    BTW, as Sheffielder me’sen, ah’d be reet grateful if tha’d ask some o’ yon tourists abaht these daily charters from Sheffield to Alicante. Seein’ as how Sheffield don’t ‘ave international airport, an’ that…

  11. Chris, I believe it was billed as the Doncaster/Sheffield International Airport.

    Doug – heh. I like that. I used to complain about the same thing in the States, Americans going abroad and complaining about how nobody there spoke English, while complaining about immigrants at home not integrating. There is a certain cognitive disconnect there. I’m the exact opposite: I feel ashamed by my lack of integration into Belgian society, even though I speak one and half of the official languages. At the same time, I think folks should wig out a whole lot less about immigrants who don’t stop being whatever they were before they arrived.

    Joe – that’s true, but the age skew is the more interesting component. You have to understand that 30 years ago, during the cultural revolution, there were effectively no schools in China. The half that does understand Mandarin are the younger, the more urban, and the wealthier – in short, the ones you’re actually likely to find outside of China.

    Tim, fair enough. I’ve seen this sort of thing with Americans abroad too. Even I find myself being a bit more Canadian when I’m abroad, if nothing else to distinguish myself from Americans.

    Nick, I read some years ago an Arthur Clarke story about the last man in England. It suggested that in the future, the entire English population might move to the Carribean, California and Spain just to get away from the British climate. I can see now where he got the idea.

    Non Tibi, yes, cheap and avaiable were the deciding factors in this trip. The wife has a thing for Strongbow cider, which seems to be unavailable in Belgium. So, it turned out the booze was, in fact, a major atout for the region.

  12. Scott,

    of course, you can order Strongbow in any Irish pub in Brussels or Leuven ;).

    I think you can compare the Valencian/Catalan case with the Moldovan/Romanian issue in the former USSR. It’s willingly creating a division in minority languages to make them smaller. The most vigorous supporters of a separate Valencian language are… Spanish-speakers in Valencia. They are afraid of a catalanization of the Valencian region. In Valencia, in constrast to Catalonia, Catalan is not a required subject on all schools. According to I think the last census, about half of the population of Valencia still speaks Catalan at home, but it could be it’s rather in the smaller towns and not at the coast.

  13. Heh. The language thing cuts both ways. Early last year on a visit to Boston I had occasion to purchase a T-ticket — which necessitated an enquiry as to its price. After the third, increasingly irritable burst of noise from the ticket office booth, I had to resort to slowly and loudly saying, “EXCUSE ME, DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?”

    That worked. But you can be assured that the Boston dialect is just as incomprehensible to a Yorkshire native as vice versa.

  14. “The wife has a thing for Strongbow cider…”

    Blimey. Central heating for tramps. In British pop culture terms, this is actually a bit like saying that she has a thing for glue sniffing.

  15. Charlie, I know that accents are all relative. I had the same experience one time in Detroit, and saw it from the other side when I moved from Jersey to Indiana and no one could understand me.

    As for Strongbow, well, I guess I haven’t been in enough Irish pubs in Brussels. I just live there, I still spend all my time in Leuven.

    Glue sniffing? I shall have to inform the wife. She’ll get a kick out of it.

  16. As long as we are on this vital topic, have any of you come across a wee restaurant on the coast between Alacant and Benidorm; it’s situated just above a tiny fishing harbour, serves decent fish, the wine comes in those alarmingly urological hospital-flask thingies, its walls are covered with paintings by Benjam?n Palencia?

    If so, what is it called and where, exactly, is it? (And is it still there?)

  17. People abroad *do* become more stereotypical. White people tend to become a lot *more* white at, say, Indian weddings, as well. It’s almost a defence at being the outsider. You know you can’t blend in properly, but you can certainly do a good job of standing out…
    I worked in the netherlands (for a whole two weeks) and learned a few words – enough for me to decide that I might as well have a go at learning it properly. There’s a dutch pub in soho, and I nip in occasionally to have vlammetjes and Wieckse Witte for lunch. Every time I’ve been in there, the bar staff have all been Dutch. Today, I got up the courage to order in Dutch. Unfortunately, I was talking to the new Aussie barman…

  18. People abroad *do* become more stereotypical

    As a brit that’s survived Rotterdam, Brussels, Boston, Nice, Bavaria and Riyadh; I’ve now become the German in an Indian-English speaking realm. I can only agree.

  19. These are the consequences of tourism having developped into a mass industry.

    You can see the same phenomenon in Greece, Italy, Portugal etc. I suppose.

    Advice to prospective tourists to southern countries: avoid these terrible package tours (or at least use them only to get cheap accomodation) and then follow your own schedule. So you won’t be labelled as “sheep”. Discover the inland, find good local friends (especially people not involved in tourism business; those who want to befriend strangers for the sheer joy of it).

    As for the Chinese traders they are coming to Europe in unbelievable numbers. In Athens they already have a whole neighbourhood with clothing shops. But I suspect that there are also some tragic personal stories behind all this boom.

  20. Mrs T, sorry, I have not come across such a restaurant in my far from intensive exploration of Costa Blanca.

    Random, the folks in my office laughed a lot at that one. I’m not quite sure why, but it struck a funny bone among the translators.

    Michael D, I used to take pride in going native when I was young. Now, it hardly seems worth the trouble. Age has something to with it.

    I agree – I’ve always prefered to avoid packages. It’s just harder – at least for me – to be willing to take big risks when I travel. My vacations are shorter and feel a greater need to worry less when I take them.

  21. I used to take pride in going native when I was young. Now, it hardly seems worth the trouble.

    Do you think those unwelcome ‘heritage’ features really do grow more blatant the more you fight? Or, is one simply more concious of them?

    Either way, I agree. Feelings that such things are important do fade away.

  22. i agree with scott, the costa blanca is a bit cliche at times, but then it only depends where you go, i happen to live in Javea, which is a great place to live and work, calpe is another place that is so beautiful, with clean water and great places like altea too. i am a real estate agent in the costa blanca, i show people their dream homes and i love doing it! Summary = i love the costa blanca

  23. Hello, nice to be here with you!
    I need some advice. I am looking for media or literary sources which contain information about stereotyping Britishness. And I am wondering if anybody could give me a hint, maybe some titles of books, films, TV programmes. I would be extremely grateful! 🙂

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