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 sociÃ©tÃ© qui supprime la distance gÃ©ographique recueille intÃ©rieurement la distance, en tant que sÃ©paration spectaculaire.
168. Sous-produit de la circulation des marchandises, la circulation humaine considÃ©rÃ©e comme une consommation, le tourisme, se ramÃ¨ne fondamentalement au loisir d’aller voir ce qui est devenu banal. L’amÃ©nagement Ã©conomique de la frÃ©quentation de lieux diffÃ©rents est dÃ©jÃ par lui-mÃªme la garantie de leur Ã©quivalence. La mÃªme modernisation qui a retirÃ© du voyage le temps, lui a aussi retirÃ© la rÃ©alitÃ© 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 SeÃ±or 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 ValenciÃ . 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.
Merchant: Sí… um, 对.
Me: 好. 我买这个衬衫, 谢谢.
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 LibrerÃa Francesa) where I acquired an Oxford English-Valencian/ValenciÃ -AnglÃ¨s dictionary. I asked the clerk “La valencia y el catalÃ¡n: 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 CatalÃ where the copy in my hand said ValenciÃ .
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 CatalÃ 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.