The Myth of Europe

I realise that packing up and venturing off to Spain, I am living what many would consider the “dream”, but I must bust the balloon: I am living in the most non racially, ethnically, or even lifestyle diverse city I’ve ever lived in and it’s been getting to me emotionally. I’m used to being in a place where I can look out of my window and see a few differently coloured and differently featured faces in any line of sight at the very least, and usually some metallers, goths, eco hippies, old skool hippies, hijabias, bookish geeks, the hoodies & sneakers crew, and various undefinable styles for good measure. I’m used to sitting on buses and hearing an assortment of spoken languages. This is how it was in ‘provincial’ Oxford, how it was in London and Paris, and this is how I expected the capital of any country in West Europe to be.

In this capital, you really feel that you are in a country that made a extraordinary effort at either killing or expelling anyone who differed from the ‘norm’ in any way no matter how small (ham sandwich? No? GET OUT!), and you really, really feel that those borders did not open up until very recently (the last ten years, I’m told), and that the majority of over 35 years olds are not especially happy about this. There is no representation of minorities on national programming, either in the TV shows or in the ads on TV. None. 

In the UK, I had been told by first gen-ers, but only now do I realise how much I owe to the Windrushers and first generation Indians and Pakistanis that came to the UK to terraform the racial climate for the rest of us who followed, to the point where my race was something that -except in the most deeply rural settings- passed without notice, and only my accent, dress sense and mannerisms confused those who assumed I was from the Indian subcontinent.

Here’s another aspect I wasn’t expecting: you know how when you go shopping in your precious free time how you chastise yourself for going to those One Stop Shop places and feel you should really spend more time (and pay the higher markup) for those independent Mom & Pop stores? Well, you won’t have that dilemma in Madrid, since the concept of convenience hasn’t arrived yet. You’re meant to go to the market for fruit and veg; the butchers for meat; the pharmacy for antihistamines; the beauty shop for cotton wool; the other beauty shop of the same chain on the same street for makeup remover; the health food shop for tea tree oil, and god only knows where I’ll find my Solgar brand vitamins (solgar because it’s the only brand that avoids my allergens in their formulas), or amaranth, millet flakes, quinoa, because the “health food” shops appear to be aimed at diabetics and people who feel they need more wheat and gluten in their lives, topped with a little bit of pink Himalayan sea salt.

The L’oreal shop, (yes, there is a L’oreal shop) doesn’t carry the sulfate free shampoo that I’m not allergic to, actually doesn’t carry any shampoo (silly customer: that’s for the beauty shops or hair dressers, try a few more of those). To get spices beyond cinnamon and paprika, I need to travel 8 metro stops to the Indian food shop. And the veggie selection here sticks to the typical Mediterranean vegetables (aubergine, spinach, tomatoes, courgette, onions, fennel avocado), plus a few of the common veg (broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, cabbage), but is absent of all the other wonderful seasonal veg that I base my meals around, like kale, swiss chard, spring greens, khol rabi, jerusalem artichokes, celeriac, turnips, swedes… I could go on but I think you get my drift.  I have multiple food allergies and intolerances (even to some fruit and veg, like pumpkin, spinach, mushrooms, papaya), so variety and not eating too much of any one food is very important to making sure I don’t develop any more issues. I did look up farmers markets and veg boxes in the hopes of finding more variety there, but veg boxes are the same limited veg I would get in the market only three times as expensive, and the farmers market seems to be mostly about meat, dairy products and wines with some veg on the side, which I’m guessing will be the exact same types I could get at the market. Those British expats who love it here? Probably very big fans of red meat, seafood and cheese, which is super available for very cheap.

This is not an easy country for plant based people or people like me who like or need to have alternate meat free days as well as avoid seafood, dairy and soy. and are empty of the health food products and vitamins I would order online in the middle of the week and appear to be much less utilised as ecommerse tools compared to the UK. Contact lenses are a third more expensive than in the UK (because there is less demand?) and internet and mobile services are priced and packaged in a way that reflects where technology and consumerism was 15 year ago. I know: I paid those prices for the pleasure of being one of the first ones to send an MMS, and at the time, it felt worth it. Offer me the same options today for those prices and I feel ripped off.

What I’m trying to get at is not that Spain sucks. I’m trying to bust the myth that all of Europe is equal, sophisticated, glamorous, and “civilised”. That the food culture in Spain is “superior” to the UK and the US, because the truth is, there is significantly less variety in products and recipes, and differences of pallet or lifestyle are not catered for.

Europe is often seen telling the East how to live, develop and act culturally, but Madrid – socially and commercially- feels like my “developing” home country as it was in the late 80’s/early nineties, only without the spices, with better architecture and not even 1% of the diversity we had then. That means Madrid has evolved less in thirty years than my home country has.

The difference between the two countries is one is hungry for change but is blocked by power structures while fighting behind the scenes for cultural and mindset changes and making all the economic and consumer strides it can, the other has the options available but feels that this is enough- an opinion legitimated by the romanticised, idealised image of “Europe”.

The prevalence of the European mystique is holding back progress.

Most of the things in this shop window have been made redundant by mobiles: plastic watches, calculators, cassette recorders, alarm clocks, cd players. I see many such shops, suggesting consumer demand isn’t state of the art, or that basic nokias are out of reach for many people here.
The Madrid we see on postcards.
religious board game seen in bookshop in city center
Game of Apostles (well, that’s what I’m calling it). Seen in a bookshop next to a cuddly cartoon Jesus plushie for ages 0 and up.

One thought on “The Myth of Europe

  1. I’m very surprised — you’re right…I have imagined Madrid as FAR more accepting AND progressive! Well…YOU will just have to help them speed up their evolution! 🙂

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