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The Rock with Fish and Chips

Living and working in the south of Spain opens your eyes to the difference in European cultures. And sometimes how borders can create a strange clash that jars the mind in a few short steps.

I was sent to teach in a university in the town of La Línea de la Concepción. An old town that lies within the region of Cádiz.

In August the heat was stifling. The thought that the sea air would shift the wind and create some breathing space was wrong. The moisture and the heat of a blazing Spanish sun adds up to a thick atmosphere of wearing a drenched cotton shirt, all day.

Heat slows you down, disturbs sleep, and keeps the locals up at night — they enjoy late tapas, warm red wine, and talk. The sound of a Spanish street is the animated conversations that echo through narrowed roads.

The atmosphere of the La Línea is difficult to catch immediately, it’s a place with a long history, so you’d think that there’s something solid to wrap your thoughts around.

My first impressions were that everything is quite square. Yes, square. A walk through the town, hoping to discover the nooks and crannies that every old town hides, I was met with the design of a perfect grid work of streets.

A grid work of streets makes life easy for people on foot and in a hurry. But it sure takes the thrill out of discovery, and the desire to come back for more wanes quickly. It looked like a bad attempt at emulating the modern shopping centre ideas found in most of Europe these days.

I’m not being unfair about the place, most people had told me that “La Línea”, is a place to find a bar and get hammered — that way you don’t need to know much about the place, simply stay put and enjoy the excellent Spanish wines. I don’t drink alcohol. Es viva la Horchata.

I look for the joy of life in the unexpected. Those beautiful Spanish towns and cities that not only offer a dip into a warm Mediterranean Sea, but also the opportunity to explore and delve into places where tourists seldom venture. In La Línea, that was a tough call.

On my way to the university where I was teaching, I bought a cup of coffee at the “Forcor”, marketplace.

The word “forcor” comes from an Andalusian translation of the English. The Spanish and the Brits had a project in mind. They called it the “Four Corners Supermarket” which would replace the old marketplace.

Andalusian is a dialect of Spanish that just loves to cut a word down to its first syllable, then pronounce it in a way that baffles the minds of outsiders trying to learn Spanish.

Certainly a case of lost in translation; ask a Spanish person why they call the place Forcor, and they’ll probably be as lost for words as the next person.

The old marketplace, Forcor, was designated for upgrading and the locals were promised a brand-spanking-new shopping centre with swanky cafés and a delightful shopping experience that would bring the Spanish people of La Línea into the 20th century — that was the late 1970s.

Work got under way, foundations were laid, pallets of bricks and mortar were placed ready for use, and then nothing much happened.

It’s common in Spain for new funds on a project to mysteriously become depleted before a project begins, or disappear totally. Nobody ever knows what happened.

The Forcor open marketplace still stands, half car park, half make shift car boot sale area. It’s all a bit pointless if you walk around hoping to discover some Spanish gem. The old town structures appear to be in need of a caring architect and builder.

To look at a few of the older buildings, you get an impression of what was once a grand town, proud of its showy facades, fine architecture, and plazas that once appeared full of colourful flowers and well-kept palms.

The winding road that runs along by the bay snakes its way along the new town centre — the squared off Grid of Top shops and co. Busy with traffic and pedestrians who want to enjoy that special light of Southern Europe, and the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean. It’s the road the leads to the check point to cross into Gibraltar, the U.K. territorial outpost.

As I drank my coffee on the first morning, looking at the floor, thinking about my students and first impressions, I was a little disappointed at having to be in La Línea. Each minute ticked by on a slow clock that every town like this owns.

I raised my plastic cup, took a swig of coffee, and wow, what a sight met my eyes. Sometimes, when we are busy looking at the floor, thinking about work, and staring at clocks, we forget to look up and see what we’ve missed.

Right in front of me, rising from the Mediterranean Sea with its formidable natural power was the Rock of Gibraltar. It’s exuberance, once seen, is nature’s dominance pure.

Although people live and work on the peninsula of Gibraltar, “The Rock”, they haven’t formed and shaped it to their will.

It’s still the wild and solid rock that mother earth formed eons ago.

La Línea residents make the short journey to work on The Rock each day.

They travel on foot which takes about 15–20 minutes, or drive and ride a vehicle across the broad airport runway that divides Spain from Great Britain and this territorial U.K. outpost.

Locals explained that because prices of cigarettes and petrol are much lower in Gibraltar, they are prepared to do a shopping trip each weekend to fill up a petrol tank and a gas can for luck, stock up on goodies and return. Many people do this, and it causes hours long delay at the crossing point.

My visit to La Línea was on foot. After taking a good long look at the Rock of Gibraltar, finishing my coffee, I headed to the university for work.

My week stay left me with little time to meander about town — and my curiosity for La Línea had been killed off on first impressions — so I decided that at least I could take a stroll across the airport runway to Gibraltar town.

In the evening, the sun still high enough to bake your boots and moisten your shirt, I walked up to the small road that leads towards the checkpoints and airport; you have no choice about it, you must drive or walk across the airport runway. That seemed like a dodgy thing to do, and I could see there were no officials to control foot traffic making their way across.

Heading along the road in, I noticed an interesting statue. A man, in working-class flat cap, holding his bicycle and lunch box ready for the short ride into work.

The monument represents the Spanish workers who tirelessly worked at building Gibraltar before and after World War II.

Walking towards the large runway, the grey Rock in full view, I kept looking towards the sea for incoming planes. On the first look I saw the shadow of a commercial passenger plane that had taken up its low landing path and was now bearing straight towards the landing strip.

Airports are always very well-thought-out. This one had markings and lines, lights and windbags galore. All markings designed so that pilots can clearly see the what and where of an airport — but on foot, it all looks like crazy paving and modern art.

I just stopped and hoped I wasn’t standing on the plane’s landing path — which I wasn’t. As you walk on you see that there is a big fat white line, lots of zig-zags, and yellow markings which warn the most ignorant that they’re about to walk into a danger zone.

As soon as you see a British supermarket you know you’ve arrived. From Spain, I took a step across a painted line, and landed in the United Kingdom, cool feeling. One country to another in one small step, is weird. A giant rock, a British supermarket, and as I walked along the road, the ever increasing feeling that I was back in Blighty came over me — well, almost.

Gibraltar is full of pubs and cigar & whiskey shops — little “Ye Olde Shope”, type lock-ups that Charles Dickens would have loved. The main plaza is wide and filled with the tables and chairs of cafés and restaurants. It’s a paradise of fish and chips, and a pint of bitter, please.

Gibraltar uses the British Pound as currency, everybody speaks perfectly good English — of course. Products are duty free, which keeps some prices within the wow-factor category.

I walked through the town, slightly up hill, mostly up hill, but with no time to climb the path up to the Rock, I made do with first impressions of Gibraltar’s fish and chips, and glass of juice. A live band played in the plaza, and vacationers sat around on plastic chairs listening to the first couple of songs.

I imagined the famous Gibraltar Apes perched high on the Rock, listening to the evening entertainment.

The Gibraltar dialect, Llanito, is difficult to understand — even if you speak Spanish and English. It seems a far cry from Spanish or English, but is a mixture of both. Like all real dialects, it has developed into a real language with its own way of expressing the mix of Andalusian Spanish and English.

The impressive part of Gibraltar, a town that is really full of bankers and financial companies, is the astonishing Rock that dominates every angle of view as you make your way through the town.

It took me an hour and a half to see what I wanted, that Gibraltar has shops and bars, fish and chips, probably pleasant locals and is a strange little peninsular that the Brits refuse to yield to the demanding Spanish.

A weekend, or an evening of fun, but if I booked a week on Gibraltar I think I’d have to cross back to La Línea and enjoy the tapas and Horchata, the chatter of Spanish voices, and sit close to the locals who meet in the crumbling town square at sundown.

Written by

Berlin Notes — Writing about the Creative Art of Living

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