Reports From The Road, Travel

Report From Spain #3

April 12, 2011
Procession - Marbella, Spain

People told us we’d need patience to live in Spain. We understood what they meant when we started to look for an apartment to rent in Marbella, a city twenty minutes east of Estepona (Estepona was too small for us). Realtors didn’t return our phone calls and we’d heard about too many rental scams along the Costa del Sol to feel comfortable renting online directly with owners who wanted the rent money without allowing us to see the apartment first.

We looked around Marbella for days with no luck until one evening I walked into a tiny real estate office just before they closed at 8:00 PM. We were taken under the wings of an angel; Teresa. In the morning we were shown an apartment next door to the hotel where we were staying. Just the day before, from the balcony of our hotel room, I looked over to the pearly white apartment building with pretty blue trim and said to Cradoc, “I wonder how you get to live in a place like that?”

As I stepped into the small one bedroom apartment looking out to the Mediterranean Sea I said, “We’ll take it.” And like the Bedouins we packed our few belongings and moved into the ninth floor of “a place like that.”

When I lie in bed I see nothing but the blue water and sky. I feel like I’m on a cruise ship, without the sea sickness. On clear days we can see the Rock of Gibraltar and the Atlas mountains in North Africa. Fishing boats of all sizes go past on their way out to sea. Below us is a promenade and in front of that is a beach. All we hear is the sound of waves gently crashing on the shore (the Mediterranean, along with the Baltic and Caribbean Seas have the smallest tidal ranges – 1-2 feet – so it seems to me the tide is always high).

I’ve dreamed all my life of living this close to the water. The owners only use the apartment in the summer and rent it out the other months. We plan to meet with them over Holy Week (when they come to use the apartment and we move back next door to the hotel for a week) to see if we can turn this into a longer term rental. We’d use the apartment as our home base to explore with the rest of Europe within easy reach because of the cheap flights from Malaga Airport.

For twenty years we put off our plans (or tried and did not succeed) to live in Europe while we ran our software business. But now we have an amazing couple running the business for us. Cradoc is photographing again and Europeans are his favorite subject. I’ll focus on my writing.

On our second afternoon at the apartment we headed out for a walk. I opened the outside door of the building and entered a wall of color and sound. The area was filled with different ethnic groups in traditional dress lined up waiting to begin a parade along the promenade. The start was delayed and the groups practiced their music and dance. Young Spanish girls dressed in green flamenco dresses stood at the head of the line; Bolivians in bright, multi colored outfits danced and twirled; Germans in black pants and white shirts did a circular dance while a tall thin blond woman played the accordion; Egyptian women in multicolored robes shimmied as they belly danced and played finger cymbals and tambourines; the group from Portugal, dressed in peasant clothes with black hats, played guitar, drums and accordion and sang folk songs. Also present were groups from the Ukraine, Russia, Argentina, Chile, Morocco and the Philippines.

The first thing that came to my mind when I saw these groups gathered together right at our front door was the quote from the travel writer Bill Bryson, “I want to walk out my door and be somewhere.”


Marbella sits between the 3,600 foot Sierra Blanca mountain and the Mediterranean Sea. A 17 km tiled promenade runs along the beach front. Restaurants of all kinds; Chinese, Indian, French, Italian and of course Spanish, line the walkway. Now that the weather has warmed up people sit in front of bars and cafes with a cigarette in one hand and a coffee or beer in the other. Small fish restaurants located directly on beach serve up fried fish. Young Nigerian men lean on the railing of the promenade and sell imitation handbags and sunglasses, until the police ride by on motorcycles or white horses and then like magic the stuff disappears as quickly as the sellers. Old Spanish men sit with friends on marble benches having animated conversations as tourists sun themselves topless on white lounge chairs with blue cushions ignoring the shade of the grass umbrellas stuck in the sand near them. People walk, rollerblade, and bike by as large groups of Spanish families stand in front of baby carriages smiling at the latest addition to the family. Young men build intricate sand carvings near the railing and expect people to throw money down at them for their efforts, which they do. And this is during the off season…

In 1940 Marbella was a small village of nine hundred people, now its population is 140,000. In the 1960’s the city was home to the rich and famous and drew an international jet set. The mega rich came to town in their mega yachts and built mega estates (many owned by Gulf oil millionaires). By the 1980’s things started to fall apart for the Marbella image due to kidnappings, petty crime, gangland killings, and money laundering. Arms dealers and Russian and Italian mafia moved into town and the jet set moved out.

In 1991 the newly elected mayor Jesus Gil y Gil, a builder, promised to turn things around. And he did (in a controversial way) by beatifying the city, but also overbuilding with no regard for the existing urban plan. He was sent to jail in 2002 for “diverting” public funds that left the city of Marbella nearly bankrupt.

Things exploded in 2006 when a police investigation into drug-related money laundering activity in the city discovered that groups linked to organized crime had funneled more than 600 million euros into the booming property markets.

The corruption scandal went to the heart of the local government and fifty people, including the mayor and city council officials at that time, were arrested for corruption, bribery, illegal price fixing and embezzlement. Property worth 2.6 billion euros was seized, including farms, cash, art, thoroughbred horses and a helicopter. The recent economic boom in Spain was based mostly on illegal building and 20,000 to 30,000 homes in Marbella were built where they shouldn’t have been, some on nature preserves and protected lands. Seventy-nine companies were implicated. All this bad press did not help Marbella’s tainted reputation.

Since 2006 the city has been trying to gain back its former reputation. The news that Michelle Obama had decided to come to Marbella on vacation in August 2010 with her youngest daughter, Sasha, was met with great enthusiasm. The Obama visit would be covered worldwide and was a massive marketing coup for the city.

However, right before Michelle Obama’s trip the U.S. State Department was forced to pull a warning about racism in Spain from its website, which included the phrase ‘racist prejudices could lead to the arrest of Afro-Americans who travel to Spain.’

When I found out about this warning I did a search in Google about racism in Spain and found the following post on a forum:

“I lived in Madrid for 3 years. I’m English and white. I don’t know how to describe racism in Spain. They think they are being funny, affectionate and nice. There’s no way that the Spanish are hate-filled racists. I’m not defending them, by the way. I find this one particular aspect of Spain backward and stupid. It’s like they are 50 years behind the UK and some other EU countries when it comes to race.

It’s not generally done in a totally horrible way. This is so hard to describe…To many Spaniards it is a cool joke to do ‘slitty eyes’ to the Chinese or throw bananas on the football field at black English players, or black-up and do monkey dances to black F1 drivers. They seem to think it is just a humorous, innocent way of saying ‘We are Spanish, go us!’. Yet if you were black and showed up in a Madrid bar after a sports event or whenever, you would probably not have any problem or even turn that many heads…”

Maybe it’s because we’re here in the off season (and a year when tourism in general is way down) but Marbella has an authenticity to it I haven’t found in other beach communities anywhere else in the world. We feel part of the community as we’re greeted warmly by the local people we already know in our neighborhood.

We walk everywhere and spend hours wandering around the city. In the Old Town, with its narrow winding streets and white buildings, we always seem to be surprised by something; like a few days ago a marching brass band playing bull fight music came around the corner and stopped right in front of us. The young people in the large horn section stopped playing but the drummers kept going, each pound echoing off the walls and into my heart. I felt such a part of Spain at that moment, so filled by the magic of the moment, I almost burst from joy. There were no other tourists around, just a few locals the music and us. We followed the band to a small plaza where they started to play again. It was like listening to Miles Davis’s “Sketches of Spain” live two feet in front of me.

As Holy Week approaches things are picking up. Next week will be filled with processions, parades, music, and special church activities. With every Spaniard taking the week off, and many heading to the coast, I’ll get to see another side of Marbella before we leave.

The Spanish language

The standard Spanish in Spain is Castilian, but the people of this region of Andalucia speak a form of Spanish called Andaluz. Letters are swallowed in the middle of the words, especially the ‘d’ and ‘s’(nada becomes na’a).

But sometimes whole syllables and the odd letter are omitted from the beginning or end of a word also. (adios becomes adio’, buenos dias becomes bueno dia…but I’ve often heard it shortened to just buen). To my ear it all sounds like one big mumble of words.

I’ve overheard many conversations ending with the word ‘venga’. I couldn’t figure this out because ‘venga’ means ‘come’. But here ‘venga’ is used to end a conversation and because a chat can go on for so long the word is often repeated again and again as a signal the conversation is over, or trying to be over.

The dialect also changes from village to village. On a drive to the small village of Tolox, we stopped to ask an old man directions. It took him a while to understand where we were trying to go.

“Oh, Toloa,” he mumbled.

Later we told Jesus at the real estate office we had driven to Toloa.

“Toloa, where is that?” he asked.

“Near Guaro.”

“Oh, you mean ToloX.”

“Yes, but a man in Guaro pronounced it without the X.”

“Oh, they don’t know how to speak up there,” said Jesus (Guaro is 30 minutes up the road from Marbella). We still don’t know whose “right.”

One day we met the aunt of our relator friend Teresa for coffee. Cradoc asked Lola questions about the Andaluz dialect, “Why do you drop the ‘s’ from words?”

“It takes too long to say with the ‘s’,” said Lola. “When we don’t use the ‘s’ we can speak faster.”

Everything down here is about speaking fast. Even when it’s obvious we aren’t fluent in Spanish the responses come back in rapid fire speed, like a machine gun. Asking people to slow down helps for two words and then the machine gun fire returns. The swallowing and shortening of words, the dropping of syllables, the changing dialects and the speed, makes learning Spanish here a challenge.

News From the World

Since many English speaking residents in Spain don’t speak Spanish they have their own newspapers to keep them in touch with the most important facts of the world. Here are a few newsworthy stories from the English expat newspapers:

UK – ‘Lawyers for U.S. pop icon Lady Gaga have threatened legal proceedings against the makers of breast milk ice cream named ‘Baby Gaga,’ which sold out before being removed from sale for health and safety reasons.’

UK – ‘Genital stunt banned. The dean of St. Peter’s College at Oxford University has banned a dwarf from performing his signature stunt of pulling a vacuum cleaner using only his genitals at the college ball.’

Spain – ‘Convent Robbery Raises Eyebrows. Sixteen Cistercian nuns at the Santa Lucia convent in Zaragoza were shocked to discover that someone had stolen 1.5 million euros in cash from them. The interest in the media and the public was focused less on the burglar’s identity and more on how the nuns, who spend their lives in prayer and are bound by a vow of poverty, had accumulated so much money.’

(Summing up the next part of the article it said the nuns now say only 450,000 euros were stolen but the detective investigating the nun’s hoard thought the money could be black money and contacted the tax authorities.) ‘The nuns, meanwhile, are not answering the telephone or talking to the press, although one of the sisters continued to attend the public from behind the grill of the convent door as usual. “Let’s see if all this blows over,” she sighed.’

Spain – ‘Residents in Marbella are demanding that measures be taken to improve local morgues, which they say are in a dreadful condition. At some, water leaks through the roof and relatives of the deceased are forced to mop up.’

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