personal travel

How I Ended Up in Gibraltar

So, in case any of you hadn’t noticed I’ve ended up moving to Gibraltar. Typing it out cements its status as quite a bizarre thing that has happened in my life. It’s an odd feeling being honest, especially because of how bruised my arm is after pinching myself too many times to see if I’m dreaming – but I’m still here, or possibly in some deep Matrix-like coma. Maybe we all are, I guess we’ll never know.

The feeling being here is quite different to my experiences of going abroad to Spain and Tanzania, mainly because nobody is holding my hand during the moving process. Both of those relocations were through organisations, where they hooked me up with host families, jobs, and generally kept an eye on us all during our times there. Now it’s me and my girlfriend, all by ourselves and being honest, the freedom of being abroad and making everything work out yourself is probably the best part – if not highly stressful. Yet as they say, no risk no reward.

Made a friend at the top of ‘The Rock’ (September, 2021) 🇬🇮

The story of how I ended up in Gibraltar starts with a solid foundational plan; one that had been in place since November of last year. Charlotte and I had been working towards it since then, getting the necessary paperwork and qualifications together. The thing is, that plan was aimed at moving to Thailand, and moving to Gibraltar hadn’t even crossed our minds until about a month ago.

The initial decision to move abroad came around a month after we’d moved into our flat in Welwyn Garden City. It wasn’t that we were sick of the place already, more to do with the fact we’d been grounded for years and that we’d both developed itchy feet to live away again. That and the fact that we’d never intended to move to Welwyn Garden City, and you get the point.

We had settled pretty early on moving to Thailand as one of my partners’ best friends lived out there, who she hadn’t seen in years. I was just happy to be invited along for the ride. We had nothing in WGC worth staying for, so we got to work securing ourselves a qualification in teaching English as a foreign language (or a TEFL for short).

Ah, the TEFL qualification, the bane of my life. See, when I moved to Lleida, Catalonia, four years ago (four years ahh!!) a section of my contract guaranteed that I would study for and receive a TEFL at the end of my time there. Alas, life, with its giant spanner, threw it into the works and I had to leave my job in Spain earlier than I (and the programme) had originally intended – the chance of getting my TEFL for free while I worked went with it. Thus, I had to fork out £300 to do another one, which for a certified Level 5 qualification wasn’t too bad.

After that purchase I followed up by doing nothing Thailand related. Instead, I worked on The Toucan Man and got promoted at work – all the while the six-month time limit for completing my coursework ticked away. Diamonds are formed under pressure though. Right?

My word was it an absolute slog. After leaving it until the last possible moment to begin, I’d backed myself into a corner where I had to slave night and day on my TEFL. This was not only on my days off, but during work time as well when I could sneak off for 20 minutes at a time. It was horrendous, but I did it, and now I’ve got another shiny qualification on my resume. Even though I never actually used it to get my current job, who knows when it might come in handy in the future. Also, it’s always good to learn new things and add to a fresh arrow to your quiver. On a personal note, I was able to finally tick off something that I should have completed a while ago. So, go me I guess.

Brown on Seashore Near Mountain
Maybe someday… 🇹🇭

We decided that because of the disease that shall not be named we’d be better off booking flights as late as possible to get to Thailand, and that our best chance of employment was getting into the Kingdom first then figuring it out later as the normal recruitment drive for foreign language teachers online had dried up into a barren wasteland.

We didn’t think about it enough to be deterred, too busy building up our savings to fund the, what became increasingly evident, expensive trip. We were excited, passionate and determined to make it work.

This was when August hit and the murmurs coming out of Thailand about another lockdown started increasing in volume, there was talk about pushing back school dates, which meant no classrooms to be taught in, which in turn meant little to no jobs in the country itself as they could all be done over the internet. The October date we would be leaving our Welwyn Garden City flat on was fast approaching, and we were being told to wait for an opening as it might pass in a week or so. Wait we did, and we waited and waited. The good news never came, so we decided that we’d just book our flights and get there, everything else would surely fall into place afterwards.

Then the bureaucracy kicked in, the amount of paperwork required to get into Thailand (at the time of writing) was too much. Each document required another form that couldn’t be filled in until the one we were filling in had been completed. It was chaos, seemingly designed difficult to dissuade people from travelling. In the end, it felt too much like swimming against the tide of a flowing river. We closed the laptop in defeat, the Thailand dream was dead in the water.

However, like a phoenix in the ashes, a new idea formed out of the old one. Our time in WGC was coming to an end, that was a guarantee. The world was now potentially our oyster, as long as it was situated on the UK green list.

This was when the applications started flying out, not for teaching jobs, but for writing positions I was qualified for in Dubai, Malta, and Gibraltar.

For the latter, I was offered an interview the next day for the following week, which I attended and was offered the role two hours afterward. It was mind-bending, we’d gone from fighting the current to being swept up by it, now eager to see where it would throw us off.

After getting off the phone and going hysterical with excitement it dawned on me, we had two weeks to get to Gibraltar. We sold all of our furniture and packed up our belongings, taking only what we could carry. Our backs becoming decimated from 4 days sleeping on the floor as we’d accidentally sent the pump for the airbed back up North with my girlfriend’s dad.

In a way it was the perfect storm. My partner’s job is home-based so she could move to the peninsula freely, combine this with the visa-free access and being on the green list made it a surprisingly simple move. Not long after our arrival we sorted out a flat too. It had all started to finally feel real. We spent our first few days in Gibraltar treating it as a holiday, something we had been unable to do since a trip to Glasgow in early 2020.

Gibraltar at night (October 2021) 🇬🇮

I’m not sure what the moral of this story is. Half of me thinks its knowing when to let go of a pipedream, when to realise something is implausible even if you’ve worked so hard for it – but its in letting go that more opportunities rear their heads, ones that you would have been blind to beforehand like a horse with its blinkers on.

On the other hand, it could be about not selling yourself short, that the opportunities to do what you love will come eventually as long as you work toward them. Being offered a job abroad as a copywriter is something I could have only dreamed of a couple of years ago – especially after working in marketing and my old manager deciding to go external with the company’s copywriting duties, even though that was my bread and butter. In hindsight that may have been the turning point where I started to take writing (and myself) seriously, as I started this website a month or so later.

As I sit here in a bustling café just off Main Street in Gibraltar, with a light lunch of a cortado and quiche, letting myself absorb the new surroundings I find myself in, I’m filled with excitement for the coming years. I don’t grieve a missed opportunity in Thailand, as it was never meant to be, and so in the end never existed.

Because if it had, I’d never be here.

personal travel

My Experience with Catalan Independence

In late September 2017 I decided to take a leap and moved to what was then, and still is, Spain. I hadn’t done much research before I went; I just knew that I was moving to a city a couple of hours outside of Barcelona. I was ecstatic. Being 21 and a recent graduate, the years following the completion of my degree were what I had been looking forward to for some time. Free from the confines of Britain, I was ready to explore somewhere new, exciting, and sunny.

Following a brief flirtation with the idea of moving to Japan, I decided to take the plunge and move to the sangria state to teach English. This was because if things went wrong I was closer to home, similar to when students leave for a new city and don’t move too far away – so they can come back easily and get their mums to do their washing.

After arriving at Barcelona El Prat Airport and partaking in the initial training, all the teaching assistants were scattered across the Catalonia region. A handful of us and our bags were then placed in a tin-can with wheels and shipped off northward, to the city of Lleida. Some noteworthy things about the city of Lleida: It is located in what is called the ‘Catalan Central Depression’, La Seu Vella is one of the most stunning and dominating pieces of architecture I’ve ever seen and that it’s the city were San Miguel is brewed and bottled. I also discovered that drinking San Miguel is looked down on by the locals; Estrella or Voll-Damm are seen in a much better light and are considerably more potent. Another thing, in Catalan the pronunciation of the city is ‘YAY-dhah’, but due to articulation issues in the other regions, the city is called Lérida in Spanish.

The first day with my new host family (I don’t wish to mention their names, but they are incredible people who made me feel like their eldest son and we still keep in touch to this day! Et trobo a faltar) was encapsulated by a ‘correfoc’ or in English ‘fire-run’, in the city centre of my new home. Let me tell you right now, correfoc’s are a health and safety nightmare. People ran around dressed as the devil, flailing around enlarged flares on sticks above their heads until they burst into flames. The crowd that watched these events are urged to get as close as possible to the ‘creatures’ and run with the fire themselves. It was carnage and I loved it.

A castell mid-construction in central Lleida (September, 2017)

We had also witnessed a ‘castell’ during the day of these celebrations, this involved adults and children stacking themselves on top of each other in public places – building a human castle for the audience. It was capped off by an ‘enxaneta’ climbing to the top and reaching an open hand to the sky, before they all gradually dismantled themselves back to the ground below.

The region was insane, I had never seen anything like it. I was immediately hooked.

The next day I awoke under the pretence of a rest day. It had been non-stop since my arrival and I was excited to embrace a lazy Sunday from the comfort of my new bedroom. That did not happen. I was informed that we would be attending the kid’s roller hockey game that morning in the small village of Juneda. Sure, why not – my host-siblings were very excited for me to come, so how could I say no?

Roller hockey is actually one of Catalonia’s national sports. Barcelona has won 19 European League Championships with a ruthless domination, not unlike the world-renowned football team. I watched as kids a quarter of my age glided around the arena on their roller skates with such a finesse I could only dream of, screaming in Catalan as their parents roared them on. I would later attend a hoquei game for the local team in Lleida, I was nearly smashed in the face with a ball and I got to pound the fan-drum to the beat of the vivacious crowd. 10/10 would do again. Following the game, I was told that we were going ‘to vote’.

“To vote for what?”

“Per la independència!”

This was the 1st of October 2017, the day of the Catalan independence vote. The Spanish government had declared the vote illegal and unconstitutional, warning many people away from the polling stations. This resulted in many pro-Spanish and pro-Catalan voters who feared the backlash not turning up.

Catalan flags draped over a building in Juneda (October, 2017)

The polling station itself had a strange atmosphere. The children ran around playing with tubs of fairy liquid blowing bubbles, while the adults were fearful of the police as they filled out their voting slips. A large barbecue was taking place, serving traditional Catalan meat like ‘butifarra’ and we were drinking from traditional ‘porróns’. If you aren’t aware, governments find acts of protest with traction irritating and normally try to quash them with force. Local farmers had tactically parked their tractors in the middle of the roads blocking entry to the polling station. There were murmurs that the police were going to arrive, but luckily, they never came to where we were.

It was a different story in the main population centres: Barcelona, Tarragona, Girona, and Lleida. We were watching the evening news about the vote; the numbers had been 92% in favour of independence. Over 2 million votes had been cast in favour of becoming an independent state – it is worth noting that the population of the region back in 2017 was 7.4 million. 43% of Catalans were able to vote in these elections, despite enforced polling station closures and excessive force from the Spanish police. The vote had been disregarded as a terrorist rebellion and police in riot gear had stormed cities. There are videos of them pushing elderly people down sets of stairs and hitting protestors with batons. One video showed these police officers attacking voters at the doctor’s surgery just outside of the flat we lived in.

Raw: Over 760 Injured by Police in Catalonia (Associated Press, 2017)

Walking down the streets of Lleida at night in the weeks following was deafening. Catalan independence flags were draped over balconies – men, women and children stood every night at 9 o’clock bashing pans together in protest of the Spanish police and their government.

The Catalan regional police, the Mossos d’Esquadra had allowed the vote to go ahead – which was what led the National Police Corps and the Civil Guard to enter the region and ‘take back control’. 893 civilians were injured that day. Spanish police action was heavily condemned by many players of the international community; including the Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel and SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon, yet others including Boris Johnson failed to condone the violence…

Three years on, the situation remains largely unchanged. The leader of the independence party Carlos Puigdemont is currently living in self-imposed exile in Belgium, knowing that he will be tried and arrested should he ever return to Spain. Nine Catalan independence leaders were sentenced for their roles in the 2017 referendum on counts of sedation and crimes against the Spanish state. In turn this triggered more protests during October 2019 that are continuing today, slowed only by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Civil rights protests and independence movements are like tubes of toothpaste, when they are squeezed out, they are impossible to put back in. Especially when there are massive cultural differences between the region and their governments. Bull fighting is an internationally known form of entertainment enjoyed by the Spanish, yet it was banned in the region on the 1st of January 2012. The residents speak Catalan as a first language, and it is rare for two Catalans to converse in Spanish. Gastronomically, the region is more alike to France than it is to Spain. For more examples of how the culture in this region is so unique, go back and read this article again. This is a country/region/autonomous area close to my heart and whether within in Spain or outside of it, I just want the people to be treated right.

Visca Catalunya.

A banner at the Copa Del Rey match between Lleida Esportiu and Real Sociedad (Camp d’Esports, October 2017)