The experiences that come with being a retired expat mean that, very quickly, we are put in a position when we learn more about ourselves. Characteristics that we learn to associate with those from other nations are usually quickly dispelled and, hopefully, we begin to learn more about people of other faiths, cultures and those who speak a different language.
It is very easy to fall into the trap of national stereotypes, such as Germans being efficient and hardworking, the Spanish having a mañana attitude to life, the Italians being lazy and too fond of pasta, never to trust a Dutch businessman, and the French who are great lovers, dress nicely, but are just so unreliable. Some elements of national characteristics may relate to some people, but it is wrong to typecast a whole nation with the same attributes. Yet, as we are currently witnessing with some of the jingoistic debates about immigration in the UK, and the current popularity of right wing political parties, such prejudices are alive and well.
As with so many expats moving to Spain, we initially looked for British people for support to help us with building, electrical, plumbing and legal work. However, we quickly learned that in many cases it was our own countrymen that were the most likely to rip off newcomers. My work as a newspaper reporter brought me in close contact with Brits who had been conned by fellow Brits, and I learned very quickly that there was no love lost between fellow expats when it came to earning a fast euro. Of course, this is a wide generalisation, because there were also many who would go out of their way to help fellow expats. However, most expats learn quickly that it is not the nationality of your neighbours that is important; it is how they treat you.
Our first experience was with a British electrician who arrived at our new home to install lighting. He arrived, endlessly chewing gum, with no ladder or even a screwdriver, which we had to borrow from neighbours before he could start the job. Our Scottish plumber was no better, although he did arrive with a spanner to fix a leaking tap. He broke the pipe and our new kitchen was flooded.
Most would think that we had learned the errors of our ways, but we were naive and simply put the incidents down to bad luck. However, it was our dealings with an Irishman called Connor (a clue is in the name) that were possibly the most worrying.
Connor, an Irishman, came highly recommended from neighbours to start work on our small swimming pool. He was a charming man, full of amusing stories, and displayed a knowledge of swimming pools that, to the unenlightened, was impressive. He assured us that it would be built to the highest quality standards, and planning permissions would be obtained and completed in four weeks. We duly handed over a significant sum of money as a deposit to pay for materials, and waited for the work to start.
Three months later we were still waiting for Connor to arrive. Sadly, his phone had by then been disconnected, he was not living at the address given and no one had seen him in recent weeks. Our neighbours were full of apologies, and we finally gave up all hope of ever having a swimming pool.
A further three months later, a slimmer Connor arrived on our doorstep. He was full of apologies, and as charming as ever. It seemed that it had all been a case of mistaken identity relating to an issue with a ride on a lawn mower that had landed him into serious trouble with the police. Mistaken identity or not, Connor had enjoyed a six month stay in accommodation at His Majesty’s Pleasure, and appeared duly chastened by the experience.
Readers who have spent an evening in a bar with an Irishman telling stories over a glass or two of Guinness will recognise that after a period, one’s brain closes down into a form of gentle submission. Connor assured us that our money was safe and that our pool would be started the following day and completed within one month.
True to his word, Connor arrived the following day with two men and started digging. Four weeks later, our new pool was completed, which we were pleased with. We paid the remaining money due to Connor and, apart from worrying about whether planning permission had ever been actually granted, we continued to enjoy the pool until it developed a major leak, which is a story for another time.
The moral of this story is that we now have more open minds about nationalities that can get the job done. We have learned not to rely on British workers, as often they are much more expensive and do not always use the most suitable materials for the climate. We now employ a German plumber, a Canarian electrician, a Spanish builder and a Moroccan decorator. Our dentist is Argentinean and our favourite bar is owned and run by Romanians. Sadly, there are no Welshmen in this story.