Thursday, 11 March 2010

Clash of cultures

In the summer of 2008, my friend Laura and I jetted off to Gibraltar on a whim to discover life in this unique country, which is an intriguing mixture of Spanish and British customs

Sitting in the infamous ‘border queue’ into Gibraltar, I suddenly begin to feel nervous as the realisation creeps upon me that I have no idea what to expect from the next few weeks or months - not even my date of departure. My friend Laura and I have booked a one-way flight to Gibraltar with vague plans to stay in her cousin’s flat over the summer and work in a bar. When we booked the trip, it felt exciting and whimsical, but now I feel apprehensive.

We are met by Laura’s cousin Keely at Malaga airport, and now, as she drives us into Gibraltar, Laura and I stare out the window at the strange juxtaposition of the familiar and the unfamiliar. Red telephone boxes, lurid symbols of Britain, look out of place after driving through the soft ochre and olive hues of the Spanish countryside. After we have, somewhat alarmingly, driven over the airport runway which cuts across the entrance to Gibraltar, we pass a road sign: Winston Churchill Avenue. Gibraltar, it seems, is determined to leave visitors in no doubt that this is British territory.

After driving us expertly through many sharp turns and steep climbs, Keely parks the car on a dusty street and announces that we have arrived. Together, we heave our cumbersome suitcases up the stairs and Keely shows us into our bedroom. I am immediately drawn to the small balcony which overlooks the harbour, and amazingly, I can see the soft outline of Africa in the distance.

That evening, after settling into our room, we cross the border into the Spanish town of La Linea for the annual fair, a huge carnival event which is nothing like the tame funfairs we are used to in England. Here there are beer tents, huge terrifying rides and stalls filled with colourful rows of sugary delights.

The atmosphere is vibrant as we thread our way through crowds of people talking excitedly and drinking beer from plastic cups, as young Spanish girls swish past in bright polka dot dresses. The Spanish mood contrasts starkly to the British colonialism of Winston Churchill Avenue, less than 2kms away.

When we return to the flat, Keely tells us about the animosity between the Gibraltarians and the Spanish. Gibraltar has long been a point of contention for British-Spanish relations; the Spanish want to reclaim it, but the proud Gibraltarian people are determined to remain as they are, rejecting a proposal of joint sovereignty in 2002 by an overwhelming 98.5 per cent.

The next day, we eagerly set off to explore Gibraltar, and soon discover how small it is; roughly half of the total area of 7sq km is uninhabitable because the country is built upon an enormously steep rock. Hence, life in Gibraltar centres around Main street, where shops from the British high street such as Marks and Spencers are dotted amongst tourist gift shops and cafes, many of which are named patriotically, such as Penny Farthing Café. As the street heaves with holidaymakers and the Mediterranean sun bakes the ground, it feels strange to see so many references to Britain.

Main Street leads down to Casemates, the major square of bars and restaurants, which is where we head a few evenings later. There is a lively, buzzing atmosphere, as patrons from every bar mingle and merge together outside. The excited chatter of the locals is the unique sound of Gibraltar; the country’s official language is English, but Gibraltarians mostly converse in Llanito, a mixture of English and Spanish. Fascinated, I listen intently as the locals effortlessly switch between the two languages.

After a week in Gibraltar, Keely takes us on the long-awaited Rock tour. This is the steep climb up the Rock to visit what the country is most renowned for: its colony of barbary macaques. It is thought they were first brought here by the British in the early 18th century; legend has it that the apes are a symbol of British sovereignty and if they ever depart, so will the British.

On the upward climb, Keely tells us that the monkeys are well-known for snatching bags from unsuspecting tourists, so by the time we reach the Rock’s summit, Laura and I are too nervous to go within grabbing distance of the macaques. Keely suggests that we can see them close up while remaining in the safety of the car by luring them onto the bonnet with crisps.

Cautiously at first, a monkey lopes towards us and launches itself on to the car; as Laura and I huddle together, its hairy hand gropes down from the roof ominously. With a thunderous bang, the monkey jumps onto the wing mirror, snapping it off. Gasping, we break into shocked laughter. But as Keely tends to her car, I can’t help thinking that we have no one to blame but ourselves.

A week later, Keely manages to get us a job working for her old boss, who is opening a new roof terrace bar, Boyd’s. Our first shift is the opening Friday night, so we arrive in the midst of chaos. The manager shows us the bar, barks a few instructions and disappears. Talk about being thrown in at the deep end.

The bar soon fills with people. Scanning the jostling faces in front of me, all trying to grab my attention at once, I struggle to remember who is next.

“Darling, darling, three vodka red bulls please,” cuts a lilting Gibraltarian voice through the din. I look up to see a woman with a mass of dark curls spilling over her face, gesturing wildly.

Flustered, I fumble with the bottle in my hands. “I’ll be with you in a minute,” I shout above the blaring music.

By the end of the night I am exhausted and longing to crawl into bed, but first there is one more job to complete: clearing up. In the Gibraltarian custom, Boyd’s does not close until 5am, after which we must sweep up cigarettes and broken glass, wipe sticky tables and heave wheelie bins downstairs for the next hour and a half, until I reek of nothing but alcohol and smoke and am ready to collapse.

Gradually however, Laura and I slip into a routine and learn how to cope with working by sleeping through the midday sun the following day like true locals. Before I know it, the new university term is looming and it is time to book my
flight home. It has been an incredible experience and I have found the unique Gibraltarian culture fascinating, but the relentless heat is oppressive and after five weeks away, I look forward to returning to the wet and breezy shores of Britain.

Getting there
Monarch fly to Gibraltar from Luton and Manchester from £32 return excluding taxes.

Where to stay
If you’re on a budget, the 3 star Queen’s Hotel is just £70 per night for a double room. For a more luxurious stay, The Rock Hotel, voted Best Hotel in Gibraltar by the World Travel Awards, costs £160 per night for a double room.

Where to eat
Casemates Square has plenty of great restaurants; try All’s Well for good quality pub food.

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