Last days – An expat’s reflections on ageing and dying in Andalucía

A couple of weeks back, a foreign resident in Ronda was found dead in his flat. Rather like a TV thriller plot, his body had been lying undiscovered for over two weeks in the Andalucian pre-summer heat before the police finally was alerted, probably by a neighbour who had noticed the smell.

Dying is a topic that few of us like to think about, even if we all have to face it sooner or later. Be it our own last days or those of somebody near and dear to us, getting old is never easy and rarely painless. We often hear that living in a sunnier climate, such as Spain, makes for a longer, healthier and happier life, but is this entirely true? In our ultimate hours it is likely not sun we will yearn for, but rather the presence of our loved ones.

How will our final chapters unfold for those of us who will spend our final years in Andalucía? Though I have not planned to end this human journey of mine just yet, the recent death in our barrio made me reflect on how it might be to age and pass on in our very neighbourhood and what thoughts I might share in this regard.

The recently diseased expat lived three blocks from our house, yet we did not know him. Actually, few did. He was friendly enough and greeted people when passing, but kept mostly to himself. He lived alone and had no near relations that any of our neighbours were aware of. Yoli, the greengrocer told me that he used to come to her store every other day to buy bread. Even if he went away for just a weekend, he would inform her in advance not to keep his bread in vain. Therefore, when he didn’t come by her store for more than a week, she knew that something was amiss and worried that he had fallen sick. Not wanting to pry and expecting that the man’s landlady might object if she would go knocking on his door, she stayed away. So, the unfortunate expat had a heart attack and died alone in his flat without anybody being aware of his trouble.

Sad as it is, a local nurse told me that this type of scenario is quite common among foreigners living in Spain, especially on the coast where the expats communities are more transient. Here in Ronda, the foreign residents are somewhat more entrenched in the local society. However, knowing the locals at the bar or in your panadería (bakery) does not mean that they will be watching over you when you are on your last leg.

Many Spanish will frown upon the way we North Americans and Northern Europeans institutionalize our old relatives. The rural Spanish are very family oriented. Every rondeño we know who has an ageing and ailing relative take active part in their care, spending entire weekends at the elder’s bedside, paying for a private caregiver during the week when they work or having their old aunt staying with them. A neighbour had her mother, who was suffering from advanced Alzheimer, live with her husband and herself. For several years they had the immobile mother’s bed right in their living room until she passed away last winter, of course surrounded by family and loved ones.

It is not that caring for their elders comes easier to the Spanish. Caring for their old relatives is often a great sacrifice and a big strain on the entire family, though certainly here in our town it is considered the right and truly the only thing to do. We do have retirement homes, though these are usually considered as a last resort. The newest addition to ‘Senior Living’ options in our town looks more like a hotel, though in the end it is still an institution. A gentleman we know who recently moved in there, calls himself and his fellow residents for inmates. Lucky for him, he still has his grace and sense of humour intact.

Many expats living in Spain today arrived in droves in the 1970s and 80’s, when they were relatively young. Now, with the uncertain political future, rapidly changing climate, increasing heat, diminishing pensions, advancing age, unwanted health problems or untimely widowhood, many are copying the Brexit and trying to make their own late exit plan from Spain, hoping to end their days on their native soil. Yet for some, moving back ‘home’ is simply not financially possible. While other expats like my husband and I are in peace with the notion that this is where we will remain. We know that one day in the unforeseeable future we will turn into Andalucian dust.

For all the pros and cons of living here, how can we as expats plan for our latter days in southern Spain? In my view, the first thing to do about ageing in general is to accept oneself. We are all getting older, however much some of us strive to look like the world’s oldest teenager. If we are lucky to live into old age, we must acknowledge the special care and needs this golden époque will require.

Since part of our ageing might come as a bonus from our gene pool, one way of looking into our retired future is to observe our senior relatives. Both my parents started getting longer and longer arms, in other words becoming farsighted, in their late 40’s. Therefore I knew that I would have to get reading glasses at about the same age. Since they both got hearing aids before they turned 80 and my maternal grandfather was stone deaf in the end, I can pretty much guarantee that I will be (more…) hard of hearing still, particularly since these relatives didn’t abuse their tympanic membranes like I did during the disco era. Not all that happened to our parents need to happen to us, but knowing that both my parents had cancer, I can certainly do my darndest to turn the trend by avoiding carcinogens and generally keeping a positive attitude. Living amongst all those olive trees should help, as should the Andalucian climate.

Other than recognizing our possible generic predispositions, there are other things we can do to promote longevity, the well supported findings of eating healthy, getting enough sleep, fresh air, exercise, and not stuffing ourselves full of toxins. Eating all the great local produce that is available here in Spain might help our golden days, but not if we consider deep fried croquettes and unlimited wads of thirst-quenching beer to be the fundamentals of what they call the Mediterranean diet.

Given that however much we take care of our selves, we are all going towards our unknown expiration date, it might be an idea to insure ourselves. There are all kinds of life insurances in Andalucía, which in spite of its name will not insure our life at all, but rather those who we might leave behind. Further, there is something call death insurance (Seguro de Defuncion), which for a few euros a month will assure that the cost of our funeral, transport home and even a mass is covered. This way our living relatives won’t be slammed with a big bill as our final good bye, nor will we ruin our surviving spouse. Talking of said spouse, we might neither wish to be the one to go first, nor the one to be left behind, but life is such that usually one partner will die before the other. Like death, widowhood is something we avoid thinking about, yet one day the home you created with your spouse in Spain might seem awfully empty for just one. Therefore, if you have a chance to downsize while you both are still mobile and ‘with it’, it is advisable to do so.

As far as testaments, Spain is not like other places where we can leave all our assets to our favourite cat or charity of choice. The laws here will always give the living children of the diseased most of the assets. In fact, it is almost impossible to disinherit ones offspring in Spain, unless one can prove that they have threatened ones life. To assure that the surviving spouse can live in the couple’s home for the remainder of their days, it is therefore prudent to have a notary draw up a will for both partners. Apparently one can use the inheritance laws of ones country of origin as well, but since I am not a lawyer and cannot speak with any kind of legal authority, I will not get into that.

On more practical matters, remember that diminishing site? It is always easier to clean up ones mess now than later in life, when we are blinder, stiffer and less prone to crawling into dark closets. Having helped clear out my parents’ house after my dad’s passing, I promised myself to live more streamline and not to gather too much crap. This is easier said than done, but there is no reason not to be bit pre-emptive. Our end is usually closer than we expect it to be. Likewise, though we might not need stair railings and raised toilet seats at this very moment, it is good to have a plan as to how we can age proof our home for the future. Unfortunately for a designer like myself, the aesthetical aspect of age-proofing paraphernalia is not always to my liking, but when it comes to ageing, safety should always come first. And maybe by the time we need it, Philippe Starck will be one of us and will have come out with a cool line of magnifying glasses, cell phones for the nearly blind and jet age adult diapers. I will welcome it!

In all seriousness, what about the day we can no longer live alone? We are always keen to get our children on the waiting lists for the best day care facilities and schools, but we are generally not as eager to go out and scout for potential old age residences for ourselves. Truth be known, I have actually never met an older person who has gladly and willingly moved into this type of facility. Like it or not, it is always better to inform ourselves of what is out there, in case we should need it one day. Just like day cares and schools, there will be better and not so good old age residences and I rather know before I am forced to move one day. Talking of elder care, there are also usually costs involved. We tend to think that old people don’t spend money and when it comes to clothes and the latest technology, this is likely true. But even in a country with free or subsidized medical care, as we grow older we tend to require additional aid and care, some of which might be outside of the realm and budget of the healthcare system. So it is always good to put aside a few shillings for such possible future needs.

As far as living as an expat in a foreign land, the best way to assure that one will have a happier, safer and more social old age is to become part of ones community. Forget about your concern with perfect grammar, the main door- opener when living in a foreign country is to speak the language of the locals, however faulty and accented. In my experience, this is the only way to gradually become accepted into their community. If you want to be included, you must embrace your new hometown and your neighbourhood. The general rule that we follow is to take part. If there is a charity drive, buy a ticket or reserve a table. Join in that cancer walk. If a neighbour has passed on or a child on the street has a first communion, go to the mass or at least express your sympathies or congratulations. Whether there is a concert, a play, a community clean up or a neighbourhood meeting, even if you only understand a fraction of what is said, do attend. I assure you, it won’t go unnoticed. Speak to your neighbours, get to know them and always when possible offer to help them. It is harder to be accepted as a foreigner, so we might have to work twice as hard at it. It is a worthwhile investment of your time and energy, particularly for the times ahead when we might need a helping hand. Do not rush out of the local store unless you have to. Hang around for a while like the other locals to chat and hear the latest gossip. Help your old neighbour with her grocery bags if you have a spare hand. Ask their advice on how to grow flowers on your terrace or when to repaint your façade, even if you think you know the answer. You might learn something, and eventually you will earn their friendship. Participate, help, share, give, and always try to be open. If you care for your neighbours, you will eventually feel their concern for you in return.

We might happen to be alone when we draw our last breath, but by opening up to our Spanish neighbours and becoming part of the Andalucian society, there is more of a chance that somebody will knock on our door and inquire as to our well being should we fail to pick up our bread at the corner store.

 

Read / Add Comments

From accused pet killer to pet lover – How Andalucía has changed me

After my son’s frog died, I promised myself that we would never have another pet. I was too afraid that they would die, as sadly even pets must do. You see, I was inadvertently the cause of his untimely passing.

Before you judge me as a heartless pet killer, I need to say a few words in my just defence. I never grew up with pets (my parents said we travelled too much), and I never intended to get my son Oskar a pet either (I worked too much). But when he was given a frog by one of my set decorators, we had no options but to adopt it. The Frog or Froggie, as Oskar called him, became part of our family and was loved as if he had been a proper pet, like a dog, and not just a small, mute amphibian the size of a thumbnail.

The Frog came from Cosco and had a life expectancy an thus an expiration date of 6-12 months, or so it said on the removable sticker on his plastic container world. In the early days I would panic when I came into Oskar’s room and saw the long legged creature floating lifeless on top of the water. The Frog is dead, I would gasp melodramatically. Oskar, then about 6 and wise as only 6-year-olds can be, would look at me in disdain. Mom, He is an aquatic nocturnal frog. That is why he is not moving!

Actually, The Frog surpassed all expectations and Cosco guarantees and lived for years, likely because of the freezing Scandinavian plunge baths I subjected him to every time we changed the Canadian Springs water in his container. As time went by, the plants that The Frog had come with died and we replaced them with Oskar’s favourite marbles and cool rocks that we found on the beach. When we went on holidays a member of my film crew would frog-sit, and as they always fed him too much, we had to put Froggie on a diet when we got back to Vancouver. It seemed that The Frog would live forever, that is until one fatal day when I decided to surprise Oskar with some new plants for his frog. Big mistake. I should have known it from the smell of the darn pet store, but hindsight is 20/20. Within a day of having his new fancy plants, The Frog was floating on top of the water, this time not to be woken again. You killed my Froggie, Oskar cried inconsolably. I could not even try to explain that I had not done so intentionally. The legendary Frog was buried with big pump and circumstances outside in our Arbutus street garden, and should still be there if you happen to pass by our old Kitsilano neighbourhood.

With this long preamble, you might easier understand why I did not want any other pets. It is just too painful when the family’s four legged, scaled, winged, or in our case swimming member would pass on.

We managed to keep my pet-free policy for years, but that was before my husband and I moved to Andalucía. Other expats had told us that whether one planned it or not, one would inherit a shelter dog or a homeless cat within a few weeks of ones arrival. Almost every expat we got to know in Ronda had done so, since the Spanish knew that foreigners were bleeding hearts for a sweet puppy face. We were basically the only family on our street not having at least a couple of canine or feline companions, though this did not mean that the owners either cared for them or had the appropriate space for their pets. Personally, I was utterly content with simply being a slightly hands-off play aunt to all our friends’ pooches.

You might of course find me completely callous, but I believe the reason for our pet-less lives was that we had just not met our kind of pet yet. Once we began the search for a house, we both fell in love with a teardown, whose main attraction, at least in my case, was the tailless lizard that scurried off into the dusty interior every time we kicked the front door open. The lizard became the token for our search and no other house stood up to its charm, so we bought the place, rumble and all. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the poor lizard disappeared some time during the two years we had to wait for our building permit and the subsequent near complete teardown and rebuild. I prayed that the lizard had moved into Juan’s next door, still an original village construction like ours had been, instead of having been crushed by a falling beam.

When we finally could move into the completed house, we planted some rosemary bushes in the old terra cotta olive pots that we had found in the house. On a hot summer night we had a wonderful surprise. Some very distant relations of the tailless lizard had come to live with us. Actually these particular ones were not lizards, but geckos, with suction cups on their wide fingers, allowing them to climb walls like Spiderman, only without a net. Geckos, lizards, they were all welcome. We named the fat one Umberto Major and the smaller one Umberto Minor, though in retrospect I believe they were a couple, as later noticed some Umberto Juniors running about.

The Umbertos still have their home behind the old Arab doors that we hung as a decoration on the lower terrace. This real estate choice is not because they like my Cantabrian blue paint. From this optimal spot they can keep a 360• lookout for bugs, which seem to be abundant judging by their healthy girth. The family comes mostly out on hot nights and will play dead when disturbed, before pelting off behind a planter. Taking photos have therefore turned out to be a challenge, especially since they do not listen to my kettle calls.

Our reptile pet repertory is however not limited to geckos. We also have a lizard family living in our community garden for the third year in a row. There was a rumours amongst the other hortelanos, or community gardeners that we had a snake in our plot, but surely they just didn’t know their reptiles and had seen the long tail of our daddy lizard.

Andalucía offers an almost unlimited range of pet choices for the interested expat. There are the traditional donkeys, goats, hens, sheep and horses, though a little cerdito Ibérico (Iberian piglet) would also be a pleasant companion. And you could always eat it, should you get tired of its company… However, as for ourselves, we are happy with our reptiles.

The good thing with our Andalucian pets is that they take care of their own feeding, as long as we provide plans and shade. They will not die on us or need a sitter when we go traveling. Granted, they are not the petting kind, nor much for conversation, but neither was The (much missed) Frog. Every year, new generations of geckos come back in the spring, staying with us until late into the fall, at which point they hide for the winter. The Umbertos are the first thing I say good morning to when I come out to water the plants and though they don’t exactly run out to greet me, I can feel their eyes on me and know they like my calming voice and occasional humming.

The other day, when I watered the succulents in our front window, there was a tiny lizard, with a tail, staring at me, making sure I knew that this was his turf I was entering.

Oh, hello I said, you’re finally back!

Maybe it wasn’t the tailless lizard that used to live in the old ruin, though their tails grow out again, but I took it as a good sign anyhow. I mean, an Andalucian home is not a real home unless you have a resident lizard. At least until we decide to get a donkey…

Read / Add Comments

Why is our beautiful Andalucian town not as ‘green’ as it ought to be?

These days, with global media focused on the environment, I though it was fitting to make a few reflections on the medioambiente from the point of view of a foreigner living in rural Andalucía.

Just beside Ronda’s first organic community garden in our Barrio de San Francisco neighbourhood there is a paddock with two beautiful horses. I do not know if they are Arabic or Andalucian, but what I can tell you is that they are not a couple of old mules. The animals live behind one of the local gas stations, so that all the debris from the business above comes flying with the wind to their enclosure below. One would think that the owner of these fine animals would look around the property one day and decide to pick up the trash, but this has not happened yet and likely never will. Since the owner did not put the trash there, you can be quite sure that he or she will not clean it up either, even if it could cause their animals serious harm. And you cannot blame the horses. How can they know that garbage is not eatable, growing up in a sea of plastic?

British Columbia – Beautiful by Nature was the slogan of the Canadian province where we used to live. One could say the same thing about Andalucía. Nature here is nothing but stunning. However, one would be forced to add an addendum to such a slogan in the Spanish south, as though naturally beautiful, not everybody is doing all in their power to keep it that way. The environment, or medioambiente as it is called in Spanish, is not as high on the public or private agenda as it ought to, or need to be, certainly not here in our rural mountain town in the province of Málaga.

My husband and I moved to Ronda from Vancouver, BC, where environmental care is not only seen as a civic duty, but also part of people’s civic pride. Just like in my native Norway, the majority of Vancouverites are consciously trying to reduce their ecological footprint by biking, utilizing public transport, eating organic produce, composting and recycling, or a combination of all the above. They will try to avoid using environmental toxins and replace them with less harmful alternatives, be it for their lawns, their skin or the paper for their office printers. This is not considered a major hassle, but rather something people do gladly, as their small share in counteracting the vast problem at hand. Put against the giant corporate polluters, this individual effort might seem minute or even futile, but the general attitude is that if we want to see a cleaner planet, we have to begin by assessing our own backyard.

With our (positively-a-bit-too-politically-correct) West Coast cosmopolitan past, arriving in small town Andalucía was like taking a step back in time. This was of course also part of the charm of moving here. The narrow streets with the white houses looked as quaint and rustic as they had done for centuries. But the cars parked out front did not, nor did the fiber-optic cables they were starting to install or the slightly dated satellite dishes sitting on the perfectly patina-ed terra cotta roofs. We had moved to a place with more than two thousand years of history, which somehow had to find ways to merge its past with a modern day society. Though we soon realised that while the town was conservative, conservatism and conservationism do not always go hand in hand.

As new residents of Ronda, we were rather surprised to see how haphazardly many locals would deposit their refuse, leaving their garbage bags outside the containers, tossing cigarette butts and ice cream wrappers on the ground without a second thought and letting their dogs do their business in public parks or even right on the sidewalk. On local nature trails somebody would always have conveniently left their garbage or carelessly dumped a truckload of construction debris, even if there were containers nearby and the town had a very clean, hardly used, trash-sorting centre, appropriately called Punto Limpio. (The Clean Spot.) Some locals argue that because they pay their garbage taxes, it is their right to leave their trash outside the bins. What else will the street sweepers do, they will argue?

We were equally alarmed when we discovered that many of the local gardening companies sprayed pesticides in public parks and community gardens, where children and pets would play merely hours later. Worse still, nobody seemed to question or be bothered by this fact. Were perfect golf greens more important than their children’s health? Weren’t they a bit concerned about the environment, we wondered? Did they not know that there was a grave danger to our planet? Or did they not care? Was this attitude due to lack of education, arrogance, ignorance, laziness or some other factor that we had not yet discovered? Could it be that the abundant nature surrounding the town and the near pollution free air made people erroneously believe that their actions were not affecting the environment? Did they believe that somehow their green bubble could withstand the effects of contamination, from without and from within?

Why were ‘we’ rural Andalucians so far behind the eight ball on green policy and environmental consciousness, we wondered?

I belong to the early Gen X-ers, born when the Cold War rather than the environment was on top of the political agenda. Melting glaciers, rising sea levels and carbon monoxide was not the general concern. We worried about Russian nuclear-powered submarines. This is not to say that pollution wasn’t rampant in my youth, just that our communal responsibility in the matter was not as clearly defined as today. We had a vague excuse of lack of public knowledge, which not even the most ignorant of people can use to deny Global Warming today, especially not if they sit in an oval office. It was during my youth that Greenpeace and other environmental organizations started getting international support and were no longer seen as a communist ploy or a leftist hippy-dippy fabrication. Being communally minded, we were all part of this to a larger or smaller degree. It therefore surprised me to discover that the worst culprits when it came to eco-destructive behaviour here in our Andalucian town seemed to be the people of my generation, who also happened to be the ones that cared for the young and who would teach them to mind the planet – or not.

To our relief, at least the older Andalucians seemed to recognize the alarming signs of Global Warming. The near-centurians of our neighbourhood would tell us that they had never experienced such heat or lack of precipitation. Having suffered through the Civil War of the 1930’s, the Second World War and the many lean years thereafter, these people tended to be like old people elsewhere in Europe, fixing a broom twice before making it into a plant stand once its sweeping days were over. My Norwegian grandmother was the epitome of re-use. When she gave us a present, we were immediately told to return the wrapping. Her lovely Japanese paper was never to be creased and she used ribbon instead of tape, which she would iron after we reluctantly returned it, so she could use it again, and again.

Looking at the environment from an Andalucian outsider-inside point of view, the issue with the Spanish south seems to me to be the territory’s rapid growth from a relatively poor, low education agrarian society to the instant relative wealth created by the mad building boom in the 1980s. The people of Ronda, like on Costa del Sol experienced a colossal increase in expendable income. No longer needing to live with the hardship and frugality of their parents and grandparents, the nouveau riche embraced consumerism like never before. Even when the building boom slowed down and in time reversed, people’s habits had permanently changed. While past generations would have grown their food and made their own clothes and furniture, the new consumers would go to the supermarket and purchase stuff in bulk, usually wrapped in plastic, more often than not made in China.

With money comes stuff and with stuff generally comes more trash. While the Spanish economy still hasn’t recovered from the global financial crashes, Spain is one of the countries in Europe, and the world, that throws out the most edibles, with food waste comprising 46% of all rubbish. The average person in Spain generates almost half a ton of garbage per year, most of it ending in the general trash containers, which they misleadingly call Orgánicos, since anything from dirty diapers, household trash and a lot of recyclables end up in these containers. Spain is lagging far behind its European neighbours in terms of recycling. While for instance Germany recycles 62% of their municipal waste, Spain only recycles 33%, and I would guess that Andalucía is in the lower percentages of the national average.

Whereas past generations would walk (or as the stereotype goes, ride a donkey), these days Rondeños will invariably opt for their car. If at all possible, a parent will drive their child to school, even if it is just couple of blocks away. Walking could mean that somebody might believe that you do not own a car, our neighbours explained to us. Worse still, you might be accused of not loving your offspring enough to drive them. Therefore, most of our neighbours drive their kids the three blocks to school. The youngsters would inarguably have benefitted more from the walk and the fresh air, rather than being stuck in the daily pre- and post-school village bumper to bumper congestion. This behaviour is also solar opposite to the customs of the school children I have known in Canada. My son tried to persuade me to let him walk alone to school in a city of millions, even if he was only 8 at the time (he was not allowed, so we walked together). However, this urge to be independent doesn’t seem to be engraved the same way in the Spanish youth. In the meantime, while the rural Andalucians used to be relatively wiry from physical work, the younger generations of Spaniards seem intent on overtaking North Americans in junk food consumption and childhood obesity.

On the morning of the 2017 Earth Day, a Málaga radio personality spoke about how trash containers without garbage spread all around them are a sign of an educated and civil society. Sadly, he added, in Andalucía this is a rare sight. But environmental care is not only a question of education, but also of community, family and social habits. Younger generations presently attending Ronda’s primary and secondary school are taught about environmental care and most, if not all, educational institutions have recycling programs. However, this matters little if the children’s families do not practice the same green habits at home. If nobody teaches you the importance of caring of the environment, it is hard to foster new customs and change the behaviour of entire populations.

Of course, neither all the responsibility, nor the blame lies with the individual. Many impediments to a greener society are created at municipal, provincial or federal government level. Actually, some of the Spanish regulations seem anti-environmental, doing the exact opposite than combating climate change. Why in a country as sun-abundant as Spain are consumers penalized for caring for the environment by having to pay tax on solar systems? The ‘sun tax’ has increased the price of self-generated solar power to the point that there is little to gain from the investment. People are therefore discouraged from changing to cleaner energy, which has disastrous effect on Spain’s green economy. Another example of anti-environmental trends is something as obviously beneficial as bottle deposits. Why has the government not (re) introduced container deposits all over Spain, like in so many other industrial nations? The deposit discourage people from throwing out millions of plastic, metal, Tetrapac and glass receptacles (and hence cash), and even provides a livelihood for many dumpster divers. I actually knew of an art director in Vancouver who put his kids through college by collecting the recycled containers off the film sets he was working on. Valencia has introduced the deposit to counteract the five-million single-use beverage containers that daily ended up in their landfills or littering the territory’s nature. Container deposits make sense from a financial and an environmental point of view, but it seems that down here in the south, we are the last ones to change.

To give credit where credit is due, there are of course Rondeños who care for the environment, who recycle and do not spray pesticides on their olive trees. The municipal authorities of Ronda do provide garbage bins and recycling containers in every neighbourhood (in addition to an army of street sweepers). In fact, there are over half a million blue and yellow recycling bins available for public use in Spain. The country allegedly has about 165.000 green bins (for glass), which equals one container per every 284 residents. This makes Spain one of the countries with the highest glass-recycling bin–to-resident ratio. With recycling containers available on almost every second corner, there is virtually NO excuse not to recycle in Spain. So, why are the majority of people in our town not doing it? Some claim that that recycling ends up on the landfills so there is no point of recycling, which seem like an convenient excuse if you ask me.

What our town seem to be missing in my not very objective opinion, is a long-term policy on environmental care at a local level. This lack of long-term planning may partly be due to the local electoral process, since all positions in the town hall from the janitor and up seem to change every time there is an election. Furthermore, the positions appear to be filled more based on (party) connection than merit or actual knowledge of the specific area that the delegate is in charge. The head of department may therefore neither have the appropriate educational background, work experience, nor the passion for the cause they are representing. They were simply the party’s next in line.

After living in Ronda about a year, the at-the-time active and passionate environmental delegate came with me to propose a volunteer environmental organization to the mayor. All heads of local governments and local police attended the town hall meeting and agreed to support us. We spent two years doing environmental clean-ups, hosting recycled art competitions, giving workshops, presenting green establishment awards and producing informational videos to create public awareness. Finally, after yet another election, we were told by the new environmental delegate, who was more for photo-ops than getting his hands dirty, that he was simply ‘too busy’ to accept help from our 40-plus mostly local, keen and hard working environmental volunteers. So, sadly our group fell apart, not due to lack of public will, but due to the apathy of certain members of the municipal government.

A few months after we established our group and began environmental clean-ups here in Ronda, a woman started a similar environmental group in my birthplace in Norway. As an example of the difference when it comes to support and acknowledgement, the Norwegian volunteer group received ample municipal support, was presented with a national award and had the Norwegian queen and queen in waiting come and help doing a shore clean-up, plastic gloves and all! This was just about the time when the former Spanish king went hunting in Africa and was photographed with his lover, having shot an endangered elephant. Not that we whale-killing Norwegians have a right to point fingers, but there is still a vast difference when it comes to public involvement and the attitude towards public duty when one compares northern/central and southern Europe.

I do not believe our municipal government has ever taken a map of our town and looked at it from a post-consumer perspective, colour coding the areas with the highest population density, further segmenting were there are local businesses and restaurants, marking areas where environmental toxins are being used, particularly when coinciding with residential areas, schools and kindergartens, noting where illegal garbage deposits are being made, where littering is a widespread problem and where more containers are sorely needed. It seems evident that restaurants and other businesses producing more garbage than individual consumers should not be allowed to deposit their waste into the same containers as private households, but until there are policies and systems in place and somebody implementing these, there will be no change.

In Northern Europe like in North America, leaving your garbage behind is a major faux pas. We see it as our communal duty to keep our surroundings clean. Even when we know that nobody is watching us and we could in principle leave our trash, we generally will not do so. Our auto-policing will become activated, our public conscience will take over, and if that will not do it, our fear of public shaming will. This sense of communal duty or shame I find often sadly lacking in our town. Ronda displays the dichotomy of a rural village, where life must go on, yet wants to remain the same. There will always be things lagging behind in such development, and for Ronda, the most noticeable area I see is the environment.

If people had to pay 1000 € for not depositing a chewing gum in a proper manner like they do in Singapore, they would probably think twice about spitting it out on the street. Equally, if industries and businesses knew that their pollution issues could not be dealt with a quick phone call to a friend at the town hall, we might see a change. We do have laws against littering in Ronda, though to date I have never heard of anyone being fined. Maybe the town is too small, so the police constable who would be handing out the fine always ends up being a third cousin or a neighbour of the sinners, so the tickets might magically disappear into thin air? I am not saying it is what happens, it is just a theory. There is a 300 € penalty for leaving your dogs droppings, but this does not seem to concern most local dog owners. Actually, we have more dog-shit on the streets of Ronda than any other place I have lived, including Paris, and that is sayings something. I have heard many locals laughing it off, claiming that they are good luck to step in. However, there is nothing fortunate about breathing in faecal matters, particularly when one is talking about one of Spain’s most visited towns that is basically living of tourism, and still mostly unexplored, eco tourism.

Ronda is not the only place that is lagging behind on environmental matters. In fact, some of Andalucía’s famous white villages are even less green. At least Ronda has a sewer and wastewater treatment plant. Most towns around here still dump their sewer directly into nature, yes, in 2017! The town of Benoaján /Estación de Benoaján famous for their slaughtering and meat-processing plants send all their waste directly into the local river, which at times smell just foul. In Canada, local residents would probably have chained themselves to the factory doors, demanding the businesses to clean up their act. Understandably, people here are mostly concerned with keeping their jobs, and unfortunately secondly, possibly with having their chorizo on the table?

It seems that when it comes to pollution of their immediate surroundings, most Andalucians would rather not know about it. Though in our present climate, we can no longer afford to look the other way. To borrow a saying from Macron, there is no Planeta B…

Read / Add Comments