Calafou has been described as giving the impression of a post-apocalyptic scene, and post-capitalist is one of the self-descriptions. As I have been living in Calafou since the end of last August, this has become so normal that it can feel quite jarring to go to other places and find that they are still pre-apocalyptic and apparently haven’t got the memo yet that capitalism is dying. When I stepped out of a train last Monday evening and found myself in the midst of a brightly illuminated shopping mall, I felt I had landed uncomfortably on the wrong planet.
Yet every time I go outside Calafou, I have the feeling that I am still astonished to realize that I am now actually living in Spain. How did this happen? How did I get here? How can I possibly be this lucky and why isn’t everyone, everywhere?
Since this is the first time I have left Calafou for longer than a day or gone farther than some of the surrounding towns since I arrived, most of what I have learned about Spain admittedly comes from stories that other people in Calafou have told me about where they come from. I have learned, for instance, that butter comes from Asturias, and from the pictures on the packages and photos I’ve seen, it seems that Asturias looks most like Austria, but with a wild Atlantic coastline like Ireland. Obviously that is high on my list of places I want to visit. I have learned more about food that is typical for Valencia, because my guardian angel is an excellent cook who feeds me well, and that is where he comes from. I have learned that Ibiza is not just an Austrian joke, but a place where families live and teenagers grow up before they set out to take on the whole world. I have learned that Galicia is not only a place in the east that exists now solely in sad memories of overwhelming loss, but also a place in the west – at least one, maybe more, since two people from the alleged Galicia in the west don’t seem to come from the same place at all when I listen to their stories.
And I have learned that Málaga is not just a flavor of ice cream traditionally popular in Austria, but also a city in the south of Spain – which is where I am this week.
Since I am visiting Austrian friends who have become involved in their neighborhood’s resistance against gentrification, I spent one afternoon helping to clear away trash and make a small stone path in a derelict corner of land that is to become a community garden. After meeting people who live here and want to stay here and not be forced out by rising housing costs, the next day I decided to go and join the tourists to see what their perception of this city might be. That turned out to be a rather unsettling experience.
Since there seem to be so many older British tourists here, presumably seeking a bit of warmth and sunshine on the Costa del Sol, it was easy for me to mingle among them and become another recipient of the professional attentiveness of the many young people employed in the tourist industry at every level. As they politely addressed me in English, however, I also had the impression that they quickly put me into the right box: senior English-speaking female tourist, but obviously solo and not wearing the sensible haircut usually favored by gray-haired women, therefore someone who would insist on at least a little independence and not want to be overly coddled (unlike the hysterical women who had to be rescued from the top deck of the sightseeing boat when the waves got a bit higher). They always found exactly the right tone.
In contrast to meeting people from the neighborhood where my friends live and at Casa Invisible, from the perspective of a tourist Málaga seems very distant, unreachable. It could be anywhere and it doesn’t really matter. As a tourist I didn’t need to speak or even understand a word of Spanish. What difference does it make whether I just read the article about Málaga on Wikipedia and look at the pictures or look out the window of a bus as the same stories are recounted by a recorded voice? There is no “experience” of real people living in a real place, no sense of what their lives might be like here.
Wikipedia lists the “tourism industry” as one of the main sources of income here, and as a tourist I found myself continually “welcomed”, assured that Málaga is a friendly city always happy to receive tourists. Tourists bring and spend lots of money, of course (I certainly did), and tourism creates jobs. These are always the main arguments for promoting tourism. But does this industry actually produce anything other than more and more wasteful consumption? Travel is supposed to be educational, but do tourists really learn anything in the sameness of tourist locations? Tourist areas are widely known to be more expensive than non-tourist areas, which is actually the point, but what does that mean for people whose neighborhoods are taken over by tourism? Nobody earns enough in the tourism industry to be able to live in tourist locations.
The pattern is meanwhile familiar and well documented: quaint old buildings that have fallen into disrepair are bought by international investors, expensively renovated and then offered as accommodation on AirBNB, a highly lucrative arrangement for the new property owners, but this causes the costs of housing to rise until those who had previously lived in the area can no longer afford it. As new areas are made “safe” for tourists, sanitized, homogenized, filled with global chain stores and restaurants, there is less and less space left for the messiness of everyday life.
At the end of the day, I felt exhausted, overwhelmed by the input of information and “special offers” to spend more money and more money, here and here and here, and even the attentiveness of tourism employees always checking whether I might need anything. And I felt a bit ashamed of myself for so easily becoming part of the problem.
At one level, it would be easy to tell myself that, after helping with the new community garden again this afternoon, tomorrow I will return to Calafou and the relief of living in a post-capitalist world, but if I am honest, that is not the whole story, of course. It is my personal choice to live in Calafou, but my experience as a tourist reminds me that it is indeed a choice. At any time I can just get on a train to some random place to enjoy the luxury of being a senior solo tourist receiving all the attentiveness that hard-working, poorly paid employees in the tourism industry regularly give to people like me.
If the availability of choices is the epitome of privilege, I cannot escape being implicated in so much that is wrong with this world simply by choosing to live in Calafou. Questioning myself like this is not comfortable, but I am nevertheless very grateful to be able to take a week off from feeling constantly cold. Sitting here in the sunshine on a rooftop terrace, I’ll call this a learning experience and see what I can do with what I have learned when I return to the life I have chosen.