A case of modern Europe in Irun, Spain

“My daughter is working in Shrewsbury”

In Irun, Northern Spain, just across the border from France, if you don’t speak Spanish then you speak French. The answer becomes clear the minute you park up in the Alcamp supermarket not ten minutes away from clearing the toll booth at the border. Here almost every second car has a French license plate and French voices are as common as Spanish ones. I love the French but they really can’t park, so evidence that there are plenty of Frenchmen about isn’t hard to come by. Like us, they had nipped over for a chance to do some cheap shopping. We had also come because living close to a border is still a novelty (‘you can drive across a border?!’ our island minds scream) and being so close to seeing a beautiful country like Spain was just too big a temptation.

I love Spain, and as a child we used to go every year for a couple of weeks in the summer to a time share home of my grandparents. I’ve been to the Balearic islands twice and I would love to go to Barcelona. But unfortunately, Spain today cuts a sorry figure these days on the international stage.

Youth unemployment in Spain is staggering; latest figures show that 53% of Spain’s youth are unemployed. Unemployment in all of the Spanish workforce is at 24.4% on last count. That’s a terrifying statistic, particularly when you realize that means one in four of the working population are jobless (stats taken from here). One in three people are now jobless on the Canary Islands and some parts of Southern Spain. I have seen first hand the struggles my friends in the UK have had finding work, myself included. Still, I can only count them and myself as lucky we are not from a country where over half of the young people are unemployed. Many of the unemployed of Spain, particularly the younger generation, have decided to up sticks and move across Europe to find work. Sort of like Norman Tebbit’s ‘get on your bike’ encouragement in 1980s Britain, only with the Eurostar. This means there are huge numbers of young Spanish people in Britain, France, Germany, all over the place. All driven out by unemployment and attracted by better prospects abroad.

Of course none of this is too obvious only ten minutes from the French border. We were there to shop and enjoy the sun, so doing an anthropological study on the effects of unemployment was hardly top of my agenda. Back in Irun, we settled down at a restaurant in the shopping centre and ordered a delicious three course meal for four people, with drinks (including a bottle of wine) and bread, all for €40. I felt guilty in delighting in the price, as just over the border finding something for the same amount would be difficult.

The time came to choose our desserts, and our waitress was busy dealing with a couple mulling over whether to have fish or steak for their main. Another waiter took our order instead, but he was probably one of the 1% of people we met who spoke no English or French. We powered through with our meager Spanish, and eventually got there with a bit of pointing and gesticulating. He was gruff and enormous, his face shrouded in a bushy black beard. Teamed with his all-black uniform and huge hands that looked used to slicing hams and perhaps wrestling with a live pig or two, he came off as a bit intimidating. We brushed it off and said gracias, discussing amongst ourselves once he had left whether we had in fact ordered what we wanted or whether it would be a bit of a surprise. Suddenly, the waiter came back.

“Ingles?” he said, pointing at my Mum who had handled most of the pudding-charades.

We all nodded, and he put down a piece of paper onto the table in front of us before disappearing once again. Instead of it being a bill or a summons to leave the restaurant for failure to make understood our dessert order, it turned out to be a piece of paper from a notepad. Written on it neatly in blue biro were the words ‘My daughter works in Shrewesbury’ *

It was all a bit surreal. This giant of a man who had seemed so brusque and unsmiling had gone to the effort of asking (we guessed) one of the younger members of the waiting staff to translate his message and write it down for him, and brought it over to us. He had created a connection between himself and an English family he had barely known for 30 seconds. Maybe I am being over sentimental, but it was touching to read that little note pushed across the table. He was telling us we had a mutual point of reference, even if we were completely inept at communicating with one another. He could have just left the English numpties to it, or written down that he suggested we brought a Spanish phrasebook next time. But he didn’t.

I mentioned the unemployment statistics in Spain earlier because although I of course no nothing of the facts around his daughter’s decision to go to Shrewsbury, in this terrible economic climate it was probably to find a better job market in the UK. Not that the one there is particularly fantastic. There in that note, in one sentence, was a piece of Europe’s current history. A Europe where the young people travel and move to find their future. When the EU has meant that the disease of unemployment can spread across borders like never before, but has also conversely given people a chance to traverse those borders easily to try to make a better life for themselves. I thought of the Spaniards I had met in Germany who had moved to find work, the friends I know who have moved abroad to get a job and escape rising costs in the UK, and the stories I had read in the papers of Europe’s ‘lost generation’. In today’s Europe it’s common to see daughters and sons leave parents behind to find work and different corners of Europe end up connecting.

And now, whenever Europe’s unemployment problem is discussed, I will think of the waiter at Irun whose daughter is working in Shrewsbury.

I am a big softie at heart. I read all of this into a little note and I may be completely wrong, but I stand by it all. When he came back over we all laughed and smiled and said ‘Shrewsbury, very nice!’ unable to communicate much else. He gave us a quick smile, picked up the piece of paper, screwed it up into his pocket, and went on a fag break. He didn’t look over at us again even as we tried to catch his eye to say goodbye when leaving; he was too busy heaving big ham joints around at the bar. But I’ll remember the incident for a long time, particularly as I now look to expand my own job search to Europe and the rest of the world to better my chances in finding work.

*Actually spelt Shrewsbury, it’s a market town in the West Midlands

Have you ever connected with an unexpected stranger in this way? Am I the only one to get so sentimental about a single note!

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