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Living abroad

Foreigners are often surprised to see how much good cheer there is still on display in Spain

About 25 years ago I lived outside Spain for two years, in the United States, not far from Chicago. I was very young then, and wanted to be an American — or to be exact, an American writer; or to be more exact, a postmodern American writer. Living abroad taught me something important: I was Spanish, and had to settle for being a Spanish writer. Later I tried to get over this massive let-down by going through a contrary phase, of doing super-Spanish things: eating heavy meals at 3pm, taking a siesta, arguing in a loud raucous voice, and so on...

Lately I have done it again — living abroad, I mean. This time in Berlin, four months at the Free University, talking about Borges. In fact, it is only in this context that I have discovered I was not as original as I thought; and that, to see who you are, you have to look at yourself from the outside. Borges, for example, had to live in Europe to discover that he was an Argentinean; and for that reason, or to make a virtue of necessity, he called his first book Fervor de Buenos Aires. His successors, too, have had to live in Europe or the United States in order to discover that they were Latin Americans. You live abroad not so much to discover others, as to discover yourself.

This capacity for tragic cheerfulness and for real compassion is an important virtue

Not just for that reason, of course. Sometimes you have to live abroad to make a living; sometimes you want relief from the national neuroses, or because you are oppressed by the feeling of living in a cold, ferocious land. A land where if you steal 10 euros you go to jail, but if you steal 10 million you don't. Where public life looks like a pigsty, and the pigs that root in it have the impudence to preach about ethics. Where the television makes you feel sick, and sad; and the schools, universities and bookshops, just sad. A land of winners and losers who are never good winners or good losers, because the winners know only arrogance, and the losers, rancor. A land where fictitious problems are invented to conceal real ones, where card-sharp politicians organize massive hoaxes to screen incompetence and corruption, and set them up as examples of democratic rigor. A sordid, dirty country, where tolerance is confused with weakness, where rapacity parades as altruism, where scum rises to the top, including scum with a good cause. A land of swindlers, cowards and bullshitters, where the priests still run the show.

But it isn't true: we are not essentially a lower breed than others, though it sometimes looks that way. In fact, I don't really know what "essentially" means.

Once there was a televised encounter between Fernando Fernán Gómez, legend of the Spanish stage and screen, and Erland Josephson, protagonist of so many Bergman films. "Do you know what the national sin of Spain is?" Fernán Gómez asked the Swedish actor. "No," said Josephson. "Envy," Fernán Gómez informed him. "So, do you know what the national sin of Sweden is?" Josephson replied. "No," said the other. "Envy," said Josephson.

The rule is that, equally in all parts of the world, as they say, "shit happens." The exception, perhaps, being Peru — where, according to the poet César Moro, "ONLY shit happens."

And Spain today is certainly no exception. Indeed, many foreigners who visit our country are amazed at how, in spite of the brutal economic situation, the streets are full of cheerful laughing people and no one is throwing Molotov cocktails — a phenomenon that, as we all know, is owed to the support of a double NGO, called family and friends. Far be it from me to wax patriotic, but this capacity for tragic cheerfulness and for real compassion is important, these qualities being considerable virtues. Though perhaps, in order to appreciate them at their true value, you have to have lived in countries where they are rather hard to come by. Perhaps to live at home, you have to have lived abroad.

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