The bus dropped me off in the centre of Cádiz, close to the train station on the Plaza de Sevilla – thank you – I now knew how to leave – and I walked in the direction of the sea, sniffing the Atlantic breeze. I didn’t know it at the time but I was walking towards the Plaza de San Juan de Dios.
One-and-a-half hours in the bus from Tarifa had given me plenty of time to think, and so I walked towards the old town of Cádiz thinking about my thoughts, of the time – 8th December 2016, the political upheaval erupting on the landmass of my birth, the whole Brexit thing, and how the light and warmth of Cádiz in Spain in December made the dark clouds gathering over the UK easier to bear – for the time being.
I had long since harboured this idea that Cádiz was a seedy place, small and dirty; a quintessential whitewashed Spanish old town surrounded by tired suburban tower blocks designed in the Franco-era and never pulled down or gentrified, but I was so wrong.
Cádiz bristled and gleamed, a city so sparklingly clean and tidy, so historically beautiful, so proud and happy that imagining it existed in December 2016 as an integral part of the Spain that has been so ravished by recession this past decade, is incomprehensible.
Cádiz is picture postcard Spain but also felt so real and positive, optimistic and upbeat, and so wealthy that it ranked immediately as miles ahead of Barcelona and Madrid in the impressiveness stakes.
The Cádiz I walked through felt magical. Restaurants were full, cafes were bursting with people, families walked together and laughed. Everyone was smiling, happy in their winter coats, despite the fact that it was a warm 19 degrees, but then the Spaniards are strict in their observance of seasons and December is winter so winter coats are the rule. Summer wear doesn’t come out until May. Autumn is observed from the start of October, and so it goes on.
I needed a hotel for the night. I had my budget and was determined to stick to it. After Tangier and the disaster that was the Rembrant, I knew exactly what I wanted; central, pristinely clean, with 21st century decor, in a historic Spanish building.
I explored the side streets around the Catedral de Cádiz and ran into Alonso, the Argentinian. His hotel was called the Fernando.
Alonso smiled at me as he talked on the hotel landline. I smiled back and waited patiently. He made it quick and then welcomed me in Spanish.
I replied in English (my spoken Spanish is shaky) and he erupted into bigger smiles and enthusiasm for the language of his choice. Being Argentinian, he told me, meant he spoke English and Italian very well. I complemented him on his English. He bristled with glee.
Alonso insisted I inspect the room on offer before I commit to it and as we climbed the stairs, he spoke of London and Brexit and David Cameron and how sensible the British were for choosing the Brexit model.
Europe is dying, he said, but I live here now and I love it.
I felt a stab of sadness. This was not the first time I had heard Europeans say how much they admired the bravery of the Brits in choosing to leave the European Union. I wanted to explain in those breathless couple of minutes as we climbed high up into the building that 48 per cent of the people who had voted in the Referendum had not wanted to leave the European Union, but their voices were not being heard. That would be too much information to impart in this – a business transaction – room for money; and Mr Alonso of Argentina would not have time to hear what I was saying. He was a busy man, in his late 50s, and it’s my guess he had been someone quite different in Argentina. I pictured him as a pharmaceutical salesman with a family, a house in the suburbs and all the trappings of success.
I wanted to ask him about his former life pre-Cádiz but he opened the door to a lovely room – immaculately clean and nodded at me for my approval. I nodded back and he handed me the keycard. Pay me when you leave tomorrow, he said. I just need a copy of your passport, but bring that to me when you go out for your dinner.
Alonso left, and I closed the door on my thoughts of him as a pharmaceutical salesman in Buenos Aires harbouring secret desires to move to Spain. There must have been a woman or a death, a change of life needed, and a change of land mass, hemisphere, drastic action needed.
I went out to dinner but Alonso had gone, replaced by a smiley woman who wished me buenas tardes (good afternoon) – it was 6.30 in Cádiz or written correctly 18:30, and Spain’s evening starts at 9 or 21:00.
I explored the Old Town that evening, paid tribute to the vast Atlantic and ate tapas and drank beer in a rowdy bar full of office workers laughing with tears in their eyes at their colleagues’ jokes.
Spain was happy, badly in debt, deeply in recession, almost hopeless in the manner of Greece and Portugal and Italy, at the mercy of the European Central Bank and the bureaucracy of the European Commission and Parliament, but happy none-the-less. Nobody was ever going to be allowed to take that away from them.
I felt this deep love of Cádiz that night, and deep shame at the landmass of my birth with its pathetic squabbling, its divisions, its lack of joy, its choice to separate itself from a Union, that while not perfect, offered solidarity in a dangerous world.