For the second post in my ‘occasional’ series People Who Live in Small Places, I have a fascinating contribution from an old friend, Warren, who lives on the tiny Rock of Gibraltar. This one held a special interest to me as I myself lived in Gib, in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. I was curious to see what life would be like there now – it can be a difficult place for an outsider to assimilate, especially with a generation who grew up in the days when the border with Spain was still closed. I’m pleased to see that Warren and his wife Jacqui, who live in Gibraltar with their two young children, seem to be really enjoying the Rock.
Tell me a bit about your “small place”
Gibraltar is often referred to simply as The Rock, which takes up the majority of the peninsula hanging off the south Iberian coast. And Gibraltar is tiny: just 3 miles long by ¾ of a mile wide and 30,000 inhabitants. The rock itself dominates everything: the landscape, tourism, the steepness of your walk to and from everywhere, the first sighting of the sun each day, and even the weather. It’s nearest equivalent is Table Mountain in Cape Town. And the rock and its location are also the basis for its fascinating history – I won’t dwell, but having been part of the Arab kingdom of Seville, later Spanish and now a British overseas territory, there are plenty of historical sites and cultural influences.
There is a sense of prosperity too. As a major port, and for a long time a naval base, it services oil tankers and cargo ships, and also snares its fair share of cruise liners. I have yet to see a Gibraltar summer, but am told that the place will be thronging with visitors making a stop on their Mediterranean cruise, touring the historical sites on the rock and saying hello to the macaques. It’s no Monaco, but it does have its own marinas and the gambling industry is a big source of income – not so much casinos, though there are one or two, but online gaming and sports betting. Luxury apartment blocks and rising property prices are further evidence that Gibraltar is doing well. Yet it retains a small town feel.
What are the good – and not so good – things about living there?
One or two people warned me that owing to Gibraltar’s size and its small community, everyone knows each other. I first saw this for myself when test driving a car around the eastern side. The rock on my right and beach on my left narrowed the road and I had to stop to let an oncoming truck past. The truck clipped the car’s wing mirror. With a sigh of acceptance, the accompanying car dealer admitted, “I know the driver.” But the sense of community is exactly what I like about the place.
Even commercial exchanges are much more personal. Shop assistants and customers know each other. And chat, yet no one in the queue objects. For a newcomer it’s worth noting that such interactions are no longer the one off exchanges that take place in a big city: you are likely to meet the same people again. And therefore better to shrug off the usual desire to get out of the supermarket as quickly as possible, forgo the urge to rattle your trolley and shout for the manager, and just smile and say hello when it’s finally your turn. Some may find the need to be on best behaviour irksome until they adjust. Thankfully these days I’m in no rush.
The tricky bit is tapping in to a community where people have grown up together. Speaking English does make it all very accessible. But Gibraltarians also speak Llanito, a variation of Spanish, and to get closer to what goes on I think I may need to learn some. It may also help in finding a local job, though it’s not essential.
Aside from all that, compared to the UK Gibraltar is warm and sunny, yet not too hot in summer I’m told. The views are fantastic too. I doubt I’ll tire of looking out over the bay at the coastal hills of Spain, over the Med at the hills of Africa and over the town at the rock. All in one panoramic view.
The facilities here are akin to those in the UK. Education and healthcare is of a similar standard. There are some British high street shops and also a large UK supermarket. That makes life easy, but on the flipside it detracts a touch from that sense of exploration that usually comes with living overseas, and which is often the motivation behind expat life. Andalucia is of course just across the border. There are in fact many people who commute from the nearby Spanish towns, where the cost of living is much lower.
What do you find to occupy yourself in your spare time?
So far I’ve mostly been settling into the kids’ school routine and putting in place everything that has been put out of place as a result of the move. In quieter moments I’ve enjoyed simply not being at work, and have an extensive list of books to read between gazing out at the scenery.
But that will not be enough to keep me occupied for the few years we are here. We have all joined the local tennis club. Our eldest takes advantage of regular coaching sessions while mum and dad need to get to know more of the members and arrange to play more often. Our son is also enjoying frequent football training sessions (football is the number one sport and there are teams for every age) which means chauffeuring services and a chance to get to know other parents. There are also opportunities to learn to sail, play a variety of sport and in the summer some beaches on which to laze about.
Hosting visiting family members has already provided excuses to visit the historical sites and be a tourist. Less than 3 hours flying from the UK should ensure more frequent visits both ways, something I missed in our last location.
How easy is it to “get away” and where do you escape to? Do you feel the need to escape?
The need to escape Gibraltar hasn’t yet hit me. I’m assured it will but I’m happy to remain a sceptic. There is plenty going on though and we have just really scratched the surface.
Most locals make frequent visits to southern Spain for a change of scenery and to treat their taste buds. Morocco is a short ferry ride. Skiing in the Sierra Nevada, just a few hours away by car, is high on our to do list. Seeing how British expats live in the Costa del Sol will make for an interesting comparison.
At the moment the airport only has flights to the UK. Malaga offers more destinations but flights beyond Europe require at least one stop.
What is the local community like? Have you felt welcomed?
Yes, I have the impression that the locals are proud of their community and always willing to welcome newcomers. That has already been a blessing. New Year’s Day, at the local play area, our son managed to head the goalpost along with the football. Other parents nearby were quick to help, ringing for an ambulance, using whatever was to hand to staunch the blood, and with only room for two in the ambulance, taking the other two of us (and bikes and scooters) to the hospital. And so by the time he started school, he already had a couple of friends looking out for him.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of moving to Gibraltar?
I think you have to be clear in your own mind why you want to move here and check that against what it offers: a thriving small town with a close-knit close community, and all the associated benefits and potential drawbacks the latter brings. If you can accept that and want to be part of it, you will fit in and enjoy your time here. It’s been surprising how many people we knew who had lived here before and recommended it. They were good sources of knowledge. Many locals you come into contact with during your enquiries will be willing to elaborate.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself and how you came to be living on the Rock?
I have previously lived and worked in the Far East, South Africa and South Asia. Now on a career break, this is my first time overseas with only one of us working, but our two primary school children have so far kept me out of trouble. I’m hoping to make some progress learning Spanish and then seek some more gainful employment locally, perhaps in a new avenue of work – our move offers the chance for me to try something different.
Thank you so much Warren for that fascinating insight into living in a very small place. Please let me know if you live somewhere small (a small country, island, rock, village…) and would like to be featured in this series. In the meantime, don’t forget to check out my first post in this series about the small island of Mayotte in the Indian ocean.