Ciara Kenny

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Working in Gibraltar, living in Spain

Having to queue for hours every day to cross the border to work is making me question whether it is all worth it, writes Miriam Laird

Long queues forming at the border between Spain and Gibraltar

Mon, Nov 25, 2013, 00:00


Miriam Laird

I never expected to live in Spain. I first learnt Spanish a long time ago while on Erasmus in Germany. The teacher was from Chile and it was my dream to visit South America. Years went by and after falling into accountancy I decided that when I finished my exams I would pack in my job and go.

So I bought the Lonely Planet, started going to the Instituto Cervantes and finally booked a ticket to Venezuela. Then September 2008 arrived and I wasn’t sure if leaving a nice permanent job was such a good idea, but I had a feeling that if I didn’t go then I never would.  So I threw caution to the wind and headed off after Christmas.

It was the trip of a lifetime, but all the way through I could see that there was not going to be any quick solution to the economic crisis and I was not going to walk into the type of high powered job I might have been able to find as a newly qualified accountant a few years previously. In the last few weeks in Colombia I was sending out CVs in all directions.

I was lucky enough to get a temporary job soon after I returned and my boyfriend Daire returned to his job, so we were reasonably ok. However when he heard about a job in Gibraltar we realised we had a choice. Since college I had spent time abroad in various places including Vienna and Minsk and, while I loved travelling, I felt I had done enough living abroad and really wanted to stay in Ireland. But at the same time we were both a bit stuck career wise. He got invited over for interview and we decided to go and check the place out.

It was my first time to the southern coast of Spain since a holiday in Torremolinos aged six. The ugly high-rise buildings had left an imprint on my childhood memories, but, on the drive from Malaga I noticed the beautiful hills for the first time. The interview went well and we decided to go for it. We thought there might be a situation where he would work there and I would continue working in Ireland until I found something, but the wait ended up being very short.

We never really considered living in Gibraltar itself. For starters it is very expensive, and we saw it as a place to work. In the evenings or at weekends we just wanted to be somewhere else. That somewhere else at first was La Linea, the town directly across the border. It was convenient, has some great tapas bars, but it was not really a place we wanted to live.

So we moved to Casares, a beautiful white village in the hills. It is a long commute but we’re still here three years later.

We love Andalucía, the food, the weather, the sea, the music, the cycling, the many places to visit, the ferias… the list goes on. But we are not on holiday and often we don’t get to appreciate where we are. I can honestly say I’ve never worked as hard as I have since moving here. On the other hand I have also gained a lot of skills and progressed much further in my career than I would have if I had stayed at home.

We are both close to our families and find being away from them is one of the most difficult aspects of being abroad, but in contrast to many other emigrants there is no shortage of flight connections. It helps being close to one of the most popular holiday destinations in Europe. We have been able to make it home for most important family occasions and we have had a lot of visitors too.

For most expats in this area there are three options.  You can go for the full Gibraltar option, work there and live there.  Many do and rarely leave the place. You could try to stick to Spain, but unemployment is high and most jobs revolve around tourists or other expats. Or you can do as we do, work in Gibraltar, live in Spain and try to have the best of both worlds. It sounds a lot easier than it is.

Before we arrived we knew very little about Gibraltar. We were surprised at the level of animosity that still exists between it and Spain and for the most part we try to stay out of all of this.

Thousands of Spanish work in Gibraltar every day and Gibraltarians and others working there spend a lot of money in the ‘Campo de Gibraltar’, so both sides seem to benefit. Every now and then tensions mount and there are headlines in the local newspapers, but we could walk in every morning, go to work and return in the evening without encountering any problems.

But this summer Gibraltar hit the headlines due to seven-hour car queues, and proposed €50 border fees. Gibraltar is in the EU, but there is a customs exemption and this means that some items, like tobacco, are much cheaper than in Spain, so it’s true that there is a lot of smuggling, but usually it’s quite easy to see who is smuggling and who is just coming home from work.

Every day we would walk across the border as TV cameras were filming. People at home asked us about the situation, but in general, as we were pedestrians it didn’t matter too much and we knew the charge would never be brought in. As for people in cars, we wondered why they kept driving in. Had they not learned from the day before?

Soon other stories made the headlines and Gibraltar was yesterday’s news. But an EU delegation was sent to investigate the border in September. Funnily enough on that day there weren’t any queues. A few days ago a report was issued stating that the Spanish were not doing wrong. As a big fan of the EU I was disappointed that there did not seem to be any acknowledgement of the fact that what they experienced was not the typical standstill clearly seen on so many other hot summer days.

It has got worse in the last few weeks, and you never know from one day to the next how long you will have to wait to cross. A few days ago I received plenty of texts warning me not to head to the border straight after work. The pedestrian queue was longer than ever before, people were taking up to two hours to get through. So we went for something to eat even though really we just wanted to get home.

I have crossed the Belarus Lithuania border, a gateway to the EU, many times and I don’t ever recall delays such as I’ve seen here. Gibraltar was playing its first UEFA football match that night, an event the Spanish have vetoed for years. I wonder if there was any connection?

From my time in the queues it seems that the people being punished are not Gibraltarian, but ordinary Spanish, English, Irish, German, Italian people and those from all across the EU who cross that border every day to work.

Maybe this kind of thing is a ‘first world problem’. I know there are so many things going on all over the world that need much more urgent attention, Syria, the Philippines to name just a few, but when we arrive home exhausted after a long day’s work and then waiting for no good reason in a meaningless queue, you do wonder why it has to be like that, and whether it is worth it.