Karla McGarvey from Letterkenny, Co Donegal lives in La Zenia near Alicante on Spain's Costa Blanca with her husband and daughter. She worked in Paddy's Point, an Irish bar that is now open again until she had her daughter last May. She is currently back back in Ireland in Donegal staying with her parents
I left Ireland in May 2013. I was working part-time in a high-street clothes shop and like many other Irish girls in their early 20s, I lived for the weekend. I suppose day-to-day life was getting repetitive and I wanted a new experience. I have a diploma in Media and Journalism from North West Regional College in Derry and my dream was to continue with my education in Liverpool, then to work in radio one day. However, my fear of getting into debt and the state of the economy at the time meant that my dream had to be put on hold.
An opportunity arose to work in an Irish bar named Paddy’s Point for the summer in Alicante. I thought about it and decided I had nothing to lose. It was only for a few months, right? Little did I know that those few months would turn into almost eight years - and counting. So, I packed a few cases and landed in Alicante in May 2013 ready to start my new adventure.
I started work the day after I landed in Spain. The summer season usually starts gradually after Easter and the terrace was already full when I started. Work was crazy and hard, but so enjoyable. I learned so much in that first week. There was a constant buzz around the place and lots of people to feed and water. Big sporting events always drew a massive crow and GAA weekends were intense. I hope someday we will get that experience again.
I loved getting to know regulars and the families who would return year after year to their holiday homes
I loved the opportunity I got to meet people from all around the world and I gradually picked up Spanish too. I loved getting to know regulars and the families who would return year after year to their holiday homes.
I had my daughter Maria Isabel last May and I was so touched by the cards and well-wishes I got from customers from all over the world. The most “Irish Abroad” thing I have found is the grilling I get when a customer from Donegal finds out that I, too, am from Donegal. “Who are your people?” is the first question on their lips. Donegal is a big place, but as we all know, Ireland is a very small place.
With such a large Irish community here it was very hard to feel even remotely homesick. I have realised that feeling of confidence in that Irish community comes with time. The pride I have for my country is huge too. I took Ireland and all its beauty for granted when I lived there, for sure. Going home to visit now is a new experience. My partner Jonathan, who I met in 2015, is Spanish. We always go to a new county first before going to Donegal, so it feels like a little holiday. Ireland has so much and it’s all on our doorstep.
La Zenia and much of the Costa Blanca relies heavily on tourism and as you can imagine and has many bars and restaurants. The businesses have not received any help from the government, which is very hard on them. Restaurants and bars still have to pay rent while their business lies shut or is restricted. I watch Spanish television news, but have Highland Radio playing on the laptop when I am in La Zenia, so I keep an eye on both places. These are difficult and unprecedented times everywhere and all anyone can do is keep going and remember that every day is one day closer to the light at the end of the tunnel.
I returned to Ireland at the beginning of March with my daughter and Jonathan continued working in Spain. Quieter times mean there simply isn’t work for everyone and I am not back to work yet. Luckily Jonathan’s job was not affected by the current situation, but while I had no work I decided it was the best thing to do .
I am staying with my parents and needless to say, they are delighted to have us back. I was actually looking forward to my 14-day quarantine! Mum’s cooking, washed down with a bottle of Football Special (Donegal’s greatest export) is my idea of heaven.
The hospitality sector in Spain has now opened again, but with restrictions. Gyms are also back open and ceremonies such as weddings may be celebrated also. Terraces are open to full capacity and inside seating is at 30 per cent. The weather in Spain isn’t beautifully sunny every day just yet, so some days it is just too cold to sit outside. Currently four people can sit at a table, and restaurants close at 6pm. But they are still open for takeaway services until 10pm, which is the curfew.
I can't see this summer being like summers gone by, but I remain optimistic that one day we will be back to bustling terraces and throngs of people on the beach
There are still very few people in the area, so very few people to serve. Brexit is also to be considered - many people are returning to Britain before the March 31st deadline, which results in fewer people in the area especially since the Irish and British make up a big part of the population here. I am hopeful that perhaps by May we will start to slowly see a trickle of tourists landing. As it stands, people arriving in Spain by air must have a negative PCR test, so that comes as a reassurance.
Me and my daughter will return to Spain in the middle of April and hopefully I will return to work soon after that. The social aspect of my job is something I really miss and I cannot wait to get back to see and serve everybody very soon. For many elderly customers, we may be the only person they see and talk to all day. During lockdown and our subsequent closures that thought really stuck with me. It is so important, now more than ever, to look after one another, as best as we can.
I can’t see this summer being like summers gone by, but I remain optimistic that one day we will be back to bustling terraces and throngs of people on the beach. I am so grateful to have all of this time to spend with my daughter. It is a lovely time of year in La Zenia and in Donegal.
My daughter is 10 months now, which is a fun age. Every day is different and I can’t wait to hear what her accent is going to sound like when she begins to talk. Being a first-time mother in these times comes with its challenges too. My parents are already longing to see Belle again. For the moment, the video calls are with her dad in Spain.
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