The colour of Spain

By Sarah Lang

Featured in Capital #8

Cover model Zoe Radford Scott (second from the left) is interviewed about her flourishing career in New York in our brand-new feature Foreign Bodies, appearing in issue #81. Available 1 January.

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Tapas may be common fare today, but a decade ago it was a different story. Back in 2014, Sarah Lang investigated our growing love affair with Spain, capturing a zeitgeist of travel, language learning, and cultural exchange – pursuits now haunted by the spectre of Covid-19.

Not so long ago, Spain wasn’t on the cultural radar; Sangria or, at a push, paella was about as far as familiarity went.

Sophisticated travellers mostly visited Paris, Milan, or Berlin. But listen now in a café and chatter includes discussions of tapas, the architecture of Gaudí, the merits of the siesta, and shopping in Barcelona.

When a Spanish señorita walks into Poquito on Tory Street, all eyes turn to her, and the bartender and a handsome patron stop and greet her.

That’s not just because of her tumbling curls, dark pools of eyes, and sparkling smile. It’s because Leticia Murillo is a social butterfly by New Zealand standards, if not by Spanish standards, so she knows people. She likes to go out most nights and chat to locals when she does, just as they do in Spain. Plus she’s met just about every Spaniard in town.

Murillo, 36, has lived in Holland, France, Ireland, and the UK, but mainly in her hometown of Zaragoza, Spain, where her family still lives. Earning her Bachelor of Business at the University of Zaragoza, she worked as a global export specialist for various companies. Then, after gaining a Master’s in translation, she moved to Island Bay, Wellington, in February 2012, to start a career as a freelance translator (of English, Spanish, and French).

“I wanted to live in an English-speaking country close to nature, where you can be happier and less worried than in other countries. And I love Wellington. It’s cute and people are very open, friendly, responsive, respectful, and interested in my culture.”

You can take the girl out of Spain, but you can’t take Spain out of the girl. Murillo speaks passionately about the culture known for its tapas, sangria, paella, flamenco, bullfighting, beautiful women, art, and architecture.

And she has organised a plethora of events to spread the Spanish language, food, music and culture in her adopted town. “I’ve noticed everything Spanish is becoming popular in Wellington.”

For starters, we’ve built up quite an appetite for Spanish-style tapas. Just look at all the Spanish-themed eateries and tapas bars that have sprung up in Wellington’s crowded restaurant scene.

Entrants include Poquito (“a little bit” in Spanish), Ombra, and El Matador, which join stalwarts Havana, Zibbibo [now closed] and Osteria del Toro [now closed]. Every week on Paella Mondays, Osteria del Toro’s chef demonstrates how to cook then serves up Spain’s best-known dish; in August the restaurant held a celebration dinner with Spanish food, wine, musicians, and flamenco dancers as part of Wellington on a Plate.

Wellingtonians don’t just want to eat Spanish cuisine, we want to make it ourselves. Wholesalers Moore Wilson’s sells a lot of Spanish food, wine, cookbooks, and paella pans.

In October, to mark Spain’s national day Fiesta Nacional de España hosted paella and wine tastings. Over at Aro Valley Community Centre, Murillo’s popular class “Friday Fiesta! Tapas and Sangria” is a hit. She shows the group how to prepare tapas and sangria as they listen to Spanish music, play Spanish games, then eat and drink together. “People don’t only learn the recipe but about the culture too,” Murillo says, whipping out a Spanish fan and placemat from her bag like an Iberian Mary Poppins. She also teaches private Spanish-language classes.

Murillo isn’t the only one teaching Wellingtonians how to say “Buenos días”. The Viva Spanish language school, which opened eight years ago with eight students, now has 400–450 annual enrolments and counting. Some students are preparing to travel: some to Latin America, some to Spain itself. According to Flight Centre, the number of Kiwis travelling to Madrid rocketed by more than 15 percent in the year to October 2013, and Barcelona’s nearly as popular.

The appeal is primarily our perception of Spain’s exotic culture, and partly because holidaying there is cheaper following the Eurozone crisis. Given 25 percent unemployment, austerity measures, political corruption, social unrest, and rocketing crime rates, many Spaniards are tempted to leave.

Between 2008 and 2012, the number of young Spaniards (up to age 34) emigrating rose by a staggering 41 percent. Why not come to the home of The Lord of the Rings? The number of Spanish nationals with New Zealand residence visas nearly doubled in the year to June 2013, and numbers of temporary work visas for Spaniards have risen every year for the last four.

Though there are still only 200 Spanish nationals living in Wellington, the group is growing – and already has a strong presence. “The Spanish community here is small but so active,” Murillo says. “We all know each other, and we’re always meeting at parties or restaurants or going to somebody’s house for paella. And we’re members of the same groups.”

She belongs to the Wellington Spanish/Latin-American Meetup Group, which meets on Monday nights and has 219 members (including Kiwis practising their Spanish). Occasionally, she watches Spanish-language films with the Spanish and Latin American Club on Tuesday nights. And every two to three months she meets around 10 Spanish women at dinner at different restaurants. “We talk about how our lives have changed, and we compare New Zealand and Spanish men a lot!”

One of her Spanish acquaintances is Javier Murcia, a 32-year-old sculptor for the Wētā Cave. Growing up in Tenerife, one of Spain’s Canary Islands, he lived in Denmark and Italy before moving here in February. Whether he stays depends on work, but he’s loving living in a country as laidback as he is, and close to the outdoors he loves.

“Wellington is very like the island I’m from. I haven’t been with a Kiwi woman but I can see and feel a big difference between passionate Latin people, and more relaxed Kiwis.” His Kiwi flatmates and friends are intrigued by a culture they see as exotic, and he’s also mates with around 10 Spanish guys who work for Wētā. “We ate paella together the other Sunday. I’ve met other Spaniards at parties, some in the street. If I can hear they’re Spanish, sometimes I stop and say ‘Hola’.”

We can all say hola to Spanish culture when the 2014 New Zealand Festival opens on 21 February*. No other culture has such a strong festival presence – not even close. “As the festival programme evolved, a strong Spanish theme emerged which ties into the festival’s strong themes of passion and fire,” says artistic director Shelagh Magadza [now artistic director of the Chamber of Arts and Culture, Western Australia]. When I tell Murillo that the festival features a flamenco show by legendary Spanish dancer Israel Galván, her face lights up.

“Flamenco is so Spanish, so different, so amazing,” she says of the high-energy performing art that combines guitar, song and dance. She recently gathered a group of Spaniards to go to a flamenco performance by touring Spanish dancer Isabel Rivera, and she’s talking to Meow about staging regular flamenco performances. This month, Murillo returns from her first trip back to Spain. She’s here on a work visa, but wants to apply for permanent residency.

“The more time I spend here, the more Spanish things I will try to do,” she says. For instance, she’s thinking about setting up an “authentically Spanish” bar and eatery, where patrons can choose whatever takes their fancy from tapas at the bar. “It’s important to me to keep Spanish traditions and culture alive – and the more the better as, culturally, it makes us richer.”

*The Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts opens on 21 February 2022, more details can be found here.


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