Integration starts at the coffee shop

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(This post is also available to read in Dutch.)

Unlike the rosy picture that freelancing influencers abroad like to portray, I don’t spend my days in Valencia leisurely typing under a palm tree on the beach. The primary reason for this is that sand tends to find its way into the worst thinkable places, and also because of my poor flexibility. Without an ergonomic office chair to provide proper back support, this over-thirty person is utterly lost.

In an attempt to get a break from my usual coworking routine, I decide to swing by Bar Compostela nearby. While I take a seat at one of the wooden tables, I contemplate my next writing assignment – something to do with process optimisation, “but make it sexy, Thomas.” As my mind inevitably starts to wander, I observe a man with a crew cut in paint-stained overalls furiously mashing the buttons of a slot machine in the corner. “You’ve got to make your own luck!”, he grumbles to no one in particular. The machine appears unimpressed by these words of wisdom and continues to demand more coins. Meanwhile, on the large flat-screen TV mounted on the wall, a news correspondent is reporting on the latest developments in the ongoing Black Widow case. A woman appears to have poisoned her husband – just the cup of cyanide tea for Telecinco, which has built its market share to become the most-watched channel in Spain with endless reports on manslaughter and celebrity cheating scandals.

Background image of a palm tree under a cloudy sky

While I didn’t bring a fancy MacBook and I’m just scribbling a few notes on paper, I receive sceptical glances from some of the regular crowd. As a tall, blond foreigner, I stand out amidst the locals enjoying their bocadillos with ham. In a half-hearted attempt to establish my place, I order a tortilla sandwich in my best accent, with a dirty ‘s’ and cutting short some of the syllables. The tensions dissipate as Juan and Juan recognise that I’m not one of those tedious turistas who fuss over gluten-free nonsense. This place is proud of its horsemeat burgers.

Just around the corner, at Tallat coffee shop, making a fuss about oat milk is not only tolerated, but even actively encouraged. It’s a place where smartly dressed twentysomethings take careful sips of various caffeine blends, meticulously selected by an Italian who proudly roasts his own coffee in one of the up-and-coming neighbourhoods. Every morning, he arrives on a suspiciously affordable electric bike, purchased from an online shop in China. I always pray that his battery won’t self-ignite during his commute. I enjoy spending my time at Tallat just as much, and it’s where I discovered the simple pleasure of a great cup of coffee. I like to eavesdrop on the ambitious plans that are forged here, and one can often overhear upbeat chatter in English, German and Dutch about the next over-engineered delivery app that is destined to bring world peace in the process.

There’s none of that at Compostela. Instead, people here pray for affordable housing and a stable job. The inevitable clash caused by gentrification is visible everywhere I look, making me question whether I’m part of the problem as well. Am I expected to accept the economic and political situation and merely fulfil my duties as a responsible citizen by duly paying my taxes? The upcoming regional elections only add to my uncertainty. Should I put aside my natural aversion to the regionalist pro-Valencian, calimero-style parties on the left side of the political spectrum? At least this would mean a continuation of the slow progress towards a more sustainable, liveable and greener city, which will become even more important as the summers are running hotter and drier than ever. With a coalition of the far-right Vox and the conservative PP parties being the only alternative, it seems I have little choice.

I recently discussed this dilemma with a friend. She pointed out that merely having these kinds of doubts was, and I quote, “a sign of already deep integration in the local community.” Naturally, I accepted the compliment at face value, fearing that any follow-up question might undermine my self-perception.

I settle my bill. The man at the slot machine is still awaiting his jackpot payout. I reassure myself that tomorrow I’ll visit Tallat and write out my handwritten notes onto my pricey laptop. Anything to maintain the equilibrium.