FRESHER EXPERIENCE – First world (student) problems don’t get more Llanito than these…

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As we enter September, it is once again time for a budding, excited group of 18-year-olds to make the big step to university. Leaving home, and leaving Gibraltar, for the first time can be daunting of course, and the teens will have plenty of jitters as they get on the plane, enjoy the last of their home cooked meals for the term in their trusty Tupperware, and eventually, say goodbye to their parents (who have bought them way too much food and gone a little mad in both Ikea and Primark).

As the new batch of Gibraltarian freshers start their journey into the unknown (perhaps surrounded by a group of other Llanito freshers, as we often travel in packs), I thought it was best to warn them of the trials and tribulations they are set to face. I’m not talking about all the practical, real-life issues you might have, in terms of sorting out accommodation, organising your flights, making sure you take all the relevant paperwork with you, sorting out a UK bank account, etc. No, I’m talking about the little things you’ll miss, the cultural quirks that will only become apparent when you leave our sunny nest and arrive in unfamiliar (probably grey, maybe wet) surroundings. The first world problems, somewhat unique to the average Llanito fresher if you will, and completely ridiculous when you say some out loud.

And who better to impart their wisdom than those who have come before, the freshers of time gone by. The more people I spoke to about their experience of their first year of undergraduate life, the more I realised how no matter what part of the UK you had ventured to, many of our experiences were very similar. Of course, we Gibraltarians are British, but the whole idea that Gibraltar is a ‘Britain in the Sun’ is nonsense. Our cultural identity is so different to that of British people; life in the UK can take a lot of getting used to.

Stefano Blanca Sciacaluga, a languages student who lived in Portsmouth for his undergraduate degree said, ‘You think you know English people but then you realise they’re all weird!’ Stefano said the hardest thing was getting used to the very different way he felt they do things in the UK, from eating dinner at six o’clock, to their stubborn use of imperial unit measurements to driving on the wrong side of the road. And the issue is that you will be in an overwhelming minority in your thinking that it’s ‘weird’, as Stefano puts it. When the writers of Youniversity, the Gibraltarian student handbook, surveyed local students, the most significant issue or problem associated with being at university was “adjusting to a new lifestyle” or culture. So even among the practical issues I mentioned earlier, cultural and lifestyle changes still served as the worry and problem dealt with by the most students, albeit from a small sample.

Stefano quite bluntly highlights just how far from our UK counterparts we can seem, and Rebecca Vila, who was a law undergraduate at Bristol, felt this especially. ‘People at uni kept telling me off for being super loud, as they didn’t understand it was because I’m Mediterranean’. To our, perhaps more reserved, British cousins, we can be a bit much upon first meeting. This also translates to our enthusiastic kiss on the cheek greeting (I’ve had a few awkward moments here), and even our “proud Llanito” mind-set which we wear on our sleeve (or up on our bedroom wall, castle and key flying high), which contrasts starkly to British self-deprecation. Our temperament and general makeup is so unlike those from the UK, it can definitely take some getting used to. Adapting to the change in some cases is probably a good idea to avoid constant annoyance (and eating dinner alone every night), but recognising a few of the things that unite us would bode well too. You also never know, you might even start to embrace some of the customs once unbeknown to you. My own personal favourite is the simple charm and satisfaction of the humble meal deal, a much-loved British staple found in every major chain supermarket, and every student’s dream of a dirt-cheap lunch you don’t have to make yourself.

Speaking of food, complaints about the difficulty of adjusting to a life without our beloved Llanito staples were emphatically raised by the majority of the students I spoke to. Sarah Polson, formerly a law student at Portsmouth, said, ‘Not having my mama to cook my torta de patata or croquetas was a big problem.’ Drama student at St. Mary’s Alex Menez also spoke of the struggle, and was even driven to write a poem especially for Calentita night about missing the taste of home, in her ‘An Ode to You, Abuela’. In it, she is in her university halls’ bedroom craving her grandmother’s food; You’re over 1000 miles away / And I can’t just fly you over to feed me. Our love for a home cooked meal is undoubtedly not dissimilar to the rest of the students at our halls from all over the world, so not exactly unique to the Gibraltarian. However, the importance we place on food down here in the Mediterranean, and the way it is intertwined with our family values, I feel, is a little different. Alex writes; Your garlic smelling hands and extra soft skin, / Your wobbly calentita and sewing tin, / Your dense torta acelga and silver perm, / Your chicken sopa’s magical ability to kill my germs. She weaves her love of the food and, in this case, her abuela’s features together to show just how entwined they are. So combine homesickness and hunger, and you’ve got a lot of Gibraltarians wishing the matriarchs in their life were in their messy halls’ kitchens, the smell of fritura or a big pot of rosto wafting in the air.

And it’s not just home cooked treats that the incoming freshers will be missing, but also products unavailable in the UK. Rebecca said, ‘The most “extra” thing I can think of [is] not having pipas and saladitos. It honestly made me sad all the time. And Mister Corn, but I found a Spanish shop in third year that sold them.’ This tricky business of accessing the products of home stem beyond just this, as people pack their suitcases laden with tomate frito, chorizo, Serrano ham and pan rallado just as you would your clothes. I’ve even known friends to pack freezer bags of pinchitos or their mother’s shepherd’s pie and lasagne, sacrificing those precious kilos for an extra couple of weeks with the taste of home. Daniel Benitez, an IT and web development student at Leeds during his undergrad, said one of the issues he encountered on a termly basis was, ‘running out of Sun Colas in the first two weeks because [I] basically couldn’t carry more from the departure lounge.’ The Sun Top is a fundamental part of the Gibraltarian diet, not just in its natural state, but most especially frozen and enjoyed as a glorified (E-number nightmare) Popsicle. The struggle, for Daniel and much of the Gibraltarian student population, is indeed real.

And beverage issues go much further, with the stakes becoming increasingly high on the subject of spirits. No, I don’t speak of lifting your emotional spirits during exam time or during deadline week, I mean all the pre-drinking supplies universal to the student kitchen cupboard. With the average one litre bottle of branded vodka costing more than double what you would pay in Gibraltar International Airport’s departure lounge, the UK is a bleak place for the student who knows the grass really is greener back home. ‘When I had to pay £15 for a vodka coke, that hit me hard,’ photography undergraduate at Kingston Gabriella Martinez reminisced. Daniel echoed these sentiments, describing the horror of running out of ‘Gibraltarian alcohol’. The prices in the UK drive students to cram as many bottles (as they are legally allowed) in their carry-ons and suitcases, and trying to stretch out how long they last. But alas, with freshers’ week commitments and the average ram-packed social schedule of a first year student, the alcohol will very soon run out. So until you have a relative visit who can bring you a new stash, or your next flight home, you’ll be looking at an extortionate pre-drinking habit, Aldi’s own brand vodka (good luck with that hangover), or beer/wine for the rest of the term. Oh, how we suffer.

Alex Menez reciting her poem

Expressing this suffering might also prove difficult, as you will definitely come across a lot of confused looks when you open your mouth. The indeterminable Gibraltarian accent, in its variations and intensities, is a subject of huge interest from the average flatmate during freshers week, and almost everyone you meet will try (and fail) to place it. South African, Irish, Spanish and Aussie (in their defence, they were intoxicated at the time) have all featured in my list of answers for the ‘Where do you think Molly’s from?’ game my close friends at university liked to play with strangers. But none was as popular as Welsh. ‘I was constantly violently accused of being a liar because obviously, I was actually Welsh not “GibraltAN”,’ an exasperated Alex told me. I have even heard of Gibraltarian friends studying in Wales being mistaken as Welsh by actual Welsh people. Beyond the then inevitable struggle of explaining where Gibraltar is/sovereignty question/and now what Brexit means for us (can’t wait), there are also the little phrases which separate us. Sarah said, ‘the way we form our sentences is very different to people in the UK, like for example with the phrase, “see you now”, they don’t get that it’s not literal.’ Literal translations, just like connecting words we use like ‘pero’, or sentences ending with ‘no?’ will often be repeated by bemused university friends, as some habits are just difficult to shake. And your Gibraltarian-ness could even become the leading identifiable feature you possess, as Alex and many others experienced: ‘In my first week, I had lost my name and was reduced to being called ‘Gib’ or ‘Gibraltar’ for three whole years.’ How we cope, I will never understand.

One problem universal to the Gibraltarian student in the UK, and impossible to ignore, is the stark contrast in temperature. September will see Gibraltarian students experience a sudden reality check in the form of clouds, more clouds and a lot of rain. The first time you hear temperatures of around ten degrees described as “warm” may be your breaking point (probably late November). The immediate switch from sun-kissed to soaked will come as a shock, no matter how prepared you are (electric blanket owners, I’m looking at you). As the days get significantly shorter, frosty breath settles and layer upon layer of clothing does little to calm your chattering teeth, the nostalgic social media posts will begin to flood onto our feeds. Throwback photos of the beach, salty tresses and swimsuit life (with accompanying #LifeIsBetterWithATan #SummerLoving #WhereIdRatherBe) will begin to surface, as the bleak British winter sets in. And as if having to commute at all wasn’t bad enough (where’s your moped when you need it?!), try commuting in sub-zero temperatures and freezing sleet. I, for one, can’t wait.

Of course, these “problems” are only the issues of a group used to the cushy life we’re so blessed to live in our little bubble here in Gibraltar, and are an indicator of all the benefits of our home. It’s not all doom and gloom up north, I promise. You’ll no doubt meet the most diverse group of people you’ve ever come across, hopefully make lasting friendships, love the city you live in, learn to look past the grey sky, and even enjoy studying for the first time in your life! But we wouldn’t be Gibraltarian if we didn’t voice a few complaints, because life can still be hard when your tuition is paid for and you have a grant to live off for three whole years (or six or seven if you play your cards right)! So, enjoy incoming freshers, because when it’s over, it’s over, and you won’t know what you had until it’s gone – or you could just do a masters/PhD/second degree.

words | Molly McElwee

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