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Sue Wilson.

Byline: By Sue Wilson

"Tell us one of your English stories," implored one of my Spanish friends in Barcelona last week.

"We miss them when you are away in London," she added, confirming once again that England consists entirely of the one city to the Spanish.

I have tried to explain where I live in the North-East but to no avail, even though people from Barcelona have an uneasy relationship with their own capital, Madrid.

My "English stories" are those which demonstrate some of our national characteristics such as a sense of fair play and a love of animals - which to many other nationalities border on lunacy.

The South Americans I know in Barcelona are particular anglophiles, admiring the freedom, safety, justice and social care we take for granted in the UK, but the lack of which has often driven them from their own countries.

I thought for a moment and then had a flash of inspiration about squirrels having recently improved my Spanish vocabulary to include them.

I told them about the decision to cancel a planned oak tree planting programme in Kielder Forest to save the red squirrels from being wiped out by the greys, since our humble indigenous reds are able to survive on the meagre pickings in Northumberland which are not very inviting to the marauding greys. Great. Fair play and animals. They loved it.

Although we British often consider ourselves a soft touch on such issues as immigration and criminal rehabilitation, our fairness and sensitivity is generally much admired overseas and is often demonstrated in successful diplomacy.

It never fails to amaze me how insensitive the Americans can be, for all their economic might, putting up the Stars and Stripes in delicate territory and assuming every nation wants to model themselves on the US.

The moral high ground is often highly suspect - like paying the chief executive of the New York Stock Exchange $187m and then insisting he resign when he has the temerity to take most of it.

The Spanish are similarly lacking in transparency and diplomacy. More seriously, they make no concessions for religious sensitivities.

The 2000 Spanish troops in Iraq wear the cross of Santiago de Compostela, the "matamoro" or Moor killer, a symbol likely to cause offence as they patrol Najaf, a city sacred to the Shia Muslims.

Moreover, the famous Osborne bull, a silhouette billboard advertising brandy, has been erected outside the Spanish military camp with its outsize attributes dangling like a bell-clapper.

That might not go down too well either with a religion eschewing alcohol and sexual display. And just for good measure, the departing military parade included a monkey wearing a fez.

There is also an endearing total disregard for tact. Sitting in a traffic jam one day en route to the airport, I remarked to my Catalan driver how many people used their cars for short journeys into town. I said they would be quicker going by bicycle as I did.

His reply was that bicycles were not part of the Spanish culture. Bicycles were only used by elderly foreign women. Much as I love Spain, could I just say I am still proud to be British.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Oct 6, 2003
Previous Article:From the floor.
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