By ALAN FREEMAN
Globe and Mail Update
Friday, November 15, 2002
GIBRALTAR - There's the most extraordinary sign as you head down Winston Churchill Ave. from the centre of Gibraltar to the border with Spain.
"Airfield Ahead. Pedestrians are to keep within the white lines. Please cross quickly."
That's right. The only road leading in and out of Gibraltar crosses the airport runway. Several times a day, barriers on either side are lowered and all traffic halts, like at a railway level crossing, while the commercial planes and fighter jets take off and land.
Seconds later after the plane has passed, the barriers rise and the traffic begins bustling by again.
Gibraltar, as you can see, is not for the claustrophobic. Crammed into a peninsula barely six kilometres long by one kilometre wide are almost 30,000 people plus a few thousand more who commute to work daily from the neighbouring Spanish town of La Linea.
And since much of the peninsula is dominated by the famous Rock, the inhabitable area is considerably smaller. Residents are crammed into the tiny streets of the historic centre, with quaint names like Irish Town and Governor's Parade or in apartment blocks that are still being built on every piece of vacant land.
Yet despite its small size, Gibraltar is a place all its own with its own legislature, laws, police, banknotes, stamps, schools and newspaper. And it's a society that's even more distinct from the rest of Spain than Quebec is from the rest of Canada. Gibraltar may be geographically a part of the Iberian peninsula and many of its people may have Spanish roots, but this is no way a part of Spain.
Nothing illustrates this better than the amazing 99 per cent referendum vote last week in which Gibraltarians were asked whether they would consider a proposal to have Spain share sovereignty over the enclave with Britain, their colonial masters for the past 300 years.
Again and again, I was told by Gibraltarians in the runup to the vote how they did not feel Spanish and wanted nothing to do with those foreigners across the isthmus. Even though Gibraltarians speak Spanish fluently, though with a heavy Andalucian accent, as well as English, their mindset is totally English.
"I feel very Gibraltarian, which means I've been brought up in a bicultural environment," explained J. E. Triay, one of the colony's senior lawyers. "I have an English education and a Spanish family tradition and culture."
For the island's elite, that means going to university in Britain after finishing high school. In fact, Madrid feels further away than London does, in part because it's harder to get to. As part of Spain's campaign to press its claim to recover the Rock, it doesn't allow flights from Gibraltar to any airport in Spain so regularly scheduled flights all head to Britain.
Because of the rule denying any air links between the colony and Spain, if the Gibraltar airport is fogged in, a plane arriving from London must be first diverted to Tangier in neighbouring Morocco before being allowed to land at the closest Spanish airport, Malaga, to let off its passengers.
Not only does Gibraltar have British schools, it has British laws and unfortunately, British food. The abundant seafood from the Mediterranean is only served if it's first deep-fried in a thick batter and served with soggy French fries and warm beer. There's not a tapa or paella in sight.
Although they feel bullied by the 40 million Spaniards next door, Gibraltarians do harbour a scarcely-concealed superiority complex. They have a much higher standard of living than on the mainland and none of the problems facing modern societies like drugs and crime. Family values really do reign supreme here.
"We have no rapes or anything like that," a taxi driver boasted. He said there was a murder a few years back, but he assured me that the perpetrator was a Spaniard, not a Gibraltarian.
Gibraltar also has a remarkably diverse population. "We're probably one of the earliest multicultural societies," said Dominique Searle, editor of The Gibraltar Chronicle, with daily circulation of 3,000.
While most of the population is Catholic, many are the descendants of Maltese and Italians as well as Spaniards. There are also sizable Hindu, Muslim and Jewish communities and everyone does live in a remarkable spirit of tolerance, despite the close quarters.
Solomon Seruyan, a leader of the 600-member Jewish community, is proud to note that the first Seruyan arrived in Gibraltar 265 years ago. Like most of the community, they were the descendants of Sephardi Jews who had been expelled during the Spanish Inquisition.
The Jewish community is still thriving, operating four synagogues and three schools, and feeling Gibraltarian to the core.
Yet, despite the sense of triumph felt by the population after last week's referendum victory and the subsequent acknowledgement by a British minister that negotiations with Spain can't succeed unless the people of Gibraltar are given a place at the table, Gibraltarians realize they remain heavily dependent on Spain.
Where once the British naval base accounted for 60 per cent of the economy, now it's only 6 per cent. In its place, there is tourism, offshore banking and shopping, where Spain plays a key role. Winston Churchill Ave. is crowded with Spanish day-trippers filling up on tax-free gas and buying cheap cigarettes alcohol and perfume at the town's shops.
So when the Spanish authorities get angry and slow down the traffic through the border post, it hurts.
Mr. Triay, the lawyer, says that Gibraltarians have to try and overcome their mistrust of the Spanish. "It's rather like a person living in Hong Kong who says he doesn't trust the Chinese. Gibraltar can't develop in isolation. Its development must depend on contact with Spain."