Where is home? A Londoner-turned-Madrileña reflects

Author Alice Fitzgerald shares her thoughts on making a home in Madrid and why she will always be an outsider.

Where is home? A Londoner-turned-Madrileña reflects
Alice Fitzgerald in Madrid's Retiro Park

I have my favourite markets where I drink cañas and eat bocadillos de solomillo on a Sunday, cafés where I go for my café con leche and tosta con tomaté, plazas where I sit outside in the sunshine for a menu del día. I write for a living, walk everywhere, have some great, creative friends, dance swing and run an open mic. I have a Spanish husband and a daughter that is Madrileña. She is still very young and already, her Spanishness is coming out: one of her first words was Mamá.

I have made my home – and it is a lovely one – in the Spanish capital. But, while I have made my home here, I cannot escape the feeling that this isn’t my real home, or my original one. I am reminded when I’m called a forastera – meaning outsider – in my husband’s village. I’m reminded when I am a tad shy and don’t shout out at a bar, meaning others are served before me. I’m reminded when I’m buying something off Wallapop and someone replies to my haggling in such a rude, brutish way that I can’t help but respond that they needn’t speak to me like that. No sé de lo que hablas. Adios, they reply, baffled. (In my defence, I showed this message to my husband and he thought it was rude, too.)

READ MORE: 12 signs you have totally nailed the Spanish language

Alas, there are reminders that I’m an alien in Madrid all the time. Maybe not every day, but every week. But aren’t they what I came here for, in the first place? It was that difference, that exoticness, the sun, the language, the way of life – and that it was another way of life to the one I knew – that drew me here.

Photo: ventanamedia/Depositphotos

I love being an alien and I hate it at the same time. Sometimes, I just want a bag of Cadbury’s Buttons, or some salt and vinegar McCoys, or a trip to an M&S Food Hall. A taste of comfort, a taste of home. Sometimes I fancy a pub lunch and a walk in Hampstead Heath, or  a pint, even though I’m not sure I could actually drink one any more.

The funny thing is that, when I was growing up in London, I didn’t know I was home. The daughter of Irish parents, I grew up listening to stories about ‘beyond’; about the green fields, the burning turf, the damp, the smell of the fire. ‘Home’ was the other side of the water. It was where our family was, where we would go every holiday, where my sister and I would run around during the summer and I would acquire an Irish accent and tell my cousins to ‘feck off’.

When we studied poets at school, I fell in love with Seamus Heaney’s vivid accounts of Irish country life; I recognized and loved them and their images, sights and smells. When I read Guyanese poet Grace Nichols’ Wherever I hang, which finishes with, ‘Wherever I hang me knickers – that's my home,’I recognized myself in that, too. Though I was not an immigrant, my identity was very much shaped by my parents’ Irishness.

While London was where I was born and where I lived, where I played in the park, went to school, did Irish dancing lessons, and spoke with my English accent, this connection I had with Ireland, which I came to understand as my real home, and our holidays that always ended too quickly, made me feel a longing. Galicians in the north-west of Spain have a special term for the nostalgia that Galician emigrants felt for their distant homeland; morriña.

Now, it is my turn to feel morriña, and remember my parents and my upbringing, and be aware that I’m doing it all over again, only I’m not driven by the lack of work and opportunity, I’m driven by my selfish desire to up sticks and settle somewhere I fancied. A few years down the line, with a child of my own, I can’t help but wonder the price of my choice. The fact that my daughter doesn’t have her cousins around the corner, nor her grandparents.

People have often assumed I mustn’t be close to my family in order to have moved abroad, but they couldn’t be more mistaken. I am very close to my family, and that is why the distance is so sharp. Why did you do it? You might ask. Because I wanted to, is the simple answer.

So, where is home?

Is it where my old family is, or where my new family is? Is it where I go in my dreams, or where I go in my day? Where my daughter is?

I don’t have the answers. What I do have is Grace Nichols’ poem in my head and a pile of washing. I’ll hang me knickers out – and in the hot Madrid sunshine, they’re sure to dry in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.

Alice Fitzgerald's debut novel Her Mother's Daughter is published this month. It's the tale of a troubled and emotionally abusive mother and her innocent ten-year-old daughter whose lives are changed after one summer holiday. Set across two decades against the backdrop of London and Ireland, it's a thought-provoking book-club read that deals with emigration, abuse and mental health, as well as mother-daughter relationships. It's now available on Amazon.  


Rampant branch closures and job cuts help Spain’s banks post huge earnings

Spain’s biggest banks this week reported huge profits in 2021 and cheered their return to recovery post-Covid, but ruthless cost-cutting in the form of thousands of layoffs, hundreds of branch closures and the removal of many ATMs have left customers in Spain suffering, in this latest example of ‘Capitalismo 2.0’. 

A man withdraws cash from a Santander branch in Madrid.
More than 3,500 Santander workers lost their jobs in Spain in 2021 and a further 2,000 more employees working for Santander across Europe were also laid off. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Spanish banking giant Santander on Wednesday said it has bounced back from the pandemic as it returned to profit last year, beating analyst expectations and exceeding its pre-COVID earnings.

Likewise, Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA said on Thursday that it saw a strong rebound in 2021 following the Covid crisis, tripling its net profits thanks to a recovery in business activity.

It’s a similar story for Unicaja (€137 million profit in 2021), Caixabank (€5.2 billion profit thanks to merge with Bankia), Sabadell (€530 million profit last year), Abanca (€323 million profit) and all of Spain’s other main banks.

This may be promising news for Spain’s banking sector, but their profits have come at a cost for many of their employees and customers. 

In 2021, 19,000 bank employees lost their jobs, almost all through state-approved ERE layoffs, meant for companies struggling financially.

BBVA employees protest against layoffs in May 2021 in Madrid. Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA is looking to shed 3,800 jobs, affecting 16 percent of its staff, in a move denounced by unions as “scandalous”. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Around 11 percent of bank branches in Spain have also been closed down in 2021 as part of Spanish banks’ attempts to cut costs, even though they’ve agreed to pay just under €5 billion in compensation.

Rampant branch closures have in turn resulted in 2,200 ATMs being removed since the Covid-19 pandemic began, even though the use of cajeros automáticos went up by 20 percent in 2021.

There are now 48,300 ATMs in Spain, levels not seen since 2001.


Apart from losses caused by the coronavirus crisis, Spain’s financial institutions have justified the lay-offs, branch closures and ATM removals under the premise that there was already a shift to online banking taking place among customers. 

But the problem has been around for longer in a country with stark population differences between the cities and so-called ‘Empty Spain’, with rural communities and elderly people bearing the brunt of it. 


Caixabank laid off almost 6,500 workers in the first sixth months of 2021. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Just this month, a 78-year-old Valencian man has than collected 400,000+ signatures in an online petition calling for Spanish banks to offer face-to-face customer service that’s “humane” to elderly people, spurring the Bank of Spain and even Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to publicly say they would address the problem.

READ MORE: ‘I’m old, not stupid’ – How one Spanish senior is demanding face-to-face bank service

It’s worth noting that between 2008 and 2019, Spain had the highest number of branch closures and bank job cuts in Europe, with 48 percent of its branches shuttered compared with a bloc-wide average of 31 percent.

Below is more detailed information on how Santander and BBVA, Spain’s two biggest banks, have reported their huge profits in 2021.


Driven by a strong performance in the United States and Britain, the bank booked a net profit of €8.1 billion in 2021, close to a 12-year high. 

It was a huge improvement from 2020 when the pandemic hit and the bank suffered a net loss of €8.7 billion after it was forced to write down the value of several of its branches, particularly in the UK. It was also higher than 2019, when the bank posted a net profit of €6.5 billion.

Analysts from FactSet were expecting profits of €7.9 billion. 

“Our 2021 results demonstrate once again the value of our scale and presence across both developed and developing markets, with attributable profit 25 per cent higher than pre-COVID levels in 2019,” said chief executive Ana Botin in a statement.

Net banking income, the equivalent to turnover, also increased, reaching €33.4 billion, compared to €31.9 billion in 2020. This dynamic was made possible by a strong increase in customer numbers, with the group now counting almost 153 million customers worldwide. 

“We have added five million new customers in the last 12 months alone,” said Botin.

Santander performed particularly well in Europe and North America, with profits doubling in constant euros compared to 2020. In the UK, where Santander has a strong presence, current profit even “quadrupled” over the same period to €1.6 billion.

Last year’s net loss was the first in Banco Santander’s history, after having to revise downwards the value of several of its subsidiaries, notably in the UK, because of COVID.

The banking giant, which cut nearly 3,500 jobs at the end of 2020, in September announced an interim shareholder payout of €1.7 billion for its 2021 results. “In the coming weeks, we will announce additional compensation linked to the 2021 results,” it said.


The group, which mainly operates in Spain but also in Latin America, Mexico and Turkey, posted profits of €4.65 billion ($5.25 billion), up from €1.3 billion a year earlier.

The result, which followed a solid fourth quarter with profits of €1.34 billion, was higher than expected, with FactSet analysts expecting a figure of €4.32 billion .

Excluding non-recurring items, such as the outcome of a restructuring plan launched last year, it generated profits of 5.07 billion euros in what was the highest figure “in 10 years”, the bank said in a statement.

In 2020, the Spanish bank saw its net profit tumble 63 percent as a result of asset depreciation and provisions taken against an increase in bad loans due to the economic fallout of the virus crisis.

“The economic recovery over the past year has brought with it a marked upturn in banking activity, mainly in the loan portfolio,” the bank explained, pointing to a reduction of the provisions put in place because of Covid.

In 2021, BBVA added a “record” 8.7 million new customers, largely due to the growth of its online activities. It now has 81.7 million customers worldwide.

The group’s net interest margins also rose 6.1 percent year-on-year to €14.7 billion, said the bank, which is undergoing a cost-cutting drive.

So far, it has axed 2,935 jobs and closed down 480 branches as the banking sector undergoes increasing digitalisation and fewer and fewer transactions are carried out over the counter.

At the end of 2020, BBVA sold its US unit to PNC Financial Services for nearly 10 billion euros and decided to reinvest some of the funds in the Turkish market.

In November, it launched a bid to take full control of its Turkish lending subsidiary Garanti, offering €2.25 billion ($2.6 billion) to buy the 50.15 percent stake it does not yet own.

The deal should be finalised in the first quarter of 2022.