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Why I’m glad I left London for Madrid

British journalist Charles Graham-Dixon says the sense of community, vibrant cafe culture and feeling of safety are what make the Spanish capital so special

El Retiro park in Madrid.
El Retiro park in Madrid.

Both London and Madrid share similarities – there is a Metro system, major soccer clubs, a selection of famous galleries, museums and landmarks. However, common traits like these exist in most major capitals and here the similarities end. London and Madrid are visually, culturally and spiritually worlds apart. Now I live in Madrid, I am convinced leaving London was the right choice. Let me explain why.

Madrid is happier, its old and young people living in harmony, because it is a fairer city

Aside from three years spent at university in a small-ish town, London was my home for 33 years. It was my world. I knew it so well, I was never lost or confused. I knew what areas and neighbourhoods had the best bars or good, cheap restaurants. I understood, without looking at a map, how to get from one side of the enormous city to another in the shortest possible time. London was so familiar I almost existed on autopilot mode. Then things started changing.

London became increasingly expensive. Rents began spiralling out of control. Rooms for £380 per month in apartments became £850. A pint of beer in a pub went from £2.50 to £5. Old buildings or streets I once recognised became unrecognisable as ‘luxury’ apartments and chain supermarkets went up. But more than gentrification and increased living costs, the sense of anger and aggression, bubbling either at the surface or boiling over entirely, was what became noticeable.

An outdoor restaurant in the center of Madrid.
An outdoor restaurant in the center of Madrid.

With the poor getting poorer, communities becoming increasingly disenfranchised with societal inequalities and most people working themselves to the bone, London started feeling like a miserable place where many people were just not that friendly to each other. I will not claim to have lived in poverty – I have been very lucky with a supportive family background – but it seemed the London I knew and loved was no longer the same. It was time to leave.

One never feels concerned a violent or antisocial group or person may destroy the atmosphere

With a desire to learn the language, improve our quality of life and enjoy the weather and landscape of Spain, my girlfriend and I moved to Madrid. Though settling in a new country has not been without its problems, the way I now live makes these challenges worthwhile. It is hard to quantify without sounding abstract but Madrid feels happier, safer and altogether more joyful. Madrid’s cafe culture is well documented and I will never tire of sipping an icy cold caña on a warm evening, but more than this, the sense of community and peaceful coexistence are what make living here so special and truly different from London.

Stepping outside into my neighbourhood of Embajadores, I see people of all ages enjoying the city. Groups of old ladies gather and chatter excitedly like schoolgirls, children ride scooters and kick footballs, young people sit at cafe tables drinking without getting blind drunk. Everyone is together, enjoying the space, enjoying each other. One never feels concerned a violent or antisocial group or person may destroy the atmosphere. Madrid feels remarkably safe.

In London the opposite often feels true. There is often an edgy atmosphere on high streets or around certain bars. Old people are lonely, confined indoors, untrusting of the young people, who show them a lack of respect in return. At times in London, it can feel like something unpleasant is in the air or about to happen.

A road leading to capital’s landmark Puerta del Sol.
A road leading to capital’s landmark Puerta del Sol.

To suggest Madrid and Spain’s climate is solely responsible for this harmonious, outdoor, community living would be naive. After all, Madrid’s winters can be terrifically cold. Madrid is happier, its old and young people living in harmony, because it is a fairer city. This is not to say increasing rents and unemployment are not major issues – they are. But overall there is more in the city for people to enjoy than in London. Cafes and bars are cheap and affordable, parks and outdoor spaces are well maintained and plentiful, transport is efficient and inexpensive. These are not difficult things to get right but London seems unable to.

With Brexit looming, I do not know how my living here may be affected – perhaps that is best discussed in another blog – but since moving to Madrid I have felt more content, relaxed and peaceful than at any point in my life.

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