Summer: The great gravitation south

By Paul Read

After ten years in Spain, I decided to spend the summer of 2005 in England. Although I didn’t expect a Mediterranean warmth, I did hope for a little more sun and a little less rain than I received. In July I travelled up to Newcastle – a charismatic and energetic place - but it rained incessantly. I then went south in August, heading for the popular folk festival in Broadstairs. Although it rained less frequently, rain it certainly did. And when it didn’t, it grew cloudy and got cold. To be fair, it was warm at times and there were people resolutely sunbathing on the wonderful sandy beaches and even swimming in the less wonderful, murky green sea. But it didn’t feel like summer to me. I wore long trousers and carried long-sleeve tops and shivered whilst others stubbornly donned their dusty beachwear. My relatives and friends sniggered at my ‘foreign’ habits. I suppose I had changed; acclimatised to another place, adopted another pace and acquired a new south European perspective. Or had I? Was I really choosing where I wanted to live, or was I just unconsciously fulfilling the dictates of my genes?

What does someone normally say to you when they learn that you live in Spain?

  1. ‘Oh you lucky devil, 12 months of sun and beach.’
  2. ‘My next door neighbours illegitimate sons dog has just bought a villa on the internet near you…’
  3. ‘Oh yeah, I’m thinking of buying there too, or Slovakia. Mind you, dirt cheap in Lower Siberia at the moment.’

Behind such predictable nonsense is a more serious question. What is really fuelling this search for a home abroad? I asked an old friend who is a geneticist. He told me that the reason for the Great British Stampede South has little to do with Ryan Airs cheap flights or the incessant diet of property investment TV. Instead we are responding to a more profound but less explored emigrational shift: The demands of our DNA.

For some time, both scientists and geneticists have known that modern man originated in Africa about 200.000 years ago, the oldest fossils being found in Ethiopia. About 130 – 150.000 years after this, a particularly restless bunch left the African continent and headed east, and in so doing began the slow but methodical population of the planet, replacing their Neanderthal cousins as they went. It was from this nomadic group, according to DNA specialists, that all non-Africans descend. 50.000 years ago, they arrived in Australia, and between 40 and 30.000 years ago they moved though Asia before heading up into Europe.

So according to geneticists, north European emigrants are on their way home. In fact, he added, we are all compelled – programmed by our DNA - to return to that great continent from which all life once sprang. Maybe, I thought, he was exaggerating a little. He is after all a geneticist and by definition, completely out of touch with normal life. Besides, he has an untrustworthy haircut. But I was left with some unanswered questions. What if the south of Europe was not our final destination? What if Spain was just a roadside tavern – a posada – a place to rest before continuing our trek south?

And what happens when this purchasable coastline gets too over-crowded and the Spanish interior fills up with foreigners gravitating south? Will we then cross over the sea to settle in the north of Africa where land and property is even cheaper? Well, it may surprise you to know that it’s already happening as more people are buying up property in the small pueblos of the Atlas Mountains.

Maybe this retracing of our footsteps is the only way we know of answering some of our most timeless and fundamental questions: Where do we come from? How did we get here? Where are we going? The pull of our ancestry is pretty heavy stuff to ponder over when on holiday for a couple of weeks. But in answering some of these questions this summer, you’ll be taking back with you something more other than just the Mexican hat and the cheap booze.

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