Let me get this straight: I am not French and I have never held a French passport. In fact, my only connections with the country have been a school exchange trip when I was 14, some family holidays and a fondness for Camembert cheese. Yet, for six months in 2012, I might as well have called myself Jean-Christophe Dubois.

We were on the first leg of a 12-month family sabbatical and had gone to live in the town of Selaya, in northern Spain. As our main goal was to improve our Spanish before we headed to South America, we had chosen a rural community in Cantabria, with an annual tourist population of about 13, in which to begin our adventure. The contrast with Hong Kong could not have been greater.


SELAYA'S MAIN STREET is surrounded by huge pastures and rolling hills so intensely green in spring, it is said, it makes your head hurt. There are cars, of course, but also a few horse-drawn carts, which transport milk to the processing plants dotted across the Pas Valley.

Maybe it is my fault everyone thinks we're French. We arrived in Spain across the French border and perhaps I told someone we'd "come from France". Maybe, in confusion, I said " oui" instead of " si" the first few times I spoke. Whatever the cause, my family has become known as "the French". As virtually no one speaks any English, or any foreign language, I give up trying to explain otherwise.

In Selaya, developments happen at the pace of the seasons and change is rare. Until very recently, if you were born here you probably died here. Pasiego is the name used to describe the people of the Pas Valley whose families have lived here for tens of generations. It is also used less flatteringly to describe someone who is considered a "fossil" or averse to change. It is therefore unsurprising that it takes a while to become accepted by our new neighbours. That's not to say the people aren't friendly; it's just that the arrival of a foreign family must be a lot for them to take in.

Whatever the locals think of us, though, the French thing keeps coming back, again and again: the occasional " bonjour" from someone passing on the street; a presumption in restaurants that I always want cheese for my dessert. And it's funny how we tend to behave as we think we are perceived.

After a few weeks I start to feel a bit French. At first it is just a vague urge to dress a little more stylishly, but then I begin to enjoy coffee for the first time and become more expressive with my hands when talking. It isn't long before I start to wear a little less deodorant.

We knew Spain had been hit hard by the financial crisis and that unemployment was high in this area, but we weren't prepared for quite how bad it would be. Talk in the cafes is that unemployment stands at more than 50 per cent and there are signs to suggest that is true: most of our children's schoolmates seem to be dropped off and collected by both parents and coffee bars are full of people nursing a single drink for an hour while talking ad nauseum about " el crisis".

I naively suggest to a local that I might get a job in a bar to improve my Spanish. Although his shrug could be interpreted as a "maybe", he holds my eye long enough for me to realise what it actually means is, "If you do, your body will be swinging from a lamp post before nightfall."

Despite the hard times, though, no one appears at risk of starving. The Spanish social security system is adequate, for the time being at least, and nearly everyone has a family member who grows vegetables or raises livestock. People reap the benefits of being more in touch with the land and it is not unusual for someone in the centre of town to have a goat and chickens in their back garden. A car mechanic invites me into his workshop to show me a wild boar he caught as a piglet and is fattening up in a reinforced pen.

The local food is surprisingly good, even by Hong Kong standards: all manner of meat products and cheeses are on offer, as well as hearty dishes such as cocido montanes, or "mountain stew", which is full of cannellini beans, chorizo and enticing sounding "blood sausage". Rural Spain is not a place for vegetarians or anyone squeamish about seeing whole carcasses strung up in butcher shops so people can select their cut of meat.

To help our children assimilate, we decided it was important to enrol Noah, aged four, and Neve, two, into a Spanish-language-only school. It is tough at first; tough in the way that peeling a child's white-knuckled hands from your shirt as you abandon them to a foreign environment with an alien language always is. But there are positives apart from the additional time we parents gain to take our own language lessons and linger over a coffee. One is that the children now have friends with exotic names. It takes me ages to realise that little Josue (pronounced "ho-sway") would have been called Joshua in English.

The friendly teachers of the small school, where everyone from the cleaner to the principal is known by their first name, welcome our clueless children, despite the extra work it must create for them.

When winter comes, it brings knee-deep snow that paints the fields and hills a dazzling white. Living in the town, we are relatively unaffected by the weather but one new friend, who lives up in the hills, is cut off for a week by snowdrifts. Stir crazy when she makes it into town after the thaw, she can't stop talking. One morning, she says, she looked out into a neighbour's field and saw as many as 30 vultures, huge birds with a wingspan of nearly three metres, feasting on a dead sheep. Apparently they occasionally fly in from the Picos de Europa mountains, where Spain's last brown bears can also be found.

The sleepy farmer's town wakes up on Friday and Saturday nights, as youths flock in from the surrounding villages to create a throbbing party scene. Music pounds out until 5am from the numerous bars along the main road and the pavements are littered with broken glass on the mornings after. However, despite the raucous behaviour and a lot of alcohol consumption, violence doesn't appear to be in the DNA of the northern Spaniard.


THERE ARE A LOT of things I will miss from our time in Selaya. I loved the way strangers said, " Buen provecho" ("enjoy your meal", or " bon appetit", as we say back "home") when they pass as you are eating in a bar or restaurant. And I enjoyed learning a language and the insight it gave me into another culture.

It was hard to leave and the goodbyes were inevitably followed by the question: "Are you going back to France?"

My reply was always, "Yes."

Well, what was the point of confusing things at that stage?

Matthew Copper is author of children's book Lost in Hong Kong


Getting there: Qatar Airways and Cathay Pacific both fly daily from Hong Kong to Rome, from where Ryanair flies three times a week to Santander, northern Spain. Buses run every two hours from Santander to Selaya, a journey of about an hour.