surinenglish

An unplanned but enjoyable career move

Gwen Ferber became a councillor in 2015
Gwen Ferber became a councillor in 2015 / Jennie Rhodes
  • Gwen Ferber - Councillor for Volunteers and Tourism, Cómpeta

Gwen Ferber has been the councillor Volunteers and Tourism in Cómpeta since 2015. She and her late husband, Tom, first visited the town in the summer of 1993 when they spent the six weeks' school holiday there.

As school teachers in the north of England, Gwen says that they would make the most of their holidays and travel as much as possible. Tom had found the house advertised for rental in the Sunday newspaper in England and at that time he was studying Spanish at night school in England. His teacher was from Malaga, so when he reserved the house for the summer he proudly told his teacher he was going to Cómpeta. "She asked for how long and when he said six weeks she nearly collapsed! She said for her a day in the village was enough as she was a city person," reflects Gwen.

On one of the couple's first visits to a small bar near the plaza, when they asked for the bill the barman pointed out an elderly man at the end of the bar who had paid it. "When we asked why he said because he had wanted to and we the spent the next few weeks trying to buy him drinks back but it was impossible," Gwen remembers.

The draw of Cómpeta

Although Gwen and Tom were keen travellers, Gwen says that there was something about Cómpeta that kept drawing them back, and Tom in particular knew that it was where he wanted to retire.

He loved "all things Spanish", says Gwen. When the opportunity to take early retirement came up, Tom said to Gwen that he was going to live in Spain. "You can keep on working in England and come out for holidays Tom told me, but I said 'no way - if you go I go'."

They bought a small village house and moved to Cómpeta permanently in 2003, driving across Europe in a transit van along with their pet parrots. Gwen says of the decision that at the beginning it was "hard for me as I had always been financially independent with my own job, house and car, so giving all that up really went against my way of thinking". "The things we do for love!" she adds.

Tom and Gwen quickly settled into the pace of life in Cómpeta and started to meet people as well as joining the various groups, including the pastoral singing group. They helped with Spanish and English lessons in the village and also got involved in local politics. The couple had not been political in the UK so when in 2005 Tom was elected as councillor for Tourism and Foreign Residents, it was the beginning of a new type of adventure for the pair.

Gwen says the first thing she said to Tom was, "That's another fine mess you've got us into," yet she assisted him with this work every day. Together they created the "Volunteers" a group of people from various countries willing to help promote tourism in Cómpeta.

This group continues today helping at the tourist office and museum on Sundays. They prepare walking routes and new materials as well as translating this information into various languages, helping the police and providing vital support at events like the "Noche del Vino" in August.

Tom was diagnosed with cancer in 2008 and after four years of treatment lost the fight and died in 2012. Gwen says that despite his illness, his philosophy on life was to "keep yourself busy", so he carried on with his role as councillor and Gwen continued to help him.

Support

"I received incredible support and help from local people, including the mayor and team of councilors. Without them I do not know what I would have done," says Gwen but adds that the idea of returning to the UK, "has never entered my head".

Instead Gwen, who will celebrating her 60th birthday later this year, has followed in her husband's footsteps; she continued working with the volunteers and her name had remained on the election list, so in 2015 when the former mayor, José Luis Torres, stepped down and a series of changes took place, Gwen found herself with a seat on the council. She is now the councillor for Tourism and Volunteers and as such is still responsible for the group that she and Tom set up in 2005.

"I have taken a leaf out of my husband's book, I keep busy. I try to treat people as I myself would wish to be treated, trying to pay back the debt of support and kindness that I was once on the receiving end of."

Brexit uncertainty

However, for her perhaps more than many, Brexit is potentially about to be a major stumbling block; as a European Union citizen, Gwen is able to pursue her role as councillor, but as the law stands, she would not be able to continue to do so as someone from a non-EU country.

"By the next local elections, the UK may have left the EU and I would have to stand down. I wouldn't have stood again but now I don't know whether I will be able to," she rues.

Gwen adds that there are Brits living in Cómpeta who have already made the decision to go back to the UK. Approximately half of the population of Cómpeta is foreign and half of the foreigners are Brits. "The local economy relies on the foreign residents and visitors," says Gwen. "If they left a lot of the bars and restaurants would have to close."

The councillor advises people not to take any rash decisions as the final outcome for Brits abroad may not be as bad as some think; but, as she says, "we just don't know."

Gwen clearly enjoys the work she does and is immensely proud of her adopted village, the people who live there, both Spanish and foreign, and still has no plans leave.

"I get an enormous sense of satisfaction when I know I have been able to help someone," she says. "Here no one is alone unless they want to be! There is a good community spirit and an international mix."