What It's Really Like to Grow Up in Ibiza

Less MDMA and sangria; more prim and proper right-wing children with stoner parents.

Jul 21 2015, 3:00pm

A young lady in Ibiza. Screen shot from our documentary Big Night Out: Ibiza

A young British man enjoying Ibiza (Screen shot from our film Big Night Out: Ibiza)

It's always easy to predict the response to the statement: "I grew up in Ibiza." The most common presumption is that I spent my teenage years chewing rocks of MDMA whole, sipping sangria outside Amnesia and generally living like some marauding, indestructible party phoenix, rising each day from the flames blown on beaches and outside bars by those women in sweaty leather corsets and impractical hair jewellery.

"Oh, your parents still live out there?" they ask. "Do they own a club?"

The reality couldn't be any further from all that: my mum's a teacher and my stepdad's a lawyer. There's life outside San Antonio, where the majority of clubs are located: people have normal jobs; people own vehicles; people buy orange juice to drink in the morning, rather than to mix it with a bottle of Glen's; people go to school and, if they're me, get bullied mercilessly for their surname, pallor and penchant for outfits that fall outside the narrow boundaries of acceptability on an island that is, in essence, a bunch of small insular towns that the Mediterranean successfully segregates from the real world.

The harbour in Old Town (Photo by David Sim via)

Stephen Armstrong wrote The White Island: The Extraordinary History of the Mediterranean's Capital of Hedonism in 2005, when Ibiza already had a reputation as Europe's number one party island, but before the recession hit Spain with such blunt force that unfinished building projects lined the streets and the rate of unemployment soared to over 25 percent – and double that for young people.

"Ibiza's changed a lot, but I still find it a magical place," said Stephen. "It's hard to define, and I'm not a religious man, but there's a certain feeling I get as I drive into the island from the airport which makes me feel at peace. It's like I can feel the island. People go there to find themselves, to enjoy the inclusiveness and open-mindedness."

It's fascinating to hear this perception, and something I can empathise with completely – though not in relation to the place I was raised. The feeling of freedom, of being able to be who you are without judgement, of feeling an overwhelming sense of belonging, of knowing that you've escaped the shackles of your youth – that was the feeling I experienced when, at 18, I left Ibiza for London.

When I was a teenager, I detested the small town mentality of my Ibicenco peers, longing instead for the day that I could be in a city of excitement and culture, where I felt I belonged.

Lidia is 25. We went to primary and secondary school together and parted ways when she went to Barcelona to go to university. Now, for the third year in a row, she is working full-time during the summer at the airport, living with her mother and hoping she can save enough money to pay her way through a Masters degree – almost a prerequisite for young Spanish graduates looking to work in their chosen field. She is an incredibly talented woman, bilingual, driven and hard-working – yet the jobs are simply non-existent, and more importantly she lives in a place where it's perfectly acceptable – if not expected – to live with your parents in your twenties, until you find a man to marry (and cook and clean for). If my description makes the society sound reactionary, that's because it is: a reality completely at odds with the life portrayed in coffee table books and on BBC3's booze Britain documentaries.

Ibiza is a fantastic place to go on holiday, but real life there is neither a paradise for lonely souls nor a haven of cheap alcohol and narcotics. Steven gave me his take on why our generation has such polarised views of Ibiza. "It's become an expensive place to go on holiday, which means that much of what the island has to offer isn't accessible to young tourists," he offered. "But more importantly, it's where your parents went to get fucked – and why would you want to go there?"

He has a point. When I was at school, most of my classmates had parents who had experienced the first wave of Ibiza hedonism. Those who weren't born and bred on the island had arrived in the 60s and 70s to experience the dream. When I was growing up, that lot still wore ripped jeans and tribal prints and smoked weed in their well kept gardens. The coolest thing to be among their 13-year-old kids? A prim, sleek-haired, polo shirt-wearing caricature of a young Conservative. Rebellion comes in many forms.

Antonio runs a small bar named Jazz in Figueretas, one of the busiest and most touristy beaches on the island – but also an area where a lot of low-income families live. The bar is dark and quiet, with football on the wall-mounted screen, cheap beers and a host of regulars who Antonio will walk outside to have a cigarette with, chatting about the weather and enquiring as to the health of children and pets.

His business is a far cry from the bars of San Antonio, which are all about recreating a British strip under the sun, with cheaper booze and fewer clothes. It bears no resemblance to the vast buildings built alongside motorways that house the clubs Ibiza became famous for. He sees the real side of the island, and thinks that unless something changes, Ibiza could lose the only financial lifeline it has left.

"Politicians need to get more involved if they want to improve the face of tourism," he said. "Get back that perception of the ocean, the beach, the flamenco. Make it less elitist by increasing cycle lanes – people think motorbikes are better because they're faster, and perhaps that's part of the problem: they just want to keep making everything faster, rather than taking a step back."

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Slowing down would be no bad thing, but the way in which we travel is so far removed from our parents' experiences that perhaps there'll never be another place that will unite a generation in quite the same way. We can get return flights for a pound, stay in Airbnbs for a fraction of the cost of even the cheapest of hostels, and find out everything there is to know about a place before we even plan the trip. There are 340 million people on TripAdvisor every month, finding "hidden gems" and Street View-ing their journey from the airport.

"Maybe there's just nothing left to discover," said Steven, when we talked about my peers and our view of our travels. This is true of many places, but interestingly not of Ibiza – some of the best aspects to be discovered are hiding in plain sight, but if you find them and you love them, save them for a holiday. Spend a few weeks a year enjoying the beauty, culture, food and peace. Don't move there.

Living in Ibiza means living on an island with incredible scenery and a vibrant summer, but it also means spending winters aching for culture or entertainment, worried about the security of your job and bereft of the ability to hop on a train or a bus anywhere beyond a few towns away.


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