Jackie Waldren: Expat Lives

This article appeared in the FT Weekend’s Expat Lives column:

The poet Robert Graves lived and died in Deià, a village on the north-west coast of Mallorca. To him the village was a sacred place; in a 1970 interview with Playboy he described it as being at the centre of a “magnetic field” created by the iron ore in the mountains. Graves was one of the first expatriate artists to settle in Deià, but he was not the last. Since the first world war its dramatic cliffs and rocky coves have inspired waves of painters, writers and musicians.

It is the influx of expats and their impact on Deià that has long fascinated anthropologist Jackie Waldren, 79. In 1959, she discovered the village that would become the locus of her research, and her home. She remembers how soon after arriving she set out for Deià’s pebbly beach on foot. “I walked and walked and walked, and I slid down one of the [olive grove] terraces and sat there and looked around me. And I was just overwhelmed by the beauty of nature. It was vibrating,” she says.

Waldren spent decades living between Deià and Oxford, where she was a lecturer and research associate at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology and a member of Linacre College, specialising in the social anthropology of expat communities. Her book, Insiders and Outsiders: Paradise and Reality in Mallorca (1996), examines how expats have changed the village.

One of her interests is identity, how it is “negotiated” and the related issue of belonging. Deià and its expat community was a natural choice of subject. “I always wanted to get behind the myth of Deià — its magic, goddesses, energies,” she says. “Foreigners perceive the space very differently to the way locals do.”

In 1962, she co-founded the Deià Archaeological Museum and Research Centre with her late husband, Bill, in an abandoned 17th-century grain mill. The name of the museum — which holds exhibitions by expat artists, along with poetry readings and concerts — reflects Bill’s academic interest. As Waldren puts it: “Bill dug up the dead and I studied the living.”

Waldren was born in Los Angeles and she arrived in Deià aged 21 having just graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles. “I thought I knew everything,” she says. “[The landscape] really humbled me.” On her first evening at her lodgings she met Bill, an American artist and archaeologist based in Paris, who had spent the previous five summers in Deià, painting and giving art lessons. They got married and settled in Deià, renting a home until Bill designed and built a three-storey terraced “cave house” dug into the cliff.

“Back in those days, you could live in Deià for about $25 a month, including your rent,” says Waldren. Little has changed superficially about the place for centuries — there is still just one main road through the village of limestone buildings with terracotta roofs. In the 1970s Deià had a freewheeling vibe; Graves hosted friends such as Alec Guinness, Peter Ustinov and Gabriel Garciá Márquez. Waldren recalls being chastised by the actress Maggie Smith, also a guest of Graves, for always dressing in black “like a Spanish woman”.

From 1975 the Waldrens — Jackie, Bill and their four children — spent term time in Oxford and summers in Deià. After the slow pace of life in the village, Oxford felt like an adventure. “Concepts of time — the seasons, past and present, minutes or hours — had to be adjusted in each place,” she says. “After Deià, where everyone knows everyone else and everything about them, it was a joy to be anonymous and wander here and there on my own.” Though Waldren was reluctant to get too involved in the rituals of college life, she adjusted to “Oxford’s scheduling and super-organised life”.

Jackie Waldren in Deià
©Javier Carbajal Jackie Waldren in Deià

Meanwhile, the village’s fortunes were changing. In the 1980s a five-star hotel, La Residencia, was built. “Little by little the hotel has created a whole infrastructure,” Waldren says. “People get this sense of luxury [when] they stay in these beautiful suites and they think, ‘this is the dream of a lifetime’.”

Today, Deià’s population of about 700 triples in the summer, and foreigners own 40 per cent of the houses in the village. The “artist colony” has been transformed into a high-end holiday resort. Celebrities and a business elite — Richard Branson once owned La Residencia — are replacing the artists of old.

After Bill died in 2003, Waldren continued to live between Deià and Oxford, teaching in term time and running archaeological excavations in Mallorca during the holidays. In 2012 she moved to the island permanently. She found her time in Oxford had complicated her relationship with the villagers. “You had to regain their confidence every time you came back,” she says.

Waldren has no plans to retire. As well as pursuing her research into ageing expats in Mallorca and their access to healthcare, she has taken on several new roles: tour guide, speech giver, workshop leader and celebrant at weddings for English-speaking expats. “Deià is a place where I’ve reinvented myself many times,” she says.

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