Spain

Some photos: Granada and the Alhambra

Posted on 2 min read

Every now and again I spend a day being a real, proper tourist. In the case of my visit to Granada it was an entire weekend, a good part of which was taken up by the Alhambra.

You have to book tickets well in advance so I was all prepared for a crowded space, filled with hot and bothered tourists talking too loudly. Which meant that I was pleasantly surprised, when, having slogged my way up the hill, I found that the Alhambra wasn’t chocker-block with people, but, actually, especially in the gardens, was peaceful.

It’s not to say there weren’t people, yes I had to queue a while to use the ladies, but the space is so large, there’s just so much of it, that you can find yourself in a peaceful corner. And, if it just so happens you find yourself in a crowd, you just have to wait for them to pass by. They come in waves. As long as you move at a different pace, it’s alright.

My knowledge of Spanish history is… improving. The Romans were here, they built a fort. Muslim Emirs with very long names were here, they built the palaces – hence all the stunning, intricate design work – and Catherine of Aragon’s mum was here. That’s Isabel I, Queen of Castile, husband of Ferdinand. The mother wrote an essay on this royal couple at school. Christopher Columbus was here to get his travel documents signed off. Napoleon tried to destroy it and some poets wrote about it.

When you get tired of history and wander back down into town, there are plenty of tea rooms to quench your thirst.

Sometimes it’s good fun being a tourist. Sometimes you need to really holiday.

Some photos: Jueves Santa

Posted on 1 min read
Jesus on the cross.

The children at school instructed me that I had to see the Easter processions. It’s not necessarily that the children are themselves particularly religious. A few are definitely so, more are kind of uncertain, a significant number seem to be solidly atheist. As far as I can tell though, of those from a christian background, they’ve all been baptised and many confirmed. The church plays a significant role within the community here.

Let me tell you that it’s a spooky experience seeing the people weilding torches, wearing masked faces in rich robes. Some off them suddenly broke rank and leapt towards me. A voice spoke out to me, teasing me in English refusing to give their identity but rewarding me instead by putting their hands inside their robes and pulling out…

… huge handfuls of sweets. Yep. They might look like their wearing cushions around their middles, but it’s actually millions of sweets. I came home with my pockets stuffed full.

Things like this, however obsurd them might seem to me, remind me that community rituals have a value. What do you think of such processions? Have you ever taken part in one?

A miraculous transformation to being a morning person (should it last)

Posted on 5 min read
No, I didn’t set an alarm. Yes I really did just wake up to this.

I am in trouble.

You see I was rather loud in my breaking of a glass, outside of the Casera’s bedroom door, at seven in the morning. Making noise at 11pm is normal here. The kids in the apartment above run up and down the hallway. The ‘grandmas and grandpas’ in the ‘grandma and grandpa club’ hold a weekly disco. At seven though the apartment block is in silence. As there are no carpets, and few curtains, every sound, especially my clunking door reverberates throughout.

When you smash a glass of yogurt and then proceed to clear it up, cut your finger and wrestle with the cat who is very much awake and bored, you get into trouble.

History would suggest that I wouldn’t even think of being up this early

However something has changed. For reasons unknown to me I’m doing morning. I’m up early drinking coffee made in my new, tiny Italian moka (pot that you put on the hob to brew coffee). I eat breakfast. I have a short yoga routine. I practice my Spanish. And all before heading out to school.

Waking up, doing yoga, meditating before bed…

These are all things I have wished to do in an elegant habitual fashion for many years. Doing them though didn’t happen. I lacked the willpower to force any of it to happen. There were odd days, once every six months or so where I would wake in a spritely fashion and have a remarkable morning. Odd days. A good intention of executing efficient and energetic morning routines everyday would gestate in my mind. I’d tell myself that this would be a new beginning. The beginning would never get started. The next day I would find myself wondering what devil possessed me to set my alarm clock so early.

So when, at the beginning of January I found myself waking up, and feeling awake before seven, I figured that it was a temporary aberration. I would soon revert to my clumsy bear-coming-out-of-hibernation style getting out of the front door. Brushing my hair would return to the wayside. My hair would revert back to its messy bun. Coffee would wait until break time.

A few days later, when I was still getting up early, I began to worry. Yes, I could now touch my toes, what with all the yoga, but the awake-ness was weird. It was abnormal.

The teachers at school were still recovering from Christmas

They bumped into students as they passed them in the corridors, eyes not quite open, cheeks limp. In classes, the students folded their arms and lay their heads down to rest. The teachers forgot what they were supposed to be teaching and their already Spanish timekeeping took a turn for the worse.

Meanwhile I was bouncing. The children were drinking chocolate milk and eating cookies for breakfast, but it was me who exhibited the characteristics of a nine am sugar high. I experimented with decaffeinated coffee in the mornings, but it made no difference.

I began to worry. When I have too much energy, or when I sleep for fewer hours, I tend to be charging into a wall. I decided that with so much energy, the outcome could only be a catastrophic crash and so, wiser than I once was, I decided that I needed to implement emergency measures.

I figured my emergency measures needed to reflect my resources

I’m practical like that. And January has been sunny. Daily, I have a bright blue sky, a warm yellow sun and I have to wear a moisturiser with UV protection. On a tangent here I’ll add that it would be embarrassing to burn. The colloquial Spanish word for a Brit is ‘gamba’, which means prawn. Back to my resources, I have sunshine and access to a balcony. So, on arriving home from school, I pop the kettle on and migrate to my plastic chair in the sunshine. The heat can be so intense that I have to turn my back to the sun, but it’s a place good for relaxation.

Here I engage in the very serious task of winding down.

This is important as at school I am a fountain of energy

I have no idea how to persuade a teenager on too few hours’ sleep who hasn’t had a decent breakfast to tell me about his life in a language he feels foolish speaking in without spurting stories. My tactic is visible, genuine fascination. I smile; I laugh. I am a caricature of the English. They tell me that in their free time they play football, see television and play video games. I tell them they watch television and ask what position they play on the pitch and how they win their favourite video game.

In England I would be pretty self-conscious about the bursts of extroversion that spew from my mouth each day. I cross the threshold of the staff-room each morning with a cheerful doubling up of my welcomes: “¡Hola! Morning! How’s thee? ¿Qué tal?” When I do speak Spanish, I find that putting it across with a bubbly extroverted spring is much more successful than with self-doubting, quiet articulation. Nobody understands doubt within a voice. Everyone understands grandiose gestures.

All this is exhausting

Exhausting, excessive bubbly behaviour and changes in my sleep pattern are to me like a sick canary in a mine shaft. They’re a warning of trouble.

Hence, when I arrive home I curl up in the sun and read. I choose to slow down. Sometimes I have a siesta. I cook and listen to a podcast. Instead of writing on my computer, I pick up my journal. In fact, I avoid my desk. There are so many ways to get sucked into the computer that feel good, but are, after a while, quite draining.

Sometimes I go for a walk.

I have no idea how regular folk manage their energy

I work less than twenty hours a week and it still takes me a lot of effort to manage that small demand on my time and energy.

So far though, I haven’t crashed. I’m still doing yoga each morning. I’m still meditating before I go to bed. I’m still making a fool of myself at school in such a way that the children can’t help themselves but engage. I am happy.

I’m wondering, if, maybe, just maybe, I’ve cracked this morning thing…

As long as I don’t disturb the Casera’s sleep with any more broken glassware.

A yoga masterclass, this time in Spanish

Posted on 9 min read
Sunrise across the salt lagoons at Mar Menor.

My father likes to say that I land on my feet. I like to think it’s the effect of my wonderful, charming personality. I compel people to be wonderful around me. Either way, when I arrived in Spain, I found myself falling straight into the safe hands of the Casera/Landlady.

Our first conversation, back in October, was the twenty-minute drive from the bus station to her house and was inhibited by our lacking language skills, neither of us could speak a sentence of the other person’s language. With another person, this might have led to a very quiet trip, but the Casera is an extroverted Spaniard who believes in good hospitality. We talked the entire way.

A few months on and we can converse in an almost fluid manner. Predominantly I speak Spanish and she speaks English, although we both regularly revert into our own languages for some clarification. Oddly this leads to us taking journeys together where I explain English grammar to her in Spanish and she explains Spanish pronunciation in English. Grammar is a good conversation topic. I like her to keep both hands on the wheel when she’s driving.

Anyway, the Casera is a woman full of life. She’s a national swimming champion, a professional coach and a pilates teacher. She’s also fascinated by some weird branch of yoga called Kundalini, which has some relation to yoga, but as she tells me on a regular basis is more spiritual.

Yesterday, she decided to go to a masterclass in Kundalini. Since she didn’t want to go alone she invited me. She made it more enticing by suggesting that I join her at her sister’s house and spend the afternoon in the large garden there with the puppies and 22 degrees of sunshine. She would cook lunch.

I’m not one to say no to such an offer. Plus, I figured I could write a blog post about it and that would amuse the Mother. I stuffed my book and my leggings in my bag and slathered sun cream on my legs and arms.

I could write about the afternoon, but you’d probably just be jealous. It was tranquil. And is rather overshadowed in my mind by the yoga. Now, I could write about navigational difficulties and getting the time wrong and the Casera forgetting her phone and my phone battery dying, but that would distract from the experience itself.

Eventually we arrived, early, having previously got the wrong time, and were welcomed into the yoga studio. Like other yoga studios, there was a place for depositing bags and shoes, a set of shelves holding mats, cushions, blankets and blocks, gentle music and dimmed lights. I was worried, initially, that the class was going to be just the teacher, the Casera and I, but soon another woman arrived. She looked normal, until she started getting changed into all white and covered her hair in a peculiar little white hat which reminded me of a swimming cap.

The Casera and the teacher clearly knew each other, and conversation was instant and voluble. I was introduced, and the teacher, smiling in a yoga-teacher-who-won’t-be-fazed manner, asked me if I could speak Spanish.

I told him a little. The cogs whirred in his brain. Then he started speaking in English. Not fluent English, but the broken English of someone who is a new but enthusiastic learner and has just realised that this is a grand opportunity to practice. I replied in my mixture of Spanish and English, smiling in a you-can-speak-English grin with regular encouraging nods.

In a gentle, unrushed style we found mats. The teacher made sure that I had everything I needed and asked me about my yoga experience.

The problem with my yoga experience is that I’ve never had a regular teacher. I first did yoga at the gym when I was at school. I did some yoga at university, but it was a large class and there was no specific feedback. I have been on a yoga retreat with the Mother, in which we did some different styles of yoga. I have frequently done yoga from the Mother’s over 50s DVD. And then there was a yoga experience in Germany, in German, a language which I don’t understand. I explained some highlights of this in Spanish, badly. Normally people frown when they don’t understand, but I’m not sure yoga teachers of deeply spiritual strange yoga practices, where they dress in all white, can frown. I was therefore uncertain whether I was understood at all.

The worry I think that the teacher had, I realised later, was that Kundalini yoga is not like other yoga. Asking me about my yoga experience was kind of irrelevant. It was the wrong question. The question they should have asked was about meditation, but they didn’t. The Casera reassured the teacher that I was a meditative, spiritual person, a description which in her English translates as ‘nun-like’ and involves her shutting her eyes and pretending to pray. It’s a subject to avoid when she’s driving.

I was given a card with the chants written on them, the teacher tried to explain, the Casera interjected that I didn’t have to chat, I asked for pronunciation clarification and we began. A gong hung on the wall. I sat on my meditation cushion and copied everyone else.

After a little strange chanting we began a few stretches. The teacher decided that this was the place to practice his English and so the Spanish instructions (which I mostly understood) were supplemented with English. When we got to ‘put your hands on your knees’, the yoga teacher couldn’t remember the word for knee and so paused to ask me. I successfully gave him the word.

However, the weird bending I was then supposed to do flummoxed me. The teacher came over to help. The Casera stopped bending and turned around to help too. The lady across the room kept bending, repeating what I found a strenuous challenge in an elegant manner. If I were her I would have been rolling my eyes at the commotion. The yoga teacher and the Casera wanted me to move my hips in a different way, but as nobody knew the word for hips the Casera resorted to some wild gesturing. Eventually I either got it or they gave up.

We returned to sitting on the floor. From then on, the session focused on meditation. There was no more strange stretching, just sitting very still. My posture was deemed acceptable for this and so we got going.

At this point it’s worth noting that I had no idea when the class ended. It started at half eight, but there was no clock on the wall and I had taken off my watch.

There was a gong. The teacher gonged the gong and I sat with my hands in front of my heart being still. The teacher gonged the gong again and again. I sat still.

A life of travel is very good at teaching you to surrender to the moment. It’s a life of train stations and airports, immigration queues and incomprehensible menus. I regularly don’t understand the conversations I have; the culture surprises me (we don’t greet our yoga teachers with kisses in England); and I’m frequently oblivious as to what I’m supposed to be doing – hence the earlier navigational difficulties.

The gongs kept sounding, every time I thought the chimes might be about to slow down, there would be another gong-g-g-g and after a long time I realised that I was going to be sitting here a while.

When I did Vipassana meditation, which my friends like to describe as cult-like and weird, I could barely sit straight for fifteen minutes. Feeling sorry for me, the people who look after the meditators gave me a back board. Since then I have not really done much Vipassana, it’s quite heavy-going meditation, but I have done some more ‘mindfulness’ style meditations and now have a daily practice. It turns of that if you practice mediation every day then your back does in fact get stronger.

This all might deceive you into thinking that when it comes to meditation I know what I’m doing. This isn’t true. Frequently, I find meditation rather challenging. My mind starts thinking about other things. When it falls into the trap of pondering the past I drag it back out, but when it is excited, creative, or fantasising about the future, I get swept up in my thoughts. Quite frequently I meditate with a little odd chanting meditation – although weirder it’s gentler than a more silent meditation – and instead of just doing what I’m supposed to I spend the time trying to roll an r at the end of every syllable. ‘Sa, ta, na, ma’ becomes ‘SaRR, taRR, naRR, MaRR’. I still can’t roll my r and it rather disrupts the meditation.

The book that I’m reading, Deep Work by Cal Newport, mentions the idea that sometimes, if you want to do something properly, deeply in fact, a good trick is to attack it with a grand gesture. He gives the example of J.K. Rowling, when struggling to finish the Deathly Hallows, moving herself into a hotel. I figure this is what enabled me to do ten days of silent Vipassana. I also believe that a serious Kundalini yoga masterclass, in Spanish, is a pretty grand gesture compared to my normal meditation practice which involves me sitting on my bed for ten minutes.

I think, that last night, kept myself going with the bewilderment that I could.

Then the session got weird. Instead of gongs or chants, which I do at least associate with more spiritually inclined meditation practices, I heard the teacher tell us that he would play a song in English. At first, I didn’t think I could have translated right, but nope, a few moments later, some feel happy some about flowers being reborn started playing from the speakers.

I was now instructed to put my hands on my forehead, and then a little later, just when my arms felt like they might drop off, on my head. Every now and then some English words would interrupt the Spanish, so I knew that I was clearing out my subconscious or whatever else I was supposed to be doing.

When I finally opened my eyes, I discovered that the lady in white had moved to lean against the wall and the Casera had stretched out her legs and moved around in her heap of cushions. I of course was still sat upright on my cushion in my elegant meditation posture.

More meditation followed, this time lying down. At first I didn’t understand the instruction but after a tangential conversation where the Casera explained to the teacher that it was past my bedtime already, and I rolled my eyes, I worked it out. The Casera thinks I’m strange because I still, even after months of living in Spain, insist on going to bed at dinner time. Personally, I’m quite happy with my ten o’clock bedtime and the more I encounter the zombie like Spaniards at work, the more convinced I become that I’m the one with the healthier strategy.

I stretched out my legs, lay down on my mat and covered my body with my blanket. There was another song, this time in some language that was neither Spanish or English, but which occasionally included a random line in English. I lay still, waiting, and then sometime later I started wiggling my toes and my hands, in the typical fashion that one reawakens oneself after such a yogaing, the teacher delighted in saying words like ‘toes’, ‘feet’ and hands’ in English. I smiled encouragingly and sat up. The lady in white continued to sleep and the Casera began making gentle noises to gently wake her.

We were finished. I was relieved to have survived. We expressed gestures of thanks, and then proceeded to, in a very Spanish fashion, leave. Spanish fashion because you can’t simple say thank you and leave in Spain. It is required that you first engage in a lengthy conversation in my case a discussion of why the English language has so many conflicting rules. We chatted about accommodation, rental agreements, the names in English of kitchen appliances, and the state of language learning in Spain.

Eventually, we left. When we arrived back at the car I glanced at my phone and discovered it was after 11.

I might have a tendency of landing on my feet, as my father so claims, but sometimes I have to admit, I land in the most peculiar places.

A wintery Sunday afternoon in Southern-Spain

Posted on 3 min read
Not my window, but you get the idea. Murcia, December, 2018.

With reluctance, accepting that the sun’s gaze was now facing the other wall of the apartment block and it was only my bare feet, heels resting on the balcony railing, that were in direct sunlight, I decided to come inside. The cat, fast asleep on the concrete block between the balcony and it’s neighbour, was luckier. The concrete block remained sunlit. The cat, twisted on it’s back, one paw in the air, limp, didn’t know how lucky it was.
I reminded myself not to close the balcony door behind me.

Inside I switched my skirt for fleece-lined leggings, pulled on a cardigan followed by a hoodie, rinsed the few remaining grains of post-lunch coffee from my mug and flicked on the kettle for a fresh cup of tea. And to fill up my hot water bottle.

This is the south of Spain in winter. Outside the sky is very blue. I know good writing is not supposed to use the word ‘very’, but the sky is a very blue blue. In the mornings, I peer out of the window, crane my neck upwards at the small amount of it framed by the apartment block’s courtyard, and smile to see an absence of clouds. However, when I step out of the apartment building, wrapped up in scarf and coat, I wish I’d worn my gloves.

I’m told that the reason none of the buildings have central heating, or decent curtains, is that it’s not cold here; this week the temperature is set to drop below zero and all I’m armed with is a half sized hot water bottle. I’m glad that when I was packing I thought a hot water bottle was a good idea. It felt like a mad indulgence at the time. I only thought it was a good idea because I write, and writing is one of those odd tasks which results in cold fingers.

We do have a heater, a couple of them in fact, but if you put them on in tandem you blow the electricity. The main one, white, rectangular, you need no imagination to imagine it, makes an awful racket and so I avoid putting it on where possible. Sometimes I want to curl up on the sofa and read, so I position the heater close enough to my body that I can give it a whack if the fan emits a tantrum.

My hot water bottle is silent. It wears a pale blue woollen jumper with an embroidered rainbow and smiling cloud. The cloud is white and fluffy, you need no imagination to imagine this either as its shape is straight out of a children’s cartoon. The cloud has pink cheeks. Its black eyes look up at me from my lap as I write.

Leaning forward I tip my head back and look up at the very blue sky reminding myself that it’s still there. Yes, it’s January 13th and already my legs have seen the sun.

Mar Menor and the calamity of Maggie

Posted on 5 min read
A sponge or a pinecone… what do you think?

The week before last, at breakfast, one of my colleagues told me it wouldn’t rain again until September. I couldn’t quite keep the disbelief out of my voice as I expressed my surprise at such a statement. It had, after all managed to rain almost every day for the previous fortnight, and the sky still looked cold and grey. I said it would rain tomorrow, which got me a surprised look back as a response.

Now, it did rain the following day, for about three and a half minutes early in the morning, but it hasn’t since. The clouds have cleared revealing a bright blue sky. After work on Thursday I sat in the park and basked in the sunshine, soaking up the warmth.

On the final day of November my parents and I decided to head out to the beach. This was not to sunbathe, although there was one couple on the sand in their swimwear, but for a walk in the sunshine. The sun felt gorgeous on my skin. The beach was almost deserted. In the sea we spotted a couple of divers, emerging in their black wetsuits, unhooking their flippers from their feet.

The beach we chose faces the sea, but behind it stand the salt fields at the north tip of the lagoon known as the Mar Menor. This name translates in English to the ‘smaller sea’ which is wat the Mar Menor is. It’s Spain’s largest lagoon. The area we ventured to was a national park, with soft sand, which piles up in dunes, a haven for birds. Although pollution is having a serious, and unignorable, toll.

That is one large heap of salt. The Father worried about what would happen if it rained, but since it’s not going to rain until September…

From the beach we headed to the port, and in the sunshine, facing out towards rows and rows of sailing vessels, we found a small restaurant. It was, according to Maggie, the cheery woman who played hostess, new. The chef was French. I asked what the best food was, and said yes to it. Wine was brought out.

Now the word of that last paragraph that you should most definitely have noticed was the word ‘played’.

As the afternoon progressed, in a sedate Spanish, sun-saturated pace, it became clear that Maggie was having a delightful game. In her high-heeled boots she sprang from one table of customers to another. Her confident, bright English ignited smiles on the customers faces. Every now and again she’d head back to a table occupied by her handbag and drink another glass of wine.

Abandoned building by the beach.

The first mishap was that Maggie, in all her excitement, forgot that she actually had to pass the food order to the kitchen. I sipped my rather large glass of wine, took some pictures of the reflections in it, and discussed fancy-dress costumes with the Mother. As other tables received their food, I began to feel hungry.

Then, seeing my perplexed face, Maggie tottered towards us, exclaiming that we needed to kill her, and asked us what we’d ordered. This time, thank goodness, the order did make its way back into the kitchen.

The wind however was getting up. Maggie appeared, tottering back towards us. In her hands was a board laden with bread, cheese and potatoes, accompanied by lettuce. The lettuce made a break for freedom. Maggie, who has never worked as a waitress in her life, squealed.

Playing with the camera. Wine at Mar Menor.

Despite the lack of lettuce, and the breeze, we were grateful for food. It was like heaven to tuck into the sweet roasted potatoes and dipped the crusty bread into the gooey baked camembert. The chef knows how to cook. The fish that followed, some time later, was also stunning. By this time Maggie was trying to persuade me that I needed more wine. She was on her fourth glass and couldn’t quite understand how one glass of wine in the afternoon might be quite enough for me.

She didn’t fall over, as she cleared away two of the boards that had come out with the fish. I thought she might. The pavement was uneven. But not actually being a waitress, or a person who works in any role in a restaurant, she’d decided to limit herself to carrying two boards at once.

My parents looked stuffed, so I asked what deserts were available. Maggie didn’t know, so she headed inside to investigate. The answer came back that it was a surprise. I said that sounded excellent. Some time later, a huge board arrived. It was laden with custard tarts, tiramisu and little cream cake things. These were like tiny cheesecakes, with an intense, fruit jelly top layer: lime, mandarin and raspberry. As we feasted on these deserts, coffees appeared. I understood that the coffee came with the desert as we hadn’t ordered coffee.

We had decided to go to lunch before two, and by now it was getting close to five. I asked for the bill, but told my parents that I suspected that the restaurant staff would not be able to recall what it was that we had eaten. This was the case. A French man, speaking to us in a mixture of Spanish and French, brought out a piece of paper and a pen. He took note as I explained what we’d consumed. The coffee, was, as assumed, included, however, it came with the fish, not with the desert. I sat and stared and blinked in confusion as I took in the word pescado again and again before accepting that it made no sense.

I didn’t care. The father paid. The total amount being more than reasonable for the quality and volume of the food. And with the winter sun low in the sky, bathing the orchards, lettuces and arid uncultivated fields of dust in a warm, golden glow, we drove back home.