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Tag Archives Spain

The hidden secret of the house on the hill

vineyard teia

If I were really rich, I’d be tempted to renovate an old ruined stone house in the countryside of Spain or Italy. I’d have an art studio and a veranda on which I could sit and write.

Of course, I’m not rich.

However, there is such a house on the other side of the main street, which is known as ‘the river’ because when it rains the water is channeled along it. It’s got a gorgeous view as it’s propped up on the hill. The village where I live sits between mountains overlooking the Mediterranean. Further more, if you look towards the village, you have the church and the town hall.

The owners began restoration, but unfortunately (or not so unfortunately) the banks made some mistakes and the economy stumbled. Lack of funds brought progress to a halt. The story could end there. An abandoned house looking out over the sea from behind locked gates, suggestive of a fairy tale or a tale of horror.

But the real story doesn’t just end there. Unable to make progress with the house, the owners came to an agreement with three local men. In return for making sure the house doesn’t go the same way as Sleeping Beauty’s palace, they can use the land and ruined building.

Teia Vineyards

They planted the vines, bought the bottles and got a small machine (pictured below) to insert the corks into the bottles. A new village vintage was born. A local painter designed the labels. They’re now contemplating using the ground floor as an art gallery of his work.

It’s the sort of place you need to know a person who knows a person to get a private informal tour. If you only speak English, then it helps to have someone who can translate the enthusiastic explanations for you. Otherwise you miss out on the stories. You don’t learn they initially store the white wine in a metal container; the red goes straight into the wooden barrels. You miss the joke about not tasting cheese before trying the wine because the wine speaks for itself. You don’t miss the pride.

The hard work bottled and stacked. I’ve tasted the results and they’ve the right to be proud.

bottle-cork

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The cathedral with only one arm

Malaga Cathedral

[Malaga, March]

I took a long time to see the cathedral was lop-sided, even if at one point I lived opposite. I have some excuses. For most hours of the day, the winding streets of the old city are closed to cars. These streets disobey any expectation of straight, parallel or perpendicular planning. Surrounding apartment blocks stand close to each other so it’s easy to lose sense of which direction you’re facing. There’s a lot going on at street level. Tourists and locals weave between the other sketchers, almond roasters or craftspeople, twisting insects and trees out of wire to sell. There’s the guy who plays the pink panther theme on the saxophone and the guitarist who strums out Eric Clapton songs.

So I admit, it’s still kind of embarrassing that it took me so long to work out where the front of the cathedral was. The visitor entrance was large, decorative and surrounded by the cathedral garden (garden shown in the bottom picture). I just assumed it was THE entrance. Here, women sat on the ground, wrapped in shawls holding out an empty paper cup for a couple of coins. This wasn’t however the main entrance. That’s around the corner, fenced off. If the great gates were to open, people would walk out onto a large square (above) where I sat and drank cafe con leche and ate salty popcorn which failed to persuade this stingy sketcher to buy more drinks.

Malaga CathedralWhen you climb up to the top walls of the Alcazaba, the Moorish palace, there’s an excellent view of the city, this includes the odd, single cathedral tower. Like all normal cathedrals the architectural plans ask for symmetry. In the case of the Malaga cathedral this would mean a second tower. The architect planned it, but nobody ever built it.

Unlike the Sagrada Familia, here in Barcelona, which is moving towards completion, the cathedral in Malaga is an unfinished project. There’s little hope of continuation. The citizens of the city, and the tourist industry’s marketing people, affectionately call the cathedral ‘La Manquita’ or ‘the one-armed one’.

Building a cathedral is an expensive undertaking. The sort of project that historically took lifetimes. Sometimes when it comes to such big projects people become distracted and spend their money elsewhere. The Malaga people however donated the money for the second tower to the British colonies in America. They supported the fight for independence (according to the sign in the cathedral). And possibly, less excitingly, also on building a road (according to Wikipedia).

Maybe, if it had been completed, I might have forgotten visiting. It would be easy the blend it with all the other cathedrals and churches I’ve visited. There needs to be something striking about the experience to make it memorable.

Yet in March when I was living beside it, I felt a strange fondness for the building. Can you empathise with a building? I don’t know. I can’t forget it. Its asymmetry and story make me smile because it’s imperfect, just like all of us.

Malaga Cathedral

 

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A good morning in a rural Spanish town (Bon dia / Buenos días)

Cervera, Catalunya, Spain

It’s half past-eleven in a small Catalan town. An elderly man at the bar of the pink-walled patisserie is drinking a shot of something golden and being daringly affectionate with a woman who must be a generation younger but may in fact be his wife. Duos and trios of lifelong friends lean in over small circular tables and drink coffee. Some of them, like my sister and I, eat croissants too.

I buy a baguette. The lady in front of me starts a conversation and I state my apologies, in Spanish, that I speak no Spanish. She continues talking to me regardless. I wonder about switching to Catalan and saying I speak no Catalan. The woman at the counter sells me the baguette and charges me one euro twenty. She watches my face as I translate either Catalan or Spanish, I can’t quite tell which, and repeats but as ‘one, two’ just as I pull out the correct change. My Spanish is better than my Catalan, but I’m better at numbers in Catalan. Despite the considerable time I’ve spent using euros, I still have to turn the coins over to check that the numbers on the back are what I expect.

At twelve we cause a commotion in the fruit and vegetable stall. The owner is standing in the doorway, a large man with a calm face which looks slightly perplexed. The conversation is either in Catalan or Spanish, I can’t tell which. Again I apologise for not understanding. We step into the store and pick up a courgette and a couple of tomatoes. An old man, stooped shoulders, white hair, mischievous grin watches us from a stool in the middle of the shop floor and talks at us or about us I cannot tell.

The shop owner surmises that perhaps we are French. I interrupt with “English, from England, Inglés.”

The elderly man on his stool understands and repeats multiple times, “Inglaterra.” Although it might have been ‘Anglaterra’ which is the Catalan for England. A few moments later, in the middle of the tomato weighing, the old man pipes up with, “Un avión?”  Just in case my Spanish isn’t good enough to translate, he assists me with a gesture which is clearly an aeroplane taking off, flying above his head and then landing.

“Si!”

The old man looks delighted.

The shop owner, after our purchase has been made, suddenly asks, in English, which city we are from. It’s not a simple question to answer. For one, we are not from a city, we were born in one town, grew up in another and neither of us have lived there for a little while. What’s more, there’s little point telling this man the name of a town he’s never heard of. Furthermore I’ve met a fair few people who don’t know that Yorkshire is in the North of England. Often when I explain I am from the North of England people think I mean Scotland. I don’t, I mean Yorkshire. The obscurity of Yorkshire is, tragically, about football. Yorkshire’s athletes might make a very respectable indent in the Olympic medal list, but its football teams are currently not winning enough for the cities of home to be easily recognised abroad.

My brain has to move quickly and lands on a solution. “Near Manchester. Leeds.”

Manchester, although on the west, does have the advantage of being easily recognisable and geographically above the north-south divide. I’ve had some significant trouble in the past explaining that just because I’m English doesn’t mean I’m a Londoner so I’ve lowered my success criteria. I write Leeds on the back of the receipt when prompted for the shop owner. He asks me whether I’m a City fan or United fan. I mimic my mother if it had been her, not I, responding and make an appropriate array of gestures to indicate that I am unlikely to ever support Manchester United. The shop owner laughs delighted in his foray into conversing in English.

The final stage of the morning takes place at the supermarket, the other side of the train line. I buy a box of PG Tips and a litre of (sin lactosa) milk. The idea that there are other people in this tiny town drinking English tea amuses me. Supply and demand dictates that it can’t just be us. The transaction is negotiated without catastrophe and I request a carrier bag in Spanish.

Walking home it all feels like quite the success.

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How can you thank volunteers? (an example from travels in Spain)

volunteering at schoolYou may have read the blog post about how I spent an afternoon in the garden of the local school chasing ants. Well I also went back to school and taught division to a bunch of eight-year-olds. The most striking moment of this second experience happened when I told a boy that his calculation was incorrect. He replied, “What the f**k!”

This blog post however isn’t about swearing or division, it’s about the thank you I and every other volunteer was given on Friday afternoon for the generosity of our time.

Naively, I imagined that the number of volunteers turning up at school to be thanked would be reasonably small. People after all have jobs and other things to do Monday to Friday. What’s more, I’ve been a volunteer in an English primary school (it was part of a ‘Right to Read Scheme’ and took three months to process the paperwork before I could even begin reading George’s Marvellous Medicine). There were supposedly two of us but the other guy never turned up. Therefore, even knowing that this Spanish primary school was well supported by the community I didn’t imagine there’s be that many people at this ceremony.

I was going because I’d been told I was going by one of the kids, and I have to take them back to school for afternoon lessons anyway.

I followed L through the school entrance, here, forming a corridor of bodies that we were guided through were the school pupils clapping, reaching out for high-fives and generally being excitable. The oldest children were closest to the door and as we snaked through the building and out onto the playground the kids got smaller and smaller. Those younger than six were already seated on the playground, holding hands in big class circles.

This village does things differently to anywhere else I’d been. If I were to guess, I’d say there were over a hundred volunteers, maybe even more, maybe over one hundred and fifty.

L led me up onto the stage which all us adults crowded together or in front of as photos were taken. A Catalan song boomed out of the speakers making one of the grandmas jump. The children who had made up the chain to the stage streamed onto the playground and arranged themselves in class groups. An adult, presumably a teacher, made a speech – in Catalan – and then different children came forward to read their thanks – also in Catalan – passing between them the microphone and pausing at regular intervals for applause.

L pointed me to my ant catching class and we both made our way over to them. Stepping over children on the way. It was probably 26 degrees Celsius and brilliant sunshine. Whilst most of the volunteers did the same as us and left the stage to go to those kids that they had worked with, the volunteer coordinators (15 or so people) were presented with flowers on the stage.

The children had drawn pictures of each of the volunteers and as we arrive, leapt up, let go of each other’s hands and excitedly presented us with pictures of ourselves as a thank you gift. L talked to some of her friends and I was surprised at how many of the parents and grandparents knew me and said hello.

The chaos went on a while, but eventually a vague sense of order finally resumed and everyone except me sang You’ve got a friend, in Catalan of course.

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Where I write (And why it matters)

Where I write

Where I write today

The bright Spanish sun that forces me to wear the children’s factor 50 suncream on my face when I leave the house, and which has made the left side of my legs darken a little from where I sit on the balcony to read but has so far been ineffective on the right side which typically faces away from the glare, this sun is not present today.

Instead I sit inside, on my sofa, in my room below the main house, peeping out from behind barred windows, past the palm tree that stands in the front garden and a lamp post which feels it could belong in Narnia. Most days, I can see the tops of the mountains, and a statue of Jesus with his arms outspread as if he were blessing the village in the valley below, but today the trees of the hillside hide behind the mist. It might be May in Spain, but the rain is Welsh like, moving left to right across my window in great sheets like GCSE textbook diagram of a sound wave.

To compensate, I’ve wrapped myself in a huge thick fleecy blanket and nestled within the cushions. There are four, two for this sofa, two for the bed with elephants embroidered on them in what look likes an Indian design which I can’t help thinking doesn’t fit with their pastel yellow and purple colours. It’s a fabric haven in a room without carpets or curtains.

Pulled up, right against the sofa is a little black metal table, which rocks precariously as I type. I mustn’t stand too quickly or my mug of tea, made using a microwave and UHT milk, will splash and end up flooding the floor, again.

The temporary nature of the situation is further exaggerated by the music playing out of the tiny tinny speakers on my phone. Spotify has decided I’m Spanish and its recommendations are for playlists of mostly Spanish songs. Occasionally something familiar pops on and my memories drag me to a different place, a club in my home town when I was eighteen, sunbathing in the garden at university whilst mentally chastising myself for not revising, or an argument about my distinctly bland taste in music with a friend who’s own taste involves pirate songs.

Bland music though suits me when I write. Anything too rich can be too much of a distraction and writing required my concentration. It does not involve hoisting the sail on the Jolly Roger.

The importance of variety

The best advice on writing is always to write more and read more. But is it really all that simple? I’m reading How We Learn by Benedict Carey.  It’s a book I wish I’d read before doing a degree, for it has taught me that I never learnt how to learn efficiently. Surprise, surprise but practice, practice, practice isn’t the quickest way to get better at a task. And almost more startling, it’s better not to have a single dedicated quiet study space. Variety promotes learning.

The idea runs like this. If you study the same material in multiple environments, with different background noises, if you mixing up working inside and outside, switch between the bedroom, the study, the dining room table and the coffee shop, you’re somehow providing your brain with more context to the information, which makes finding a way back to it easier. Or at least according to my understanding of Carey’s analysis of the scientific studies on the effect of context.

The same goes for mood. Only studying when you are in a single mood limits the moods that your brain associates with that information. Cleverly they tested this with people who are bipolar and people who were under the influence of mind altering drugs. Mock exams are important because they train your brain to work in the environment in which you’ll have to regurgitate the same information. Laying on the beach after months of stressed revising and exams, your brain probably still contains the same information, but without the cue of mood has struggles to know where it went.

A tangent on sleep

I wonder if the idea can be transferred to sleep. Do people who regularly switch beds have an easier time finding the path to content sleep in a new environment?

There are few places I struggle to sleep. It’s not that silence and comfort aren’t extremely valuable to me, but that their absence doesn’t prevent me resting. For years I slept to the not quite audible drown of Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter in the room next door. I hate sleeping with music on, but sometimes it’s not worth the argument to get it turned off. (Although I admit there is occasionally some music or radio adverts are too aggravating for even me.) I have slept soundly in tents beside loud and drunken festivities and in the centre of London with sirens sounding all times of the night. Hostel rooms aren’t my favourite but their cheap beds and the sound of cheerful chatter at 3am have never stopped me sleeping.

Ideally I sleep in silence on my super soft foam covered mattress snuggled under my own cosy warm duvet. Here in Spain I play a game with the blanket and the window, trying to gauge whether it is going to be a warm night or a cold night. Tonight, will surely be cold after all this rain, but it is a continuous guessing game.

Tomorrow

I switch beds and desks with ease. Travel forces me to keep adapting, for I must write and sleep anywhere. When the children are at school I’ll move my computer out to the dining room, or upstairs to the living room sofa or, should that bright Spanish sun change its mind, I’ll be out in the balcony frantically scribbling into my notebook or down on the high street beneath the parasol of a little coffee shop. And just a few weeks ago, I’d never seen any of these places, and in a few weeks time I’ll take my last look at them. Where I write changes, and that, I hope, gives the end product a little more richness.

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School trips and not staring at the Sagrada Familia for long enough

Landscape view of Sagrada Familia Navitity Scene

On Tuesday afternoon, after catching the train in from the mountain village where I live, I found myself staring up at the Sagrada Familia. Back when I was seventeen I came to Barcelona on a school trip. At that time I know my impression was that after the beauty of Parc Guell, the supposedly impressive church was ugly.

I was there with some of the other art students in school  and two teachers, one of whom I swiftly concluded was a liability. I can’t remember who the other teacher was, but I remember her being very nice and wheeling me though Barcelona airport in a wheelchair when my leg made an objection to holding me upright. I remember liking her because she was calm and stayed still long enough without talking that you could ask questions. The other teacher I thought I liked, she was energetic and unlike many of the other worn down teachers at the school she talked about doing things.

Passion facade Sagrada Familia Jesus on the CrossBut we took on Barcelona like each of us had eaten a packet of Jelly Babies. We saw museums and galleries that I only remember standing outside waiting for. It felt like as soon as I’d settled in a place we were being dragged out. Go, make sketches, but do them so fast that you don’t have time to look at anything. We passed by the Olympic stadium and I wondered what the point was as we loitered around waiting for instruction. I managed to lose the teacher for long enough in the Picasso museum to actually appreciate the art, but at the Sagrada Familia all I remember was a lot of arm waving and frustrated voices.

Since 2008, the builders have been busy at work. The basilica has been enclosed, an organ installed, a pope consecrated the church (whatever that means) and they’ve begun having services there. From my memory, I figured I’d only seen it from the outside as we’d walked past and paused for photos. Yet, I recognised the museum part of the building beneath the main hall (I’m sure there’s a more precise name), where there are maquettes, architectural drawings and super clever inverted models made of string and small weights which map the tension distribution so the architects could get the forces on the building right before computers.

This time I made sure not to rush. Someone kindly began playing the organ as I meditated in one of the ‘chapel’ areas, and when we finally ventured down into the crypt, a woman was giving some sort of service.

Virgin Mary in Crypt at Sagrada Familia

Part of the difficulty I have with warming to God’s houses, is my huge religious blind spot. I struggled when I was eight years old with the idea that for the cub scout promise you had to believe in something (… to do my duty to God and the Queen). Having never had a god, I struggle with the concept. Plus, the religious ideas and practices of big organisations aren’t explained easily with logic that’s accessible for a non-believer with a scientific education. They come with a huge number of fancy words and hidden meanings that I’ll never understand because I can’t see the point.

This led to a minor amount of amusement with my Catholic German friend when she asked me to explain some of the English words on the plaques and labels.

“I’ve got no idea,” I said after staring at the word ‘liturgy’ for a few moments, knowing I’d come across the word before. I looked behind me at the wardrobes behind the glass wall and then back at the description.  “I think it’s trying to say this is the wardrobe they keep the clothes for special occasions.”

There are rituals and traditions and rights and wrongs and angels and saints and many other things that I can’t differentiate from the general guidance to ‘be kind; play nice’. I’ve got no idea if Catholics believe in dragons or not, because if they don’t what’s Sant Jordi (Saint George) really done? If we don’t believe in dragons then how can we believe in a dragon slayer?

Religion gives you a way to answer the question ‘How does Sally know she’s dead?’ without dealing with the more horrific truth that Sally no longer is. She probably didn’t know she was alive either.

Sally was a hamster.

As a motivator for work God just doesn’t click with me, but the Sagrada Familia is also the realisation of a great ambition and to me it’s a reminder that we need to have great ambitions. I might not be able to relate to God, but I do like that it’s different. Really different. I also like that the Sagrada Familia is paid for by the people who visit it and use it rather than by the richness of the Vatican or some other great wealthy donor and, for the artistic value of the building, I’m happy to have contributed my 15 euros.

It’s an impressive piece of art, and art I can relate to.

Sagrada FamiliaI decided I like Gaudi’s little saying that, “my client is not in a hurry.” I like the idea of doing a thorough job. I like the details in the doors. I love the colour and the contrasts. I like the shapes, the fact that it’s a merging of geometry and art with its hyperboloid structures, twisting curves and the way the columns change as they go upwards.

There’s a chameleon hiding by a door.

When I came to Barcelona the first time, on that crazy school trip, I was in a different state of mind. I was being told where to look and what to do. At the Sagrada Familia I recall being agitated by my lack of control of the situation. We moved so fast, covered so many things that we missed out on actually really looking at anything. Nowadays, I follow my own curiosity. I went to Barcelona for the sole purpose of visiting the Sagrada Familia and looking at it. I’d booked the tickets, knew what time we needed to be there. I knew what bus I needed to get, and which stop to hop off the train at. I wasn’t rushed or exhausted.

Art takes time to understand and the Sagrada Familia to me is some highly splendid art.

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