This post is taking forever to get started, because I’m compulsively eating olives and wiping my fingers on a serviette so as not to get the vinegary goodness on my keyboard. Every second word (many of which end up deleted), it seems it’s time to reach for another one… I can’t stop, I’m in Andalucía, resistance is futile! I also keep pausing to dreamily contemplate my setting – one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever sat down to write. I’m sitting at a little mosaic table in the outdoor bar at the top of the Alcazaba, a Moorish fortress in the centre of Malaga (on the southeast coast of Spain). The bar overlooks the city, cathedral and port, and is surrounded by the fabulous rambling Alcazaba walls and a curious mix of vegetation – tall pencil pines, orange trees, palms, and something similar to a willow, which give the gardens an exotic Arab, tropical, and European flavour all at once. It’s all very sun dappled and tranquil – apologies to anyone who happens to be reading this in a claustrophobic office with artificial lighting…
So, olives (I’ve finished them now). That’s my latest excuse for the radio silence. It’s been a while since I last posted. I probably made some kind of disclaimer then too; “excuses excuses, etc”. 2015 has been a bit of a slow year, as far as reportable adventure writing is concerned. Looking back, I wonder how I managed to post so regularly in the past. There were a good couple of years in which I seemed to wonder at, and want to write about, everything – even on quiet weekends at home. I suppose this might have had something to do with living in Segovia at the time. There, daily life was a little more magical than it is now in big city Madrid.
This year has been about knuckling down, attempting to get my finances and future under control (by making ‘sensible’ decisions), studying (for the C2 DELE exam, still waiting on results), training (for a marathon, with ambiguous results), a period of panicked emergency job hunting (a long story), and a time, money, and patience draining visa application process (another long story). Needless to say, I haven’t had many positive or entertaining anecdotes to share and so (rather astutely, I thought) have chosen to remain silent, rather than add to the frightening volume of first world problems complaint literature already swamping the blogosphere. Not that I’m above the occasional whining drivel slipping out… it is so awfully tempting… we’ll see.
Anyway, apologies for the lull. Here I am again, chipper and optimistic, Eat Pray Love style on the Mediterranean Coast. Glamorising ‘simple’ pleasures and suddenly finding meaning to my existence. Not that I was previously suffering any kind of existential crisis – my life is trundling in pretty much the direction I’d hoped it would (just a little slower than I’d like). But there were a couple of reasons for this impromptu trip to Malaga. The first being what I’ve now come to recognise as my annual (ok biannual) “I need to see sea” panic. Anyone who grew up in a coastal town or city, but now lives inland, will no doubt understand this.
The second reason being the welcome, but rather unexpected fact that I’m starting my new job much sooner than anticipated, before even finishing up (some of) my other work (I have many works). Meaning uh oh I’d better take a break stat or there won’t be another opportunity until goodness knows when.
I came to the end of my main job contract (in a government school) at the end of June. I wasn’t sorry to say goodbye to commuting two hours per day, to teach spoilt, spoon fed children (it was a wealthy area), in an institution crippled by corrupt management and the most appalling, restrictive, and poorly written set of text books I’ve ever encountered (the writers must have been high, it’s the only explanation). However, I was sorry to say goodbye to a decent base income, a valid visa, and a relatively easy visa renewal process. I know this makes me sound cynical and materialistic, but I’d be lying if I said I’d formed any special bond with the school during my time there. There was a handful (just a handful) of genuinely lovely and competent teachers, trapped in a system that sadly hampered their potential. It was pretty soul destroying work. As for the children, they can’t be blamed for being spoilt (it’s not their fault their parents buy them tablets when they lose a tooth, or take them to Disneyland for their first communion), and there were of course some fantastic characters among them. Although my natural preference as a teacher is for adult students, part of me is going to miss being with kids; especially their contagious laughter and excitement, the circus spectacle that sometimes made me forget that I was working, and the affection they showed me in the form of hugs (hundreds of hugs! it would be so frowned upon in Australia), disatrous homemade biscuits, random portraits, and cards with astonishingly creative mispellings of my name (Jim, Yian, Llin, Jeams… far more interesting than the old Jean/Jane confusion I get with Anglos).
July was opened by a long weekend of partying, tourist-ing, and reminiscing with an Aussie friend who was in Madrid. But after she left, the month dissolved into a blur of new and complicated private classes (it’s slim pickings in summer in terms of teaching work), and vain efforts to muster up some kind of creativity during the inconvenient timetable gaps, long commutes, and extreme heat. Mostly I was just trying to stay cool. I’ll take too hot over too cold any day, but even I found this July tough. The thermometer hovered around (often above) 40° for the whole month (it’s even hotter in the south of Spain, but I swear you feel it more in big, sticky cities). Our flat is on the top floor, gets sun at every hour of the day, has no air con, and is right next to a whole lot of busy highways (I’m not sure if the cars are responsible for more heat, or it’s just the idea of them). ‘Heat management’ became time consuming. It involved a lot of cold showers, opening/shutting blinds and windows at specific times, mopping floors with cold water (everything counts), spraying plants, rotating frozen water bottles etc. Despite the lack of sleep, if I wasn’t teaching, I usually chose to forsake the siesta (you can’t siesta in an oven) in favour of going to an air conditioned café (or the library) to write or plan classes. There, with climate control, caffeine, and my tablet (my deskbound laptop kept overheating, I named it the wrist-roaster), I could usually squeeze out a few hours of productivity. After that I’d kill a bit more time by aimlessly wandering supermarkets, to make sure I didn’t get home until the sun had left our building (around 10pm) and we could open all the windows.
And there went July.
My plan for August, as the majority of my private students and all of my friends would be leaving Madrid, was simple: hold tight, don’t spend any money, and write. I was kind of looking forward to the austerity, and a clean, distraction free break in which to get some proper writing underway. I wasn’t sure what the outcome of my visa application would be (it was a complicated case, with a technicality I could easily have been rejected on), and while this was in progress I couldn’t leave the country without a permit. Not that I would have risked travelling, with potential unemployment and expensive life relocation on the horizon. But I was happily resigned to just hang on in there, in limbo, trying to make the most of the time creatively. When I found out the definitive answer in September I’d adapt my plans accordingly.
However, much to my (and my new employer’s) surprise, my visa was approved almost instantly – well over two months earlier than expected. My first reaction was relief – I have a job, I don’t need to get a last minute peak season ticket to Australia, I know where I’m going to be the next year, and, as I posted on facebook, I can now invest in things like a gym membership, pot plants and tabasco sauce… But in a way it was hard to take the definite news that I’ll be away from home for at least another year, something which isn’t getting any easier. And I was really looking forward to being an August hermit, spending all my time writing (going a bit feral… perhaps developing a tic). Now, everything has changed, and I have to start my new job and be professional, like, immediately. I had my orientation last week, and we have a staff meeting this Sunday evening where I’ll get my timetable for August’s summer intensive courses, starting…Monday. I’m really not psychologically prepared to be starting this soon, but that’s the way it is, and it’s definitely better than the alternative.
So the ‘emergency’ 3 day break to Malaga is more of a symbolic interval rather than a real holiday. I’ve had more than enough extended time off over the past few years – I can, should and will survive a little longer without it this time round.
What was initially intended to be a travel post has again, inevitably ended up another ‘about me’ update. I suppose I should add something more about Malaga, to balance it out a bit.
Here are a some things I learnt/realised during my three days away, and a few travel tips for anyone heading to the Costa del Sol. All cunningly organised into lists, as is now the rage, to give a false sense of readability…
- On ‘on the road’ entertainment: It’s a good idea to finish the addictive series you’re watching before going on holiday, or at least time it to finish on the bus. Nothing worse than your first night in a new destination, in a hostel with a good vibe and a beautiful terrace bar, when you’re sharing a room with a lovely, chatty German girl who’s just got back from a yoga retreat in the country (that you’d really like to pick her brains about) and she’s travelling solo as well so this would be a good time to make friends… but really, secretly, you’re tired of making friends and just want to watch the season finale of Orange is the New Black, with a mojito, by yourself. But you don’t want to be that antisocial loser glued to their tablet, especially if someone happens to walk by during a scene with unbridled violence or prison sex, it might seem a little weird, even though the acting’s really quality, at least that’s what you’re telling yourself. This is definitely the last time, the last time, you’re getting into a series, especially as you always complain you never have enough time to write or study! Well there’s an easy chunk of hours (you don’t want to know how many but the maths is pretty simple) you could’ve spent on much worthier tasks! (Now, get up off yer bum and go for a walk! there’s a city to see!)
- On navigation: despite having markedly improved since I left the motherland, my sense of direction is still lamentable. Even when my accomodation was across the street from Picasso’s house, one of Malaga’s most signposted landmarks, I managed to get lost every time I tried to find it.
- On getting lost: extensive experience in this department has led me to believe that this is by far the best way to explore a city. Malaga’s old town (mostly revamped with swanky shops and great bars) is a joy to wander.
- On Gelati: At the mature age of 30, I’ve finally come to the sad realisation that my two favourite frozen flavours (pistachio, and mint) are not only incompatible, but their colours clash awfully. This, in some small way, aids my reluctant acceptance of the fact that gelati, no matter how delicious, is something I always end up regretting. The end of an era? I fear so, cruel world!
- On travelling alone: I’m a big fan of solo travel, but then again my ‘loneliness threshold’ is probably higher than most – in fact it probably puts me on par with all kinds of antisocial freaks. However I am actually quite a social person. When not hooked on the final chapters of a book or series, I’m generally open to conversation with just about anyone, and have no trouble making friends (I’ve started from 0 enough times now). But I like solitude, and I consider the ability to be comfortable in my own presence as a blessing. It must be awful to be one of those needy people who can’t be by themselves. These days, and I think this is due partly to having a job which requires constant social energy and patient conversation, as well as maintaining friendships both in the ‘real world’ (the here and now) and in my ‘other’ life (my ‘real’ life back home) – the “socialness” often gets a bit draining, and I need my alone time regularly. So in Malaga I had one night in a hostel (not to meet people but because it’s what was available when I made my last minute reservations), and then two in a budget ‘hotel’ (I think it was some kind of disused University residence, and the weird thing was that upon arrival I realised that I’d actually stayed there before, years ago when I passed through Malaga on my way from Hinojosa to Morocco). Anyway, I wanted to have my own quiet space to go back to in the evenings (after barely talking to a soul all day as well). That was a mistake. There’s a time and a place for solo travel, but Malaga, in high summer, on a weekend, is not it. The streets are literally overflowing with people enjoying the balmy air and delicious looking food and drink in a myriad of fantastic bars… it’s such a lively city, and going there alone, surprise surprise, can make you feel really lonely.
That’s enough unabashed personal word churning – now for some recommendations:
- Torremolinos: is the town just outside of Malaga where I stayed on my first ever trip to Spain, about ten years ago, with my friend Bec, who was living abroad at the time. I remember it for great nightlife, chiringuitos (beach bars) pumping music all day long, fantastic walks along the waterfront, and life being so so good. It was surreal to be back there, re-navigating the winding streets, walking past Playa Miguel (our favourite chiringuito), thinking all kinds of profound thoughts about time and friendship and ice cream.
- Nerja: another beachside town, over an hour’s drive from Malaga but well worth it for the beautiful coves, which were accessible by winding staircases, and had much fresher water and atmosphere than the larger city beaches.
- The Alcazaba and Gilbralfaro Castle: are both Moorish castle-fortresses, the latter being an extension of the former. Construction of the conjoined fortress complex began in the 10th century, and was continued for a few more hundred years, until Malaga was conquered by the Catholic Monarchs in 1487. The siege of Malaga took four months, and not unusually for that period of history, the local population ended up being forced into capitulation by starvation. What was interesting about this particular conflict is that it’s been credited as the first, in history, in which they made use of dedicated transport for the wounded – that is, ambulances.
If you decide to visit the fortresses, I recommend you not doing as I did, which was to scale the hill in the midday heat on my last day, after checking out of my accommodation and therefore having no opportunity to shower before the long bus ride home. Instead, aim to get there at either sunrise or sunset, for cooler air and more spectacular views, and also to avoid the likelihood of having to share Gibralfaro’s narrow walkways with hundreds of Italian teenagers on summer camp. They are way too cool for school to step aside.
- El Vegetariano de la Alcazabilla: a fantastic restaurant, with the best moussaka (meat or vego) I’ve ever had. Really friendly, helpful service, and great location just next to the Alcazaba and the Roman Theatre.
- Did I mention there was a Roman Theatre? But of course there is, this is Spain! It’s just below the ancient Moorish castle-fortresses, about a 3 minute walk from the super Baroque/Gothic/Renaissance all-in-one (yet curiously unfinished) cathedral, and probably within a stone’s throw of countless other ancient buildings of varying historical significance.
The theatre is pretty cool, it’s nice to walk by at twilight and spot the napping cats…
And, that’s all. I could add olives to that last list of recommendations, just to bring this round in a full circle, but that would be a little contrived. Besides, I’m not really sure the olives are any better in Malaga than in other parts of Spain, or whether it’s something psychological. I seem to remember thinking they were the best I’d ever tasted in Cordoba, and Jaen… I guess most things are pretty fabulous when you’re on holiday and they’re accompanied by a cold drink after a long walk up a big hill.
As for full circles – if only I could ever write a neatly rounded post in one sitting! I got back from Malaga a few days ago. It’s now Friday evening, and I’ve just finished my first week at the new job.
So? So far so good. Most academies get a bad rap amongst the ex-pat ESL teaching population, but I seem to have landed on my feet with this one. It is more work, more responsibility, and less pay than the Auxiliare program, which I suppose means that I’m an idiot or a masochist or both… but to be honest, and despite my exhaustion, I’m loving it. I now have more autonomy, significantly smaller class sizes, an opportunity for creativity, better materials, training and support, a much shorter commute, and a whole host of other little perks… it really feels like the decision to stay here was a good one, and the time, stress and money invested in making it happen will all be worth it. Here’s hoping!
So, now that I’ve got the beach trip out of the way (that was hard work!), bring on 2015 knuckling down part two!