To: People on the old mailing list
Subject: England, Christmas & New Years, and more travels around the south of Spain
I have one thing I really want to say, and that is:
SPRING HAS SPRUNG IN SUNNY SOUTHERN SPAIN!!
‘scuse the alliteration, couldn’t help myself… I’m just a wee bit excited because I’VE SURVIVED MY FIRST EUROPEAN WINTER!
I may have cheated a little by living in Andalucia, where there was no rain and no snow and winter didn’t actually kick off until December. But it was cold, by my reptilian standards. Hinojosa is on some kind of tableland and so the weather drops to sub zeros, but apparently this was never factored in when the houses were being built. The bulk of my daily energy was spent keeping warm – rotating heaters, opening and shutting blinds, washing my hair in a bucket, ironing clothes dry, and moaning about the weather and the cost of electricity (couldn’t help it, it’s all anyone every talked about). But, the worst has passed and I know I’ve certainly got off light. It’s only Feb and the days are already beautiful – sunny enough to eat al fresco and get a bit of colour in the face… while the rest of Europe is still knee deep in snow!
So I’m absolutely bonkers to have applied for another year in the north of Spain, where does get really cold and there are mountains and wilds and goodness knows how I’ll survive – except I’m hoping the houses will be better equipped – and it would sorta be nice to hear rain on the roof every once in a while…
Enough about the weather.
What’s been happening?
Well on a day to day basis, not a lot. I work at school in the mornings, and with private students some evenings. I spend an awful lot of time planning lessons, guiltily talking to friends in English online, researching further travels and lamenting the fact I can’t plan my future or my finances due to hazy Spanish bureaucracy (I may be staying, I may not. I may need to fly home to renew my visa, I may not). I need a dictionary to read Cosmopolitan, and although I watch the news as often as possible, I’ve got absolutely no idea what’s actually happening in the world. I eat a lot of croquettas, drink a lot of red wine, and can now split pipas like a Spaniard, almost.
In January I discovered the Hinojosa library, and resolved to crank up my efforts and study grammar and start reading in Spanish. In Feb I dropped the ball in favour of going out and playing cards and fusbol and watching the football in seedy all night bars. Both study and socialising have been equally beneficial to my language skills – if only they were more compatible! March is looking to be a quiet(er) month, perhaps I’ll achieve some kind of balance. Stranger things have happened.
As for travels, aside from my England trip over Christmas, I’ve had some weekend getaways here and there in Andalucia. Life is good.
ENGLAND: I was lucky enough to be there for two whole weeks, and for those two weeks to feel like much longer. I managed to ‘do’ London, as best as a touristy tourist can, as well as visit Stonehenge, Avery, Oxford, Cambridge, Suffolk and The Cotswolds. I was on the receiving end of some wonderful hospitality.
I spent Christmas with my friend Chris, and her family, and their many dogs, in Rickinghall, a gorgeous little town in Suffolk. Chris’ house is a beautifully restored 400 year old English cottage, complete with rambling angular floors and walls, low doorways, attic rooms, multiple fireplaces, and an old well pump (the well was in the middle of the bathroom but it’s thankfully been covered up). I arrived on Christmas Eve (via bus from wet and windy London), to be greeted by an open fire and a pot of mulled wine on the stove. Possibly the cosiest accomodation I’ve ever stayed in my life!
On New Year’s Eve I went to a punk themed house party with a friend from London and a colourful mix of locals and expats. It was a lucky alternative to youth hostel pub crawls, pricey bars, and the cold and crowded streets. Though by the end of the night I was in no position to be turning my nose up at the unwashed masses.
On the other side of New Years I met up with some long lost distant relatives, who were kind enough to drive me around the countryside, visiting landmarks and stopping frequently for pub meals, tea and sweets. They did a wonderful job of making me almost wish my great grandfather had just stayed put in England. Then I could have grown up in a world of ancient myths, ruins, earl grey tea and lardy cake.
The highlights (aside from the company of friends and family of course) would have to be ice skating at dusk near Tower Bridge (all lit up), Westminster Abbey (I always grumble at paying to enter churches but this was worth it), The British Museum, and the Bodleian Library and Ashmolean museum at Oxford. I also just loved wandering the streets of London, and feeling as though I was part of some old Victorian novel (would a fog watch would clash with my iPhone?). I went to heaps of markets (Camden, Borough, Portobello Lane, Covent Garden, Spitasfields), and department stores like Harrods and Fortnum & Mason just to witness the MADNESS of post-Christmas sales. I saw Charles Dickens’ real house, and Sherlock Holmes’ mock house at 221B Baker St, and went to lots of places from the Monopoly board. I made the most of being able to understand the language. I saw three movies (that weren’t dubbed!), read trashy magazines, talked for hours upon hours with friends I haven’t seen in a long time, and did a lot of eavesdropping on the subway. And I know people moan about pommy food, but I thought it was great. A good English pub meal is always complete with some kind of meat, carbs, vegies, and ‘lashings’ of gravy. This is the kind of balance I’ve been missing. I also took the opportunity to eat as much spicy exotic ethnic food as I humanly could, the best being a curry on Brick Lane that I have been dreaming about ever since.
Overall, I was very very impressed with both London and England, though I don’t think I could live there. I’d love to go back and visit, lots. To everyone who showed me round, put me up (put up with me), thanks again, I just had the best time. To everyone I didn’t have time to see, you haven’t escaped entirely – I’m already planning a bigger, better, repeat adventure, covering the rest of the UK and Ireland… for sometime 2013, after I win the next Christmas lottery…
ANDALUCIA (the south of Spain):
CADIZ: is a beautiful, whitewashed city on the coast, replete with palm trees and gorgeous beaches. I went there in late October and it was still warm enough to go swimming. Home to a bohemian ex-pat community, who’ve mostly overstayed their visas in favour of living in vans and juggling/beat-boxing/thinking-outside-the-square for a living. I was tempted to join their ranks, but had left my paints/pogo-stick/knife throwing equipment at home…
GRANADA: What can I say about Granada? Over five years ago I spent a day there, and was so smitten with the city that I resolved to come back long term. And here I am, ish. If Spain was a dartboard, I’d have thrown a respectable shot. The Alhambra fortress/palace was just as breathtaking as when I first saw it. I’ve now been there in spring and winter, and have decided that to visit in every season is not a bad little life goal.
SEVILLA: Years ago my friend Bec and I hired a little blue bomb and drove to Sevilla visit her friend. We got lost in the suburbs looking for ‘Carmen’s house’, couldn’t speak the language, read the map, or hack the heat, and ended up being escorted by a truckdriver, his sons, and their cargo of watermelons to our destination. This time I travelled by air conditioned train to the city centre, and arrived at my hostel cool as a cucumber without stopping for directions once. I can’t decide if I like my old life or my new life better.
Either way, I love Sevilla. I think it may have even overtaken Granada in the ‘City I want to live in’ stakes. The Sevillanos epitomise what I love about the people of Spain. They’re chilled out, super social, and seem to have all the right priorities. The streets are always full of people relaxing and chatting with a caña in the sun, no matter what time of day. The rat race just doesn’t exist there.
Another unexpected highlight of Sevilla was ‘Las Setas’, a modern architectural marvel that I was particularly taken with. Nestled amongst Sevilla’s ancient mosques and cathedrals, it resembles a cluster of giant mushrooms. There are restaurants in the stems and you can catch a lift to the top for a fabulous view of the city. The fact that it doesn’t clash with its surroundings is incredible. I’ve no idea who the architect is, but I’m about to do a spot of online stalking, just as soon as I send this email.
MALAGA: A big, stylish, beachside city. It has an international airport and an epic cathedral. The weather is always balmy. The streets are wide and full of beautiful Spaniards and sunburnt tourists. I’ve only ever been there in transit, but I’ve seen enough to know that A: it merits further investigation, but B: I don’t think it’s quite for me. Though it does score points for restaraunt serenades.
CORDOBA: I kind of think of Cordoba as my city, cos I sort of wish it was. At 1 million people, it’s big enough to have everything, but in no way does it feel like a ‘big smoke’. I’ve spent numerous hours there, waiting for the bus to Hinojosa, but last weekend I went with Jo (the Scottish Auxiliare from my village) just to enjoy the city itself. We went to the Arab bath house for a couple of hours of R&R, which included being washed with a mountain of suds on a hot stone table, having massages with exotic oils and spices, getting in and out of baths of different temperatures, and drinking delicious mint and honey tea… ¡Ojala! I wish I was an Arab princess!
The Mesquita is Cordoba’s most famous tourist site, and is absolutely breathtaking. From the outside it’s a big square, but on the inside it’s magical and infinite, like Mary Poppin’s handbag. Halls of columns go on and on. It was originally a Mosque, but was converted to a Cathedral after the Reconquista. The change is kinda weird – incongruous, but seamless. The mosaics morph from Arabic to Latin at an indeterminable point, and suddenly you’re confronted with a gilt tabernacle, crucifix and giant organ. But there’s no denying that the overwhelming vibe is still Muslim, and that it always has been, and always should be a mosque.
WHAT ELSE: That’s about all the travel travel I can remember doing, as getting to and from Hinojosa is rather time consuming and expensive. But being ‘stuck’ here for the weekend is hardly a chore – there’s always something happening.
CANDELARIO/CANDELORIO/CANDELAS: I’m still confused about the proper name, but in early February there are lots of parties involving giant bonfires and barbeques. They’re partly for religious reasons (dedicated to Saints or deceased relatives), and partly to burn off the olive branches that are ritually pruned at this time of year (to prevent parasites). On particular dates, multiple bonfires are lit out the front of bars, houses, and community buildings, and people just wander the streets, ‘bonfire hopping’, visiting the fiestas of the bars they frequent or groups they pertain to.
CASAS DEL CAMPO: Many lucky families have a ‘country house’ where they spend weekends, and often all the summer. I was invited to a friend’s ‘casa del campo’ for a candelario. Her parents have an olive orchard, so we had a pretty much limitless supply of firewood. It was the biggest, most wonderful smelling bonfire ever, and the BBQ pork was the best I’ve ever tasted. I take back everything I ever said about not liking pork. I’m lucky to still have my eyebrows, but I had a great time pretending to sing and dance along with the Spaniards, and being ritually chased with burnt cork.
CARNAVAL: So I may have missed Rio by a week (a few years ago), and the accommodation was booked out in Cadiz, but no matter, because Hinojosa Carnaval more than made up for it. In Spain it’s less about samba and more about fancy dress and Chirigotas (comic singing groups), though it varies from town to town. I simply can’t get over the effort that some people went to with their costumes, for what was essentially a pretty rough night out. I was pretty chuffed with my last minute pirate ensemble (complete with toy monkey and Johnny Depp eyeliner), but next year I’m really gonna have to lift my game. One girl hand sewed a giant French fry packet, fries and all. Another group of 20 people went as Lacasitos, the Spanish version of M&Ms. There were dodgem cars (and their governing ticket booth), Indian goddesses (the blue one with many arms was working the bar), and my favourite – a group of Saints, in robes and halos and with their corresponding iconography – St.Sebastian covered in arrows, St.Patrick with a serpent etc. Very clever, though a bit much to decipher amidst the chaos.
The Carnaval festivities continued for about three days, and culminated with a giant sardine effigy being paraded through the streets to be burnt in the main plaza. I’m still hazy on the purpose of this, and of Carnaval in general, but hey, people had fun.
BELALCAZAR: Is a town only 8km from Hinojosa – I’ve seen it from the top of a hill and feel terrible that I haven’t been there yet. As March is the month of travelling closer to home, I’m planning a day trip to visit the town, its castle, and a cloister of mysterious nuns who can never be seen. They’re famous for making an almond cake which they sell through a revolving door, but only to people who have the semi-secret password…
NEXT: yeah I should probably wrap this up. Apologies to your bosses, if they haven’t already cut me from your safe list.
I’ll be in Hinojosa until the end of May, working and saving and really trying to focus on my Spanish. Apologies in advance if I’m tardy on the email front, I’ve really got to cut down on my internet/English time.
Aside from Belalcazar, I’m hoping make a few more little trips before I leave. Cordoba for Semana Santa and the May flower festival, and maybe possibly hopefully a long weekend in Barcelona.
I’m spending all of June in Morocco and Portugal with Mel Lane, and won’t be writing another long one until its time to report on that adventure. Am just a little bit excited…
In July I’ve planned another week of Vaughan Town, some catch ups in Madrid, and might be doing some to-ing and fro-ing and redistribution of luggage around Spain. It all depends on where I’m placed at the end of the year, and that I do not know!
And so, thats all. Miss you all, as always.
Send me news, even if it doesn’t seem like news (I just wrote over 2,000 words on daily life and what thousands of travellers have seen and done before me). It’s always good to hear from home/abroad/my diaspora of amigos.
Lots of love,