ciento volando

travel, stories, and other flights of fancy


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to the beach and back – a semi significant juncture

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.

Malaga, from the road to Gibralfaro - not taken with an iPhone :-P
 
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.

aw, thanks Cloe! (but why the goat?)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.

maybe I could just wait around on rooftops, like this guy
 
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.

Thinking.

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.
  • I wish I could say this was me!  Other person gliding, NerjaNerja: 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!

olives


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between worlds (a pictureless post)

Recently arrived “home”, from another trip home home… and that pretty much sums up life right now.

I’ve also just written, and discarded, an embarrassingly long winded, nonsensical stream of nostalgia, which was open to various angles of misinterpretation, about the (sigh) trials and tribulations of being an ex-pat Melbournite trying to reconcile a semi bohemian existence in financially critical Spain with the expense of a café latte on her home turf…

Blame it on jet-lag (or more likely, some kind of emotional come-down), but the post had the working title Corazón partido, a telling indicator of the melodramatic tone and direction it was taking. Mercifully I trashed the thing, after a much needed head-clearing run (on a crisp winter’s day in Madrid’s Retiro Park).

Now I’m left with nothing but the lingering, nagging sensation that I should still be writing something about my multiple trips to Australia in 2014…they were a big deal for me.

In January last year I did post about my first Return to Oz, summarizing my impressions of Australia after being such a long time away. Although I have no further quirky observations to add to this entry, my most recent visit home was still quite thought provoking.

I primarily went back for two important weddings, or, as I saw them, massive reunions of all my (no longer) nearest (but nonetheless) dearest family and friends.

Although I grumbled about the flights and the timing, I have to say, the time at home was good for me, and I’m glad to have been there not just for the weddings, but for the beginning, middle and end of what was an epic (and exhausting) year for many. It never ceases to amaze me how complicated, dramatic, heartbreaking, hilarious, inspiring, and tough everyday life can be… even in cushy middle-class-first-world-lucky-country-inner-city Melbourne. It felt like there were reality checks coming at me from every direction, and I’ve subsequently come back to Spain feeling quite “recalibrated”.

This time, rather than going out for breakfastcoffeelunchcoffeedrinksanddinner in a desperate attempt to catch up with everyone I’ve ever known (like the first trip at the beginning of 2014), I was able to spend a bit more time just hanging out (ok, geeking out) with my closest friends. I’d forgotten how nice this is… I’d love to move home at some point and do more of it.

However, it seems I’ve shot myself in the foot in terms of work options, as both my chosen career paths (teaching ESL, and writing) are, for the moment, unviable in Australia. This means that for the next little while, doing what I love doing will be keeping me away from the people I love most. Which sucks.

So anyway, this was the second time I’ve said goodbye with no idea of when I’ll next be going home. The first time was at the beginning of an exciting new chapter. Three and a half years ago I left on a one way ticket to two months travelling Europe in summer, an eight month work contract in a remote village of southern Spain, and who knows what next but it was bound to be an adventure. This time, leaving Melbourne airport, that feeling of adventure was gone. I don’t know when I’ll see my family again, but I do know what homesickness feels like and that it’s inevitable, that it’s going to be a long winter, and that I need to work harder than ever this year.

That’s not to say I’m not excited and I can’t have any fun. Coming back to Spain is not such a hard task; life here, in general, agrees with me. I have unfinished business in the capital, and a lot to look forward to  But while the memory of Australia is so fresh and close, I acutely feel what I’m missing out on, and (at the risk of sounding conceited) that some people are missing me.

All this leads to one conclusion; that I’d better make it worth it.

Bring on 2015!!!


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Madrid, Marqués (de Riscal)… and me (me me)

Another belated and miscellaneous post – for a bit of a ‘where in the world’ update, and to share some photos from a weekend away (which was quite a few weekends ago!).

I’ve never thought of that before… how the retrospective nature of most ‘posts’ lends a double meaning to the word. Very neat.

For any of you who were curious as to my current whereabouts, you’ve probably now guessed the answer; Madrid. After an intense summer of hosting visitors, farewelling Segovia, hiking the Camino de Santiago, and going home to Australia for a month (where the littler of my two big little brothers got married)… I came back to Spain in September, the plan this time being to seek my fortune in the nation’s capital.

There’s nothing like life in a big city to push you to drink, which is why, about a fortnight after moving to Madrid, I was pretty desperate to get out of town for a weekend and head wine-ward (north). My brother and his gir-wife(!) were visiting Spain on their honeymoon, and I planned the trip for the three of us, thinking (not entirely selfishly) that it would be a good way to show them some less touristy parts of the country, and indulge our shared enthusiasm for vino tinto. Having already been to La Rioja earlier this year ‘on reconnaissance’, I was familiar with Logroño and its famous nucleus of bars, La Laurel. But the most important part of our excursion, the bodega (winery), was new to me and a bit of a gamble. Thanks to serendipity, coincidence, and a post-reservation recommendation, we were booked in for a tour at the bodega Marqués de Riscal. To get there, we enthusiastically bussed our way to a little village I’d never even heard of before, appropriately called El Ciego (The Blind Man). There we stumbled across a restaurant called La Cueva, where we lined our stomachs with an excellent value €12 set menu (3 courses, bread, wine, and as much cider as you can drink), before continuing on foot to the main event…

The shiny new Marqués de Riscal “City of wine” was designed by Frank Gehry, of Bilbao Guggeheim fame. For a centuries old winery this was a somewhat controversial choice of architect. Gehry’s instantly recognisable, metallic, undulating edifice creates a striking contrast against the matte and earthy landscape of the Rioja. Strangely enough, it works. This is possibly due to the ‘wine inspired hues’ of the iridescent titanium waves, which are purple and copper-ish, depending on the light. We were lucky enough to visit Marqués de Riscal on a sunny autumn afternoon, when the countryside was in all its autumn-y splendour. However, much of the tour was spent indoors, and in some parts, below ground. For me the highlight was an impressively dusty cellar, where the best of the best wines from every year since 1858 were stored under lock and key (a bit like the wine equivalent of the ancient manuscript museum of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, a.k.a. the forbidden books section in Harry Potter). Apparently some of this wine was integral in persuading Mr.Gehry to agree to the design contract, and the bottles were so old they had to be cut open with a hot wire. In short, the tour was entertaining and informative, the guide spoke excellent English, and although we would’ve liked to have tried more wines for free (who wouldn’t), I think it was incredibly good value. It is a shame though that they don’t offer any ‘mid-range’ tastings (somewhere between the basic 2 wine package, and the complete Michelin starred degustation).  Naturally, we continued our own, self-guided tasting in the groovy, mood lit wine bar… which merged dangerously into a gift shop… and when the cab* arrived to collect us, we were somehow a whole lot heavier and lighter at the same time. *Unfortunately the local bus company offered no return transport to Logroño, but such was our contentment at the end of the day, that this didn’t seem much of a flaw at all.

So… operation big success… either that or the newlyweds were too polite to say otherwise. I certainly enjoyed their visit, and after nearly a week of quality time and carefree culinary indulgence, I was sad to see them go. Having my brother and new sister in law around was a welcome distraction, and a pretext to stretch out the summer’s festivities (although it was autumn it still felt like summer). Their departure marked the end of this phase and the impetus for a stark but necessary return to reality.

No more excuses, it was time to settle in properly and make something of my new ‘home’.

* * *

Madrid is an incredible city; a hub of almost everything and, despite Spain’s lingering financial crisis, a place which, at least in my eyes, is still brimming with opportunities… for those smart, bold, lucky and hardworking enough to find them (I’m not kidding myself).  Prior to this, I’d already enjoyed three challenging, but relatively tame and peaceful years in small-town Spain, starting in Hinojosa del Duque (have fun finding that one on the map!) and most recently in Segovia. However a few months ago I decided it was time to shake things up a bit and see what the big smoke had to offer – my reasons being primarily financial and creative; I felt as though I’d hit a wall in both departments. My closest friends in Segovia were also moving their separate ways, another sign it was time for ‘a change of airs’. Perhaps Madrid would deliver me an instantaneous network of lucrative private students, inspiring writers groups, girls sports teams (why are these so hard to find?), and bohemian artist friends (with a convenient surplus of backstage passes and high end hospitality connections)…

Surprisingly enough, this hasn’t happened, yet. And whilst I am incredibly grateful for having fallen on my feet in the work and accommodation departments, the first month or so in Madrid didn’t quite mirror the starry vision of my daydreams. In fact, I found it pretty tough, morale wise, and the question “what am I doing here and what on earth am I doing with my life?” crossed my mind more than once. This was no doubt due to an inevitable come-down after such an intense summer (tooo much thinking), and the shock-to-the-system of the daily realities of life in a big city (such an overly complicated, arduous affair!). Sometimes I wonder if my dream to be a writer is truly based on wanting to write, or simply wanting to never have to commute to work?! (In which case I’m sure there are much simpler and better paid career options out there!).

Anyway, I’m not going to bore you with my petty gripes and bureaucratic, professional, financial, emotional, and public transport related frustrations (oops, just did!), but suffice to say, I found the first month of this ‘next chapter in life’ to be pretty frustrating. Friends kept telling me that things would come good and it was just a matter of patience, and of course I agreed with them, but it was something I needed to remind myself of all too frequently.

In the end, not so much patience was needed after all. It’s amazing how quickly things turned around. Getting my first proper pay cheque alleviated one massive stress factor, as did the slow but steady increase in private student numbers. I finally managed to ship the last of my belongings over from Segovia, had a few long overdue catch ups, and found my running groove. I’ve now started Yoga, and am giving girls indoor soccer a go next week. I still ‘strongly dislike’ commuting, but I’m finding strategies to avoid/tolerate the peak hour crush. And thanks to the technological know-how of one of my housemates, I’m back on board (‘fully armed and operational’) in the computer department, having fortuitously ended up with not one, but two functioning laptops (I’ve renamed the little one ‘Lazarus’).

Now I know that it was never supposed to be, but life is getting easier. The momentary self-doubt has passed and the optimistic buzz has returned… I can’t help getting excited about what’s on the horizon (ok, a lot of hard work), and I have the feeling…that coming here was a very good move.

view from my new rooftop, Madrid


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Chapter ???

School’s out for this academic year, and I find myself once again in limbo. Whilst the kids have finished exams and are clearly on their long summer break, I’m in a slightly confusing no man’s land between three cities, some random work/life/bureaucratic ‘to-dos’, and a deceptive amount of free time (which sometimes feels like too little, sometimes too much, but mostly just never fully presents itself).

Having 3.5 months school ‘holidays’ is definitely a blessing and a curse. At the moment I’m holding on desperately to a dwindling number of private classes, to see how far I can stretch them in to the summer. Unfortunately not many people have ‘ganas’ to study once the term wraps up and the heat kicks in. But fortunately I do have just enough students to get me through the next few weeks, and whilst these classes get in the way of most other plans, they also break up the day and give me a good reason to keep myself showered and sober :-P

So other than sitting in the sun and staring longingly at frosty beer taps, how else am I planning on filling this idle, gaping, gap in commitments? And what’s on the other side of it?

On the other side of it is Madrid, where I’m due to start work in a primary school next October. I know little about the school, other than that it’s conveniently located just inside the Zone A metro perimeter, the website is pretty, the students look to be suspiciously non-diverse (did they pick out all the blond ones for the photo shoot?), and they’re terrible at responding to emails (which is not surprising). Despite my initial preference being to work in a secondary school, now that I’ve received my placement I’m starting to get pretty excited about teaching kids again, and I’m hoping that infantíl (pre-primary) will be included in the bilingual program. I wouldn’t mind another year of finger painting red apples and yellow bananas with three year olds – I’ve missed the little ones!

But October is a long way away. At the moment I’m hanging tight in Segovia for as long as my private classes continue, whilst sorting out the move to Madrid (find a flat, renew visa, start carting stuff eastward). Other projects include trying to get the sticky blu-tack residue off my walls, finding creative ways to use up all my dry goods and condiments, and filling any other down-time with creative writing (not self-indulgent blog posts). Kayaking with a big group of 14 year olds is also on the cards.

In early July an Australian friend is coming to visit in Segovia and help me polish off all the alcohol, because glass is just too heavy to move house with. (Books are also heavy, if only she could help me quickly read them all!)

Then in mid July, providing I don’t get cold feet/chicken out/acojonarse, I’m setting off on the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage/series of walking routes which start all over Spain and Europe and finish in Santiago de Compostela, in the North West corner of Spain. I’ll be doing the Northern route, starting from Irún and walking some 800km along the coast, via places like San Sebastian and Guernica… hopefully all the way to Santiago, and hopefully at a fast enough pace to make it home in time for my flight to Australia in late August.

Most of September will be spent in Melbourne, where my little brother is getting married, and lots of people are turning 30, and I will be undoing six weeks of wholesome hiking with just over 3 weeks of solid socialising (if my last trip home was anything to go by).

And then it’s back to Madrid for the next chapter (or has that started already?)…and continuing the continuous cycle of constant movement but no real progress in any direction. Perhaps I will take another Spanish exam in November, providing that the trauma of the last one was worth it (still no news).

So, friends, family and random readers, that is the short term plan for the moment. It’s pretty much my long term plan as well, and of course, subject to change. I might experience an epiphany on the Camino and decide to become a nun of the cloister, or swim to Canada, or study economics. Stranger things have happened. But for now, if you are in Melbourne, keep warm, and I look forward to seeing you in August/September.

Everyone else, Madrid is a great meeting place from October onwards!


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French Toast, Spanish style… and a bit about Semana Santa

This is the first time I’ve been at ‘home’, alone, in Spain over the Easter break. I decided to forgo such an excellent opportunity to travel, in order to be able to:
– Do a big, scary, expensive and unnecessary Spanish exam (tick! fingers crossed!).
– Get on top of work and clean my flat before I go to Poland the week after the holidays, and my parents come to visit the week after that (!!!).
– Organise life/update CV/de-frag dying laptop.
– Save money.
– Catch up on a backlog of Skype catch ups. It seems like everyone in Australia is getting married and eating hot cross buns without me.
– Make some headway on book 2 of Juego de Tronos (Game of Thrones), which, as much as I’m loving it and it’s great for my medieval Spanish vocabulary, is looking to take the longest of any book I’ve ever read (possibly longer than 1Q84 and Les Miserables combined).

I must say, being able to get stuck into these projects has been a luxury. There’s something to be said for a bit of time at home, when most of your friends are away (or live on the other side of the world), and you have no choice but to do all those niggly domestic tasks that have been building up for what seems like years. Hem pants, clean the little wheels under the microwave tray, and reply to near forgotten emails – all excellent reasons to not go to Ireland (which was the potential trip I had in mind for the Easter holidays before I realised it just wasn’t going to work).

capuchines de la parroquia de Jesús Cristo de Los GasconesExperiencing Semana Santa, Spanish holy week, was not a motivation for staying here. For some reason, watching bleeding Jesus and weeping Mary statues being paraded through the streets by grieving processions of people dressed in mourning, off-key brass bands, Klu Klux Klan figures, and overpowering incense…is something that just doesn’t attract me. I’ve been hearing the bands rehearsing for weeks, and seen the footage on the news, and for me that’s more than enough. I’ve no desire to go out of my way to attend a procession, and have graciously declined a few invitations to do so. I’m well aware that each statue is different and special, that some are hundreds of years old, some weigh a tonne and are carried cross country, or across rivers, or sometimes along cobblestone streets by bearers on their knees. It is all very specialised and painful stuff. The hermandades and cofradías (parish brotherhoods and guilds) spend months in preparation for the big week. They open temporary bars with names like Misericordia (not misery, mercy) to raise money for the church, and drink to their favourite Saint, Jesus or Virgin. They decorate the walls with posters of previous years’ processions, usually with close ups of Jesus’ bloody wounds and Mary’s tear stained face. Some years, it rains, and this means the pasos (statues) can’t leave the churches, which tends to produce even more waterworks. Apparently the main drawcard of Semana Santa is the sombreness of the atmosphere, as the people re-live Christ’s suffering.

But for some reason, this depressing, self-flagellating, Spanish brand of Catholicism is completely beyond me.

I’m not sure why I feel so estranged by it, but I do. Even more so than by more foreign religions. Perhaps this is the problem. Here, the religion just isn’t exotic enough. It fails to attract me on an aesthetic level (Spanish church interiors are particularly gaudy), and because it’s similar to what I’ve grown up with (it’s just an extreme version), there’s no mystery to lure me in. I know that this is wrong, that it should really be about faith (not aesthetics), but unfortunately I’m a little weak in that department.  So in Spain, all I see is a bizarre mix of unquestioning devotion, robotic obedience, complete indifference, and really tacky statues. Every now and then it occurs to me that I might be missing out on something, that to have a strong faith is probably a beautiful and comforting thing. But the truth is, I prefer not to hang my hopes on the benevolence of any specific deity, and I think “do unto others” is a reasonable, good, and straighforward code to endeavour to live by.

For me, the best thing about organised religion is that it brings family and friends together, and provides an excuse for a feast or a party. As simple as that. In my twisted, morally depraved perspective, religion is synonymous with tradition, tradition with culture, and culture with food. Nice, traditional, home cooked food. So holy wars, discrimination, and antiquated thinking aside, if religion is just an excuse for good food and a party, it can only be a good thing. Or is it?

A couple of years ago I went to a Romería, a celebration in the countryside in honour of La Virgin de la Antigua, one of the patron saints of the small Cordovan village where I was living at the time. Sure, it was a fun weekend (camping and dancing with about 6,000 people) but I couldn’t help but think, I wonder what the Virgin would have thought of the party in her name. Of the tacky carnival rides, the fairy floss stalls, the live football telecast on the big screen, the scantily dressed cover band, the excessive quantities of alcohol and the deafeningly loud music. Or of the perfect opportunity her party provided for all the teeny boppers to sneak away from their family’s tents, get drunk, and do naughty things in bushes. I’ve nothing against alcohol, or teenagers having fun in bushes, but it seemed very sacrilegious for it all to be happening in honour of a virgin.

La Virgin de La AntiguaThe week after the Romería, I was correcting homework for an after school class I had with some of the more ‘troubled’ (read: very very naughty) teenagers in the village. Unsurprisingly, most of them had written about the party. But I was more than a little shocked to read “I love La Virgin de la Antigua because she is beautiful and holy and kind”, over and over, the same sentence, echoed in almost every assignment. For once, I really hoped the students were copying each other.

So, my attitude to religion, and parties, and religious parties in Spain, is more than a little conflicted. The big parties get too debauched. I can’t stand the hypocrisy. The apparent brainwashing frightens me. And most of all, Semana Santa is just so depressing. However, at least it’s good to see Easter being celebrated for what Easter is about (I thankfully haven’t seen a chocolate bunny since I got here). Religion is such a big part of culture and identity. It would be really sad if it began to die out and the people stopped practising their traditions.

Sometimes I wonder, considering that I’m an outsider in the community, and I’m not religious, what’s the point of even thinking about all this?

I don’t know. It’s interesting. And it’s impossible not to have opinions and feelings. I’m curious about the various levels of devotion and participation that are exhibited in the processions. It makes me reflect on my own background and attitude to religion. I was raised a Catholic, consider myself agnostic, avidly dislike commercialism, and absolutely love Christmas. I think it’s a beautiful custom, so long as I don’t think to hard about what it means, or is supposed to mean, or whether or not I have the right to enjoy it if I don’t agree a lot of stuff the Church says/does/has done in the past.

So anyway. It’s happened again. This post was supposed to be a quick one, just a few photos, some interesting cultural tidbits, and ya.

You see, I’m a little tired, possibly even delirious. This morning I went for a run, a really long one, even longer than the half marathon I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. And as I was on the final stretch, I saw a big group of red and black capuchines (hooded Semana Santa figures) congregated in the street outside my flat. They cut pretty striking figures, and it occurred to me that whether I’m into it or not, this was no everyday sight, and it would be stupid to miss a procession that was literally on my doorstep. The show was starting, so I bolted upstairs (very melodramatically, with what little strength I had left), grabbed my camera (and a swig of water) and ran back into the street. I managed to get a couple of photos, but the group had moved on. And I wasn’t about to join in the procession in my shaky, unwashed, salt-caked state.

After stretching and showering, I was just sitting down to eat, when I heard the procession returning. Again, I rushed downstairs, and managed to see the return leg. It was pretty cool. The musicians sounded much better than when they were rehearsing, and the capuchines had a pretty ominous aurora about them. This particular Jesús was carried in a glass coffin, heavily adorned with flowers. The parishioners followed sombrely, all dressed in the darkest shades of their Sunday best, and many of the women wore black veils.

After a couple of minutes of straining to find a good place to stand (my street is very narrow and the procession took up most of it), I heard some voices above me. My neighbours were watching from their balcony, and invited me up. From their vantage point, they could see Jesús inside the coffin (‘isn’t he beautiful’, they all crooned), and a spectacular view of the capuchines disappearing down the street, with the Aqueduct and ancient city walls in the background. I spent a good while longer in their flat, and they told me about the monk who founded the parish (he came from France on a donkey), gave me their photos of the procession on a USB, and we gossiped about the private lives of the owners of the neighbouring restaurants. The two little girls showed me their Semana Santa drawings, and I would loved to have stayed longer, except that by this point I was close to fainting, and could only think about the (now cold) eggs and toast that were waiting for me in my attic upstairs.

So what of Spanish Easter food? Firstly, as to be expected, there is no meat on Good Friday. Except for in Segovia, where cochinillo and cordero (roast suckling pig and lamb) are the traditional dishes. If the only chance you have to visit Segovia is during Easter, well, apparently it’s acceptable to try just a bit of whole dead baby animal. As far as I can tell, the only other specific-to-Easter dish is Torrijas, which is basically sticky honey and cinnamon French toast. I’ve tried to explain that in Australia, French toast is just a regular breakfast food (well, maybe not every day, but it’s on most breakfast menus and isn’t confined to one time of year). This has been met with a bit of uproar. Apparently Spanish torrijas are special, but as far as I can make out, the ingredients (milk, eggs, bread), cooking method, and taste, are all the same. Which is a good thing. Because whatever side of the equator (or Pyrenees), and whatever the name, or motivation for eating it, milky eggy sticky spicy fried bread is delicious.

And that’s all I have to say about Semana Santa

torrijas