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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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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150 palabras

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Hace un tiempo escribí un cuento para “Rincones de Segovia”, un certamen anual de microrrelatos convocado por la Librería Antares. El desafío, como uno se puede imaginar, era escribir un relato de solo 150 palabras que hiciera referencia a Segovia. Para mí fue todo un reto, no sólo por la cuestión de idioma, sino también por lo mucho que me cuesta ser concisa. Comparé lo que suponía escribir un microrrelato con el famoso “Cubo de Rubik”, es decir, me parece como un rompecabezas. Sin embargo, disfruté del proyecto y, gracias a la ayuda de una amiga que me corrigió el texto, quedé contenta con el resultado (aunque no sea perfecto). Por supuesto no gané el concurso, pero eso tampoco era mi objetivo.

Como ahora se están acercando las vacaciones, estoy pensando mucho en escribir. Será uno de mis proyectos veraniegos. Por eso, el microrrelato, que tenía olvidado, me vino a la cabeza. Me di cuenta de que este año la colección de entregas no la publicó la librería. ¡Qué pena! Me habría gustado ver mi cuento impreso, y leer los otros, sobre todo los premiados.

Bueno, no pasa nada. He subido el mío, ¡qué fácil es “auto-publicar”! Así que, si os interesa, pinchad el enlace abajo. El microrrelato se llama “La huida”. Por supuesto, se agradecerá cualquier comentario, ya sea crítico o consejo.

pincha aquí para la pagina de cuentos


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On the road again*, still.

(*with international basketball superstars, and a couple of “social” badminton enthusiasts)

***

Two years ago on the 8th of August, I got on a plane with a one-way ticket to Rome. My vague ‘plan’ was to travel (you know, around), become ‘fluent’ in Spanish, build a romantically bohemian, semi-nomadic life for myself, and somehow write (or at least think about writing) something a lot more creative and ambitious than this blog.

Italian fruit and wine shop, with dream vespa and vine-clad apartmentSo how is it going? Not too bad! I’m getting by, by teaching English and occasionally translating, both of which I enjoy immensely. The travel is happening, semi-frequently, though not always when and where and how I’d plan it (had I unlimited time and a mysterious benefactor – currently taking offers!). My Spanish is slow and steadily improving, though it’s an infinite task and I doubt I’ll ever be content with my level. And as for the real, really infinite task…well my writing is so far, um, not progressing. It’s currently limited to this blog, some stream-of-consciousness diary entries (even more nonsensical and narcissistic than this blog), and a focus-less (oh dear) smattering of half baked creative/journalistic bits ‘n pieces, that are possibly unreadable and definitely unpublishable. (So what I’m kinda getting at, dear friends, family and humble followers, is that I hope you’re not holding your breath!)

But life is good (in fact, it’s great), and I’m happy to continue along this wandering trajectory for quite a while longer.

My only real complaint is that Australia is too far away. Unfortunately, not much can be done to remedy that. Skype and email and facebook (and even real letters and postcards) are all wonderful, but there’s just no substitute for face to face conversation or sharing a bottle of wine over a game of (real) scrabble. No number of European kisses will ever be substitute for a heartfelt Aussie hug.

It’s been two years since I’ve been home, and I’m finally starting to feel it. Call me cold and insensitive (you wouldn’t be the first), but since I left, I’ve barely felt homesick. Of course I miss my friends and family (and a lot more than they think I do), but for me, this sacrifice has become the main incentive to make the most of my time here. Why give up so much, to mope around feeling mopey? There’s no point in marring one experience because you’re bitter about missing out on another. So try not to dwell on it.

At least that’s what I tell myself, and most of the time it works. However, a few weeks ago, I felt my first serious pangs of homesickness. My dad (who’s a painter), had a big exhibition opening. It was at a regional gallery, and literally hundreds of people made an overnight trip from Melbourne to give him their support. The opening was a huge success, as was the party afterwards. As I watched the speeches via Skype, the momentousness of the occasion struck me. Dad spoke so well. I felt so proud, and so sad. In the photos that came after the event, I recognised both faces and paintings I hadn’t seen in years. It seems that everybody, from friends and family, to industry professionals and total strangers, has been raving about the show and the night. Everyone except me. It really, really frustrated and upset me that I couldn’t be there. Perhaps it was the significance of the event, or that I’m getting soft (or tired and emotional), or perhaps it’s just been too long. Despite having missed two Christmases, and numerous weddings, births, footy matches, parties, and much needed hugs, this is the first time I’ve seriously felt as though I was missing out on something. I should have been there, and not just for myself.

Señor Cigüeña, Mr Stork, I wanna be like you...

However, since the exhibition, two things have made my ‘Antipodean dilemma’ a lot more bearable.

The first is a recent spate of catch ups with Australian friends and relatives over here in Europe. Most importantly… my mum!!!

Mum arrived in Madrid about three weeks ago… and it’s impossible to put in words how wonderful it’s been to see her, how much fun we’ve had, and how flat out we’ve been – travelling, talking, and socialising. Using Segovia as our home base, we spent time in Madrid, Granada, Cordoba, and Hinjosa del Duque, the tiny middle-of-nowhere town where I lived during my first year in Spain. I introduced her to as many of my Spanish friends as possible, and we also caught up with a number of Aussies who were serendipitously in Madrid at the same time. Then, we flew to Rome, where we spent a lovely couple of days with Mum’s English cousin and his partner. After that, we went an ideal travel companionto Florence, to visit my favourite building in Italy (Il Duomo di Firenze) and further our quest for the perfect pistachio gelati (which we still haven’t found, though we did accidently hit upon the world’s yummiest walnut bread). Currently we’re in Turin, with my twin aunts and my aunt’s basketball team. They’re here to compete in the World Masters Games, which is kind of like an open Olympics for mature athletes. The basketball girls are seriously good, and have been competing in international competitions for years. Just for fun (and in order to be eligible for competitors’ rates on luxury accommodation) Mum and my other aunt have entered the social badminton competition. Up until a couple of months ago they’d never played it (or anything else) in their lives. But they’ve really embraced badminton (particularly the social aspect) and have had the chance to compete with athletes from all over the world…  it’s been surprisingly fun to watch. So with basketball, badminton, and 11 other Melbournian women all bursting to enjoy Italy (go shopping, make days trips, and eat and drink and eat and drink), it’s been a busy ten days of competition. The group have been so lovely and welcoming, and Turin has almost become like home… it’ll be a shame to leave and get back on the road again tomorrow.

Back to Mum’s visit. I loved showing her Spain, and sharing what I love about the country; the lifestyle, the scenery, the Alhambra, the food, the wine, the prices, the weather, the people. Now she can put names to faces and I find it reassuring to know that she’s reassured (and can see that I’ve ‘fallen on my feet’, that I’m happy with what I’m doing, and that I live in a safe environment with good people). Mum’s marvelling at everything has also refreshed my own outlook. I was beginning to take things for granted (such as old buildings and free tapas), but it’s hit me all over again just how lucky I am to be where I am and be able to live how I do. Mum is an easygoing and fun travel companion, and took to Spain like a fish to water (not everyone does), embracing all the best things whilst graciously turning a blind eye to issues like food safety (not easy for a nurse-come-health-inspector). We’ve still got a couple of weeks to go in Italy (it’s a hard life), before she goes back to the real world and I go back to Segovia… but all I can say is, so far so good… I think (I hope) this trip has been exactly what we both needed.  I for one feel strengthened and reaffirmed and ready for whatever the next few years bring.

And now, the second thing that makes my yearning for Australia bearable… is the promise of a trip home! I’ve finally booked my ticket, and providing all things go to plan, will be back in Melbourne for nearly a month over Christmas.

!!!!!!

Between now and then, there’s a lot more to see, do, and look forward to. I’ll certainly need to upload some photos of our Italian adventure, and we’ll see if I can manage to squeeze out a haiku, or something.

But given the rate at which time is speeding along, I guess I can say to some of you, see you soon!


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BERLIN (por fin!!!)

Oh dear. It’s already March.

So Berlin. The name of the city has rather hazy etymological roots; apparently ‘Berlin’ means either ‘bear’ or ‘swamp’. But for me, it will forever conjure up images of fireworks, jam doughnuts, liquid mercury, David Bowie, barbed wire, vast open spaces, currywurst and graffiti.

not just any wallI was in the German capital for about a week and a half over News Years. The primary agenda of my visit was tourism, the secondary, reconnaissance. For the past few years I’d been hearing all kinds of wonderful things about the city. Berlin is said to be progressive and dynamic, and have an open and creative culture. It’s at the forefront of science and it’s the place to be for the arts. Rent is cheap and opportunities are many. With this kind of reputation, it’s no wonder the city is flooded with idealistic Gen-Y ex-pats hoping to act, sing, paint, study, invent, hypothesise or smoke their way to a brighter future. The allure is hard to ignore, and I’d been curious for some time about the possibility of living in Berlin.

The city pretty much nailed all my expectations. It was just as cold and windy, as large, as gritty, as unpretentious and as unconventional as I’d feared and hoped. Not long ago I wrote about how Paris’ Shakespeare & Co bookshop provoked in me a kind of panic at the number of books I want to read in this life, but don’t have time for. Well Berlin induced a similar response, but on a much larger scale. This was due to the vastness and the significance of the history to take in, the infinite number of things to do there, and the existential-crisis inducing question of whether or not I should quit work in Spain in order to hole up in a cheap East Berlin flat and dedicate myself full time to artistic pursuits for the next year or so. I’d live solely on doner kebabs and marzipan, cut my own hair with rusty scissors by candlelight, and to survive the winter I’d dress in layers of eclectic clothing from the flea markets. (If I could find an Underwood typewriter that would complete the picture, but I think the only thing I’d be likely to pick up is lice.) I’d fill my evenings with hours of fascinating conversation in the dingy bohemian bars, and fill my days trying to wash the smoke and sweat out of my clothes.

Future planning aside, Berlin is a pretty good spot to hang out in the present, and to reflect upon the past.

There’s nothing like doing a walking tour of a city with a history buff as a guide*, to give you a vivid and lasting appreciation of what has happened there. It beats travel books and history books and Wikipedia hands down.

Memorial to the murdered jews of Europe - by Peter Eissman and Bruno HappoldOur guide was Finn, an Irishman who had lived the past 5 years in Berlin, and was doing a PhD in either film or history or perhaps film history. He ticked the boxes and took us to all the big sites, and then some. Had we been doing a self-guided tour, many of the interesting places would have slipped under our radar, such as the carpark that now covers the bunker where Hitler committed suicide. Finn told us terrifying stories, funny anecdotes, trivial facts, snippets about art and architecture, and was full of witty little observations about Berlin and its populace. Considering we were walking for about six hours, in the freezing cold, around a city that is basically a mess of unattractive and unfinished buildings, it was no small feat that he kept us happy and entertained from start to finish. If you’re going to Berlin, I recommend you do a walking tour with Insider Tours and if possible, ask for Finn.

*This reminds me of another remarkable tour I once did of Paris. The guide was a kiwi drama student, who single handedly re-enacted the entire French Revolution for us. Perhaps storytelling and the oral tradition hasn’t quite died… tour guides are our modern bards!

I digress. About Berlin.

ewCurrywurst: Is the local hangover cure. It consists of a naked hotdog smothered in ketchup and curry powder. The story goes, that during the cold war, German soldiers traded bootleg alcohol with British soldiers (stationed in West Berlin) for curry powder (and presumably with the Americans in exchange for ketchup). Some little old German sausage vendor had the horrific idea of mixing them all together and feeding the result to drunk soldiers. In my opinion, currywurst is the world’s one and only argument against multiculturalism.

Berliner: Internationally known as a jam doughnut. When President Kennedy made his famous speech to the people of West Berlin, he tried to tell them that he was one of them. What he actually said in German was ‘I am a jam doughnut’. Fortunately, they loved him for it. When JFK was assassinated, the people covered the steps of the US embassy with hundreds of sugar coated berliners.

New Years Eve: I went to a small house party where I was introduced to some curious German traditions. Or perhaps just the curious traditions of our host.
First we watched (several times over) a short black and white film called ‘Dinner for one’. It’s a Chaplin era slapstick, about an old lady celebrating her birthday with her butler. Unfortunately her other friends are all dead, so the two of them must drink on behalf of the absent guests. It’s very silly, very repetitive, and there are numerous rules for watching it that mostly involve drinking (ie drink every time the butler trips over the lion-skin rug).
Then we played with blei, some kind of mercury or lead- like substance that probably shouldn’t be sold to children. You melt a lump of the mystery metal over a candle until it liquefies, and then dump it in a bowl of cold water. The blei solidifies rapidly, and the shape is used to predict your future for the coming year. I ended up with a blobby looking bird that had a dangerously sharp beak. Unfortunately the interpretations booklet was all in German, my friend’s translation made no sense, and in the end I lost the metal thingy. Perhaps this is telling. My 2013 will be nonsensical and lost in translation.
After dinner, Dinner for one, a random piano recital, blei, hoola hoops, and some kind of frightening liquor with ‘real gold’ flakes, we went to join the mayhem outside.
For a moment, it seemed to me like Berlin was once again a warzone. Everyone, everyone, was launching fireworks, without rhyme or reason or timing. We weren’t even in the city centre, just the main street of a (pretty awesome) East Berlin suburb. The night was literally lit up by pyrotechnics which lasted for hours. It was frightening and dangerous. It was so much fun. And I am so lucky to still have my hearing and all my limbs in place.

Grunewald forest: Sometimes it’s nice to escape for a bit of fresh air.
A walk in Grunewald forest is a good way to get out of the city without leaving the city. Parts of it are, however, full of startlingly happy and healthy looking German families all running around and walking dogs and throwing Frisbees and being terribly active.
I preferred to sit under a tree.

Tempelhof Airport: Another hive of sporty activity. Tempelhof was an abandoned airport, until it was re opened as a public space. The day we went there, it was buzzing with skateboarders, cyclists, kites, inland windsurfers (or whatever they’re called), and unfortunately, segways. It was all fun and games until we got caught in a flash thunderstorm.

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David Bowie: Our tour guide was kind enough to email a list of books, films and music to check out, all in relation to Berlin. I’ve just finished watching Cristiane F, which is based on the West Berlin heroin scene in the 1980s, and has a soundtrack by David Bowie. It’s pretty gritty, to say the least. Both the film and music have etched themselves on my mind, and kinda merged into my memory of the city.

Graffitti: With so many abandoned buildings, and so much to be said, Berlin is one of the world’s best graffiti hot spots. Check out the gallery below.

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The Berlin Guggenheim: A bit of a disappointment. After my fabulous experience at the Bilbao Guggenheim, I was so excited to see the German equivalent. However, it was much smaller, a modest building that was almost impossible to find (the streets were full of scaffolding). It was showcasing an exhibition of modernist paintings… not one of them made an impression on me. Apparently the space is usually occupied by single features of installation art on a rotating roster.

 “Topography of Terror” exhibition: A must see. This exhibition is a detailed chronological documentary of Hitler’s Third Reich, housed in the old Gestapo headquarters. It’s frightening, fascinating, and free.

The Gates of Babylon: The Pergamon, on Berlin’s ‘museum island’,  showcases an impressive collection of antiquities, middle eastern and Islamic art. Its main drawcard is the Ishtar Gate, one of the eight principal gates to the ancient city of Babylon. Understandably, there’s some debate as to whether or not this impressive relic should be returned to modern day Turkey. Debates aside, it’s pretty cool to walk through.

Flea Markets: Berlin has a booming second hand scene. The numerous flea markets were literally swarming with people rifling through the trash and treasure, and joyfully carting off furniture on the back of their bikes in the pouring rain.

To sum up… what more can I say? Berlin was a great place to visit, and I still imagine it’d be a great place to live. The only thing that I didn’t like about the city was that people still smoke in bars, a lot. I must’ve gotten soft, because this really bothered me. I suppose it’s a bit contradictory, wanting raw and grungy but then turning my nose up (or away) at the first whiff of nicotine. Though I’m sure that if I lived there, I’d toughen up quick smart. And it’s definitely a fair price to pay for the music.  (The music! It’s all about the music.)

However, for the moment I’m pretty content where I am, and creatively, I’m not quite ready (or bold enough) to make that jump, to bite the bullet and have no job and focus full time on doing… exactly what? Hmm, still a bit of thinking to go there. And then there’s the language question. Learning German does appeal me, but it’d be silly to switch, just when I’m most loving Spanish.

So Berlin, it seems you’ll have to wait. But I won’t be forgetting you anytime soon.