I wrote this short piece about Christmas in Spain before I realised I would in fact not be in Spain for Christmas.  Nevertheless I hope it might be of some interest to the lovely family coming to Spain to look after my cats whilst I am gone – and anyone else experiencing Christmas in Spain for the first time.

feliz navidadSo here is what I can expect from Spain for Christmas (or Navidades in Spanish). Despite the Chinese Bazar’s being ahead of the game (probably to please their British clientele) – decorations should not appear until December, and if trees are bought into the home, they are put up in mid- December. As well as a tree, some homes may have miniature nativity scenes called Belénes (in fact this was much more of a tradition in Britain when I was growing up in the 1970s than it is today in the UK). In San Pedro del Pinatar, where I live, the Mayor has recently announced a Christmas market between 6-9th December on the main road through town – Avenida Emilio Castelar.  I am hoping for some promised Spanish crafts and less imported tat – fingers crossed.[Ed’s note: I went, it was disappointing and not very Christmassy at all]. There are always Christmas markets in Cartagena and Murcia for more authentic Christmas atmosphere.


Despite Christmas being clearly less commercial in Spain, the festive season is usually kicked off by a session of money worship – the biggest lottery draw of the year on the 22nd December. The numbers take hours to draw and it is one of the most watched things on television all year. I don’t think I will be buying a ticket!


Christmas dinner is likely to start with seafood – usually prawns, followed by either roast lamb or turkey (filled with truffles), with a dessert of turrón or polvorones – both sweets made from almonds, washed down with a glass of Cava. The big family Christmas meal is likely to be eaten with much extended family on 24th December – known in Spain as Nochebuena before the main event, which is a visit to church for Midnight Mass. After the service, which includes carols accompanied by drums, tambourines and guitars, the celebrations continue with a noisy walk through the streets, many bringing the musical instruments with them.

On 25th December, when the British celebrate Christmas day, the Spanish nurse hangovers, remain with family, and may go out for a meal.  Shops are all closed, but there are no real presents exchanged until January. On the 28th the Spanish celebrate a kind of “April Fools Day” and tricks are played on one another to reveal who is the most “inocente”.


New Year’s Eve or NocheVieja is a big celebration all over Spain. People tend to stay at home until midnight then party in the street or in hotels and clubs. Traditionally the Spanish eat 12 grapes on the 12 strokes of midnights to bring in good luck for every month of the new year.


As in many European countries, Epiphany or Fiesta de Los tres Reyes Mages is celebrated on 6th January – the 12th night after Christmas. The day before sees places all over Spain celebrate with processions of sweet-throwing floats. In San Pedro del Pinatar the “kings” arrive by boat in Lo Pagan and catch the road train to the town centre, showering treats as they go. In the Sierra Nevada it is rumoured the kings can be seen skiing down the mountain. It is believed that the 6th is the day the kings bought presents to baby Jesus, so it is when most Spanish children will open their presents. In recent times, however Papá Noel also brings presents on Christmas Eve. Traditionally on the night of the 5th January Spanish children leave their shoes on their windowsills or doorsteps overnight (or more recently under a Christmas tree) in the hope they will be filled with sweets and treats by the three Kings. A drop of Cognac or fruit is sometimes left for the Kings and even water left for their camels. If the Kings are displeased with the children they might leave coal. Whether you get coal or sweets you are likely to be enjoying a Roscón de Reyes (a ring shaped cake) for breakfast.

Wherever you are in the world – I wish you a Feliz Navidad!



Costa Calida Chronciles

Since embarking on another adventure to Spain, I have barely written here.  This is partly because my creative writing juices have been depleted by writing a monthly column in the Costa Calida Chronicle (Septembers article at the bottom of this page, but you can catch up on other months on their website).

Another draw has been the novel I am writing (18,000 words so far) and the amount of time I have spent painting and photographing my surroundings.  For this blog entry I thought, therefore to illustrate my experiences so far with a slide show of images.  Click on an image if you want to know more.

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costa calida chronicle CJ article september-2014


The French Take Over Cambridge


Taking bicycles to Cambridge is a bit like taking tea to Yorkshire.  Cambridge is Britain’s number one cycling city with two-thirds of its residents regularly getting about on two wheels.  Surprising then that thousands turned out to welcome the Tour de France cyclists depart for their third leg from the historical town today.  I had come all the way from Spain to watch (long story) and although it was a mere nano-second when the peloton passed me – my fascination was with the French-ness of it all.

I first heard about Le Tour’s Cambridge stage many months ago as we began developing an art project involving recycle bicycle parts – which has come to fruition this week.  One of our first contacts were the Alliance Francaise in Cambridge who insisted that Cambridge wouldn’t know what hit it.  The take over started at the weekend, when the AF and a wealth of French businesses hosted an array of stalls at Le Big Weekend on Parkers.  Cheese, bread, olives and every French dish you can imagine was available. We tried to buy a drink in English and where met with a stubborn display of French. It had begun.

Early this morning a lady in clipped English offered me a free croissant and coffee from a stall set up outside a quaint English church.  No tea and cake in sight.  Croissants continued to be a theme, as did sticking “le” in front of anything.  But most impressive where the Gendarmerie, who I observed shouting instructions the British “tour makers” and French officials on bright red fold up cycles barking into walkie talkies.  I stood next to a menagerie of French media crew and their motorcycles.  Clad in denim and leather the all male group brazenly smoked roll up cigarettes, greeted each other with double kisses.  It was a real culture shock for many onlookers, but I loved it.  There was a real confidence in the air.

First came the “caravan” which I am assured by those that know the tour well is a traditional and perhaps even a little tongue-in-cheek affair.  It was slick and corporate, as a bizarre set of   sponsors paraded their shiny cars along the route. There was less free Haribo and Bic lighters than I expected, and Carrefour merely waved, but plenty of people caught boxes of air borne Yorkshire tea.  A car with a giant bag of McCain oven chips was followed by a Sheffield Hallam University Landrover. An old couple next to me shook their head in disbelief, but the middle-aged man in lycra on the other side was delighted with the spectacle.  The day after-all was his.

The Gendarmerie returned in force and lined their bikes up in a neat row out side the Catholic church and took photos on their smart phones.  French officials took their photos with the Cambridge police and their “funny hats”.

And then the cyclists went past, and it was all over.

France has had its moment in Cambridge – and they certainly proved they can put on a show.  As a nomad, I have to admire their ability to put down and then pick up camp in a matter of hours.  I’m not sure the tour will have inspired yet MORE of Cambridge to cycle, but it has generated a new admiration for the French I am sure – and many can go home and have a nice cup of Yorkshire tea.

San Pedro del Pinatar – first impressions

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn Saturday a group wearing pointed capirotes (hoods with eye holes) marched around the small Spanish town of San Pedro del Pinatar. Drums thumped, police blocked roads, and a small crowd gathered. This procession has taken place every day during my first (Holy) week here. Yesterday was Easter Sunday and the parade had grown twenty fold at least, as had the onlookers. Drummers were joined by a brass section and toddlers in white tunics and adolescents wearing mirrored sunglasses tossed cheap sweets at scrabbling, laughing children. Black-laced ladies paced morosely behind and a statue of Jesus rose again and again on the shoulders of cassock-wearing locals.

The procession circled the centre of town, passing bars and shops, banks and offices. Ad hoc food stalls were set up and many of those witnessing the spectacle were tourists, a handful of Brits among them. Having recently moved to the town to see whether a life can be made here, I wasn’t sure quite how I fitted in. My camera annoyingly ran out of batteries at the crucial moment of Jesus passing, so I reverted to quick-sketching what was around me. Pressing myself against a wall in the cool of the shade, I self-consciously scribbled away – the procession thankfully moved at a snails-pace and stopped frequently. But pencil couldn’t capture the gold-braid, the ruby red cloaks, the whiteness of the St Peter’s church against the blueness of the skies. Eventually I closed my notepad and just observed, as did many of the townsfolk – emerging from their homes, arms folded in quiet stillness.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlthough quite famous, the Easter parade had a gentle modesty that impressed me. It is the same modesty that led me to choose San Pedro del Pinatar as a place to live. The architecture doesn’t shout at you – there are no bold or flamboyant statements to be found and the clean(ish) streets are lined with simple palm and pine trees (as the name suggests). Perhaps the town’s ease with itself is down to the natural landscape surrounding it: There are breathtaking views across a colossal sparkling salt-water lagoon that take in a hulking mountain range alongside the equally hulking man-made high-rises on the spit of La Manga. The local waters are also home to flocks of pink flamingos, yachts and kite surfers. With sun, sea and landscape presented in such an extra-ordinary way – it is no wonder the charm of the people and the town of San Pedro appears so effortless.

In a Spain that we are told is struggling with unemployment levels and economic pressures, there feels like a subtle resilience at play in this small town. The are some boarded up shops and evidence of building projects started but not finished – but the town seems to shrug it off and get on with life. Whatever hardships there may be, the San Pedro del Pinatarians are hiding it well – and with good spirit – in just a week we have met friendly neighbours and exchanged holas with everyone who passes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe surprisingly unpretentious yet glorious Easter parade is no signal that the town is not modern. Wifi zones are popping up everywhere, not unattractive graffiti art covers walls and the town has a state-of-the-art skate park. I look forward to reflecting on this place more with my art and writing in the weeks and months to come and ultimately inviting friends to be inspired by this place too.

10 THINGS I LOVE ABOUT BRITAIN (as I say goodbye to her)

Before I launch into tales of my new adventures in other lands, I’d like to take a moment to consider the country of my birth.

As I plan to end the longest stint of living in Great Britain in my adult life (over seven years) it is tempting to justify my departure by rattling off a list of things that drove me to end my residency. The English liberal middle classes are as riddled with national self-loathing (perhaps a legacy of colonialism) and joining in with Britain-bashing is an easy trap to fall into. Considering my determination for writing positive things about other places I have lived in or visited – Iraq and Pakistan for example – it feels only right to resist being drawn into a wholly negative take.


England - London - Three city office workers sunbathe during hot lunchtime1. I love how we worship the sun. It only has to briefly show its face and office workers crowd to patches of pleasant green during lunchbreaks and roll up sleeves and trousers to soak in Vitamin D. I love how in the summer the sun shines long into the evening and the fact that we buy more convertible cars than the French, Spanish and Italians. images

2. I love how we love gardening. I love how we mark out our territory neatly with walls and fences and how even the bleakest of council estates will have a row of bungalows with perfectly planted pansies. Allotments thrill me.


images-13. I love sitting on the tube and being surrounded by people of all shapes, sizes, colours, religions, nationalities, ages, attitudes. I love how despite the diversity everyone manages to avoid eye contact.

Unknown4. I love my personal space in Britain. People don’t queue too close and mostly avoid the continental cheek peck and needless hugs. We need to maintain our large personal space and save the hugs for when we mean it. Unknown-1

5. I love how when we have really enjoyed something, we say it was “Quite good”. We need to cling on to the under-stated and save the awesome for the truly awesome.


Unknown-26. I love how being ever-so-slightly mentally ill can be viewed as charmingly eccentric (for the middle and upper classes at least). raynerlarge

7. I love how although we still have a class system, the middle classes now shop at Aldi and overall economic hardship is being shared beyond the working classes.

Unknown-38. I love how Brits dramatically pull over to let an emergency vehicle past. This doesn’t happen in lots of countries, and in some countries it only happens for ambulances.

9. I love that we have emergency ambulances. And free health care to those that need it. Many countries have neither.



10. Finally, I love the English ability to lose graciously. Losing is our default starting point – but we still enjoy a good match.


And with the later in mind, I am well aware that perhaps I haven’t chosen the best professions to succeed at in Britain: the civil service, teaching, publishing and being an artist. Perhaps I didn’t put myself in the best place to make Britain work for me over the past seven years.  But I still think Britain is great. Not because it hosted the Olympics, or has a Queen, or any reasons associated with recent attempts to turn our national flag into a commodity. For me, it’s the cultural nuances that will help me be gently, quietly comfortable in my English skin as I once again embark on an overseas existence.

The Passion of Catalunya

I have recently noted an internal decline in my desire to write.  There is no decline however in my desire to make and take images.  So, as I have done with Islamabad, Baghdad and Kabul – here is Barcelona in pictures.  See if you can tell what I am trying to say without words.  Apparently a picture paints a thousand of them.

(double click on images to see them as a slideshow)

Baghdad Photo Blog

I haven’t been back to Baghdad in over three years.  The last time I went I wrote and posted photos whilst I was there.  This time I will engage in some serious post-visit analytical writing.  Wherever that ends up, I will repost it on my personal blog at  In the meantime – some photos.  As usual, I focussed my eye away from stereo typical images.  You won’t find a bomb blast, an armed militia or a wailing widow.  But here are some of the scenes I witnessed in Baghdad this week. I’d love your comments below.

(for a more artsy set of photos have a look at my Flickr page)



City Scape

City Scape

Construction in the background

Construction in the background



Cafe where we stopped for lunch more than once!

Cafe where we stopped for lunch more than once!

A fun fare in central Baghdad

A fun fare in central Baghdad

A Red Double Decker Bus

A Red Double Decker Bus

Abu Afif Chocolate Shop

Abu Afif Chocolate Shop

The hotel we stayed in

The hotel we stayed in