Category Archives: Europe

CHRISTMAS IN SPAIN

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!

 

 

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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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

costa calida chronicle CJ article september-2014

 

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.

OUTDOOR PEOPLE

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.

CROWDED ISLE

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.

TOTALLY SICK

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.

NEVER IN IT TO WIN IT

LOST-532_1535358a

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)

Less Jive Talking about Swindon

It is the fifth time in a row that the Bee Gee’s track, Jive Talking is being played in the Plum Tree in Swindon as I sit down to write.  Nobody seems notice.  An old man smiles and taps his foot whilst tucking into a fried egg breakfast.

It’s been 14 years since my favourite comedian, Eddie Izzard, described the Wiltshire town of Swindon as “knackered”.  A Bristolian by birth, it felt good to sneer at our less attractive west-country cousin. Known to me only as “a bit of a railway town,” last month I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days in Swindon to see for myself.

As I have done in Basra and Islamabad, I arrived in the dead of night.  Lost, I wondered with my luggage around a black and white town centre void of almost all people.  Those I came across – hotel workers and chip shop owners – helpfully pointed me in the right direction, some walking with me for part of my journey.

In the morning I ventured along the same streets, now bathed in colourful sunlight.  It was early and everyone was busy going about their business.   One figure stood out from the rest –  a middle aged white man with a huge grin on his face was walking towards me.  As he grew close I was able to read the words on his T-shirt: I’m so broke I don’t even pay attention.  The message combined with his happy disposition was a wonderful defiant opening to what would prove to be a very positive few days.

“It’s a working town” said a taxi driver, “we have no airs and graces, we just enjoy living and working here”.  Swindon’s lack of pretension was the number one thing that people I asked said they loved about the town.  Another thing that made Swindonian’s proud was “the people”.  Combine the two and you get a very welcoming, down-to-earth place to be: The receptionist at the Holiday Inn Express who “sneaked me a youghurt” when I arrived at midnight. The guy in the corner shop who offered to make me a cup of tea when I asked where a good café was. The smiles in response to a cheeky girl who ran into a shop and turned up the volume on their speakers.  A smile and a wave from a highly decorated octogenarian war veteran on a mobility scooter – in fact people saying hello to each other all over the place.  There was also a genuine excitement in the air about “future Swindon” – the coming regeneration of the town centre, the potential of a ski slope at the Oasis, and new life breathed into the old corn exchange building in Old Town.

I am glad to have my perception of Swindon changed by the people who live there.  I had thought it was a relatively new town – yet it has a history going back as far as a The Domesday book.  I knew it was famous for building railways – but I never knew it was where Isambard Kingdom Brunel chose to build.  Nor did I know that the railway workers health scheme was used as a blue-print for our National Health Service.  In 1844 a revolutionary co-operative organisation known as The New Swindon Improvement Company transformed the railway’s workforce into some of the country’s best-educated manual workers.  The legacy of this history with people at it’s heart, is clear.

This travel blog has been home to my thoughts about my travels in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq – and each time I am keen to show that their perception of a place is not necessarily accurate.  Swindon is just the same.

I asked the Landlord at the Plum Tree if he liked Jive Talking.  “Has it been on more than once, darling?” he asked.  I nodded.  It was taken off.  For those who don’t know, Jive Talking is slang for bullshit.  It’s time for less Jive Talking about Swindon.

Majorca, Multi-culturalism & Michael Schumacher

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Those of you who know me well, will know of my fascination with the perception of people and places.  I have to admit, before I arrived in Majorca I thought of Spanish tack, red-neck Brits and cheap beer.  Because I am a Formula 1 fan, I also held a view that the Spanish were racist (remembering times when Alonso was Lewis Hamilton’s teammate at McLaren).

The beer was not that cheap, the tack was well….tacky and the Brits?  Surprisingly were a delightful  eclectic mix.  This week I spent a couple of cheap days in Porto d’Alcudia in the north of Majorca.   It was a refreshing experience for many reasons – not least because it challenged by own perceptions.  For a start the “Spanish” were in fact Catalan. And some of them were African, some Chinese and scoring a delicious saag paneer, coconut rice and mushroom curry washed down with a mango lassie, I discovered that some Majorcans originated from the Punjab.

The supermarkets were well stocked up with crates of some of the cheapest, craziest alcohol in Europe (absinthe for example) – but the clientele (at least out of season) did not appear that interested.  Bottles were not flying off the shelves, and tourists seemed more impressed with bicycle rickshaws which whole families could hire for as cheap as 6 Euros an hour.Image

There were Muslim Brits from London, Jamaicans from Birmingham, Groups from Ulster, Yorkshire and Devon. There was middle class triteness and a certain up-tightness.  There were coffee-coloured babies.  Asian babes.  Red skins, white skins. White Irish gypsies getting their hair braided. And more mixed-race couples than Nick Griffin could shake a stick at. In response to this deluge of British diversity Majorca responds with Chinese restaurants, curry houses, Irish pubs, Italian pizzerias and Mexican bars.

This might not be a revelation to some, but coming from an industry which patronisingly acknowledges the importance of “grass roots” initiatives (in other words “working class”) it was a real pleasure to witness a multiculturalism that hadn’t been fabricated by Guardian-reading liberals, where people from all walks of British (and German) life rubbed shoulders in apparent harmony.

Not only that, but the island was beautiful.  The perception may be of tatty tourism, but the rolling mountains were bigger than that.  Rural Majorca could have been mistaken for Tuscany, and the turquoise seas as clear and perfect as any in St Juan-Les-Pins.

Once I managed to tear myself away from the only Go-Kart track on the island (who celebrated Lewis with a giant cut out of him) – my only problem was that I had forgotten to pack a beach towel.  No fear – the bargain kiosks that lined the street to the beach had plenty – at 5 Euros a pop.  I was drawn by a towel bearing the beaming grin of Michael Schumacher. Tic Tac logo on his helmet from his Ferrari days. On enquiring I discovered no Lewis, no Jenson, not even Alonso graced the space on a beach-towel in Majorca.  Clearly Michael had discovered what I had – that this island of the Balearics, was a good place to be.

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Drifting Through Den Haag

The following is a record of a derive which was voice recorded on Saturday 19th November 2011.

“One of the basic situationist practices is the dérive, a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.” – From the Bureau of Public Secrets

 

BEGINS

A rack of small cards, business-card sized, in the lobby of the hotel.  All with small holes in them to hang and representing discounts for various attractions, activities.  Not just in Den Haag, but Amsterdam and various other places with unrecognisable names.  One had a picture of a car on it and I take one.  It is for the car museum. Count the pictures, count the card.  Ten down and seven across – meaning 70 different cards for different attractions.  Notice that there are more than one stack of car cards, so maybe not as many attractions as appears.

Going through the airlock doors.

An old couple with matching brown leather jackets looking in the window of a clock shop.  A small shop window but  home to15 different ornamental clocks. Can’t hear the tick tock.

A life-size native American statue in the street.

A pigeon.  Try following the pigeon.  Moving too slowly, I’m not interested.

An art shop.  A lady in a beige coat with her bicycle parked goes through the prints.  Crap old art.  A few nicer Kandinsky prints.  And there’s the black doll. I took a picture of it last night.  The UK outlawed these dolls  as blatant racist objects decades ago.  They were called Golly-Wogs.  Shocked. This one is in the window of a shop…what kind of shop it is….it’s a manicurist?

A wonderful old shop called Emma with trinkets, chandeliers,  earrings and old dolls and statues…..another black doll!  I think it must be Black Peter.  I thought Black Peter was in Spain.  I must investigate.

Postcard stand with Dutch Royal family all over it.  Old lady I don’t recognise, must be a royal – she looks wrinkly and thick with make-up.

Why am I not actually doing anything?  Just walking and looking.  And breathing heavily.  Pulling on my cigarette.

The street I decide to follow opens up into a plaza.  A hundred tables and chairs completely unoccupied.  It’s November and the floor of the cobbles in the plaza are covered with fat brown leaves.  It’s not cold, but some of the chairs have blankets on them….I wish I could follow a bird, the ones that are flying….no they are going too fast.

A fountain spouts froth.  A man tries to sell me a magazine…maybe the Dutch Big Issue.  Regret not talking to him, but I don’t feel like it.

A red brick building.  A red lion.  Gold.  Hollandia.  So many bicycles, some look hand made.  I’m going to touch the next bicycle I see.  Going to touch the handle bars.  They are rubbery and cold.  It’s a glance rather than a grip.  Man gives me funny look.

I already don’t know where I am.  I am walking down a tram-line, which feels a bit wrong.  Not sure how quiet there approach is.

Standing outside an American Book Shop.  10 copies of Steve Jobs biographies fill the window.  I’m going in.

Wonder why considered American Books? Lots of books by non-Americans.  Heading for the art section and contemporary art books.  Discover Keri Smith’s This Is Not A Book.  Like.   Read book on label tagging cover to cover (it is mostly pictures of label tagging). Leave my small picture of a car inside the guide to guerrilla art book.  Is the book an anomaly? Opposite art books are an array of books on war and politics.  Take This Is Not a Book and place it in front of a book about Tackling Somali Pirates.  Tony Blair grins at me.  I remove all Tony Blair’s books and head for the crime section.  Can’t find it.  Better – I find the horror section and fill the shelves with Blair.  Find a lovely but trite book called Greed – a self-help book about how not to be greedy – with these in my arms I return to the biographies of foul leaders and place the Greed titles in front of George Bush .and friends .

After another twenty minutes I have re-arranged others – mostly art books.  Those people browsing for politics, history and especially romantic fiction might now stumble on some art.

Pay for two Keri Smith books.  Feel ok about the unnoticed rearrangement now.

Sitting on a shiny polished bench, watching people go into the bookshop.

Away from the bookshop another cobbled square.  Autumn grey grand.  Lone protestor carrying his words on a cardboard sign.  I show interest.  He doesn’t.  He has a brightly coloured satin sash around him.  Can make out the word Ir-an on his cardboard next to a picture of a fist and broken chains.  He looks glum.

Despite not wanting to take pictures I cannot resist recording a very public men’s toilet.  In the distance behind the pisser, I see a giant hording of the girl with pearl earrings.  She is everywhere.  The size of Mubarak in the film I have.   The one where he gets torn down by revolutionaries. The girl is the height of the building she is on.  Up close, I can get no purchase on her.  Instead I follow Japanese people down a slope, through glass sliding doors.

No mobile phones.  No cameras.  No bag bigger than an A4 letter size (?).  No vocal recordings of a derive. I have to write not speak.  Decide to tag every toilet roll in the ladies.  Realise I have no tag, so drag one up from the 1983 Bristol graffiti days.  My resurrected tag surprisingly remembered perfectly.  Hopefully will touch the arses of many.

Picking up an audio guide and switch it to Japanese.

Rubens didn’t always paint that well.  Bible stories, fruit, piles of books.  Want to cut the strings holding the paintings, but nothing to do it with.  Hushed mumble mumbled.  Want to shout bums very loud but I don’t.

Switch  back to English to understand van Haecht’s Antwerp Art Collector.  People drinking, playing with a globe.  Emily Godenker tells me it’s an imaginary museum and freaks me out.  It is. A portrait painter Ampelles paints Alexander the Great’s concubine, Campaspe and falls in love.  Alexander gives Ampelles the girl and keeps the painting.  It about the power of the painting says Emily.  It’s about how you can fall in love with a portrait subject I think.

Fucking hell.  In amongst the Holbeins and the Rembrants, Francis Bacon’s crucifixion screams out like a pleasing monster.  It’s next to Van de Weyden’s dead Jesus with a Flemish backdrop.

Up some more stairs and more fucking hell.  The usual red walls filled with salon-style masters – but the frescoed ceilings are crazily daubed by something more contemporary.  Need to know.  It’s Get Lataster. 1987.  Icarus.  Can’t look anywhere but up.

Decide to follow two nuns.  Look at everything they look at.  Pick them up at the Anatomy Lesson.  One nun looks like Larry Grayson.  Gerrit van Honthorst’s violin.  Nuns ignore Rembrant’s laughing man and point excitedly at Gerril Dou’s old woman.  JESU XP PASSIO heart and a cross.

Why place a chair with a sign Geen Zitplaats (don’t sit)?  Is it a work?  Lost the nuns.  Found them again.  Listening to audio guide for a different painting to that which I am looking.  Have idea for making alternative audio guides for great museums.

Bored with the nuns now.  Almost running.  Past Van Gough’s  and Cezanne’s fields.  Nuns appear to be following me now.  Can’t shake them.  And there is the girl.  The one with pearl earrings.

A few hours into my drift.  Fun for me – but may be as interesting as someone else’s dream for others.  Only it is/was real.

Totally escaped the nuns.  Folded the feedback book into shapes.  Now drinking beer.  I don’t really like beer. I write Francis Bacon Rules on a left-behind Napkin.  Exit Through The Gift Shop.  Want to look for a cemetery.

Following the sound of a crowd.  50 protestors.  Shouting.  Don’t understand. There is my Iranian with the sash.  Man in broken English with German and Dutch says Ashraff.  Iraq.  Iran.  Very bad.  Regime change. Dictator.  No good.  Hands me a piece of paper in English, which explains the protest better.  I fraudulently chant.

Feel fraudulent.  Self absorbed. No sign of a graveyard.  Opposite protestors another palace with huge hording –  an Escher painting.  Try to enter, but decide if I have to pay, I won’t.  I have to pay.  I don’t. Seeking ways of illegal entry, but fail.  Pick up an Escher leaflet instead.  Looking for a bench to sit and look at the hording.  No benches.  Distracted by another Black Peter outside the Museum Shop.   Ask a woman with long hair and long eyelashes about Black Peter.  It is Schwarz Pete,  Dutch Santa’s helpers are all black people from Africa.  Schwarz Pete hands out presents to children on 5th December.  Feeling distinctly uncomfortable with this celebration using, to my British eye,  a racist effigy.  Lady insists Schwarz Pete is good, not bad.  Feel she might be glossing over something.  Need to ask more people.  I pass Bansky Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Been walking for half an hour now in one direction.  Fear I am a bit lost.  No signs or maps.  Flats to rent.  Residential area.  No benches.  Might be going back in the same direction I came, but adamant not to exactly re-trace steps.  Canals.  Bamboo.  Looking for that fountain.

A man with a limp walks by with his girlfriend and I overhear him saying I am a bit scared and lost.  Massive déjà vu.  Nearly get hit by a car – looking the wrong direction as I cross the road.  Smile at woman holding her baby.

This would be ultimately more fun with more than one person.

At last I see Escher again at the far end of an avenue of trees.  Not sticking around – I think he got me lost because I didn’t go in and see his crazy staircases.

I follow the train tracks until my feet ache and happen upon the chairs with blankets again.   Still no people.  I wrap myself in two big black blankets.  Another beer.  Chips.  Mayonnaise.  Be rude not to.  I write Follow The nuns on leaflets for The Mauritshuis.  Ask the Dutch waiter who Schwarz Pete was he said he deliversh giftsh for the little childrensh.  Denied any darkside..perhaps I am asking the wrong people.

Pigeon lands on the table and takes a chip.  Warme Choco Met Slagroom.

ENDS