Islandmomma

Exploring the Stories of the Islands and the Freedoms of Third Age


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Almond Blossom Time Is Over: A Slightly Cynical Look at Tenerife Island Festivals

This post began, a couple of weeks back, in a totally different form. Technology killed it. I clicked something I shouldn’t have, and three-quarters of what I’d written was lost in the ether of cyberspace. I had no heart to try to recall lost words. Its time was past.

All of which set me thinking about how we tell time by the revolving customs as well as the seasons.

 

almond blossom el hierro

As soon as the Kings have hiked on back to Fairyland, I begin to think about almond blossom.  The first ones were spotted this year very early in January, and I missed my usual jaunt over to Santiago del Teide to see them , so I was surprised and happy to spot on orchard in El Hierro, still groaning with blossoms.

Almond Blossom El Hierro

I went to a talk about wine pairing (topical because it paired wines with almonds) and that was the subject of my murdered post. I learned nothing new about wine, but a lot about almonds. It was amusing but hardly life changing, but that was it, the year’s first bookmark passed.

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I guess we need our bookmarks to reassure us, that life goes on, that we are till rooted. That we are still here, even.

On this island, after the almond blossom comes Carnival. The main event in Santa Cruz, and the minor ones around the island in the following weeks. Personally, I prefer the smaller ones, they are much more fun that the extravaganza in the capital….as you can see in the faces of the folk below (one of whom is my hairdresser….pity her!) Watching the “big” carnival on tv you gotta wonder sometimes why they bother, so bored or serious the faces are.

Scenes From the Carnival in El Médano This Year

Carnival El Médano

Murgas Carnival El Médano

Carnaval El Médano

Murgas Carnaval El Médano

I have come to realize, now is a kind of dead zone on the island calendar. Of course it is! The foundations of so many festivals are religious, the churches, of course, have cleverly high-jacked pre-Christian ones to help convert. Thus – Carnival – the eating and drinking of anything vaguely hedonistic, packing six weeks of fun into a few days & nights,  before the rigors of Lent. It’s Lent right now, the season of abstinence, and so fun events are thin on the ground. There is no tradition of celebrating at this time of year.

Easter is almost here though, with all its solemnity, which will segue into sunshine and happiness for believers, but at least the fiestas will start up again! It’s possible that nowhere outside Vatican City does the Catholic Church still have such sway with a country’s cultural life.

Easter La Laguna

There are exceptions to the rule (Arona in the south of the island, for instance) but most fiestas and romerias are summer events. Throughout summer and into Fall, each town and village will dust down the statue of its patron/ness and parade it around the streets. Bunting will flutter. Kiosks selling beer and hotdogs will set up around town squares. In any village big enough, the traveling fair will set up. Older women will weep. Children will be bored. Young folk will get drunk. Fireworks will fill the night skies. If the village is on the coast, boats will be decked with bunting. The faithful and the local politicians will crowd on board tighter than sardines and risk their  lives, putting to sea, so that the likeness of the patron can bless the waters ….. as if an ornate piece of plaster can turn back years of overfishing. Inland, the hauntingly bland faces of the statues will survey the rich soils of the north or the barren deserts of the south. People will celebrate arriving again at this, particular, point in the year, will take comfort from the predictability and the familiarity. Tourists will go to some of these, in Los Cristianos or Puerto de la Cruz, and will, on the other hand, find them strange and exotic.

Fiesta decor church in Amparo

La Virgen de Guadalupe, La Gomera, Canary islands

Perhaps it’s because I’m a non-believer (of this version of religion), I find much of this alien, that I never feel totally at home, though everyone is always made thoroughly welcome, so mea culpa. When I go to other festivals, like the wonderful Mueca in Puerto de la Cruz, or El Día de la Trilla in El Tanque, or El Día de las Canarias anywhere in May, I feel much more comfortable and relaxed. Not that there isn’t plenty to do or admire outside of the religious aspect of most festivals – flowers, animals, costumes, music, food and wine.

As we turn back our clocks, as the chestnut trees in the north deliver their goodies, as we scurry from the beach at 4pm instead of 7, and begin to wonder if it might rain, the new wines arrive. Harvested in the heat of late summer, graded and fussed over in early Autumn, the wines are presented and hyped by the vineyards. Reviews are eagerly awaited, and young folk do crazy things to celebrate this increasingly important part of island economy. Once there was a time when Canarian wines were famous all over the world, and island wine makers are working hard these days to recover that fame. Needless to say, as a fan, I love this time of year, especially the traditions in Icod de los Vinos.

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And so to Christmas, which is, by the standards with which I grew up, something of a non-event. Although now commercialized beyond recognition, it remains, basically a festival which resembles Thanksgiving more than Christmas in the rest of the western world. The family gathers on Christmas Eve but there is no exchanging of gifts, making the commercialization a bit of a mystery. Followed by getting drunk on New Year’s Eve and the kids fighting over presents on The Day of the 3 Kings……which means that all that commercialization was directed at kids….. and it’s Almond Blossom Time again.

Perhaps it’s the unaccustomed number of cloudy days, perhaps it’s the tales of corruption and back-handers, which are making me skeptical today. Perhaps tomorrow I will be eagerly researching the times for the Easter Parades (do NOT think Judy Garland!). Or perhaps it’s too long since I salved my itchy feet.


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On Being a Marathon Mom: A Flying Visit to El Hierro

Really, don’t get excited, when I say “marathon mom,” that’s as in “soccer mom,” not as in a mom who runs marathons (at least not yet but more of that another time!). I’ve shivered on the streets of London, and got soaked in Snowdonia watching Guy run marathons. I’ve also fried watching both my sons run the Half Marathon in Santa Cruz de Tenerife and Austin take part in triathlons here in Tenerife. Of course the soaking, and the chilling, and the frying mean nothing, because watching my sons achieve is the very best thing in my life :)

Thus, rising at 6am, being on the road by 6.30 and eating a peanut butter wrap on a misty hillside for breakfast is all a part of the scene. But hang on, this adventure begins before that…….

It’s a while since I was on one of these inter island ferries, eight months to be precise. A year ago, as I crisscrossed the archipelago,  rumbling into the black hole of one of these boats was as normal as taking a train is for many folk. Since last July I’ve been kind of grounded. It’s good to be on the move again.

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Getting there early always pays off in the case of these ferries even though it means hanging around for a while before boarding. It means you board first and can choose your seat. To the intriguing island of El Hierro, it’s two and a half hours from Los Cristianos in Tenerife, so it’s convenient to choose your seat, although the seating on all of these boats is comfy enough.

It’s the smallest of the seven main islands, a green paradise (in more ways than one, it is almost self-sufficient energy-wise – and example to the world). It’s nick-named La Isla Meridiana (The Meridian Island) a name it acquired long before Greenwich was chosen, but more of its history when I have explored it more. This is a flying visit with a purpose – Austin is taking part in the mountain marathon called Maratón Meridiano.

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There is only one ferry a day between Tenerife and El Hierro at the moment, so we have no option but to arrive in the dark, and rely on the GPS. It’s a small island, but some of the roads are a bit scary (as I learn a couple of days later)…. although, happily not the one we take to the Parador, which is about fifteen minutes from the port. We’re in nice time for a tasty dinner, but can’t see much of the surroundings on a night of low cloud.

Morning reveals a gorgeous location, nestled on a stunning bay, guarded by towering mountains, clearly this Parador is a place to which to return at a more leisurely pace than this weekend will be. It’s winter and the hillsides glow in their covering of velvety green; crevices power down to the narrow coastal strip; and along the shore a pebble beach stretches for longer than I expected on an island of just over 100 square miles.

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By the end of the morning we have covered a goodly swathe of the island, from capital, Valverde, straggling the island’s hillsides, to La Restinga on the southern tip, the tiny village off whose shore a new volcano is rumbling. We have stopped to admire the stunning views from Charco Azul, and Austin has appraised the course he will run tomorrow – yep up those mountainsides and into the swirling mist….for real!

Hillside of El Hierro

 

Charco Azul El Hierro

We have investigated a part of the marathon route, parts which can be reached by road. The race crosses the road in several places on its way up and down the mountains of El Hierro. We have passed a stunning orchard of almond trees in full flower. We stop briefly, although we are late for lunch, but the grey skies don’t make for the wonderful photos this deserves!

almond blossom el hierro

almond orchard

We arrive in La Restinga and I get one of “those” feelings…… that this is somewhere which strikes a chord with me……almost right away, as I step out of the car. Aware that things are stirring underwater, just off the coast, makes it seem extra tranquil in the delightful, little harbor. Happily, the sun breaks through for a while, making the place even more magical than I already feel.

We meet up with Austin’s friend. Having friends in far-flung places is a wonderful thing. Because Austin is a sailor, and because we have lived “abroad” we both have friends scattered around the planet. One of the best things is that when you visit they know the best places to eat or hang out. Our lunch is beyond delicious. The table groans with dishes of fresh fish, salads and things I can’t even now remember. We have the freshest fish ever, and an escaldón make with fish stock that I can’t stop eating. Oh, I will SO be back here!

la restinga

Lunch over, we take a leisurely drive back to Tigaday in Frontera, where the race is due to begin and end tomorrow. Registration opens at 4pm. There is an almost tangible buzz in the air as we approach the square, where tents and awnings and flags mark the spot. Austin queues and I take snaps.

This race, founded in 2007, will take him over an accumulated ascent of 2,600. That is not going straight up to that height, but up and down mountains! Trail running and ultra marathons are very much in vogue in the Canary Islands, and when you look at the terrain in each, the volcanic landscapes, the forest trails and mountains it’s obvious why. This isn’t something many folk attempt, and it’s also obvious why that is, but over time I’ve got used to the terminology, the specifics of why certain foods are eaten, the necessity to rest, stretch and train. It’s all very technical, and utterly fascinating, especially in terms of how far the human form can be pushed, and that especially when you realize how sedentary we have become. Austin is doing the full 42k, but there is a 27k, 18k and 7k for beginners to the sport.

Registered!

Registered!

Austins number maraton meridiano

A slow drive back to the parador, a hearty dinner and an early night for that 6.30 start!

As we quietly exit the hotel in the early morning dark, Austin hands me a bag with my breakfast (the parador doesn’t begin breakfasts until 7.30). Talk about well-organized! We drive for miles before seeing another car, but in the half-light when we arrive in Tigaday it is bustling. The Red Cross are erecting medical aid tents, people are changing clothes (as does Austin) from the boots of cars, the faces of runners are alight with excitement, the faces of supporters are bleary from lack of sleep, much limbering up is going on, limbs are being stretched as the light becomes clearer. Surprisingly, (to me at least) the two bars which are open are fairly quiet, and I grab a coffee to wake me up.

Waiting for the start

Waiting for the start

Finally, it’s time. What do you say to someone about to run a marathon? Good luck might mean bad luck, but break a leg hardly seems like the right thing either. I find a slot as close to the start as I can to grab a photo. The DJ is winding up competitors and spectators alike. Queen belts out “We will rock you.” Tension rises. The DJ is interviewing participants, and cheers go up as each reveals where they have come from, mostly the other islands, but someone from mainland Spain and one from Germany. He doesn’t get to Oz, so UK doesn’t get a mention this time. The countdown is beginning, and I raise my camera. The auto focus isn’t working, so I need to be very careful.

Motivating runners

I get a decent shot of the start

I get a decent shot of the start

I watch Oz disappear up the street, and then head to the van. Supporters have been supplied with a brief map, showing the points where the roads cross the course, so we can hope to get snaps at those places. The first is easy to find, and I crouch by the roadside, hoping that I’m not too late. I’m not, but it’s hard to get a decent shot with the auto focus not working!

Maraton Meridiano

We’d decided the second spot would probably be a bit of a bottleneck, so I drive on to the 3rd, the Ermita de Nuestra Señora de los Reyes. We’d reckied this spot the previous day, and I’d been enchanted by this small chapel, perched on a mountainside, just before the treeline. Austin had given me his estimated arrival times at each spot, so I knew I had time to take a look around the chapel, eat my breakfast (the peanut butter wraps – yum!), take some snaps, and find a good spot to wait. I did, crouched on the trail behind the chapel, overlooking the ocean.

Woodland by the ermita

Woodland by the ermita

woodland el hierro

Maraton Meridiano Ermita

After calling out support, I check with an official the way to the next check point, and set off. Climbing all the way I’m soon in thick mist on a dirt road, but the fact there are two or three cars behind me hopefully confirms that I’m going the right way, as does the Red Cross ambulance coming towards me. We climb, and climb some more. The mist thickens, drifts, lessens. The visibility is awful, and I decide to turn back, certain that if I manage to catch up with the runners there, I’ll be late back at the finish line, and I really want to get a picture at the finish line! I’ve never been able to do that before, there is always such a crush, or one isn’t allowed close, but because of the nature of this race I think I have a chance.

I’ve only been back fifteen minutes or so when I spot Austin’s green visor heading down the street, and raise my camera for the shot I’ve been waiting for. His time is 6 hours, 7 minutes and 32 seconds. I can’t begin to imagine running for that long, or even the 7 minutes 32 seconds part of it! The preparation, the training, the diet all make sense to me now! I am the proudest mom in the world!

Austin finishing marton meridiano

We spend the next day driving through mists; feasting on island offerings, watercress soup and knuckle of beef for a warming lunch; and chasing down the place which makes the island’s famous speciality quesadilla in Val Verde. The mists prevent us from seeing much, but I am, as so often in recent years, leaving a bit of my heart on El Hierro. This post isn’t so much about the island as about the race though, about being proud of my sons, which is ……….. the best feeling in the whole world.

 


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The Canary Islands’ Best Kept Secret

There is a part of me, a BIG part, which doesn’t want to write this post. When something is termed a “best kept secret” it usually should stay that way, and that’s exactly how I feel about what I am going to write, but knowing full well that others have written about it, and knowing that it cannot stay a secret forever, here I go.

Apart from some precious family time, a huge highlight of 2014 for me was crossing something of my bucket list.

More than 20 years ago I put my eye to the telescope in the Mirador del Rio, the impressive viewing spot on a mountainside in Lanzarote, created by local architect and hero Cesar Manrique. The Mirador over looks the channel (“rio” or “river”) between that island and the smallest, inhabited Canary Island, La Graciosa. Graciosa captured my imagination immediately, as it lazed alongside its big sister in a turquoise sea. I’ve wanted to go there ever since.

La Graciosa from Lanzarote

When I stayed at Sands Beach Resort last year they put me in touch with Lanzarote Active Club, who offered me a choice of their eco tours; they cover a multitude, from wine tasting (no, I didn’t, sadly!) to bird watching. Frankly, I could have gone out with them every day, quite happily, and yes, they invited me, but I can shout out without the slightest hesitation that this company and the tours they offer Rock … note the capital R! In the end I went to La Graciosa with them and did a walk around Montana Corona too, but, truly, I have a new bucket list item, which is to spend a week or so on Lanzarote and try all of them!

I did the Montana Corona walk first. That was good, because it whetted my already eager appetite with its breathtaking views of Graciosa from high on Lanzarote’s mountainsides. It wasn’t a hard hike by any means, a couple of slithery places where the descent was over scree for a few minutes, nothing more difficult. It was a whole world of information, though, supplied, as our group of six tramped merrily along, by our guide Michele, an Italian who is passionate about the environment and more knowledgeable about Lanzarote than many folk born there. From collapsed volcanic cones to wildflowers, to goats perched precariously on ledges to the birds circling above, Michele had stories about all of them.

La Graciosa and Alegranza beyond

La Graciosa and Alegranza beyond

As we gazed down on Graciosa he pointed out a particular spot on the Lanzarote shoreline, just opposite. This, he told us was where the women from Graciosa would come ashore, bearing their menfolk’s catches of fish, and climb a considerably steep hillside to sell the fish, or exchange them for vegetables and other food. Graciosa is a barren, though beautiful, island, and little of use grew there. Bartering the bounty of the surrounding seas for other goods was the way of life for the village of fishermen in Caleta de Sebo, the only permanent settlement on the island right up to the 60s. Now there is a limited amount of tourism to supplement the coffers, but hopefully it is going to escape the excesses of the larger islands.

Cabo de Sebo La Graciosa

One sunny morning a couple of days after the Montaña Corona walk, I was picked up by owner of Lanzarote Active Club, Carmen Portella, who was going to make a dream come true for me. For Carmen her business and life is a dream come true, being outdoors, teaching people about the environment, and in particular spreading the word about the island life she is so passionate about. She is incredibly well-informed and experienced when it comes to the history, geography, environment of Lanzarote. I felt immediately at home with her, and absorbed by what she told me about her life and the island.

Arriving in the small, coastal village of Orzola we had just a few minutes to join the rest of the group, and embark on the ferry which plies between La Graciosa and Lanzarote. This journey, however, wasn’t to be simply going from one point to another. La Graciosa is a part of a mini island chain, the Chinijo Archipelago, along with islotes Montaña Clara, Roques del Este and del Oeste, and Alegranza an even smaller island which is a privately owned and uninhabited. The surrounding waters are a marine reserve, and, as I was to discover, home to a rich biodiversity.

Enjoying the sea breeze along the coast of Alegranza

Enjoying the sea breeze along the coast of Alegranza

After dropping off the owner of Alegranza, we cruised along its coast, at one point excitedly spotting osprey above its cliffs, and listening to Carmen’s expert information about the region’s bird life. We dropped anchor a few meters from the coast opposite an opening in the cliff side. The plan was to swim to the opening, which would reveal a secret, but one glance in the water warned us off. All around us purple jellyfish happily bobbed and jived.  Going into the water wasn’t an option, so in turns, because it held only six of us at a time, we puttered over in a zodiac. The opening was cave-like, and the rising tide pushed us through and into a tiny slice of paradise; a grotto with an open roof, through which the sun streamed. Volcanic walls glittered, and a small, pristine, black-sand beach tempted, but we had only time enough to gaze in wonder, take snaps and return, because the zodiac had to return for two more journeys. Getting out of the opening was less easy, a the tide pushed us back, but we made it in good time, those of us who made the first trip having created a bond in our awe of Nature.

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All aboard, we headed for La Graciosa, a short walk and lunch, marveling at the aerodynamic beauty of the Cory’s Shearwaters gliding around us. These waters are home to the world’s second largest colony of these graceful birds. Eagle-eyed Carmen spotted a whale at some distance and we headed out that way for a short time. Of course it’s forbidden to deliberately get too close to any of the whales and dolphins which inhabit the archipelago’s waters, and in any event we were on a schedule. Whale watching recently I’ve tended to stand back a bit, because much as I love to see these wonderful creatures, it’s not a novelty, and I love to watch the faces of folk who are having this experience for the first time. However, this was a bit different for me, and when I learned that it was a Bryde’s Whale and not the familiar pilot whales my excitement was every bit as stimulating as if it was the first time I’d been at sea.

Reluctantly, because everyone, bar none, was entranced, we turned again for La Graciosa. As we rounded the coast level with Playa Francesa we were given the option of kayaking or being ferried ashore to walk to Caleta del Sebo and lunch. I’ve never kayaked, and the memory of those jellyfish was just too much for me to want to risk a dip. I opted for the walk, which was pure delight along white sands fringed by turquoise sea. It was April, and one of those perfect days which demand that I always return to the Canary Islands, warm but not hot, with a clarity which can break your heart. I didn’t want the walk to end.

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If I was reluctant to arrive in Caleta del Sebo, my reservations dispersed into the sunshine when I saw the long table, laden with fish and seafood which was awaiting us, by the harbor. Then came one of those rare moments in life, when, all seated around the table we all jelled in our mutual wonderment of the day we’d had, and enjoyment of the food which was the perfect ending.

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There was, however, one, other small surprise in store. As we relaxed over coffee, Carmen asked if we’d like to see the local church. Some of us followed her around the corner from the bar to a wide street which was in reality a dirt track, resembling those we see in westerns, flanked by low, white buildings, one of which was the tiny church. Inside maybe the simplest Catholic church I’ve ever been in, simple, wooden pews, an altar covered with a cloth of local embroidery, in the corner a font made from a turtle shell, behind which were crossed a pair of oars, the lectern a ship’s wheel. Very much a church of the people in this community of fishermen, and it was humbling to wonder how many families had prayed there waiting for news of their loved ones out at sea in bad weather. It wasn’t an easy life. It still isn’t.

altar of church in La Graciosa

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At only 27 square meters, with no water source (water has been supplied from Lanzarote since around 2000) it’s unlikely that La Graciosa will succumb to the worst excesses of tourism its bigger neighbors have suffered, and this is something certainly to be wished. The number of inhabitants is variously said to be between 500 to 700, perhaps the discrepancy is due to seasonal fluctuation. There is no hotel, but there are apartments to be rented, and a campsite. Cars are not allowed, excepting, I understand, a handful of 4 x 4s owned by locals. Only 4 x 4s would manage those roads in any event, but you can take your bike. The ferry service is excellent, but they advised me to avoid July and August when I return, when the island is about as full as it can get as folk from the other islands flock there for a slice of tranquility, although it did sound as if those months might not be so tranquil!

I have no doubt that I will return to La Graciosa; perhaps not in high season, nor in the depths of winter though! It was everything I imagined it would be with its almost empty and sparkling beaches, waters of color only usually seen in travel magazines, and delicious fish and seafood. For me it would be the perfect place to get away from it all, and just be.

My thanks to Lanzarote Active Club for two fabulous and unforgettable days, and to Sands Beach Resort who invited me to Lanzarote and provided first class accommodation as well as the intro to Lanzarote Active Club.


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Good Riddance to 2014 and the Lessons Learned

2014: not my favorite year, although I think it may have looked otherwise here. I was happy to hide under the duvet, bedsocked and pyjama’d in my dad’s rather chilly bungalow New Year’s Eve, and wake up to a shiny new year. Not that, hey presto, everything will change, but, you know, it kind of gives you a lift, knowing that it’s a new beginning. I am quite into new beginnings, which is very likely why I move around so much, even when sometimes I stay in the same town. Still, 2014 was instructive, if nothing else. I learned a lot, and one of the keystones of my life is that we should never stop learning!

Lesson One: Back Up Regularly!

This year, for instance, there will be no “postcards from 2014″ post, which is how I’ve marked the end of each blogging year, since, I think, 2008. The reason for this being that my hard drive thoughtlessly died and I just hadn’t backed up that many photos……and yes, it very likely was the Chardonnay what killed it.  I do, at least, back up, but clearly not nearly as much as I should. Huge, huge lesson, especially in regard to photos. Worst is the loss of the personal photos, those moments which will never come around again with family & friends.

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Lesson Two: Carpe Diem!

My favorite Latin words, often used too casually, like, “Yeah, Carpe Diem!” reciting them without relishing the full meaning. Not a new lesson, more of a reaffirmation. This year I lost my lovely Auntie Dot, who has been an inspiration, my flag-waver, and my second mother forever. She was 91, and, in all honesty, she was ready. I have a lovely last memory of her birthday in 2013; she frail and tired, lying on the couch, but kicking her leg in the air in celebration of a friend arriving to wish her happy birthday. She even repeated it for me to video. I hope that isn’t lost too. It was on my broken phone but I think it’s backed up on Google.

2014 was a year punctuated by death, as well as Auntie Dot; a friend, though not close, who had shown me much generosity, and whom I admired both professionally & personally; another whose moral compass and intelligence had been very important in my sons’ lives; someone else I’d never even met, but whose death affected dear friends very much. And then the news that another friend is terminally ill. None of them should have died this young.

And, you know, there isn’t one of those people who wouldn’t tell me to make the most of every moment left. Of course, how you do that is up to you. Some of us choose to write, swim, run, take photos; others to cook, read, watch movies, hike; or others to climb mountains, travel, paint; and others play football, sing, dance, dive, fly. The thing is not waste it, to do what fills us with joy. The more joy in the world, the better.

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Lesson Three: I am not a Nomad

I’ve never been sure about this. When I’m in one place for too long (and that isn’t very long) my feet itch,I find it hard to concentrate on the present, because I am dreaming about somewhere else. When I am traveling I don’t worry too much about possessions left behind, so long as I feel that I’ve left them securely. I miss Trixy, but happily, last year she traveled with me most of the time. Friends and family are spread throughout the world, so in a sense it doesn’t matter where I am. Plus traveling brings new friendships.

That said, the same thing happened this time as the previous two occasions I sallied off without a specific return date, or even plans to return fulltime, around the 8 month point I began to miss my “stuff” ……. I downsized completely this time, keeping absolutely only clothes, technical stuff and things with sentimental value. Perhaps that’s the key, perhaps getting rid of nomadic tendencies is better done whilst young, because I have, of course, a ton of stuff which means a lot because I’m a mom…….. Yes, I do have a box full of pictures my “kids” did when they were in kindergarten.

Acknowledging that I am not a fulltime nomad by instinct does not diminish my love of travel. I think some part of me thought that it did, so it’s a relief to accept that! Yes, I do not want to be weighed down by possessions, but, in fact most of that is in the mind. I got rid of non-essential material things, and yet, what I was left with was of enormous sentimental value, far more important to me.  I have a better perspective on that, because now I regret selling all those cds – thinking I had them all copied to my computer, and I miss my favorite set of coffee mugs, and those nice wine glasses, and especially that comfy throw in this chilly weather. It’s much more about the perception than the things themselves, and my perspective has changed…….’bout time too, of course. I should have known this long ago!

I am ok with this. In fact, it came as a relief. A part of me has, for a long time, felt held back because I’ve not been in a position to wander at will. The truth is that I can – I simply need somewhere as a base, somewhere to where I can return for a month or a year, or whatever period I need, without spending half of that time unpacking! I still have to find the place, but I know I need to find it.

Contemplating the ocean, or the future? Las Galletas a few months back

Contemplating the ocean, or the future? Las Galletas a few months back

Lesson Four: Don’t Take Your Health for Granted

I am largely responsible for the frustrations about my health. I had it good for too long, so when the knee began to hurt I assumed it would just go away with time. Of course, it didn’t. Coming back to El Médano was the right choice for this. Although the waits for X-rays and MRI scans and specialist appointments are as outrageous as they are everywhere in the world if you don’t have private health insurance, it has all been within easy reach, no ferry rides, it hasn’t taken all day for an appointment, and the service has been excellent. Now waiting for the next specialist appointment in February. My own doctor thinks keyhole surgery to repair ligaments and correct cartilage, based on the MRI. So I wait.

I also had another reason to be grateful to be just around the corner from my local medial center. At the beginning of December, having been feverish on and off for four days, and in quite a lot of pain from a sebaceous cyst on my back (the removal of which was a seemingly minor thing I was waiting for on a scale of things), I stumbled around there, and discovered that I had septicemia. The cyst had become infected, and I had to go to the ER urgently to have it removed. I hadn’t connected the fever to the cyst. I thought I was going to see my doctor about two, separate things. I’m still having the wound it left dressed on a regular basis.

I may have to give in here and say this is down to age, but I think the reason I delayed going for help was that my brain was saying, “OMG not AGAIN. You can’t have something else wrong. For god’s sake, woman, you’re British. Stiff upper lip. Suck it up, and all that.” Apparently, had I delayed longer, well, let’s say, I wouldn’t be sitting here now typing this post. So, well, my doctor may well be sick of the sight of me by this time next year!

Trixy loved the countryside and the cooler air

Trixy loved the countryside and the cooler air

Of course, it wasn’t only my health, but Trixy’s too. She is on heart meds for the duration now, had five tumors (all happily non-malignant) removed, and her back legs get visibly weaker. Again, the vet is around the corner, and they have all turned out to be just marvelous carers. So that’s been good too.

Of course, this post hasn’t encompassed all of the happy stuff I did last year, some of which I haven’t even written about yet! I made some great new friends; I wandered four islands I either didn’t know or knew very little; I came to appreciate Trixy even more a we traveled together; I ate some excellent food, discovered craft beers and artisan cheeses; I had some precious moments with both of my sons; and I was soooo lucky to be at the receiving end of their generosity, especially at Christmas. I don’t have words. They are the very best. I am grateful to great friends who loaned me their couches, and made memorable meals for me, and generally made my travels smoother.

The lessons I learned have paved the way for a whole new year. I am back to posting on a regular basis now, and more about the 2015 plans next time. Meanwhile, I wish everyone a really happy, successful and rewarding 2015.

 


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Downtime in Languedoc-Roussillon, France

There are some times travel bloggers don’t want to write about, the personal parts, even in a new and exciting place, we may only post a few photos, or even none at all. We make brief references to family and friends, but want to hold them closer than the written page, which is not criticism of those who write about their family life, it’s just the way we are or they are. Both ways are fine.

This is, however, why, although you may have seen photos scattered over my Facebook page from France a couple of weeks back, there was little detail, same with London, really. This is because these times are very special for me, and I tune out thinking about places in quite the same way as when I am in “writing mode.” However, having now visited Nimes two years running, and loving the region, I feel guilty about saying nothing at all. That said, what I tell you will be very general, the sightseeing was gentle, and accompanied by much talking (the way you do when you have years to catch up on) so loads of details escaped me, and I made no notes, so this is all from memory.

For me this was like the epitome of France : washing co-ordinated to window color!!

For me this was like the epitome of France : washing coordinated to window color!!

As with so many places where I’ve felt good, I left a wee bit of me behind in Languedoc-Roussillon, mainly because dear friends are there, but also because it’s a region with such a fascinating history, for the English as well as for the French. I have a mental list of things to do/places to see in more depth in the future.

On the recommendation of my friends at The Spain Scoop I took the train from Barcelona to Nimes, and it proved a successful decision. Flying from the Canary Islands to Marseille, last year, meant changing in Barcelona, and overnighting on the steely airport benches, which doesn’t especially bother me, but I’d prefer not, if there is a better way, and so I flew to Barcelona and took the train to France. This had the added advantage of being a national flight, and so I had residents’ discount, which made it a cheaper option too. At least, it would have been had I not stayed overnight. It seems that it’s impossible to get to Nimes on the same day one leaves Tenerife.

My accommodation, which I found via Booking.com is worth a mention. I searched for somewhere reasonably priced close to the station, a little hesitantly it has to be said, aware that areas close to train stations are not always that salubrious, but no worries at Barcelona Sants, at least not on the side I stayed in. Barcelona Station, named for its location is an apartment building, and apartments can be rented by the day. It was only a ten minute walk, even with my suitcase and my bad knee, the next morning. Really, it was everything I needed, immaculately clean, with tv, wi-fi and cooking facilities if I’d wanted. Of course, this was Barcelona, so I went for tapas in one of the many nearby bars. It costs around 69 pounds for one night, so shared that would have been excellent value – the solo traveler, as always pays more. Even so, it wasn’t bad for city accommodation, and I note now – they take pets, yay! That’s worth remembering!

The Ave which runs from Barcelona to Paris is the same train I took from Nimes to Paris last year, so now I’ve covered the route, though at different times. The Nimes to Paris bit is much faster, whizzing through the French countryside, panting to be in the City of Lights, but the bit from Barcelona to Nimes is slower, and I was thrilled to catch long glimpses of the Camargue – a place I’ve longed to visit since seeing a documentary about the wildlife years and years ago. It’s an almost surreal landscape, wetlands which are home to flamingos and wild horses, amongst a plethora of other fauna, and my eyes were so glued to the window I forgot to check out the refreshment car, though people were coming back with delicious-smelling coffee from time to time. I had the quickest sighting of flamingos, but lots of egrets and herons (I think – not expert enough to identify so quickly!).

Aigues Mortes

I had a closer look the next day as we drove to the ancient town of Aigues Mortes, which perches on the edge of the Petite Camargue. The amazingly preserved outer walls of this medieval city look forbidding as you approach, but they hide a network of cobbled streets, turned into tourist delights with typical French style. The city-fort has a long and intriguing history; if I mention religious persecution, crusades, economic recession and immigration, you may think plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Add to that soil erosion and reclaiming land and you have today’s world in one, small, walled community. It would be nice to think that the rest of the world, after surviving all of that, might end up as picturesque as Aigues Mortes.

Ginnel in Uzes

Ginnel in Uzes

Former telephone exchange, even this functional building is pretty!

Former telephone exchange, even this functional building is pretty!

Uzes

Uzes

It isn’t, of course, the only fascinating and well-preserved community in this region of France. On other days we visited a marvelous market in Sommieres, a real market, with antiques as well as delicious food, textiles and other goodies; my favorite town of Uzes, whose delightful, cobbled streets I’d glimpsed only covered by the sprawling market on my last visit; and  the twin towns of Beaucaire and Tarascon, sitting on opposite sides of River Rhône, a picturesque ruin of a castle on the Beaucaire side and a fearsome fortress on the Tarascon side, under whose stern walls we enjoyed a delightful lunch in a very ordinary-looking café.

Goat's Cheese parcel

Goat’s Cheese parcel

Soupe de poisson Nothing much more French than this!

Soupe de poisson Nothing much more French than this!

I had to get around to food sooner or later, didn’t I? Aside from the fact that I ate like a queen at my friends’ house, the meals we ate out were, every one, exceptional in comparison to anything similar here at “home.” The restaurant in Tarascon was half-empty, and we feared we might be too late for France’s very constructed eating hours, but no, a three course lunch appeared as if by magic. Every course was prepared with imagination and care, and this was typical of everywhere we went, including tourist places, where one might expect a certain amount of the blasé…..in one case they were closing a few days later as the season ended and winter approached, but still the food and service showed no signs of winding down, except that they had run out of Coca Cola. The French attitude to food remains reverential and respectful.

Simple salad lunch in Nimes, but so beautifully presented

Simple salad lunch in Nimes, but so beautifully presented

Again with the presentation. the menu read something like "Fish of Day with Vegetables", but what arrived was fish in a delightful sauce and a mini tower of veggies .... it's the little things sometimes!

Again with the presentation. the menu read something like “Fish of Day with Vegetables”, but what arrived was fish in a delightful sauce and a mini tower of veggies …. it’s the little things sometimes!

I was based in Nimes for my stay. I’m so lucky to have friends there, but imagine it’s an excellent choice of base for touring this very French countryside, outside of the Camargue, characterized by vineyards and roads lined by arching planes trees. Of course, as in so many places in Europe, the Romans were here, and left much evidence of their 500 year dominance. I remember reading about the amphitheater in Nimes back in French lessons in school, but this was the first time I had the chance to see it up close. It’s impressive to wander along a modern street and come face-to-face with something so, well, old. This was, after all, probably well over a thousand years older than the petroglyphs I’d delighted in touching in La Palma back in June. I take a special delight in places which have such amazing history, and yet are still used today. The amphitheater evolved in the 19th century to become a bullring (although I am assured that the bulls are not killed in France, as in other countries, excepting Spain), and today is also a venue for music concerts and, seemingly oddly, but not when you think about its original use, a setting for rock and heavy metal recordings!  Even older than the famous amphitheater, however, is Maison Carrée, a Roman temple, and one of the best preserved examples of such anywhere in the world.

Roman amphitheater Nimes

Roman amphitheater Nimes

Maison Carrée

Maison Carrée

Me by the Augustine Gate in Nimes

Me by the Augustine Gate in Nimes

Not hard to see why I need to return to Nimes, is it! Friendships aside, this is an utterly fascinating part of Europe, wild wetlands, Roman history, nougat (and at this time of year marrons glacés!), olives, wine, and oodles of history from other epochs, good roads, excellent rail links, of course the River Rhône and canals, and could probably spend the rest of the morning counting off reasons. What I had was a fascinating taster. My friend, Wendy, is passionate about medieval history, so she was the best guide too, so that what I saw meant more to me that it would otherwise have done, but I have no doubt that next time it will be with notebook and camera in hand!

In finally, for anyone who thinks the French are maybe a tad too sophisticated or serious I present: Atelier de Ours ….. The Teddy Bear Workshop :)

teddy bear shop


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Travel by Color: London is Red!

Do you ever see places as colors? I do and it struck me as a new way to look at destinations. Perhaps I will turn this into some kind of series of posts, but for now I have to tell you that I went to London just over a week ago expecting it to be golden and brown, the hues of its parks in Autumn but  this year it was red.

Of Poppies and Debts

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Biggest reason for the shades of crimson  was the utterly stunning art work at the Tower of London “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red,” dedicated to those who fell during WW1 in this 100-year anniversary of its beginning. I’d been yearning to see this, as I’d watched it develop over the internet for weeks and weeks, but didn’t think there was enough in the kitty to go. Happily for me, at the very last-minute there was a bit extra, plus Ryanair flights from Nimes in France, where I was staying, to Luton. So off I went.

My early childhood was peppered with the names “Our Arnie” and “Our Irving,” brothers my grandmother had lost in WW1. Of course, as a baby boomer, stories of WW2 were much more current and plentiful for me, but I used to wonder what nana’s brothers had been like. Forever young, had they borne any resemblance to the crusty, old siblings of hers that I met on my “holidays” to the stern, mill-dominated landscapes around Halifax in Yorkshire? My family, I should, explain, was the old-fashioned sort, who “didn’t talk” about anything which stirred the emotions, so I found out very little.  Still it was moving to know that there were two poppies there in that magnificent display which represented members of my family.

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For anyone who didn’t hear about the project; one ceramic poppy was placed in the moat of the Tower of London for every British and colonial life which was lost in WW1. They spilled from a window, and drained like lifeblood into the moat. The scale was much huger than I had guessed from photos on the internet. Powerful imagery. Powerful reminder of the futility of war, and was there ever a war so futile as that one? Already, today, half of them have been gathered up and have been sold for the benefit of military charities like the marvelous and historic British Legion or the more recent and equally marvelous Hope for Heroes. At 9am on Saturday morning, my son, Guy, and I had hoped to be ahead of the crowds, but we’d underestimated the public desire to see this tribute to the fallen, and although I would like to have gotten closer, taken better photos, it was heartening to know that.

Bought my poppy from the Pearly Kings & Queens in Covent Garden

Bought my poppy from the Pearly Kings & Queens in Covent Garden

Just as warming, was seeing how almost everyone was proudly wearing a red poppy. This custom dates back to 1918, and although it’s not observed in the US for Veterans’ Day, it was, apparently, an American lady named Moira Michael who began it, although the legend of the poppies which grew amidst the horrors of the battlefields in Flanders was recorded in eloquent poetry, most famously by Laurence Binyon, in the lines:

“Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning

We will remember them.”

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Strolling through the city on Sunday afternoon, after watching the celebration, observing the silence at the 11th minute of the 11th hour, on tv, it was humbling to see proud chests wearing medals amongst the crowds. Of course, there are now no survivors of WW1, but still so many from WW2 and subsequent battles, whatever the rights and wrongs of some of those fights, we owe a debt to these guys which goes way beyond our comprehension as civilians.

And Other Redness

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Red is the color of Paddington Bear’s hat! Well, normally! Right now until the end of December 50 likenesses of our childhood hero are dotted around London, on the Paddington Trail, each “dressed” by a famous personality. Some of them are probably only know to Brits, or at least I should say residents of UK, because I didn’t know them all, but you will recognize names like Ben Wishaw, Sandra Bullock and Liam Gallagher who lent their talents. At the end of the display they will be auctioned off for charity, and in the meantime if you take a snap of yourself or family with one of the bears, you can enter a competition to win a weekend in London :)  This was our entry!   Any votes greatly appreciated!!!!

Bright red bow around the Christmas tree at Covent Garden

Bright red bow around the Christmas tree at Covent Garden

Red was also the predominant color in most store windows, as it is close to the holiday season. Looking for a new winter coat (the last one I bought was …..er….around 30 years ago! So little do I need one!) in Marks and Spencer it seemed like a sea of scarlet, and, yes, the one I bought was red. You can just see the collar in the photo Guy snapped of me at the NFL game at Wembley. Where the event featured the British Legion again, and more poppies.

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Poppies at Wembley Stadium

Poppies at Wembley Stadium

The day before I arrived the Oxford Street Christmas lights had been switched on, and whilst they seemed to be mostly white and shimmery from what I saw, red is also the color of Christmas, which we toasted in Starbucks, me with Gingerbread latte (no chestnut nor pumpkin :( ) and Guy with hot chocolate – in, of course, a red cup!

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And finally an apology : Most of the photos were taken with my awful little Samsung phone, and not even approaching the quality I would like, even from a mobile phone. Still, there for the memories :)

 


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When Home Isn’t Quite the Right Word: The Seeds of my Wanderlust

The pilot warns us to buckle up because we are on final approach, and I glance out of the window. This view, this is why I bagged a window seat. Ascending from the ripples of the Atlantic, swathed around its midriff by a drift of white clouds is Tenerife. My island. My home. From its core rises El Teide, darkly against ocean and clouds, guarding its terrain, chiding me for my absence.

I have to wonder sometimes why I roam. This island fulfils so many of my needs, not all, but then, I’ve come to the conclusion that nowhere ever can; or at least that my chances of finding my personal Shangri-La are diminishing with time. Yet the need to roam is in my blood, because I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel this way. Another month and my feet will itch again. I know it.

Wanderlust fulfilled in the 70s in the South of France

Wanderlust fulfilled in the 70s in the South of France

I’ve tried to trace my longing back. Is it something I acquired or something with which I was born? I’m inclined to think the latter. There was a time when I blamed television. We got our first television set in 1953 for two reasons. One: Blackpool Football Club was playing in the FA Cup Final and Two: Queen Elizabeth ll’s Coronation was in June. That June I was six and a half years old, and long after the fun of dressing up as a princess, pretending to ride in a golden carriage had worn off, another image was still imprinted on my brain, a picture of a huge, snow-covered mountain towering into the blue heavens, and I wanted to see it in real life. The Coronation coincided with the first summit of Everest, and my imagination was on fire.

Over the next few years television fuelled the fire, Cisco Kid galloping free across the US west, David Attenborough in search of dragons, Flipper apparently happily surfing the warm waters of Florida, the team from Sea Quest exploring the ocean, Armand and Michaela Dennis getting up close with the exotic animals of Africa. I acted out scenes and invented more amongst the long grasses of the half of my granddad’s market garden that he didn’t cultivate. I think I ran just a little bit wild.

First coin in the fountain in 1967

First coin in the fountain in 1967

Third coin tossed to the gods of Trevi in 2004

Third coin tossed to the gods of Trevi in 2004

Not only TV but books egged me on Anne of Green Gables called me to Canada, the Swiss Family Robinson to live on a desert island in a tree house (still a dream that one!), Little Women hinted at life in the US (and left me with an undying curiosity about the American Civil War). At one point I decided to become a missionary, and have no doubt that had more to do with wanting to see Africa than any deep religious convictions; at another time, by contrast and inspired by our annual visit to Blackpool Tower Circus, I decided to run away and join a travelling show –the gypsy lifestyle had lots of appeal.

Dream come true carriage ride in Rome in 1967

Dream come true carriage ride in Rome in 1967

Into my teen years I watched TV and movies as much for the locations as for the plots or stars. In my mind I traveled to Paris and Rome with Audrey Hepburn, to the mountains of Austria with Julie Andrews, to Russia with Omar Sharif and to just about every state in the US. When my first chance to step onto foreign soil came I was ready.

Me and my several petticoats on the left

Me and my several petticoats on the left

That opportunity came by way of a school exchange to Solingen in the north of Germany. My parents must have scrimped and saved to let me go, and there was no money for a new suitcase, so I traveled with a heavy, old, brown leather one, which had been my dad’s. Strapped to the outside was my tennis racket. This girl was going to seize every opportunity that presented itself on this trip, and wasn’t going to miss a game of tennis because she didn’t have a racket! A little under an hour into the journey I realized my folly as I struggled over the bridge which connected platforms on Preston station, but happily this was back in the day when gentlemen still came to the rescue of a girl in distress, and it happened again as I plodded along the platform of a Tube station to change stations for the Dover train and the exotic. The time in Germany passed in a swirl of new tastes, scents, customs and sights. Travel was everything I dreamed it would be, despite turning green apparently (I have that on good authority and I certainly felt it!) on the Ostend ferry, and feeling gauche in my layered petticoats (all the rage in England, but not so much in Germany).

Solo to Germany at 18 and rocking the Jackie Kennedy look

Solo to Germany at 18 and rocking the Jackie Kennedy look

When it came to my first solo trip at 18 I was more than ready, I’d already lived it in my head over and over again. I was just on the cusp of when we used to “dress” to travel, so I bought a Jackie Kennedy hat and a neat suit, and thought I was the bee’s knees. I also missed my first opportunity to get bumped to first class because the flight was overbooked, and I was offered a flight to Cologne instead of Düsseldorf to where I was booked. What was I thinking???’

Emigrating came naturally to me. I read blogs about the pitfalls and the angsting and I don’t get it. It was simply long, long-term travel. Something I’ve learned about myself of late though it this. I am not a nomad. I can travel for months without feeling homesick, but there comes a point when I crave the familiar. I’m not sure that homesick is the right word, it’s a need for tranquillity and for people, rather than for place, but one has to store ones possession somewhere, and so I come back to the Canary Islands, and when I see the mountain rising from the seas it feels something like home.

The ultimate dream come true, riding the Orient Express which remains one of my best travel memories

The ultimate dream come true, riding the Orient Express which remains one of my best travel memories

Travel has changed one heck of a lot in the intervening years, even in the years since I became an “expat.” Now we dress for comfort, travel like sardines, at least on short haul and if we can’t afford better. I’ve stayed in five star hotels and grotty hostels. I’ve traveled light and I’ve traveled with the “kitchen sink.” I have yet to do a long boat trip, but I’ve done a couple in small Cessna. I’ve traveled with my family, with friends and solo. I’ve seen so much more of the world than my mom ever did, but already my sons have been to places I still yearn to see. Eating lunch in a sunny square in France the other day with a dear friend, one with whom I’d shared that first trip years ago, we mused about how we’d seen ourselves evolving back then. Would we have predicted how this moment in time would find us – both expats, and her journey having been even more exotic than mine? I realized then that the journey will never be done. There are so very many places still to see, experiences to share, tales to tell. I still haven’t seen Everest for a start.

The Orient Express took us to Venice. A never-to-be-forgotten trip.

The Orient Express took us to Venice. A never-to-be-forgotten trip 

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