Coping with the heat… or the art of doing very little.

‘What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare’

William Henry Davies

I don’t find it easy to do nothing. However, I can stand and stare , I can drink in beautiful scenery or close my eyes and listen to waves crashing on the shore. I love seeing, hearing,smelling and breathing in the sights and sounds of our amazing world. I am very grateful that I have the senses that allow me to do this. It is perhaps natural to assume from the lines of this poem are that one has something beautiful or uplifting to contemplate not simply the ceiling fan in a darkened bedroom! Add this lack of view or interesting places to go because it is so hot to the fact that I don’t find it easy to do nothing when I am at home, and you will understand why the months of July and August have become something of a challenge. Walt and I are very alike, if we have a project or an adventure in sight, we seem to forget how hot it is! If there is no journey on the horizon then projects around the house, garden,writing, learning Spanish, motorbike or car maintenance keep us busy but in July and August, these have all to be done before 2pm after that it’s blinds down, fan on time! Enforced doing nothing, except perhaps for reading a book that requires very little thinking or is too heavy! ( physically heavy, hard back or more than 1000 pages).

Now, in my role as Granny and Mum, I am very excited to be going to Edinburgh this week ( cooler weather as well , bliss!) to spend time with the children and grand children, I have to remind myself that every second is precious and to simply enjoy being with the wee ones, I don’t need to do the laundry, tidy the house, make the dinner ( sorry Rachel) , I can play all day with the gang. I was not very good at doing that when my children were little, and the time went by so quickly . The tidy house and home cooked dinners have all gone, the memories of times spent ignoring the chores are there for ever! I loved the summer holidays when we didn’t have to get up at a set time, go to clubs, do homework , prepare lessons! Being a teacher has huge advantages when you are a parent. I did get antsy now and then however, what’s for tea? did I remember to hang out that washing? I wish now that I had just ignored those niggles and focused on having even more fun.

I am also looking forward to four days of cool weather! This is summer number two as permanent residents here in the baking hot south of Spain. What we didn’t realise when we were simply here on holiday is that daily life with two dogs, part time working and a house to run is very different from pitching up for a fortnight with nothing to do other than going to the beach or lying by the pool . Our home was much more minimalist, no dogs, clutter, gardening paraphernalia, books, computers, sewing and knitting boxes and bags dotted around. It was a holiday home, we arrived, filled the fridge, chilled out and didn’t clean it until the last day before going back to Scotland and work!

As we got to know our Spanish neighbours, we couldn’t understand why they moaned so much about the heat in July and August. We loved it! We were coming from long, wet summers and even longer, wetter winters! Two weeks of uninterrupted blue skies and sun shine was bliss, locking the door and heading back to Alicante airport was always ‘sare to bare’! Now when we join our neighbours in a moan about it being too hot, we feel a little guilty. This is what we signed up for, it was our choice to move here. Stop moaning and get on with it! However, it is the enforced doing nothing that is the hardest part of coping with the heat here. Going to the beach everyday is not an option, leaving Ben and Rocky to cope with boredom and 35C for five or six hours is just not fair. We tend to head down to our favourite beach around 5pm on a Friday with a picnic supper . The sun has done its worst, there is a breeze here for the muts and a beautiful sunset for us to watch! Swimming in the sea as the sun goes down is incredible. That leaves six days!

When afternoon temperatures reach 35C and more , the recent ‘ola de calor’ that has affected much of Europe has seen the thermometer hit 40C, there is absolutely nothing you can do except retreat to a darkened room with a fan. We try to limit our use of air con but have had to put it on when those 40C days bore down on us. Today is cloudy with a fresh breeze and a pleasant 27C, bliss! It will not last but I am enjoying sitting outside writing this and Walt is cycling ! Simple pleasures, that we take for granted nine months of the year. We are looking forward to September, but that in itself is a contradiction of my earlier statement in which I said that I really need to enjoy the moment more and not wish time away. And so I will focus on the wonderful aspects of life in the heat… the cooler mornings, getting stuff done, the evenings going for a swim or the beach , a cold drink on our roof terrace as the sun goes down, taking Benny to the huerto as it gets cooler for him to play with his friend Lucky, the wonderful light especially as the sun softens in the evening and the sharp edges go, leaving everything looking beautiful again. Really ? I hear you say , She needs a good hard slap! Be grateful ,you really are so fortunate and the autumn will be here soon!

Gardening is another early morning or late evening activity … so proud of my courgette… yes singular courgette. It has been a labour of love!

Perhaps I’m really a peony!

( As cheesy titles go, this one takes the biscuit. )

I read some time ago that peonies love to be dug up, popped in a wheel barrow and birled round the garden a few times before replanting in a new spot. By doing this they will flower more than ever.

Peonies are one of my favourite flowers. Sadly it is too hot here for them and our garden is too small but I love them none the less. Perhaps their peripatetic tendencies mirror my own, my roots are stretched and have often been popped in a wheelbarrow, ship, removal van, plane, train or bus and birled around a fair bit. ( to birl is a Scottish verb for either spinning someone or something around , think of a Scottish reel , or taking them or it for a spin usually in some type of wheeled vehicle). As to whether I flower more often, well that is probably for friends and family to answer!

Peonies sprung to mind when I was chatting to an old school friend , via facebook, who has lived in Holland for many years. We were talking about roots and becoming local in a new home, whether a few miles or another country away. This wise lady commented that to move abroad probably means never being local again, at home or abroad and that by choosing to be one of the millions of Scots abroad we can have the best of both worlds providing we don’t expect to be instantly accepted in either. In our new homes we can make friends and neighbours by joining clubs, working, volunteering, learning their language and being open to finding out about the culture of our new abode. While visiting family in the old country, we can relax a little but never deride theirs or imply that our new life is better only that it is different and exciting. We peonies are unusual sorts and many good people are more than happy to stay close the their place of original planting. This doesn’t make them any the less beautiful. It doesn’t make their roots any weaker but for that matter, I don’t think it has made my roots any less strong either. My roots may be stretched but they go down deep!

When you move to a new country or even a new town, you can’t help wonder about the alternative, staying put , being part of the community you grew up in or chose to settle in as an adult. I have moved around a lot almost in complete contrast to my lovely, late Dad. He was uprooted by WW2 and as an evacuee from the east end of London found himself and his big sister, on a farm in Devon having to look after the geese! Not easy for a city boy! His Mum, a widow , moved to Scotland with the company she worked for as they had begun to make munitions and were looking for somewhere to manufacture away from the Blitz. They chose Clydebank! Which was then blitzed and again moved , this time to the country side and a little town called Menstrie, nestled under the Ochil Hills. My Grandma sent for her children when she realised how safe this beautiful part of Scotland was. My Dad and his sister arrived in Scotland in the early 1940s, not sure exactly when, and although they travelled a lot for holidays and business, neither of them ever left the area again! I think their early experience as evacuees probably contributed to this.

Robert Bruce, the Wallace Monument and Dumyat…perhaps my roots are here?

Alternatively, my beautiful Mum , while well travelled, lived and died no further than four miles from her birth place, she was born in a one bedroom flat ,home for her folks and two siblings, in the centre of Stirling ,yet I know for a fact that she would have loved to have been popped in that wheelbarrow and tried out some new beds to grow in. One of our favourite family quotes from Mum was while on holiday in Germany and visiting Cologne. The famous cathedral is very close to the railway station and as my Dad loved trains, we all trooped in to the station to have a look. Double decker trains were arriving and leaving for destinations all over Germany and Europe. ” Doesn’t it just make you feel like going somewhere?” asked Mum in all seriousness , she looked very surprised as we all began to fall about laughing. Possibly my itchy feet were inherited from Mum!

With every move, I have asked myself the question, will I and should I actively make an effort to become part of the community and with every move I have. In doing this I have made so many wonderful friends who have remained friends even after I move on again!

Just a couple of months before we moved to Spain in 2017, I bumped in to an old friend from High School. We had been living just a few miles from each other for years, but work and family meant that time had come between us. It was so lovely catching up over a few glasses of wine, and I started to feel quite guilty that after reconnecting, I was going to put over a thousand miles between us ! Margaret, if you are reading this, once your busy year is over and enjoyed and I am back in Scotland, we will meet up again. I promise! Thank you to all my family and friends who not only stay in touch but have supported Walt and I on our crazy adventures. I will make that effort where ever I am to be part of the community,but Cathleen, I agree with you that I will never be local simply a friendly, ex pat! My roots are all of you friends and family, my beautiful country of birth and here in our Spanish home.

Mum ‘ going somewhere’! Looking beautiful on the Italian Riviera.

A little bit of wonderment

This is a picture story to remind myself that nature is incredible. It’s also a thank you to the universe or what ever energy is out there that allowed me to regain my health and confidence after last year’s bump! I’m just back from northern Spain and a couple of days with old friends who had walked 500kms along the Camino de Santiago. It was fabulous and inspiring as our little 60 something group was by no means the oldest and the atmosphere in Santiago was happy and positive. Prior to me sharing the celebrations in Santiago, we had had a wonderful week with our youngest and his girlfriend . It meant that as the girls finished their trek I couldn’t walk with them but I will be back to join the pilgrims! ( Walt too!)! Returning to our southern climate I was amazed once more by the diversity in this incredible country. Rain and 19C in Santiago and A Corruña ( worth a further explore) , 30C here and no rain on the horizon . Despite this and with little help from our riego , the huerto thrives. With no watering system, our forest remains green and the wild flowers attract lots of buzzy bees. Nature is indeed wonderful.

Bee heaven!

Wild flowers on our favourite hike
Our herb and wild flower patch at the Huerto – not watered!
Gazpacho soon ….
Ethel, quite rightly proud of completing her Camino

Every day’s a learning day!

One of the well worn phrases bandied about in education today is ‘ life long learning’. Governments play lip service to it, academics laud it as true education, ordinary teachers have been trying to persuade their students of its value for ever! (just don’t tell the clever people in research who think they have a new and ‘exciting ‘ concept to ‘roll out’ to the humble classroom practitioner). Ok , so a hint of scepticism here, but I do believe that every day is a learning day, and boy has our adventure demonstrated that.

Some of the lessons have been pretty big and necessary for living well in our new country, many have been small and delightful and often surprising. The obvious ones include learning about Spanish bureaucracy and how to gain things like residency, driving licences and ITVs ( MOTs not a TV station). All of these bar the driving licences, done by ourselves and in Spanish.

Probably the biggest learning curve is the language itself and at the moment I feel as if I have hit a wall. I started learning Spanish 10 years a go at night classes in Scotland. I still have good friends, made in those classes and the classes themselves were great fun. I remember gaining confidence and feeling as if my Spanish was beyond beginner, possibly even intermediate. I now read books, watch Spanish TV and films, I can communicate with my dentist, doctor and have two hours to chat when my lovely hairdresser is ‘doing my colour’! Technically it sounds as if I am learning and improving, so why then am like a rabbit in the headlights when a check out assistant asks me a different question from the usual ‘ quieres una bolsa?’ It was an on line raffle ticket the other day and how to enter the draw… I pieced the jist of the conversation together as I walked away with my trolley. Even more frustrating it my inability to converse off the cuff , about topics that crop up but are slightly different from the well worn, ‘ I live in, I come from, I moved here because, I have four grown up kids etc’. Our huerto management has a lovely gardener and his partner, working with us on Saturday mornings. Manuel’s partner is literally about to have a baby – any day. She is large and getting to that ,’ please let this baby out soon ‘ phase. In an effort to make things start, she worked hard, pushing the wheel barrow back and forward the length of the allotments, weeding and picking up after Manuel! All in 24 degrees C. I wanted to comment on this, sharing my own attempts to speed things up by running up and down four flights of stairs in a Glasgow tenement! I wanted to share the common gripes of not being able to sleep, back ache, heartburn etc. Instead I muttered something about it not being long now . ‘ No falta mucho. Ojala.’ When she replied with a great long sentence about this , I just smiled inanely and like the waiter in Fawlty Towers threw in the odd ‘si’ or ‘que?’ I feel like my brain has an information overload that has now robbed me of my confidence to construct simple sentences. I won’t give up however. This learning journey is going to be a long one!

The huerto itself is a learning experience, this time last year I was close to giving up. The different growing seasons, heat when working in it and the death of precious plants all made me wonder if it was worth the effort. A year later and I have learned what and when grows well and well, what not to even try and what we will actually eat! I have learned about controlling plagues, organically, it has increased my vocabulary and I have made friends! My glut of pera tomatoes last year spurred me on to learning about gazpacho and the different approaches to it in different regions. I think I make a pretty decent one myself now! As well as what I grow myself, our area has many ‘ freebies’ on offer as well. I never buy lemons, marmalade oranges, figs, mint, wild fennel , sage or rosemary. All grow in abundance and amazingly, wild and with little water. Our urbanisation, like many in Spain is built on old agricultural land. The intensive farming on the coast began in the 80s and is now the sea of plastic , visible along the coast of Almeria. I find this very sad, despite the fact that we are living on this land and perhaps this seesms a little hypocritical or over romantic? Our walks in what is now a regional park take us past ruined farm houses and abandoned olive, orange, lemon, fig and almond terraces. It is on these terraces that sturdy old fruit trees still give me lovely free fruit. Orange trees need feeding however to nurture table fruit, but the tart wild ones make an amazing marmalade! I imagine what it would have been like in the past and have learned a little more about that different life from our local history group.

The history group was another learning experience. Our local government or Ayuntamiento has a cultural programme all across the region. This is classes in everything from ceramics and pottery, dance, emotional intelligence to the local history of the town or village that you live in . They are held in schools and community centres and are free. My Russian friend Margaryta told me about them and I signed up for the ‘Danzas del Mundo’ , mentioned in a previous blog and the local history class for Sangonera La Verde. What I didn’t realise until the sessions started was that this is not so much a class but a sharing of memories and stories from the people of the pueblo. They are lovely, friendly people and made me very welcome however I had nothing to bring and so after a couple of meetings , some lovely coffee and cake and a link to their web page , I bowed out. I did learn a little about Sangonera however and in particular about the lives of the agricultural workers who lived and worked this land before the 1980s. Some lived in the village but there are caves on the edge of near by hills, painted white inside, with shelves and remnants of household goods because these caves were the homes of some of the workers! One of the group remembers her granny living there. Murcia is a region of fruit and vegetable production, not traditionally one of the wealthiest regions of Spain but this lady remembers there always being good food, music and chat outside the caves and after work . I went back to the group’s christmas concert and was once again welcomed warmly.. lessons learned as well as the obvious , just how friendly the people of our little town are!

A recent road trip to Portugal reminded once again that journeys are a great learning experience. This was a bus , train and plane trip, taking in Granada, Jerez de la Frontera, Alubufeira on the Algarve and Lisbon. Each place had something magical about it and something to learn. The experience of navigating my way across Iberia, learning a few words of Portuguese and finding Walt at each stop was a confidence builder too!

UK readers will have probably all voted in the recent EU elections, we vote on Sunday. As residents we also have a vote in our local government elections. Oh boy, this is a learning curve. I have been using it as a conversation topic with one of my English students in an attempt to learn a little about the politics here and how to physically place my vote! The literature that lands in our letter box is actually called election propaganda ! Very honest. In Scotland this usually all ends up in the recycling box. What is strange here however is that the parties actually put voting papers and envelopes in with the propaganda which you can simply take along on the day and pop in the box!

The reason I started thinking about all these daily learning gems was the most recent and ongoing project that is pushing me in to learning all about web site building, domain names and other techy stuff that I probably swore I had no need of when being asked to introduce them to my classroom in my previous life. I have been teaching English to a few pupils locally but it is very hit or miss. If I want to go to Scotland to see my family, if I am on an adventure or if they have school or family commitments, the classes are postponed. If I prepare a lesson and then it is cancelled, I have worked for nothing. I am very fond of my pupils and unless they want rid of me, I have no intention of stopping working with them! However, I recently came across a tutorial by an English teacher who has built his business on line. ( the British Council Teaching English site is incredible for ideas, tutorials, resources). He lives in the USA and there is not a big demand in his town for one to one, real English teachers! I had already thought of this as a way of finding new learners and his tutorial was excellent. On line, I can teach where ever I am and not have to cancel classes, I can manage the hours and decide when I want to teach. Notes taken… next steps? A few weeks down the line and I have been taught by a former pupil who has his own web design business, the basics of setting up a web site. Jamie and his brother at Jambour Digital Ltd are doing this for me. Exciting! It literally is a work in progress and I am hugely grateful to Jamie for his help and patience.

The learning continues every day … it’s exciting and I can’t wait for the next lesson! Watch this space.

It’s raining! Huerto up date and other stuff…

before the rain…..

I returned from a very soggy Scotland just over a week ago with the rather grim predictions of my environmental consultant son in law ringing in my ears. Richie reiterated the findings of scientists world wide and in particular the problems regarding water that already affect our part of Spain, spreading to northern Spain before the end of the century or sooner. It’s a contentious issue at the best of times here in Spain as much of our water is piped from the north ( google Trasvase Tajo – Seguro). This incredible feat of civil engineering was started in 1969. Thinking about the spaghetti westerns of the 1970s, shot in neighbouring Almeria for its desert like appearance and that the Trasvase was initiated around this time, it is fair to say that water, or the lack of it, has been a problem here for a very long time. That it is going to get much worse and that we may not be able to count on water from the north either is worrying to say the very least, not so much for us oldies but for future generations. Scary stuff.

With all of this whirling about in my brain, I came home to a message from my huerto buddy about a new line of riego that we had put down.. it was leaking and we had received a metaphorical slap on the hand from our administrator for allowing this to happen! Anne has sorted it now and guess what? It is raining and is forecast to do so over the whole Easter weekend! The rest of Europe, including Scotland is enjoying a sunny spring break, while the warmest, driest part of Spain is swathed in clouds, mist and torrential rain. Even the dry ramblas are running like the burns of my native tierra! Despite having two very bored and slightly wet smelling dogs , this is great. I know it won’t solve the problems facing our planet in the long term but I can’t wait to get back up to the huerto to see the effect on my spring planting. Stop press! I have two baby artichokes… despite my doubts as expressed in my previous blog. The two plants that I rather callously dug up and transplanted now have little fruits. This week , before the rain, I was also able to pick the first of the new salad leaves for a tasty supper. My tomato plants are flowering already and I have more to put in once the rain stops. The onions, peppers, aubergine, courgette, cucumbers and celery have all taken and are coming along nicely and I have dotted herbs, garlic and marigolds around everything to try and deter pests. Slugs and snails are not usually a problem but I suspect after this weekend, my lettuce might be in danger. Fingers crossed as well that everything has not been washed away! All going well and when the sun comes out again I think I can say that I am slowly learning what does and does not work. What is worth growing and what we will eat!

Feliz Pascua… Happy Easter…. Have a lovely sunny weekend!

Mi Huerto …My allotment

Too late, googled artichokes.. they take two years to grow!

I am just about to head off up to my allotment with a tub of leek seedlings, compost , Ben and my fingers crossed . This little bit of Spanish land that I try to cultivate has been yet another learning experience in my adventure in a foreign land! Those readers who worked with me at Ross High might remember my crazy garden project in much neglected quad surrounded by classrooms and seagulls’ nests? Despite the kamikaze seagulls, the project worked and not only got pupils off their phones and in to the fresh air,it also produced some wonderful potatoes (tatties) which we sold in the staff room to buy more seeds. I think the project continues although unlike here, it will only now be warming up enough to begin this year’s planting. Here there are two growing seasons which means year round gardening ! No winter break! Lesson number one ! Just look at the fruit laden lemon trees …..they are also in blossom ! It’s crazy!

I love gardening and gardens but have always been a bit hectic in my approach to them and have never managed to maintain the manicured variety…more a slightly wild (natural?) space. I am a complete amateur and while I have read up on ‘how to ‘ and watched gardening programmes, most of my learning has been achieved through trial, error ,success and disaster.

Gardens mean different things to different people and like life choices , every one is entitled to take their own approach to their garden . It might be easy maintenance, slabs , chips and grass and a spot to sit and enjoy a glass of something ( too boring and tidy for me) , expensively landscaped and maintained by a professional ( still too boring!) , or a perfect mix of trim borders, manicured lawns and Mr McGregor’s vegetable plot ( jealousy creeping in here). The only gardens that I don’t understand are the ‘why not just have a flat ,your garden is totally neglected ? variety. I can be a little judgemental here! For me, a garden is essential. I am happiest outside . Always have been. It’s my excuse for not being able to play the piano and my very mediocre academic achievements. While there was light in the sky and pals in the street, practising my scales or learning the periodic table did not have a chance!

Photo by Mikes Photos on

Therefore it was not very long before our tiny garden in Calle Jacaranda , while perfect for that aperitif and eating al fresco, was not quite enough of a challenge. In the early months of our new life, we cycled along the Rio Segura cycle path in to the city and I was fascinated by the huertos or allotments. Most, much bigger than an average Scottish allotment and mainly cultivating oranges and lemons. Many also have little shacks and patio areas for weekend barbecues and one or two have chickens ! It looked like a warm, sunny version of ‘The Good Life’. I did a bit of on line research but for the most part, these parcels of land seemed to run in families. There are the odd ‘ for sale’ signs but all I was looking for was a small plot to rent, not half an acre to buy!

Our little hut for gardening tools.

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR ! …… It is amazing how things suddenly come about when you want them badly enough. Just before our first christmas here, a poster went up at the security box and entry to our urbanisation. Marta the administrator for the urbanisation , was organising a meeting to discuss the possibility of starting huertos on a large , empty piece of land bang smack in the middle of the houses! An organic land scaping company would prepare the plots, organise the watering systems, look after the land around each plot and hold workshops in organic vegetable gardening. I went along to the meeting and while I struggled to understand much of it, I got the gist , signed up, made a new English friend and began my huerto journey in February last year. We pay the landscape company a monthly fee and are free then to garden , enjoy the picnic areas and meet our neighbours. As Benny gets older and finds the energy of our crazy pup too much, I take him up to the huerto and he loves to wander round, eat herbs and lie in the sun while I work. Benny knows, like St Thomas Aquinas, that your are never nearer to God than in a garden. I am not religious in the conventional sense but a couple of hours in the evening as the sun goes down, pottering in my little plot is calming and magical.

a cool spot to relax in after all the hard work!

There have been many lessons learned on this particular project and some moments of serious doubt, is this too much like hard work? Will I have to garden in the dark in August when temperatures never go below 29 degrees C even in the middle of the night? Is it worth it when I can buy the same vegetables in the market for a few cents? The lessons learned are not all botanical, meeting Spanish neighbours has meant that a morning at the huerto can also become a language lesson. For example, in Scotland I called my school project ‘gardening’. In Spain ‘ to garden’ means growing flowers and lawns not vegetables. We are cultivating not gardening! Two completely different verbs. It is why most ‘garden centres’ that you find on the costas only sell decorative gardening plants , although most will have fruit and olive trees. You have to find a specialist centres that sell seeds and seedlings. There are exceptions but our nearest that sold both was 40 minutes away until my friend Anne and recently found a shed like shop at the side of a main road in a nearby town with lovely seedlings – six onions sets, two aubergine seedlings, four chard plants – one euro! I’ll be back!
Other lessons learned have mainly been about what grows well in our hot, dry climate and what does not. So far I have had a glut of tomatoes, which lasted in the freezer over winter and made great gazpacho, tomato soups and sauces. Lettuce grows all year round and I already have some lovely little oak leaves coming along nicely. Habas or broad beans do very well, and most of the year round, I have red and green chillies in the freezer and new seeds in trays for this years’ plants. Swiss chard is hard to kill and also lasted all over the winter. Some less successful attempts were my own fault, lack of research and pig headedness. My artichokes pictured above were an early lesson in curbing impatience. Root vegetables , carrots, potatoes etc, only grow here in winter and even then it’s a challenge as the climate is so dry. Likewise peas, which I planted in April last year, the results were tasty but short lived and probably less than half a kilo of peas! the plants were killed off as temperatures climbed into the 20s. I foolishly put carrot seeds in, hundreds of fluffy green seedings soon appeared after April showers and May sunshine. They needed painstaking thinning out and then did little or nothing over the next few dry months. Again less than half a kilo! Not worth the effort! My tallest disaster has to have been my sweetcorn, which grew from seed and produced lovely tall plants and about five cobs that were so tough, they were really only for animal feed! The other big lesson was not to be greedy. Stop growing in autumn and turn the whole plot over then feed. I bashed on planting winter brassicas but between knackered soil and very cold nights , I only harvested two tennis ball sized cauliflowers and four heads of tasty but tiny broccoli! Lesson learned, I was lucky to have Rafa, the professional who helps us with the space , he tractored the whole allotment. Lots of new compost and feed in the soil and we are ready to go again! Watch this space.

a rainy Christmas picnic!

changing times….

Many years ago I travelled from Paris to Hendaye , a seaside town on the French \ Spanish border. It was only five years after Spain had ceased to be a dictatorship and although the tourist industry had seen the country modernise to an extent through the 1960s and 70s there was still a noticeable difference between these neighbouring countries. As we neared the border, the already crowded train became even busier. Standing in the corridors and sitting on suitcases was the norm. My friends and I were lucky, we had bagged a compartment in Paris and apart from having to share it with some rather too friendly French Army conscripts, it was relative luxury. As well as human travellers on the now crowded and noisy train there was an assortment of livestock, including a few hens and cockerels, alive and in baskets. The odd cock crowing as we pulled in to Hendaye at 6am, added to the mayhem and our relief at getting off after the ten hour journey was enormous.

This journey came to mind yesterday as I made the much shorter bus journey in to the city for an appointment. As usual, it was noisy. Spaniards don’t sit on buses with the spaced out , glum look of those in Northern cities. They talk , loudly and very often, even if in a group, at the same time. A very old lady got on the bus with her son or grandson, but he made a point of sitting some distance away from her. She had her pull along shopping bag positioned safely in front of her. Suddenly a very loud cock crowing broke through the hum of noisy chat. It went on for some time until the son or grandson turned round and shouted at the old lady, in Spanish of course…’ It’s your mobile , answer it for goodness sake.’ This took some time as said mobile was at the bottom of her shopping bag and so the cockerel continued to crow! She eventually found it and answered, very loudly. Normality resumed. It did however leave me wondering if the generation that grew up before the modernisation of Spain , sometimes miss the old days when shopping baskets had live poultry in them and not simply odd ring tones?


Before I begin , I know there are a few people reading my crazy thoughts and I really would love your thoughts in exchange .  Some of what I write must strike a chord even if it is one of ‘ what a lot of guff, she’s off her trolley, the way I see it is ….’  Today’s offering will I hope provoke some responses!

As Christmas approaches my life long struggle with stuff rears its head again.  I’m not sure where to start on this one. I am not a recluse living in a hermitage on top of a hill with nothing but a hair shirt and berries for survival. I am a fully paid up member of the first world , cosy home with all mod cons, two bathrooms – one each !  A long way from using a bush behind my hut! We have a car, two lap tops, a motorbike and I think I have about twenty pairs of shoes .  It doesn’t stop me lusting at the offerings in Rumbo and other beautiful shoe shops, even the shoes in our local market are made in Spain and are gorgeous .  It doesn’t stop me smiling when I look at our new dining room table and 70s style Perspex chairs , OK it’s from a big Danish chain store but the design is stolen from style icons and I love them. All in all, I love stuff but not too much.  And so as I begin to think about presents for the little people in my life ( and little things for the big people – we are all agreed that we don’t need anything other than kind thoughts) I remember all the stuff that has come and gone from mine and my family’s lives and wonder about its significance.

As Walt and I began to downsize in preparation for our move from a four bed detached via a two bed flat in Scotland to a two bed apartment ( with outside space!) in a foreign country we had to be brutal , this was happening shortly after my brothers and I had to sell and clear my parents’ 50 years plus of stuff and Walt and I sorted out and cleared his parents’ home.  Lots of stuff, lots of memories , but no one wanted it!  All those loved items , saved for , polished, cherished were no longer seen that way.  Perhaps 21st century life is geared up to disposable stuff, planned obsolescence?  It was really sad and tough but we couldn’t begin to take it all with us .  I carefully picked out bits of my mum’s favourite China, her mason cash mixing bowl ( when I ever I use it I know her hands have touched it too) some pretty cutlery , made in Sheffield , her few pieces of jewellery and her wedding veil, lots of photos , my Dad’s high school and apprenticeship certificates and his  RAF tie! I have Walt’s mum’s wally dugs and some very pretty earrings .  I tried to persuade other family members to do the same but as none of us have enormous homes it just wasn’t practical .  All this then begging the question – does stuff really mean anything ?  Recently we have watched the news of the dreadful wild fires in California and  families whose homes have literally been wiped out.  When interviewed , for the most part , many of these poor people were only concerned for the lives of loved ones and neighbours, grateful to be alive and anxious for those still missing.  One man even said on describing how he had lost all his stuff  ‘ it’s actually quite liberating’.

Which brings me back to Christmas and the not so subtle encouragement to buy stuff, any stuff , as much stuff as you can or can not afford.  I love giving presents to the people I love.  Over the years I truly have put genuine thought in to Christmas presents .  Last year the grown ups in the family received only cards which indicated that their gift was actually being given to some one else via UNICEF!  This year we have agreed on a secret Santa, with a very sensible budget as some of us are pensioners, have student loans or are between jobs.   It doesn’t stop me thinking about stuff for the wee ones however and then I am reminded that they have so much stuff already that storage space is a constant headache.  This reminds me of the silver Porsche Christmas!  When my parents’ business was doing well they took part in and attended packaging exhibitions around Europe.  One was held in London just before Christmas and as my Dad drove everywhere he could, they had their car with them . It was 1989/90 – no congestion charges- this allowed them to plunder Hamleys and bring home a silver pedal car … a Porsche for my then youngest son!  The Porsche was played with over the years by him , his siblings and friends and being from Hamleys, it stayed in good nick!  What happened to the Porsche?   It stayed with us until the accumulation of stuff with four kids going in to their teens meant we had no room, jammed in a shed, its pedals rusted and by the new millennium no one wanted it.  I have attachment issues to stuff relating to my parents and was so sad when it finally met its maker in the local recycling yard!  My son in law’s expression when ever I took ‘ precious child hood stuff ‘ belonging to my daughter round to their new home and Walt’s incredulity that I had lugged these memory boxes through several move , says it all!  Therefore as Christmas approaches what is the point in adding to their stuff?    Like my lovely parents and the Porsche ,  I am only human and a Granny.  Children in Spain are the centre of family life and our shopping malls and city centres still have wonderful independent toy shops and children’s clothes shops…. The temptation is phenomenal.  Then I put my sensible hat on and think that some money in their savings account  for uni or a rainy day!  Like the grown ups in the family, they really don’t need anything and will they cherish stuff much beyond the age tags on their new clothes or toys?  There is one notable exception to this argument , ‘ a baby , a buggy , a Santa Claus’.  This was the request from my daughter Hannah when asked age two what she would like for Christmas. ( Her big sister asked for a washing line that same year- did she know that 32 years later she would have three under fours and a Chinese laundry full of washing?)  I digress, Hannah’s baby and buggy were delivered by Santa ( the buggy was from Poundstretchers- I had a strict budget!) . The baby however was a fisher price doll called Julie who became Hannah’s comfort and 32 years later still graces her marital bedroom!  Julie is not just ‘stuff’ and maybe that’s the point, presents will be bought and wrapped as usual across the globe this Christmas . Some will meet their maker just days or weeks later but some, like Julie will become too precious to part with.  It still doesn’t help me answer my own question about whether to add to the piles of stuff acquired by big and little ones on Christmas Day.  It doesn’t stop me writing lists or thinking about what I can get for folks.  It doesn’t get me any closer to understanding why I cling to Mum’s old baking bowl while others would simply chuck it in the bin.  Help! What is the deal with stuff? 

some well travelled stuff!

Mum’ Mason Cash bowl!

Comfort zone? What comfort zone?

If any one out there actually owns a long term, unconditional love type of comfort zone and can explain how they came by it, train it and keep can you please get in touch?  In recent years I have stumbled across many self help pundits and quotes encouraging us to get ‘out our comfort zones’ and by doing so we will become better, stronger , happier and more confident human beings.  I’m not totally convinced about this.  My family history has a split personality.  The comfort zone was possibly blown apart quite literally during WW2 when my Dad’s family were split up by evacuation and my Mum’s family by her Dad serving in the RAF.  My Dad eventually landed in Scotland aged nine or ten and where he lived for the rest of his life. Despite being an entrepreneur and slightly eccentric designer, travelling the world with his business and putting our family home up as security on the business , it would have taken dynamite to move him out of said family home. It was his beautiful comfort zone , much of it designed and built by him and Mum.   Dynamite or a certain Bank panicking during the mini recession of the early 1990s and pulling the plug on the business.  My parents lost their home in their early sixties and despite having a very cosy alternative thanks to Dad and Mum’s hard work and determination, they never fully recovered.  They didn’t bounce back as the self help gurus would have you believe and had a very quiet , financially difficult retirement .  My Mum’s way of coping was to work to exhaustion and she did this by looking after my Dad, my brothers, an aging Aunt and her grandchildren and me .  She never thought about herself or if she did, it was over a cup of tea and the People’s Friend after every one else had gone to bed.  My Dad’s was to believe that around the corner was a new business waiting so that ‘ this time next year we’d be millionaires’.  Perhaps because he was an East End boy, the Del Boy in him was indelible!  I meantime wanted nothing more for them than to have a ‘normal’ retirement …holidays, lunches out, friends to go bowling with or sing in a choir .  Perhaps I wanted this because I have always been seeking that elusive comfort zone? ( is it all it’s cracked up to be?)

The photograph above is me aged 22, the day before I started my first teaching job. I was climbing a ‘chimney’ on Buachaille Etive Mor in the Scottish Highlands.  I thought I was going hillwalking and ended up on ropes thinking I was going to die! I am not good with heights !  I was so far out of my comfort zone , there’s no describing it.  I clearly remember the relief of still being alive as I slurped my pint in The King’s House Hotel!  For some reason , similar to what I wanted for my parents, I have always craved a comfort zone or ‘normal’ but then go and actively do stuff that results in the opposite.   This I suspect means that ( be careful what you wish for ?)  a) I am not normal and b) I have a lower boredom threshold than I like to admit to.  As we get older, Walt and I have noticed that we feel physically and mentally better when we are off on an adventure!  The contradiction here is that desire for a comfort zone that seems to bubble up on a regular basis .

I had a wonderful childhood , free range , growing up in the 1960s with the Scottish country side and a safe pretty village as my playground.   My family was large and close , one grand parent living with us, the other along with a gaggle of Aunts, Uncles and cousins only a few miles away.  My Mum was a very strong woman and stood her ground when Grandma who lived with us and our Parish priest tried to persuade her to put me on two buses , aged five in order to attend the Catholic primary school.  My primary years , in the village were wonderful and yet when I passed the qualifier in primary seven instead of staying in the comfort zone of friends and going to High School with them , I let Grandma think she had won in the decision to send me to the Catholic high school on my own .  No friends, no induction, but it was my decision- I was curious and wanted to do something different!   I made life long friends at that High School and kept some very precious one from primary however the first few weeks as a wee smout , with glasses and a strange half English accent were challenging to say the least.  I didn’t even have the right colour of home economics pinny (apron) as  the sewing teacher in primary school didn’t see the need for fabric for a school that no one usually went to.  My decision also impacted on my little brother as two years later, no choice given to him I suspect because I was already there, was sent to same said High school.  He was not happy there and let down badly by the system, I am sorry and perhaps should have let Mum have her way back in 1970?  Perhaps comfort zones are there for a reason?

Throughout those childhood years our family holidays were on the road ,  touring caravans that gradually became plusher and more comfortable than the first ancient wreck that my folks lovingly renovated.  We toured Scotland and England , visiting Dad’s family in London . In my teens, we went abroad, France, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland.  My friends went to Morecambe and Blackpool and stayed in boarding houses where the loo was just down the corridor not across a field . Or they went to Butlins where the rides on the fun fair were free the whole holiday.  I must admit to a certain amount of jealousy and craving for normal.   Despite this, on gaining freedom to choose my own holidays , what did I do ( and continue to do)?  Road trips and camping in France as a student,  living in a tent while trying to find work in the South of France, camping and caravaning with my own children and then road trips by car and motorbike with Walt!  We have had a couple of ‘normal’ package holidays but even then one of those was an all inclusive in a Stalinesque hotel in Cuba!  We are just back from a road trip to Rome, however as we get older , hotels and B&Bs have replaced our tent!  While in Italy, we celebrated the marriage of my daughter Hannah and her wonderful new husband Richie , staying for three days at the venue in Tuscany.  A stately home and estate called Borgo Stomananno.  Our bedroom had previously been the summer retreat of a queen of Norway .  We had a suite, a 19th century bathroom to die for and our rooms made up discreetly every day while we drank prosecco and partied by the pool.  This was a ‘normal ‘ that we all agreed we could get used to!

At the same time, those blissful three days threw up another conundrum in my relationship with comfort zones and normal.   Family and community .  I have moved about a lot in my life, almost the opposite of my evacuee Dad who commented on more than one of our ‘For Sale’ signs ‘why? This is a lovely home’.  They all were and yet for various reasons I left them.  Initially the reasons were practical, more room for a growing family and laterally I could argue likewise as the family left home, we didn’t need four bedrooms.  However I do wonder if it is also partly to do with this subconscious need to keep blowing my comfort zone out of the water?  I have friends who have been in the same marital and family home since the 1970s , much extended, new kitchens,bathrooms and no sign of the now trendy retro 70s decor!  They are there and waiting for grandchildren to come running through their doors.  Ironically I have three gorgeous grandchildren and have chosen to live over one thousand miles away from them and my own children of course.   Now our plans to move to Spain were put in place before the grandchildren were born, our home in Murcia bought in 2007 and completed in 2010.   At this time two of my children lived in the south of England,  and the two boys were still at home with us.  We were going the move out here when my youngest went to university, me to teach English as a foreign language and Walt to use his Spanish to find a job.  The ‘crisis’ (recession) and elderly parents needing us put paid to that idea.   Besides which , although my job was becoming increasingly stressful, it was also a comfort zone!  My classroom, my routine, the bairns, my colleagues, all created a safe place where I ( a bit like my Mum) could work hard and not think too much.  In 2012 I joined my daughter in a net work marketing business.  It too created a comfort zone oddly enough!  The people I worked with were lovely, kind and trying hard to make good lives for their loved ones.  I was useless at the actual business side! Not my father’s daughter!  By 2016 when sadly we had become orphans, we had also become grandparents!  We were however still skint, juggling two mortgages on wages that in real terms had fallen. Walt was miserable at his work and if one of my loved ones is miserable then so am I .  My previous articles explain all of this and the subsequent , probably biggest jump out of my comfort zone ever , moving to the South of Spain.  Our home here is not on the Costas and not an ex pat enclave. This was a deliberate choice as we felt that if we were moving to a foreign country we wanted to feel as if we were in fact in that country.  Another ‘out of comfort zone’  choice .   No one forced me in to it!

I am a naturally friendly person and have made wonderful new friends here, Spanish, Scottish, English and Russian!   I am teaching a little, writing a little, reading a lot and walking everyday with my amazing husband and crazy dogs! I will see my bairns and grand bairns at the end of this month and again in January  I am incredibly lucky and while some things still feel strange; going to the dentist and having a Spanish lesson thrown in  ; providing our own health care , the reciprocal agreement is a myth; shops being shut in the afternoons and Sundays ; social events starting around my old Scottish bedtime; Brexit ,  it is home and with a bit of patience, love and care is fast becoming my new and forever comfort zone!

As to the benefits of getting out of one’s comfort zone, well maybe I am a bit more resilient, reflective and I certainly don’t feel my age ( most of the time).  Who knows, if we hadn’t put up all those ‘for sale ‘ signs , I might have been miserable  – or not!  What does a comfort zone mean to you?


thirty seven years later….

Not  a very catchy title I’ll admit, if you can think of a better one please suggest it to me!

However, it was 37 years later that I arrived in the French seaside town of Hendaye with Walt and Benny.  In June 1980 I camped in this beautiful little town with friends from college and student life in Glasgow.  I was a fully qualified English teacher with no job due to government cut backs and so I thought I’d give maize picking in the South West corner of France a go…… it didn’t quite work out and I came home with my first ever, but sadly not last, over draft!  Luckily I had my parents’ family business to go home to and a few months of doing VAT before a teaching job opened up.  However I remembered this little town fondly, it is very pretty with a beautiful Victorian sea front.   It gained some infamy in 1940 when Hitler met Franco there to discuss a Nazi/Falange pact but don’t let that put you off!

Walt retired from forty four years of engineering in January 2017 and we decided that he would move out to Spain as soon as possible with our black lab Ben.  That meant a road trip to Portsmouth and ferry to France as we could not get a berth on the Bilboa or Santander crossings.  We set of in the February break ( half term).  Walt had said goodbye to his workmates in the traditional fashion a few weeks earlier.. a few drinks in the pub!  He loaded our old car with his clothes and bike stuff,  not much else, he really isn’t a possessions sort of guy unless you count his motor bike.

I had always had romantic notions of driving through France on quiet, poplar lined roads and stopping here and there for good coffee and baguettes.  It was almost that wonderful.  For the first section of the journey, we did avoid motorways and drove on the tree lined roads of my dreams.  We stopped for coffee and baguettes, problem for Walt as is a tea only man but I didn’t let that spoil the atmosphere.  Eventually we had to take some motorways or we would not have reached Hendaye for days.  France is a deceptively big country.   As darkness fell, the cold, dry winter day gave way to a down pour.   We were using our mobiles as sat navs and just as we approached our destination, they both died.   At this point we were on a cliff top road in total darkness, and it was shear luck that took us in to the town below still clueless as to the where abouts of our hotel.  We are a good travelling team, and managed not to lose the head but being thrown out of the car in the pouring rain to get directions because ‘ you speak French’ did not endear me to my darling husband .   I did and the check out lady at a supermarket was very helpful.  We found our hotel, had a lovely dinner and woke up to sunshine.

After a walk along the beach and photos of the ‘twins’ ,  we drove home to Murcia in one long haul.   It had been a pleasure seeing Hendaye again after so many years.  It hadn’t changed too much,  I will be back!

I flew home to Scotland at the end of that week, leaving my man and my dug…  it was strange feeling but an adventure for both of us.  The next few months I would spend working and meeting friends to say good bye…lots of lovely lunches and much wine.  Walt would walk Benny, improve his Spanish at classes on the coast and paint… the house, he had not been inspired by the journey to become a Picasso. We also had to decide what to do with our Scottish home, sell or let?  On the advice of our estate agent, we decided to sell.  This was it… total immersion in a new country and no bolt hole to fall back on.  Scary and exciting at the same time.

The solo living experiment was interesting – something I had never done in all my 59 years!  I come from a large noisy family, left home at 18 to live in halls of residence and student flats , went home again for a year , got married the first time at 23 and had four children.  Walt has more experience , a seven year ‘cottage ‘ gap between marriage number one and me …besides which he had Ben! Our flat was so tidy and I enjoyed sleeping diagonally in our king sized bed but I missed my boys.  Four weeks in ,  I flew to Malaga as there were no Alicante flights that would tie in with leaving school on Friday and getting back for Monday morning. It was March and perfect sunny spring weather.  Walt rode down on the motorbike , picked me up at the airport and took me to our hotel in Torremolinos.  AKA the ‘Youth Club’.   Two months later Torremolinos would be full of heavy drinking, sunburned Brits but in March it was senior Spaniards, a few mature French folk and us.  These guys loved to party and dance and boy could they dance .  They were an inspiration – having fun and still wearing 4” heels!  The Costas get the reputation for being over commercialised and not ‘real Spain’ but the long walks along an immaculate sea front with not an English breakfast in sight , being the youngsters in our hotel and blue skies and sunshine made my Monday morning alarm much easier to cope with! ‘ y viva España ‘!

Life has been so busy since then, we have just come back from another epic road trip to celebrate the marriage of my daughter Hannah in Italy.  For the first time in over eighteen months, I have a quiet month ahead in which to contemplate what we have done and look back on the ups and downs of our retirement and move.   I exaggerate slightly here because we did have a very quiet May, despite plans to take the motor bike to Morocco.  It was the enforced quiet of that month that lead me to start writing and to think seriously about the choices we baby boomers have been given.   That is a story for another day and a whole set of questions for the wise old owls out there.