The history that makes us

We have been back in Australia for just over six weeks and we are beginning to wonder whether Our Year in Spain actually occurred or if it was just a long and fantastic dream. The experience will always live on inside each of us somewhere and as we reintegrate to life in Australia, there are indications that we have indeed changed, at the very least in terms of perspective on the world.

Questions about identity and what it means to be Australian or European are now an ongoing inquiry for us. My own journey of identity has highlighted the growing importance of history and heritage, and ever more so since our year away. While living in Europe we had the opportunity to spend time in the birth countries of our parents, speak languages other than English, live and travel freely across the continent with our inherited European passports.

As a child, my colourful family history seemed like some imaginary story that had no grounding in Australian life. My father would tell my sister and I bedtime stories about his dangerous escape from communist Hungary as a 14 year-old in 1956. There were adventurous tales of crossing freezing rivers, crawling through fields and over barbed wire fences while avoiding searchlights, bribing farmers and border guards with diamond jewellery that had to be swallowed then found again at the other end of the digestive tract.

These were far more exciting stories than The Famous Five books I was used to reading because they were told by my dad. As exciting as they were however, I couldn’t relate to much of it. Where were these mythical places from another era? To spend extended time as an adult in the actual places that give those stories meaning was a powerful experience and even more so to be able to share it with my husband and two children.

First year in Australia, my Dad and his family arrive from Hungary

First year in Australia, my dad (far right) and his family arrive in Bondi from Hungary, 1957

At the start of our year away, we spent a month in Hungary with my father and extended family and another month in Finland with my husband’s family as a way to reconnect with our histories and introduce our children to their lineage. My father took us to see the house where he grew up in Budapest, the apartment where, as a toddler he was hidden by a Catholic family for two years to avoid being sent to a concentration camp. We visited the Shoes on the Danube Promenade, a memorial to Jews who were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen during World War II. The shoes commemorate the place where my Great Grandmother, Elsa (among thousands of others), was ordered to remove her shoes before being shot into the Danube River. Remarkably she survived and managed to save a 15-year-old boy who had been rounded up with her.

She was one of the fortunate survivors who eventually made it to Australia circa 1960 where she ended her days in peace.

Shoes on the Danube Memorial, Budapest

Shoes on the Danube Memorial symbolises those killed here during the Second World War.

I had heard this story previously however it wasn’t until we were physically standing at the location where it took place that it felt real. My son who was nine at the time said to me: “I am so glad we live in a country where they don’t hate Jewish people”.

Growing up in a predominantly Anglo area of Sydney, I felt a bit different to the mainstream but I usually just got on with the job of being a kid who wants to fit in with one’s peers. This was the world I had inherited when my parents and grandparents fled war-torn Europe and it was the only world I knew.

Now as an adult, having spent three separate years living in different parts of Europe, it is hard to describe the connection I genuinely have to that place. It is not one European country that I belong to but a way of being in general and an understanding that the stories of my ancestors were lived on that land for hundreds of years.

My dad visiting the graves of his great grandparents for the first time

My dad visiting the graves of his great grandparents for the first time

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We had to bring secateurs to cut away the trees that had overgrown our ancestors’ graves as there is no family left in Hungary to maintain them.

The Great Dohany St Synagogue in Budapest where my Grandparents married in 1939

The Great Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest where my Grandparents married in 1938

I love the nature, climate, freedom and opportunities in Australia while in Europe I find myself reflected back in the faces, culture and ways of being of many of the people. The Mediterranean openness that involves chatting to anyone and inserting yourself in other people’s business whether on the street, bus, train or plane suits me. The vibrancy and interactions of daily life and the languages all resonate with me. Of course there was adjustment to the noise and intensity of Spain when we initially arrived but I genuinely grew to love and revel in it. Every time we were on a plane I was one of the first to applaud and holler upon landing, something I learned to do only while living in southern Europe. Finally my passion and emotion had an outlet!

It’s fascinating that despite many trips to Europe with my parents when I was a child, it has taken until now to understand the significance of that history and now we are passing it onto our children – passing the baton of history so to speak.

In the European Summer of 2013 we spent a month with my husband’s family in Finland (where his mother is from) learning about their history and culture. We were surrounded by a sea of people and places that have meaning for my husband and have contributed to our family lineage but were completely new to me and our children. Being in Finland reminded us of the powerful genetic link our children have to this place.

Three generations of the Finnish family gather at their mother/grandmother/great gran mother's grave in Helsinki

Three generations of the Finnish family gather at their mother/grandmother/great grandmother’s grave in Helsinki

So often we have been asked about why our children look so different to us as they are fair and blue-eyed while my husband and I are dark with brown eyes. When we boarded the flight from Copenhagen to Helsinki and were surrounded by Finns, our children finally looked like the crowd around them. In France we were frequently asked about our children’s unusually bright blue eyes but in Finland nobody even noticed.

Our children physically fit into a country where they know not a word of their grandmother’s Finnish tongue nor any of the customs. I wondered what it was like for them to be hugged and kissed and showered with gifts by people who seemed to know them yet whom my children had never met before. They were old enough to understand that the vast groups of people we were visiting were related to our family so there was an inherent trust. Although, at the ages of 9 and 7 years, they hadn’t really known anything different than a family spread across three continents and four countries. Our children speak Australian English and Andalusian Spanish, and partake in many Mexican, Jewish and Australian customs. Aye currumba! What a fruit salad!

My husband as a child with his Finnish cousins

My husband (second from right) and his brother (second left) with their Finnish cousins, 1975

Nearly 40 years later the cousins gather again with the next generation of cousins

The next generation of cousins meet at the same lake house in Finland several decades later, 2013

As we adjust back to life in Australia I often contemplate how we as a family landed here from such far-flung places as Finland, Hungary, Spain, Mexico and the USA. Having found ourselves reflected in the faces and mannerisms of people across Europe in addition to the knowledge that our ancestors lived exciting and tragic lives on that very land, Europe has touched us deeply and lives on inside us.

Adding fuel to the fire of this search for history, in a few months I will celebrate my 40th birthday… There’s nothing like a search for cultural identity in the midst of a mid-life transition…let’s go for it I say. Que sera, sera!

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At the end of an amazing month in Finland, Helsinki 2013

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Visiting our longtime friends in Budapest. My sister and I used to play on that same floor as children when we visited in 1982, 1985 and 1990

The Return…Week 1

It’s surreal to think that just a few short weeks ago we were toasting the arrival of summer and the end of the school year with our Spanish community in Granada. There were school concerts, end of year parties and dinners that went into the wee hours, especially as the sun didn’t set until 10.30pm. We shared our reflections on the year with our new friends followed by teary farewells….and then we were gone.

We spent a year planning and another year living ‘Our Year in Spain’ then one week ago we arrived back in Sydney and suddenly the dream was over.  All the shiny new experiences and aliveness that comes with being in a different environment became things of the past and the colours of our hometown are muted by familiarity. As I walk or drive down the same streets I have known for years, I no longer see the detail and I am on autopilot once again.

We have landed in the middle of a Sydney Winter, back to the same house and area in which we have lived for 14 years but everything feels strange – we are aliens in a familiar setting. The cells of my body remember these places that I have known since childhood but my mind and spirit can’t quite relate or absorb it.

Arriving at Sydney Airport on 13th July 2015

Arriving at Sydney Airport on 13th July 2014

During our year away we became practiced at adapting to different places and situations, testing ourselves in new environments, speaking different languages and learning new customs. I thought returning home would be another experience that we would easily flow with, so as the plane drew closer to Sydney, I had no inkling that the return home would, in fact, be so daunting.

First sightings of Australia after a year away

First sightings of Australia after a year away – the beautiful wilderness

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Seeing Sydney for the first time in a year

On my first day back and most days since, I have been stunned by the randomness and frequency of the tears that fall from my eyes. Although there were definitely hard days and sad days during ‘Our Year in Spain’, I do not recall ever shedding a tear. Why all this emotion now?

My hunch is that I am not only mourning the end of the dream that has been lived, but also finding my place and identity once again. How do we fit back into this old/new life that seems familiar and alien all at once? Added to that is the fresh perspective. Viewing our homeland differently after experiencing another way of life holds both positive and negative aspects.

There is much to be celebrated and just as much that is jarring. We are grateful for our loving and patient friends and family in Australia who have embraced our return and understand our mixed feelings around being back. They understand for now that it’s a difficult transition and that it is not personal to them or Australia. I do sometimes feel guilty though that my sunny disposition has gone, left behind on another continent for now, and that I may have given my best self to new friends in Spain while my loyal Australian friends receive the morose me. I’m waiting for my mojo to come back.

There are many things we re-appreciate here like Australian friendliness and efficiency and equally, there are the aspects we no longer relate to…the rush, rush of the city, the car culture and the constant chasing of the dollar to buy the latest and greatest house, product or experience. It’s jarring after living in a small city in southern Spain. Not that any place is perfect and Granada definitely had its own issues, these are just the things that I observe now with my fresh perspective.

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Happy things to rediscover at home: Parks and beaches that are not crowded. My Bondi Beach!

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Italian style coffee just how we like it…this was my husband’s first coffee straight after landing

Happy things from home: Italian style coffee just as we like

Happy things to find at home:  Asian food and convenient sushi everywhere

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Not so happy things: Over regulated, too many rules and too rushed – seriously, what does this sign actually mean?

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Not so happy things: Out of season, expensive fresh produce.

I notice our children’s wide eyes as they listen to their Australian friends talk about the latest trends and TV shows like ‘The Voice’ or Disney characters from movies. It’s a catch up crash course in popular culture. We didn’t have television for a year which was not some politically correct statement, just that with the very late sunsets in Spain there is no time to watch TV so we cancelled the satellite subscription. I observe my kids trying to describe to their Australian friends where we lived in Spain. How to describe a one thousand year-old neighbourhood of steep, winding, river stone laneways and walled Arabic Carmens? The ancient streets of the Albaicin are perhaps just too different to comprehend from this reality and the conversation quickly gravitates back to what is real and immediate here.

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The streets of the Albaicin, Granada

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Some of the things you see on the streets of Granada

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Our neighbourhood in Granada during siesta time

I understand that children tend to live in the present moment and I am grateful as it is that quality that has made our kids such incredible adventurers this year. In fact, witnessing how ecstatic our children are to be back and re-embraced by their community has softened our landing. Our daughter is like a proud peacock, head held high, carrying her confidence and new independence. Our son is straight back to his friends and soccer team as if no time has passed.

Meanwhile, my husband and I are slowly processing all that we have learned and experienced during our year away. We are thinking about how to bridge the two worlds and keep the best of both. How lucky we are to have two homes, both wonderful and different in their own way but we are in no doubt that it will take time to readjust.

World Cup Fever

What happens when you travel the world during the “World Cup”?

It means you see how each country celebrates or mourns their teams’ wins and losses. It also involves witnessing the varying degrees of football madness in each country with outdoor screens, crowded bars, terraces and colour-coordinated patriotic paraphernalia of flags, banners and more….

Our whirlwind farewell tour of Europe and Thailand coincides with the World Cup and every location we have visited has had crowds supporting, celebrating and mourning their home teams or others.

World Cup fever involves connecting with people from all over the world over the idea of a ball, a pitch, some goals and talented footballers. It isn’t called the “world game” for nothing. Conversation starters are assured as people from all walks of life proffer their opinions to anyone prepared to listen, about who will win the match, group rounds or the whole tournament.

We have also witnessed foreigners who would normally try to blend in to their surrounds, loudly displaying their patriotic colours and frequenting the local venues that screen the matches. I met one brave Dutch man who came to a local Mexican restaurant in Paris to watch the Mexico-Holland match. I say ‘brave’ because Mexico was winning until the 88th minute when Holland was awarded a controversial penalty that dealt the sickening blow to Mexico’s world cup chances. There was pure devastation in the room and this Dutch man was in the corner of the bar eating an enchilada and apologizing profusely to anyone who approached.

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Hanging with Mexican supporters in Paris during the Mexican-Holland match.

Mexican supporters in Paris - witnessing the devastating loss to Holland

Mexican supporters in Paris – witnessing the devastating loss to Holland

For a family like us with four nationalities and a new adopted home of Spain, our allegiances have been split in several directions. All our countries have now been eliminated (Spain, Australia and Mexico). We started to wonder if we had jinxed all the countries we visited as each time we arrived that country would lose. In Granada we watched Spain and Australia lose their first two group matches. The day we arrived in Lisbon, Portugal was eliminated from the tournament. It wasn’t until our arrival in Paris that the spell was broken. On our second evening in Paris, France won their round of 16 match against Nigeria and finally there were joyous celebrations on the streets instead of the quiet disbelief we had experienced until that point.

French supporters revelling on the Rue Fauberg-Monmatre in Paris

French supporters revelling on the Rue Fauberg-Montmartre in Paris

There is something unifying about sport on a global scale. As I watched the various games, I would think about my friends in those countries knowing that they would be watching also. I would send messages to them and communicate about the game despite being in completely different time zones. It was nice to connect over football even though I am ultimately not a big fan of competitive sport. I don’t like that for someone to win, someone else loses. Call me a new-age softy but I always feel for the losing side rather than the winners.

In every country we visited during the World Cup, it was fascinating to experience the differences in World Cup Fever:

Holland

The Dutch and their football fanaticism - a street in Scheveningen

The Dutch and their football fanaticism – a street in Scheveningen

The Dutch and their football fanaticism - a street in Scheveningen

The Dutch and their football fanaticism – a street in Scheveningen

Just a couple of weeks prior to the tournament commencement I visited Holland where whole streets were decorated in orange flags, Dutch flags and orange carpet to boot. Although initially the Dutch were not hopeful of anything great this tournament given that they were ranked outside the top nine, the national fervor and pride for their team could be seen everywhere. Supermarkets had entire sections devoted to fan paraphernalia: orange flags to decorate your house, Dutch flags, oversized orange sunglasses and orange t-shirts. Following Holland’s stunning thrashing of Spain in their first game, the nation’s hopes for further wins piqued and has been rewarded up to this point (even though I believe Mexico should have won against Holland in the Round of 16 match – yes, I am biased!.

Spain

Celebrating Spain's first goal against Holland before they lost 1-5

Celebrating Spain’s first goal against Holland before they lost 1-5

Coming into the tournament as World Champions and having dominated the European Champions League final just weeks before (Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid played in the final), Spain’s hopes were sky high for a repeat win as in South Africa. Alas, Spain failed to make it past the group stages losing to both Holland and Chile and winning only against Australia. It was all bitterness for me given that my two teams were Australia and Spain and both were eliminated from the same group.

Portugal

Just one of several enormous screens erected in Lisbon for public viewing of the World Cup. This one in Praia Commerciao

Just one of several enormous screens erected in Lisbon for public viewing of the World Cup. This one in Praia Commercao

Portugal is a soccer-crazed country, even more so than Spain based on what we saw. The day we arrived in Lisbon, Portugal was fighting to stay in the World Cup. They had to pull off a massive win against Ghana to move beyond the group stage and as we drove through Lisbon’s wide boulevards, we could see enormous screens erected in parks, plazas and streets as well as TV screens in most bars and cafes. Crowds gathered around and cheered as Ronaldo scored a goal. Although Portugal rallied to win 2-1, it wasn’t quite enough to qualify to the next round. Portugal was out and we were treated to another nation’s disappointment. It wasn’t until the following day when Brazil beat Chile in the knockout rounds that the Portuguese, honouring their historical links to Brazil, decided it was worth celebrating. As Brazil won by an inch in a penalty shoot out, Lisbon exploded into celebration. Saturday night in Lisbon became one large heaving party of Brazilian colours and music. So glad I had earplugs to sleep that night.

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Different viewing spots in LIsbon

Different viewing spots in Lisbon

France
The day we arrived in Paris my husband’s Mexican team took on Holland (not them again!!). We happened to be staying in an airbnb apartment in the 9th arrondissement just above a funky Mexican restaurant, which had an enormous screen erected for the world cup. We crowded in with some very excited Mexicans who celebrated in style (unlimited sangria from the restaurant) the whole way until the 88th minute when Holland stole victory from their clutches in a controversial penalty. It was all down hill from there as the Mexicans slunk into the night with their heads bowed in disappointment.

The following evening France played Nigeria and we had the feeling the whole city was watching the game. When France won, the streets filled with singing, cheering Parisians. Finally our jinx was broken and we felt like celebrating with our host country.

Thailand
As we move further east towards Australia, the time zone for watching matches deteriorates significantly. Semi final viewing will take place at 11pm and 3am whereas in Europe matches were screened at the civilized hours of 6pm and 9pm. This evening my husband and son will go to a local Thai village Bar with a French family we met here, to watch France play Germany. We are staying on a small traditional Thai Island (Koh Yao Noi) in Phang Nga Bay so there are limited options for watching the match.

On a side note, the French family we met happens to be on their way home to Paris after a year of travelling in Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands and South East Asia. Fancy that! We cross paths in Thailand on our way home from each other’s countries. As you can imagine we have shared so many stories and our 10-year-old boys have not stopped playing soccer since they met. No common language required, only a soccer ball and some grass.

Watching France lose to Germany on a very old TV in a mosquito- ridden bar on a small island in Thailand

Watching France lose to Germany on a very old TV in a mosquito-ridden bar on a small island in Thailand

Now, back to the main game of the World Cup…. although Thailand is not in the world cup, they are just as crazy about football. On this tiny island we have already counted at least four soccer pitches and check out this gorgeous video that recently went viral about a team of young soccer players from a floating village very close by to where we are currently staying in Phang Nga Bay. I am hoping to take my son to this village to see the floating soccer pitch in real life. Maybe he can even have a game on the pitch with the Southern Thailand soccer champions!

Australia

As it so happens, after more than a year away, we land in Australia on the day of the World Cup grand final match. Given that the final will screen in Australia at 6am on a Monday morning, we are hoping the jetlag might work in our favour. Who knows who will be in the final, I just hope it won’t be Holland who single handedly eliminated my three teams (Spain, Australia and Mexico). Am I bitter? YES!

 

365 days…

365 days ago we untethered ourselves from life in Australia and took a leap of faith into the unknown. We boarded a plane that carried the four of us across continents and oceans.

The only known was that we would spend a year living in Granada, Spain. The remaining pieces of the journey were a mystery and required us to surrender to whatever came our way.  None of us had ever been to Granada previously so we had to trust our decision-making process that consisted of a bit of research, gut instinct and a large portion of luck.

Taking the leap... Departing Sydney 365 days ago - 23 June 2013

Taking the leap… departing Sydney – 23 June 2013

We were full of hope and excitement for whatever awaited us. Today, 365 days later, as the train pulls out of Granada station and we bid farewell to a wonderful life and community in Spain, all those unknowns have now been lived. What an incredible year this has been!

All too often the unknown, ‘the other’, ‘out there’ can seem frightening or inspire comparisons of better or worse or just too different.  The experience of this year has shown us that there is little to fear ‘out there’ just lots to be learned and gained. We have found exceptional people and places everywhere we have been. Reflecting back on this year one of the most outstanding elements has been the diversity and kindness of people.

There were our family and friends in France, Switzerland, Hungary and Finland who welcomed us and shared stories of our families’ history and identity; the Berber villagers in Morocco who guided us through the Atlas mountains and fed us tagines; our friends in Israel who included us at their Seder and Shabbat tables and showed us their ancient land; the friendly strangers in Italy who showered our children with food, gifts and attention. And of course our wonderful new friends and community in Granada who guided and supported us in the Spanish way of life. Every person has been exceptional in their own way and we are eternally grateful.

A Year in Granada

Granada is a small city surrounded by much natural beauty and history. It has mountains, rivers, lakes and is relatively close to the Mediterranean beaches, as well as many historical cities (Cordoba, Ubeda, Baeza, Sevilla, Cadiz) and let’s not forget the famous Alhambra Palace. Living in Granada provided many opportunities to explore beyond the city limits and travel throughout Europe.

In addition, certain activities that are difficult to do in Sydney became very accessible in Granada. My daughter and I were able to go horse riding regularly with little effort or cost compared to home. We could go for hikes in the mountains directly from our house without having to drive anywhere. Skiing in winter was just a 40-minute drive away and adventure abseiling, mountain biking etc.. were also very accessible. Arts and cultural events were also numerous and affordable and rarely did events sell out like they consistently do in Sydney. No need to buy tickets in advance or queue, just turn up on the day for the various theatre, dance, music and arts events and enjoy great performances.

The history and culture that is maintained with passion in Southern Spain was eye opening for us coming from such a young country as Australia. Every few weeks there was a procession or festival to mark another Saint or holy day. There was never a shortage of participants or spectators with young and old and in between filling the streets time and time again. The commitment to celebrating these cultural rituals is very strong in Granada and is a memory we will take back to Australia.

Our kids did complain that there weren’t more entertainment options like at home but that was an important adjustment to make, to wean them off big-city entertainment and help them become more creative by transforming their boredom.

In our little Albaicin neighbourhood of Granada, we had the opportunity to integrate into a vibrant and diverse community that welcomed us with open arms from the very beginning.

Through our neighbours, families from our children’s school, our son’s tennis and soccer teams as well as my language school, we were gently guided through the vicissitudes of Spanish life and culture. Many of the people in our neighbourhood are Spaniards married to foreigners so they had an empathetic ear however we also knew several proud Granadino families who go back generations and were excited to share their culture with us.

Although initially there was a lot of hard work for the children and I to improve our Spanish before we could thoroughly enjoy the life in Granada, we knew we were supported by people who were happy to speak to us in English when we really needed it. Through the initial hardships and subsequent rewards and achievements, I can see how our children have grown in confidence and have opened their eyes beyond the world they had known.

Particularly in the last months I derived such pleasure watching our children playing, laughing, taking risks and blabbing away with their friends in fluent Spanish. They have become well versed in European history and have learned so much at school.  I am proud of how they adjusted to and accepted their new environment and culture as if it was a just another usual occurrence. Even when there were sad days not once did either of them say they wanted to go back to Australia. They just accepted this is what we were doing.

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First day of school jitters – Sept 2013

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Last day of school farewells – June 2014

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Last day of school with Josefina, their amazing Spanish teacher – June 2014

And so after a year of new and wondrous experiences, we bid farewell to our second home in Granada to begin the journey back to our other home in Sydney. We have three weeks of adventure and travel remaining before transitioning back to life as we knew it…but will it be the same? or more to the point…are we the same people?

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A family of adventurers

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Leaving Spain as a Spaniard

 

Living on Spanish time

The organisation of time in Spain is a fascinating topic and one that for historical, geographic and political reasons puts Spain on its own unique schedule compared to the rest of the world.

We knew before we came to live here that Spaniards had a unique relationship with time. We have since come to adapt and appreciate it with ease but what surprised us was the reasons behind why Spaniards do everything about two hours later than the rest of the world.

Here’s why: Spain’s clock time is effectively two hours ahead of its natural solar time zone and the reason for this is World War II. Prior to 1940 Western Europe had it’s own time zone (Greenwich mean time) which was one hour behind Central European time. With German occupation of Western Europe and, in the case of Spain, Franco’s allegiance to Germany, the clocks were changed to central European time to align with the German Reich. After the war none of the countries returned to their natural time zone except for Portugal and the UK who remained unoccupied during the war and therefore retained their time zone as they still do today.

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Pre WWII European time zones

Current European time zones

Current European time zones. Look how far west Spain is but still in the same time zone as Poland

It is widely accepted that the relatively late sunrises and sunsets in Spain shift the average Spaniard’s day later than it otherwise would be. In practical terms living two hours outside of solar time means that going to bed at a normal time is hard as it is still light outside. That natural instinct to go home and rest at nightfall does not take place until much later in Spain including in winter when it doesn’t get dark until just before 7pm.

When we arrived in Spain in August 2013 on a flight from Budapest to Malaga, I had my hand poised to change the time on my watch. Surely, a distance of nearly 3,000kms in a Westerly direction required a time change? (I mean, that is the equivalent distance from Sydney to Perth or LA to New York) But no, the clocks remained the same, which meant going to bed 2 hours later on clock time (for me that meant 1am instead of 11pm and 10pm instead of 8pm for the children). As much as we thought we would transition slowly to Spanish time, it happened much faster than we anticipated, as our bodies did not want to be indoors getting ready for bed when the sun was still high in the sky at 9pm.

And where in most places the hottest time of the day would be around 2-3pm, in Spain it is at 4-5pm hence the need for a siesta in Southern Spain. People do not tend to head back out on the street until 8pm for a stroll and a 9pm or 10pm dinner.

Sunset at 9.30pm - time for dinner

Sunset at 9.30pm – time for dinner

We have adjusted well to this lifestyle and revelled in it, well except for the sleep deficit of about 1-2 hours per night that our children have accumulated. Although they don’t fall asleep until it is dark at 10.30pm they still have to be at school at 9am (clock time). They don’t seem too affected by the new routine although I wonder if they may have stunted growth! But it was all worth it!

We hope we can bring some of this new routine back to Australia. I wonder if we may be the last ones at Bondi Beach on summer week nights rather than participate in the communal mad dash home at 7pm. When we would normally get that feeling to head home to start the night routine, we now realise that there is a whole life that can be lived between 7pm and 10pm and the kids can still get up for school the next day. Note to my Sydney friends: who’s up for 9pm tapas on weeknights? You may however need to skip your 6am run!!

While I will be trying to export the Spanish way of time to Australia, it seems there is a movement in Spain pushing to return to its original time zone under the premise of boosting productivity and bringing family and work rhythms into better balance.

In September 2013 the subcommittee tasked with studying the ‘Rationalisation of Hours, the Reconciliation of Personal, Family Life and Professional Life and Responsibility’ made a report to the Spanish Government proposing, among other things, a return to Greenwich Mean Time. The subcommittee considered that this time zone change “would have a favourable effect, allowing more time for family, leisure, and avoiding downtime during the workday.” The proposal was also aimed at improving Spanish labour productivity.

There are many people who are opposed to changes citing that the late sunsets lend themselves to more hours out of the house and in the world with friends and community, something that Spaniards delight in.

After 70 years in this current time zone though, I wonder whether it is possible or necessary to change the Spanish way of life and culture around time. And anyway, most people in the world get upset if you are late but a Spanish friend never finds out if you are late because they are always later than you…

The sun is still high at the beach at 7pm

The sun is still high at the beach at 7pm

 

Living within the walls of history

It was late on Friday night when we arrived at our apartment in the medieval Tuscan town of Lucca after a full day of travel. My son asked: “How come every place we visit, there’s a big wall around it? We live inside the walls of the Albaicin in Granada and every city we’ve stayed in has walls.” He proceeded to list them: “Tallin (Estonia), Cadiz (Spain), Jerusalem (Israel), Lucca (Italy), Marrakech (Morocco).”

How fantastic to travel with children whose view of the world allows one to see through a different prism; a long forgotten world dissolved by the responsibilities of adulthood.

I hadn’t noticed until that moment that all these places where we had been living and visiting bore their histories in the edifices and buildings huddled together within thick, ancient walls. The walls are a reminder of former barbaric times when marauding invaders engaged in power struggles that made and broke empires.

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The wall surrounding the Albaicin, Granada. This is the ancient Arabic quarter

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Outside the walls of Tallinn, Estonia

The stunning city walls of Tallinn, Estonia

The stunning city walls of Tallinn, Estonia

 

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The Jaffa Gate of Jerusalem’s old City wall

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Riding on Lucca’s city walls (Ramparts)

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The outside walls of the Medina, Marrakesh

Lucca huddles within its walls

Lucca huddles within its walls

While the threat of invaders has long passed, these ancient walls continue to influence the way life is lived within them, a lifestyle that is strikingly different from the one I know in the sprawling modern city of Sydney, full of wide open spaces and….horrendous traffic.

Sprawling Sydney 60km long and 60 km wide

Sprawling Sydney 60km long and 60 km wide

The first difference is the use of space. There is little open space within walled cities and houses are crowded together around small squares (plazas). That means that much of life is lived in the intimate spaces of the streets, squares, bars and cafes where people gather. The distances between places are short therefore people walk which means a lot of incidental human contact.

Here in the Albaicin neighbourhood of Granada I constantly bump into my neighbours while going about my day. I often have to factor in more time to get anywhere because of the many conversations that take place along the way. I love this interactivity and vibrancy. People are out and about every day and often in the evenings. In summer it doesn’t get dark until 10.30pm so why not stay out to enjoy the evening. The only element from my Australian life that I do miss is the open spaces, parks, grass and beaches i.e. gathering with people in nature.

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Our house and narrow street huddled within the walls of the Albaicin with the Alhambra in the background

One of the squares near our house where the children sold lemonade to tourists

One of the squares near our house where the children sold lemonade to tourists

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Looking down upon the Albaicin from outside the walls

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Plaza Larga, fruit and veg market by morning and eating and drinking terrace by afternoon

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Mirador de San Nicolas. While awaiting the school pickup at 3:30pm, many parents have beer on the terrace outside the school

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This is how we watch soccer matches in Granada

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A spontaneous gathering of musicians and locals in the square near our house

In Australia, the vast sprawling cities provide large private spaces and gardens for their inhabitants but also mean that most people move around in cars rather than walk. There is far less incidental contact with neighbours and community and often people spend their time in their homes rather than out on the streets or in cafes. The one place where I do experience that convivial community feeling is in the numerous parks and beaches of my neighbourhood in Sydney. In Granada my community centres around urban spaces, while in Sydney it is in nature, particularly on the grassy knoll of North Bondi Beach. North Bondi is a place where we picnic after work in Summer, swim in the ocean and usually bump into our friends and community.

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The grassy knoll of North Bondi Beach for post work dinner picnics in Summer

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Quintessential Sydney, my daughter eating a Golden Gaytime at Shark Beach/Nielsen Park

 

PIcnic blankets, grass and friends

PIcnic blankets, grass and friends

My beach!

My neighbourhood beach!

My second observation is, in Europe people spend time maintaining their history through festivals, food, religious ceremonies, culture and education. It is wonderful to see the knowledge of forebears passed onto subsequent generations. There is a certain pleasure and obligation to remember where people came from by maintaining old practices.

In Spain, I appreciate the way people uphold their history, culture and family heritage because of a sense of duty and appreciation. I particularly like seeing young people fully engaged in this process, thinking about and participating in activities that serve others rather than only themselves. However innovation and creativity can be stifled by the attitude that the ancestors knew everything and therefore their way of doing things must be maintained as it has for generations.

Festivals every other weekend to celebrate a rich history - Las Fallas

Festivals every other weekend to celebrate a rich history – Las Fallas

Semana Santa (Easter Processions), Granada

Semana Santa (Easter Processions), Granada

In Australia, when the British colonised the land of the Aboriginal people and imported migrants (mostly white initially and later on from everywhere) to build a new nation, the view was squarely fixed towards the future. This attitude remains to this day. Migrants from across the world flock to Australia to start over and build a new life. Some want to forget the past while others choose to maintain their heritage privately or in minority community groups. Australian society is a fruit salad of mixed ethnicity and culture with the predominant view towards building future prospects.

Australians seem to be very interested in moving forward and can be quite taken with the latest fads. While I find this leads to innovation and creativity, it can also feed empty consumption, superficiality and a culture of selfishness.

I am privileged to have had the opportunity to experience a different way of living for a year in Spain. Neither way of living is better or worse just different and wonderful in its own way. I do wish though that I could cross-pollinate a little of each experience to the other place. I would love to create some green open spaces in my neighbourhood in Granada and to bring some of the street and café life to my suburb in Sydney. Equally I would love to bring some deep sense of history and duty to Australia and some freedom to break from the past to Spain.

Unwitting pilgrims in an ancient land

When we embarked on our year in Spain, it was always implicit that we would use this opportunity to travel as much as possible around the region. Australia is so far away that it seemed imperative to make the most of our time in the northern hemisphere.

Hence when the Spanish Easter holidays coincided with our close friends’ Pesach holidays in Israel, it was a done deal that we would fly from one end of the Mediterranean Sea to the other, to visit them. What we didn’t realize was that we would unwittingly find ourselves on a pilgrim’s journey along with half of the Christian pilgrims and the Jewish diaspora of the world.

Even before arriving in Israel you get a sense of the place. Party on the plane!

Even before arriving in Israel you get a sense of the place. Party on the plane complete with rapturous applause upon landing!

As a family of atheists with Jewish (me) and Catholic/Lutheran (my husband) heritage, we stumbled naïvely amongst some of the most significant religious sites during one of the most important periods of the religious calendar and as such, we had a crash course in biblical history that I had missed during my hours of non-scripture in the school library. Most importantly though, I learned about what my Jewish ancestors lived through for millennia: slavery, persecution and genocide.

The Seder plate at the centre of Pesach (passover) which commemorates when the Jews escaped slavery under the Pharaohs in Egypt

The Seder plate at the centre of Pesach (Passover) which commemorates the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt under the Pharaohs

My family and I lean more towards geography than history (not that the two are mutually exclusive, it’s just how we roll) so it was with great shame when we arrived at Sermon on the Mount at the Sea of Galillee, that our friend had to explain its historical and religious significance to us. Most of you probably know (unlike us heathens) that it is the place where Jesus gave his most important sermon: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…….. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth etc…

Jesus gives his Sermon on the Mount, Sea of Galilee

Jesus gives his Sermon on the Mount by the Sea of Galillee

The pilgrimage continued when on Good Friday we found ourselves at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the old city of Jerusalem (the place believed to be where Jesus was crucified) surrounded by thousands of Christian pilgrims brandishing wooden replica Christ on the crosses and wearing their religious attire.  Visualize for a moment San Franciscan monks in their robes, Russian Orthodox priests in full regalia and Indian nuns dressed head to toe in white cheesecloth. My kids thought it was one big dress-up party except the mood was somber, not the party vibe associated with dressing up.

Good Friday procession at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem

Good Friday procession at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem

Catholic nuns in prayer facing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City

Catholic nuns in prayer facing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City

That same evening we were invited by a friend to spend Shabbat dinner (Jewish Sabbath) at the house of a religious family in the Jewish quarter of the old city. At sunset, we were taken to the Western Wall (also known as the Kotel or Wailing Wall which is the only remnant of the ancient and holy Temple Mount that was repeatedly destroyed by invaders) before climbing the stairs to a palatial house for an exquisite meal at a table set for 35 friends of friends of friends.  What an experience! Debates about Judaism, what Pesach means, peace and the State of Israel as well as each person introducing themselves and being interviewed by the host.  All this while eating and eating until you can eat no more. The dinner ended at 1:30am by which time our children had fallen asleep in their seats and we had to carry them out of the old city.

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The Western Wall of the Temple Mount (Also known as the Kotel or Wailing Wall)

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Many different religious Jewish groups gather at the wall but all must heed the call of nature

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Shabbat candles on Friday night

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The sacred Muslim Dome on the Rock built on the site of the Jewish Temple Mount. Could this place get any more complex?

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The table is set for a long and fascinating Shabbat dinner (I could only fit half the table in the pic)

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Women gather on one side of the Kotel to pray

The best words to describe Israel for me are: “Intense, vibrant and deep”. It is place in which people like to talk to others intensely and very personally often without even knowing each other beforehand. The streets are vibrant and chaotic and the place oozes history from every pore while bounding head first into the modern world. While I grappled at moments with the affront to my courteous Australian cultural upbringing, the truth is, I can push in and elbow like the best of them and I love to talk to strangers about deep and meaningful things at any time of the day. And when it comes to haggling and bargaining, “Don’t Mess with the Zohan” (reference to a trashy Hollywood/Adam Sandler movie where he plays a rambunctious Israeli). In short, I fitted in well in Israel despite not speaking any Hebrew.

Several people have asked me whether I experienced a spiritual connection to my Jewish heritage while in Israel and at the Kotel (Western Wall).  The truth is I had no spiritual epiphany and I feel no closer to God however I did experience a strong and unexpected cultural bond. Previously I had had little connection to Israel (I am Australian and my parents are from Hungary), and a limited understanding of the years of hardship and persecution Jews have faced for millennia. Having now visited Israel, I realize that its existence means that Jews finally have a place where they feel relatively safe and free. How to make peace though among all the people who also want to live on the land of Israel is the question I wish I could answer. I do hope peace will come to this beautiful region.

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The Dead Sea: the lowest point on Earth at 427 metres below sea level (that’s us in the middle distance)

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Exploring the Wadi Arugot in 40 degree heat

Exploring Ein Gedi desert and the Dead Sea (The lowest point on Earth)

Exploring Ein Gedi desert at Wadi Arugot

As an Australian, having lived most of my life on an enormous island continent with no land borders and the closest neighbouring country 3,000km away, I had a moment of reflection when I found myself in a huge natural bird reserve in the Hula Valley of northern Israel. We were riding bikes at sunset admiring the stunning birdlife while fully aware that Syria was a mere 18kms away to the East and Lebanon only 19kms to the West (that distance would be considered part of the midway suburbs of Sydney!). Knowing that conflict, death and starvation were occurring just ‘over there’ was completely surreal and unnerving. Here we were taking a leisurely bike ride through a bird sanctuary in complete safety. Such are the contradictions and fragility of the region.  But I digress as my intention is not to convey politics of the region other than to acknowledge the tension and suffering that is occurring.

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Riding through the Hula Valley with the Golan Heights in view

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More Hula Valley and Golan Heights

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The stunning Hula bird sanctuary

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Contrary to the media headlines of fighting and tension with its neighbours, Israel felt like one of the safest destinations I have visited. For such a small country, it has an enormous diversity of natural, historical and religious wonders in a mild climate. Israel is also all about food. If you are vegetarian, Israel is the place to be with more hummus, falafels, eggplant, tomatoes, eggs, cheese and kneidl than you could ever imagine. Not to mention the vast variety of salads that are a meal in themselves.

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I had no idea there were so many flavours of halva. Our favourites were coffee and pistachio

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So many vegetables and…gefilte fish of course

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HUMMUS!!

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Our dear friend the pomegranate which in Spanish is “Granada” where we live

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Pesach sweets at the market in Jerusalem

I hope others will venture forth and visit Israel whether you are Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, atheist, Taoist, Muslim or other. Israel is a wonderful and contradictory place that is more than the conflict and fundamentalist religion portrayed in the media. If you do go one day I may just see you there as I hope to return many times in my life.

Until next time!

 

So close and a world away: Morocco

Such a short distance across the Straits of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco and yet they are a world apart. This is the wonder of travel in these parts, a short boat ride delivers one to a completely different culture, language, geography, religion… in short, a completely new and exotic world!

The word exotic has traditionally been attached to colourful things: among them, to snake charmers, harems, minarets, camels, souks and mint tea poured from a great height into a tray of small glasses by a mustachioed servant.”                                                                     I can only imagine that Alain de Botton, in The Art of Travel, was describing Morocco.

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It was our friend in Granada who said it would be sacrilege to spend a year in Granada and not visit Morocco. I said I completely understood but insisted that our travel schedule and budget were nearly maxed out. She proceeded to find us €23 flights from Seville to Marrakech and a cheap and charming Riad in which to stay while insisting there would be no problem to take the children out of school for a week. Armed with this information I pitched the idea of this irresistible and affordable experience to the other decision maker in the family.

And so it was on a clear night, under a full moon in mid March, that we stepped off the plane at Marrakech airport. Within minutes we were walking through the medina and the famous Place Jemaa el Fna at rush hour. With our suitcases in tow, we pushed through the throng of people, crowds encircling snake charmers, monkey handlers, freshly squeezed orange juice stands, food stalls and souks. Our senses were alert in awe of the spectacle, colour and noise.

La Place Jemaa el Fna

La Place Jemaa el Fna

Arriving in Marrakech, The Medina

Arriving in Marrakech, The Medina

We were told so many different stories about Morocco, we really didn’t know what to expect. What we found was a beautiful and varied landscape of green rolling hills in the north, high snowcapped mountains in the middle, desert in the south and gorgeous beaches along the coast. Inhabiting these landscapes were warm, friendly people who often wanted to insert themselves into our space, share some information, ask a question, help us find our way (usually for a donation) or sell us something. We never felt in danger or lonely for that matter and I particularly enjoyed the constant banter, bargaining and conversation in French (my Arabic is nonexistent).

Many people find the constant solicitation difficult but for me the interactions were often fascinating and I tried to maintain a sense of humour when declining offers or bargaining for goods and services. It wasn’t too different from my own family upbringing where everyone meddles in each others’ affairs and talks over each other. I was well prepared and often revelled in the constant negotiation.

Morocco is a visual place so I have decided to create a photographic essay of our trip rather than attempt to describe everything in words. I hope you enjoy it!

MARRAKECH (to enlarge the smaller images, click on one and scroll through the gallery)

Families take a Sunday stroll or picnic in Menara Park

Families take a Sunday stroll or picnic in Menara Park

Three generations feeding the fish in Menara Park

Three generations feeding the fish in Menara Park

Camels and a tagine cooking lunch by the road

Camels and a tagine cooking lunch by the road

THE ATLAS MOUNTAINS  (to enlarge the smaller images, click on one and scroll through the gallery)

Driving over the Atlas Mountains from Agadir to Asni was one of the highlights of the trip. Although the road took extreme concentration and much effort to avoid car sickness due to the tight curves and incredible switchbacks, the views and landscape were breathtaking. We climbed from sea level up to 2,100m at Tiz n’ Nest pass and then back down the other side towards Ourigane and Asni. There are very tight sections of the road squashed between rock faces and sheer drops and many with no barriers – nail biting driving. After spending a night in a gorgeous hotel in an olive grove, we drove into the Toubkal valley to go trekking in the snow capped mountains. The Berber people who live in this mountainous region are generous, kind and the most amazing cooks. We ate the best food here.

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Driving over the Atlas mountains

Tea at Tiz n' Nest (2,100m) crossing the Atlas Mountains

Tea at Tiz n’ Nest (2,100m) crossing the Atlas Mountains

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Valley of Toubkal, highest peak in Morocco (4,167 m)

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Driving towards Asni

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Our daughter the lone rider on a mule heading towards Mt Toubkal

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Heading back down the mountain

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Beautiful Imlil

Wares for sale in the mountain villages

Wares for sale in the mountain villages

AGADIR (Atlantic Coast) 

This section of the trip was planned to allow the children some down time by the beach and pool. We were blessed with warm weather and the kids ran around barefoot and swam most of the time, taking time out only to ride bikes along the 10km beach promenade or to eat. Hubby and I were happy that the children were content but we struggled with the ‘resort’ thing. We were surrounded by hundreds of Northern European sun-seeking retirees and needless to say, there were very few people in our demographic. Agadir is very lovely for its natural beauty although the town has no historic centre owing to an earthquake in the 1960s that required the whole city to be rebuilt.

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Ahhh, the ocean! Arriving at the beach in Agadir

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Bare feet on the ground, just like home

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A fork in the road

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Some pool pleasure for the kids

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Surrounded by Northern European sun-seeking retirees who dress alike

The trip home – over land and sea

After missing our flight home from Marrakech to Seville, our only option was to return by train, ferry and train. It was an exciting 24 hour adventure that we wouldn’t have experienced had we not missed our flight. We departed Marrakech at 9pm on the overnight train to Tangier, followed by a ferry to Algeciras and another train, arriving in Granada exactly 24 hours after we left Marrakech. Here is the journey in photos.

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All aboard! The overnight train to Tangiers pulls out of Marrakech station

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First time in a couchette for the kids- lots of giggles and excitement

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Breakfast at Tangiers train station – coffee, pastries and last banana smoothies

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Good morning luscious green Tangier

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Green rolling hills and Spring blooms in Tangiers

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Grand taxi to the Tangiers Med Port – 40kms along a scenic coastal road

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Farewell Morocco

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The ferry crossing from Tangiers, Morocco to Algeciras in Spain

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In the short time we spent in Morocco, I observed people living in relative peace and freedom – an achievement for a country that only gained autonomy and independence from its French colonisers in 1956.

These are only surface observations of course. I observed several contradictions too with extreme displays of wealth next to poverty, and women in modern dress and towering heels standing next to women wearing a hijab or burqa. Although outside of the big cities, the streets and cafes are dominated by men, there were many modern twists to life in Marrakech where a middle class was evident.

I highly recommend a visit to Morocco for anyone who finds themselves in Southern Spain. The boat trip across the Straits of Gibraltar is not only scenic but an ancient route travelled by numerous past civilisations. Morocco is yet another destination in which I would love to spend more time to better understand its culture, history and people. Until then, we are back in Granada living “Our year in Spain”.

My love affair with tapas in Spain

I had read a lot about the ‘free’ tapas in Granada before we arrived but didn’t think much about it other than it might be a nice garnish (pun intended) to our experience. Now that I am here, I have become enamored of, perhaps even addicted to, the ritual of going for tapas.

Having a drink and a tapa is a social event and one can either stay at the same place ordering several rounds of drinks and tapas or move from place to place to try the different offerings.

For me there are two times of the day I like to ‘tapear’: In the late afternoon to tied me over until dinner, which is rarely eaten before 9pm or alternatively, in the evening as a kind of light dinner. The main meal of the day is eaten at lunchtime (2.30pm).

So what’s involved?

While partaking in a tapa or two on a daily basis, what I have learned about this highly valued custom is:

  • A tapa (singular) or tapas (plural) will accompany any drink order (except coffees or hot chocolate) from 12pm until late.
  • The tapa is free of charge with any purchased drink
  • Each subsequent drink you order will be accompanied by a different tapa and you will never be served the same tapa twice.
  • You can often hear the waiters telling the kitchen “first tapa” or “second or third” and the cook knows to make a different tapa.
  • The tapa changes every day in each bar or café.
  • Many bars pride themselves on their new invented tapas while others just do the same standard fare of potatoes and bread.
  • If you are a group that orders several drinks then you will often be presented with a share platter and several small forks around the plate
  • The Spanish language has its own verb for having tapas: ‘TAPEAR’.
  • Granada is the last place in Spain, I am told, to serve FREE tapas with a drink.
  • You do not have to drink alcohol to get a tapa. Our kids also receive a tapa with their apple juice.

So what exactly is a tapa?

It is a small portion or taster of a meal, often cooked but not always. Here are some visual examples of tapas I have eaten in Granada:

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Fish stew on potatoes

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Patatas a la pobre – a typical dish from Granada

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Tortilla de patatas

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Typical Granadino bean stew

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Paella shared tapa plus a tabla of cured meats and cheese (ordered in addition to the tapa)

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A ración of albondigas, patatas a la pobre and gazpacho

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A platter of tapas

The result of my affinity for tapas is that I no longer buy unhealthy snacks on the street like a packet of chips (crisps) or a bread roll as I can sit down in a bar and have a cooked snack made for me. On the negative but also fun side: I am drinking far more beer and wine than ever before. I pretty much have at least one ‘caña’ of beer or ‘copa de vino’ every day.

I will very much miss this Spanish custom when I return home. With a glass of wine accompanied by…zilch costing $10 in Sydney, I could run out of cash pretty quickly if I tried to import my Spanish lifestyle.

My dad recounted a funny (in a dark sort of way) story to me about his return to Sydney after spending a month with us in Granada. He went for a drink with his tennis buddies at the local bowling club and rather than take his wallet, he put $5 in his pocket thinking it would buy a couple of beers just like in Spain. After ordering a beer, the bar tender said: “That’ll be $7 please”, at which point my dad, red faced, had to borrow money from his mates. He said he didn’t venture out again for two weeks after that as he was shocked by the cost of things in Sydney.

Needless to say, I think we will be eating at home quite a lot when we return to Sydney, particularly as I just read a survey released this month that ranked Sydney as the 5th most expensive city in the world. It’s certainly no longer the ‘Banana republic’ I grew up in with its laid-back lifestyle and struggling economy. For now though, I might just meditate on that thought over a tapa at my local bar in Granada…while I can!!

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This is a pintxo bar in Barcelona not to be confused with Tapas. You choose your snacks on a stick (€1 each)

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A tapas dinner in Càdiz, different again from Granada (battered fried cheese, roasted vegetables and can’t remember the other one)

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A scenic place for a tapa at the beach in Barcelona

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Even the Japanese restaurant in Granada provides free sushi tapas with drinks

Reflecting on 8 months in Spain

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One of the character-filled caves in the Sacromonte – where gypsies reside and flamenco abounds

Every journey has its requisite ebbs and flows, ups and downs and in-betweens. I think that is why travel makes me feel so alive. As one tests oneself against new and changing situations, drifting is not an option. Being permanently awake to the new, while exciting, can also be overwhelming at times.

My family and I are eight months into Our Year in Spain and seriously bunkered down into winter hibernation.  The excitement of arrival, discovering a new city, language and culture has settled into a daily rhythm and as the novelty dissolves, real life begins…

Diving head first into the frivolity and excitement of Autumn in Granada followed by a beautifully refreshing Christmas in the mountains of Switzerland, we returned to Granada and suddenly it was 2014.

2014

The New Year brought with it the psychological weight of our departure THIS year, in addition to launching us into the thick of a European winter. Even in Southern Spain where the sun has the power to warm you, there is no escaping the cold and worst of all….WET winter.  Granada, a usually vibrant and eclectic city, retreated from the cold and rain. The plazas I came to know full of tapas eating, beer swilling, loudly chatting people, became deserted with the first drops of rain. The lively city bunkered down waiting for winter to pass.

The entrance to Plaza Larga deserted on a rainy day

The entrance to Plaza Larga deserted on a rainy day

Rainy plaza in Cadiz

Rainy plaza in Cadiz

The winter has provided some time for reflection and it has been fascinating to watch how each of our four individual journeys, while bonded together as a family, has differed. Each of us has had our exciting highs and our individual struggles.

My journey so far

For me, the initial excitement of learning a new language was tempered by the enormous frustration of not being able to participate fully in the language. The comfort and laughter I experience with the women in my English-speaking book club here in Granada just highlighted the frustration I often experience in other situations when I am the only one who isn’t in on a Spanish joke or can’t follow a conversation. I can see the patience tested of the people I am talking to as I clumsily construct a sentence translated from English that probably means something completely different in Spanish. It is equally depressing and exciting that my 9-year-old son now corrects my Spanish. I wondered at what point my children’s Spanish would overtake mine and it appears we are there. Since I completed my language course in November I have observed my Spanish stagnate, meanwhile our children, who are immersed in Spanish at school 5 days a week, continue to build their skills.

Although it took a good 6 months to happen, I recently began to miss my work and structured life in Australia. On the other hand, the nice part about having time is that I can say ‘yes’ to new experiences and explore what is on offer rather than having my time perpetually assigned to prior commitments.

For example, we have become groupies to the numerous musician friends we have made in the Albaicin.  We have been fortunate to attend several exquisite concerts of the Granada City Orchestra as well as performances of our friends’ band called The Mahoney Sisters. Other Granada offerings include contemporary theatre productions at the Teatro Alhambra, cabaret shows, a Tango festival, Flamenco shows, Retroback film festival and more.

Thanks also to the school hiking group and our friends in the Albaicin, we have experienced numerous beautiful hikes to Granada’s surrounding mountains, valleys and rivers. And due to the successful football card bribery scheme, our son has begun to enjoy these hikes.

He made it to the summit of the Cruz de Viznar walk

He made it to the summit of the Cruz de Viznar walk

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From every angle, the towering Sierra Nevada mountains are stunning

Spontaneity has been another benefit of this year. Yesterday when we awoke to a bright sunny, wind-free day, my husband and I decided to drive to the Sierra Nevada ski fields (only a 30 minute drive from Granada) where we had our first ski date as the kids were at school. It was quite a thrill to be able to do this.

Skiing in the Sierra Nevada

Skiing on top of the Sierra Nevada mountains that we usually view from Granada

My husband’s journey

I won’t presume to describe my husband’s experience but I will say that I can tell he is more relaxed not having to commute to work in an office five days a week. Here he has alternated between working remotely back to Australia and being on his long service or annual leave. Working remotely does have some challenges when the time difference between Sydney and Spain is 10 hours (essentially day and night). This week he has had a work call every night and rarely earlier than midnight. It does mean that he suffers from jetlag, or ‘work lag’ as we call it, but it is only temporary and in a few weeks he will be back on holidays!  He has also become a dedicated soccer and tennis dad; transporting our son to all corners of Granada and Andalucía for his soccer and tennis competitions.

Exploring the amazing Nerja Caves

Exploring the amazing Nerja Caves

Our son’s journey

Our highly competitive son is in sport heaven here, not only joining the local football (soccer) club and playing in a team with boys from his school, he loves to watch his football heroes playing in the Spanish league. And I haven’t even mentioned the obsession with soccer card collecting and swapping.  In addition, he made the local tennis team (consisting of five boys his own age) and travels around Andalucía on weekends with his team to represent Granada province. In April his team will play in the semi finals in Seville.

Initially when we arrived, being the new kid and not understanding the culture or language, he had some social issues at school, which was a low point, however it has settled down now and I am hoping he has gained some emotional intelligence and resilience in the process. Through school and all his involvement in sport, he has picked up Spanish quickly and he confidently chats away and completes all his schoolwork. I love all the Spanish expressions he has picked up like ‘olé’ when expressing a win.  Just this week he admitted that he likes school here a bit more than Australia because he can play soccer (with real goals and soccer balls) in the playground as well as ping-pong and they have more PE classes and language classes than at home. I think it also helps that he only has 14 kids in his class and a great teacher.

Playing with his soccer team Rayo Eneas

My son playing with his soccer team Rayo Eneas

tennis team

The Real Sociedad de Tenis, Granada 9 Year Old team

pingpong at school

Playing Pingpong in the school playground

Aventura Amazonia

Climbing trees at Aventura Amazonia

Our daughter’s journey

Our daughter has had a harder time learning Spanish although she is still doing well. She has 25 children in her class and has found the noise and chaos a bit daunting.  She is a happy-go-lucky kid and gets on well with everyone but does not have such specific interests as our son so is slightly on the outer. She is quite observant and blows us away with her insights of life here, as well as her strong sense of self in the face of a completely new culture.  I can see how she enjoys the amount of quality time she spends with us here and has benefitted from having us more present to her than we are in Australia where we are pulled in a dozen directions each day.

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Jumping for the joy of the sun and the sea

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A little snow bunny on her speedy toboggan

Each one of us has grown and responded differently in our new environment with the result being that after eight months, we are definitely relaxing into the life more. It is a shame that it takes nearly a year to understand a place by which time we have to leave.

Spain really is a most beautiful country and continues to dazzle us with her beauty, warmth of spirit and diversity. Below are some photos of our recent trip to Cabo de Gata in Almeria which is a desert park with undulating hills that plunge into the Mediterranean Sea.

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Sunset in Rodalquilar

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Le Ermita Beach, Almeria

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