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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What I have learned from travelling with children

My husband and I have both travelled a lot, separately and together, but this is the first time we have travelled extensively as a family of four. We are eight months into a year away with our children who are aged 9 and 7 years and we are discovering first-hand the vast differences to our former solo travels.

Family travel is both joyful and intense

Here is what we have learned so far from eight months living and travelling abroad:

 No homesickness but serious logistics

Having your nearest and dearest by your side means that the homesickness of previous solo trips is virtually nonexistent however the decision making, logistics and compromise is enormous. Meeting the needs and fulfilling the desires of four very different individuals can be hard going.

Our solution, which is still a work in progress, has been to identify each person’s interests and take turns participating in each other’s preferred activities. Making a family agreement to do this helps but it continues to be a juggle to decide which activities we can do and when.

For example, our son has very little interest in wandering and exploring new places. He also despises hiking in nature, preferring structured activities like sport, games and school (I’m not complaining about the fact that he loves school!).  I, on the other hand, love hiking in the mountains and exploring new places on foot. When planning trips, we have to factor in different interests and make an agreement to compromise, trying not to spoil each other’s favourite activities. When that fails, we are not averse to using bribery! Packets of Spanish league soccer cards work wonders with our son and promises of sushi are our daughter’s currency.

We’ve realized that for every confined and controlled adult space we take the kids – like a museum, church or café – the kids need some time to let loose and play in an open space.

Something for me - ancient Phoenician sarcophagi from 470 BC found in Cadiz (that's 2,484 years old!!!)

Something for me – ancient Phoenician sarcophagi from 470 BC in Cadiz (that’s 2,484 years old!!!)

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Something fun for them: tobogganing in the snow

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Our daughter’s choice of fun

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Any kind of ball sport makes this 9 year old boy happy

Some form of play each day is essential for happy kids

Some form of play each day is essential for harmonious family travel

Next month we will go to Morocco and I have had to carefully plan our time to accommodate the needs of four people. We have struck a deal with our children that if they spend three days wandering and exploring the vibrant and crazy city of Marrakesh without complaint, we will reward them with three days at the beach in Agadir where they can swim, run on the beach, play ball games and possibly meet kids their own age. Once they have had their fill of play, we will take them trekking to the Berber villages in the Atlas Mountains.  By sandwiching their reward in the middle of the trip, we are hoping they will participate willingly in the things we want to do. We have clearly explained that not all the trip will be their kind of fun but that they have to compromise, just as we are compromising by staying in a large, impersonal beach resort.

Marrakech market square

Marrakesh market square

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Beach time after museum time

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Skiing was one of the activities where all four of us were happy at the same time

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Tobogganing was a much needed release for all

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Finally we found a picnic spot in Granada where we live – grass is hard to find in these parts

Trains (never), planes (sometimes) and automobiles (always)

Naively, I thought we could do as many exciting things as in previous trips however the reality is you either have to double your budget or halve the things you can do. Paying for four of everything rather than just two has an enormous impact on what we can afford to do but it also varies depending on the country. In Scandinavia for example, children travel at a discount or for free and enter museums for free however in Spain where we live, there are few discounts for children. So despite dreaming of train travel as a family, it has not been viable and we are yet to take a romantic train journey anywhere in Europe. Instead we have rented cars or opted for budget airlines like Easyjet, Vueling and Ryanair to move around. For four, renting a car or flying has been more affordable than the train or even a bus for that matter. It is a great pity that the cleanest form of transport for the environment is the most expensive for a family.

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Our trusty, reliable driver

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Viewing the world form the car instead of the train as we thought

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The Spanish road signs are unusual

Hotels are out, airbnb apartments are in…

Our kids have begged us to stay in a hotel – “Just once?” they say, “so we can try the buffet breakfast!”. But we can’t justify spending double for a 25m room with four beds squashed in, when airbnb has a smorgasbord (excuse the pun) of gorgeous apartments and houses for half the price and triple the space… with all the comforts of a home.

We have had the most wonderful experiences with airbnb: generous hosts, gorgeous places and brilliant tips on what to see and where to eat. I can’t even imagine how we would have done this trip prior to airbnb. I guess we would have done far fewer trips. So far we have had amazing airbnb experiences in Paris, Tallinn (Estonia), Montana-Crans (Switzerland), Ronda, Almeria, Cadiz and we have already booked further airbnb places in Seville (Spain), Marrakech (Morocco), Lucca and Rome (Italy), Jerusalem (Israel), Tarifa (Spain) and Lisbon (Portugal). The hosts vary depending on whether they usually live in the apartment or run it as a business. So far some of our generous hosts have provided food, ski equipment, ski clothes, advice on the best places to visit or eat and more…The links above are to all the places we have stayed or will stay!

Food sherpers

With four people, hunger can strike at any moment, and that can ruin even the most significant and scenic places. It’s not just the kids who get grumpy when they are hungry; I am prone to say some nasty things when I am hungry followed by profuse apologies after I have had my fill.

All too often I have had to utter these words

All too often I have had to utter these words

When it comes to snacks though, we are becoming a well-oiled machine out of necessity. We are now experts at carrying snacks EVERYWHERE and we rarely leave home without a cucumber, capsicum, banana, apple and salty crackers in our bag. The Swiss army knife has also been brilliant provided we remember not to take it on aeroplanes.

Personally packed snack bags for the kids and their friends

Personally packed snack bags for the kids and their friends

Eating out has been harder since one member of our family is an extremely fussy eater. Great debates ensue when deciding what to eat. Sometimes we divide and conquer with the girls opting for some adventurous eating while the boys go for simpler foods like pizza or toasted sandwiches. Yesterday in Cadiz, the girls went to a funky tapas bar called La Candela to eat this:

Pulpo

The girls opt for pulpo (octopus)

La Candela Tapas Bar in Cadiz

La Candela Tapas Bar in Cadiz

Meanwhile the boys went to a bakery for toasted sandwiches and soup.

Boys opt for sandwiches and soup in Cadiz

Boys opt for sandwiches and soup in Cadiz

Ipads and ipods for long trips ONLY, after that they are put away

We’ve learnt that  i-devices are wonderful to keep children occupied for long journeys where there is not much to see from the window (like 24 hours in a plane from Australia to Europe). However if we allow them to enter our daily life beyond the planes and car rides, we risk missing our children and our children missing the incredible experiences right in front of them. So, with agreement from the children, they are only permitted to use their i-devices on long journeys after which they are hidden far from temptation. This has made a significant difference to the quality of our interactions as well as the experiences and memories of the places we have visited.

Like most things in life, there is a bitter sweetness to travelling as a family. The sheer joy of sharing these adventures with the ones you love exists alongside the strain of sibling rivalry and fulfilling the disparate desires of four individuals. Ultimately though, we will prevail with fond memories, a few scars and many fabulous stories to tell.

The best way to learn Spanish (in Andalucía)

It is strange that I harbor such a passion for foreign languages when I hail from the monolingual country and continent of Australia. What I love about learning languages is not the theory and grammar but the revealing of a culture, its history and a new way of being. The truth is I have no real practical use for the languages I speak other than my love of immersing myself and participating in new cultures and places. In Europe I regularly meet people who speak at least two or three languages and use them on a daily basis in work and life and I am often envious of them.

So here I am in Andalucía investing a year of my life in the Spanish language and culture. It’s the third gap year I have taken (the first one was as a sixteen year old exchange student to a small town in the French part of Switzerland) but it is the first time I have done it with my husband and two children joining me for the ride of a lifetime. The children have little choice since they were born into a family legacy of exploring other cultures – they have three nationalities/passports each.

I recently completed a 10-week intensive Spanish course at Castila International Language School, a school conveniently located in a beautiful old Carmen in the lower Albaicin of Granada, 150 metres from my rented home. I chose this school out of the many here in Granada as it seemed to have more character and personal engagement than the others and it promised small class sizes for optimal learning.

Entrance to Castila

Entrance to Castila

I enrolled into the course with some trepidation as I wondered whether I would be the oldest in the class; whether the rest of the class would be out all night while I was rushing home to look after my children and whether I would have anything in common with a group of twenty year olds, five days a week for ten weeks. You see Granada is well known for its university students who swell the population by 80,000 during semester time and party like it’s 1999 (no actually that was me partying in 1999, they were too young).

To my surprise and good fortune, when I arrived at Castila in September, my fellow students were a fascinating bunch from around the world, evenly spread from 18 through to 70 years of age; something that I later learned was quite usual at this school. What a wonderful and eclectic mix of people. I became friends with two fellow students, a Canadian man and an Australian woman both in their sixties who had lived full and interesting lives and were continuing in the same vein. We shared some great stories and experiences over copas de vino, exploring Granada and studying Spanish of course!

While studying at Castila, my Spanish advanced in leaps and bounds and by the second month I was privileged to join the advanced group. I say privileged because the advanced group’s classroom is on the top floor of the school that boasts panoramic views of the Alhambra, the Sierra Nevada mountains and pretty much all of Granada. It must be how the school motivates its students to study harder by working your way towards the room with a view. Sometimes the beauty outside the window would distract me, but usually only when we were learning the subjunctive tense; a grammatical tense invented to torture English speakers.

Part of the view from my classroom

Part of the view from my classroom

I thoroughly enjoyed the teaching approach at the school with the very friendly and personal touch of the teachers. Each day we would have four lessons with four different teachers. Each teacher would bring their unique energy, personality and knowledge of particular topics. The mix was brilliant for me and while I tried to be interested in the grammar lessons, it was the vast amount of cultural, historical and political knowledge the teachers imparted that kept me engaged and excited about learning every day.

Getting out of bed in the mornings and arriving to class on time proved challenging for me especially after a typical night out in Granada and the compulsory morning ritual of ‘cafe con leche‘ and ‘media tostada de salmon ahumado‘ at our wonderful local cafe ‘Cafe 4 Gatos‘, but the teachers never berated me for being consistently late to class. They graciously welcomed me without comment and every now and again would remind us that each one of us was in charge of our own learning. Fine with me!

Best cafe in our area '4 Gatos'

Best cafe in our area ’4 Gatos’ and part of the reason for my poor punctuality in class

In addition to class time, there were voluntary activities organised every afternoon and on the weekends. These activities ranged from paella feasts, wine tasting, visits to the Alhambra and other cultural sites of interest, and excursions to the surrounding mountains.

A paella feast cooked by Antonio at my language school, Castila in the Albaicin

A paella feast cooked by Antonio, one of the teachers at Castila language school

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Sangria, salad and paella. You don’t get more Spanish than that!

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Students of all ages from all over gathering for the paella lunch at Castila

I feel compelled to tell you a little about each of my teachers as they were so unique and brought something different to my learning:

Miguel shared his extensive knowledge of all things Arabic and engaged us in the elaborate Moorish history of Granada and Spain. We went on several excursions with Miguel to the Alhambra Palace, Arabic Studies Centre and the ancient Arabic baths and I believe we learned more from him than a tour guide could have imparted. He was also the most structured of the teachers, ensuring we didn’t get so carried away talking about current topics that we missed essential grammar.

Rafa is a very friendly teacher with an excellent sense of humour and keeps you learning and laughing at the same time. I am not sure what it is about him but many of the women who were in my class over the 10 weeks consistently flirted and swooned in his presence. Some people just have that effect on others I guess!

Antonio con gafas talks a hundred miles an hour and is passionate about current affairs and politics. At first we all struggled to keep up with his rapidfire Andalucian accent but after a while I began to understand and thoroughly enjoyed our political debates about the economic crisis, the release of the ETA terrorists and bullfighting among many other topics. I attribute my knowledge of Spanish current affairs to Antonio con gafas!

Antonio sin gafas is generous in sharing his ideas about economics and day-to-day life in Spain. He can explain much about the changes in Spanish society over the years and he has a passion for making wine on his farm. We visited his farm one day to pick and juice grapes for his wine production. We had a traditional feast while also learning about the winemaking process. I probably shouldn’t admit to this here but in my class we used to see if we could get Antonio off track and talking about a topic other than grammar. We did this very successfully most days which was fun because he had a lot to say on many topics!

Paz is a gorgeous and passionate woman who can teach you anything you want to know about Spanish literature and history, which she studied at university. She taught us about the most important Spanish writers, poets and singer songwriters. I discovered quite a bit of music through her and am grateful for that.

All the knowledge accumulated over 10 weeks at Castila now informs how I observe and understand Spanish life here in Granada. Overall I definitely learnt more than a language and I would highly recommend the school to anyone wanting to come to Spain to learn the Spanish language and culture.

A different Perspective…from my ivory tower in Granada

After the whirlwind of settling into a new continent, country, city, suburb and community, I have finally had some time to connect with family and friends back home in Australia.  I have had half a dozen long Skype conversations with my tribe and the differences between my new life here in Granada and the one I left in Sydney are becoming starkly apparent…many of my friends are so very busy, stressed and overwhelmed.

Why? What is causing all this stress? Is it the fact that we are at peak responsibility in life? With most of my friends in or nearing their forties, does stress naturally come with the territory of financial security, caring for children, ageing parents, career, owning a business and self fulfilment?  Or is it environmental, caused by the pressure of city living?

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A Sydney friend recently recounted the story of her attempt to fulfil a simple task: buying some bread on the way home. The multiple obstacles encountered for such a simple task made me want to curl up in foetal position. With her three kids in the car, she recounted the tale of traffic, no parking, road rage, frantically searching for coins to put in the parking metre and once a spot was actually found, the queues at the supermarket check out and rushing back to the car before the metre ran out. Meanwhile let’s not even mention what the kids were were up to in the back of the car.

If such simple life tasks require that level of mental, physical and emotional effort, what is the accumulated effect on our nervous systems, and that of our children who are absorbing it all?

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From the ivory tower (literally – well it is actually white lime wash) of my rented house in the Albaicin, Granada, I am hearing my friends candidly sharing stories of their exciting and exhausting city lives. From this distance, and with my adrenals fully rested, I am seeing my home from a different perspective.

My family and I have chosen to take a year off from the rigours of big city living and I am experiencing a joy of life that still contains responsibilities but without all the incidental stresses of crowds, traffic, road rage, parking metres and comparisons of haves and have-nots.  In this new Spanish existence, I am unfolding with life rather than forcing, pushing and shoving my way through.

Trying to get our friends here to commit to a plan even a week ahead is nigh impossible, because Spaniards like to go with the flow and “wait and see” how they feel or what else may arise in the meantime. At first this was frustrating for a planner like me but now I am slowly relaxing and trusting that life will be fine without plans. And it usually is, as you just never know where you might find yourself.

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A spontaneous trip to a cortijo for a feast

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A sunset drink on a friend’s roof terrace after bumping into them on the street

Most of us in Australia have 4 weeks a year for holidays to rest and recuperate so the idea of taking a whole year away from the life we know seemed extreme. I thought I might get bored, I wondered how I would fill my time, what would I do if I wasn’t progressing in my profession or contributing to our future financial wellbeing.  These are all real concerns but for now I choose not to worry about them as I see, hear, taste, smell and touch all the new wonders of this life in Granada, Spain.

Of course our life here is not all roses. We have our worries about finances, about how the children are adapting to school and life, and we dearly miss parks with grass for some much needed “earthing”. However, I can’t say that I am stressed as such. For the first time in a very long time, I actually have space and time. Time to talk to my neighbours and have a coffee in my neighbourhood café, time to create fun family excursions on the weekends, to be creative, to read, write and explore my new city of Granada.

I will worry about “real life” when I return to Australia, because for now I have too many wonderful new things to experience, to test myself against, and two children to support through the trials and joys of their Spanish adventure.

……

The trigger thin line upon which so many people precariously live in the big cities of the world is remarkable and I imagine will have long-term implications for us, and the next generation. I am not saying that big city life is all negative. Frankly, the exciting opportunities that exist in cities are unparalleled but how does one remove oneself to rest every once in a while for more than the 4 designated holiday weeks?

I still recall the last work trip I made before moving to Spain. I was stuck for an hour in a plane waiting to take off from Melbourne airport while a large thunderstorm passed overhead. For the man sitting next to me, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back after what must have been a big week of work. Understandably he was keen to return home to his infant son, but nature had other plans and this man proceeded to ‘LOSE IT’! The man, who was wearing a smart business suit, began loudly abusing the Qantas airhostess for their tardiness and for preventing him getting home to his son.

The situation symbolized so much to me: people living too close to their limit within a tightly controlled environment that if anything slightly alters from their expectations, they completely lose it. I remember feeling incredulous that this man was taking out his frustration on someone who had no control over the situation, yet I also had compassion for that man who clearly had a lot going on in his life.

I made a mental note to myself that I never wanted to live that close to my stress threshold. Perhaps, from some perspectives that means not “getting ahead” in life or “challenging” myself but at least it is an active choice on my part to live that way.

The only thing I am trying to say in all of this is, if you have choices (as many of us do in the developed world), go exercise those choices in the most authentic way that affirms a healthy, meaningful and compassionate life.

‘Our Year in Spain’ is an expression of living a different choice, of creating an opportunity that was important to my husband and me. I am very proud that we managed to pull off this feat without damaging (that we know of thus far) our children or bankrupting ourselves in the process.  So far we have only gained from this experience – a new perspective, a new language, friends, knowledge and understanding.

Whatever the dream is for you, use your mighty brain and resources to find a way to do it.

Southern Spain Does Have a Winter

When we were researching where we would live in Spain for a year, climate played a large part in our decision which is why we chose to live in Southern Spain. And although coastal Spain would have been the most suitable climate befitting a ‘soft’ Australian, we couldn’t see ourselves amongst the sun-seekers and retirees who flock to coastal Spain. So we settled on Granada, attracted to a small city that punches above its weight in terms of history, culture, diversity, natural beauty and education. Once the decision was made, we carefully monitored from Australia the temperatures during the Granada winter. In January 2013, lulled by a balmy summer in Sydney, I foolishly declared that as long as the temperatures generally stay above zero degrees celcius, all would be well. We could handle that couldn’t we? I mean, my husband spent three years living in Finland in arctic conditions so I could manage zero couldn’t I?

It is 30th November. Winter will officially commence tomorrow and yet I am already beyond my comfort levels. Once the sun sets, the temperatures here plummet to 3 degrees and I can be heard repeatedly complaining about how cold I am. I have virtually boycotted getting out of bed in the morning as it is just too cold. Surely there would be appropriate heating in this climate. Well, let me explain…

We live in a UNESCO listed heritage area called the Albaicin, the oldest part of which dates back to the 11th Century ie. 1000 years ago! What that means in practical terms is that the stone and limewash houses are cold and difficult to heat, especially as solar panels are not permitted and natural gas is not available. We do have a wonderful wood burning stove that keeps us warm in one part of our home in the evenings but the mornings are torturously cold. I really don’t mean to be a whiner, I am just not accustomed to the cold. I recall driving to the Blue Mountains (just outside Sydney) on a Winter’s day and how excited we all were when the ‘outside temperature’ reading in the car went below 10 degrees. That just seems ridiculous now as I walk my kids to school in 2 degrees.

So beside being cold and having astronomical electricity bills to pay, there are some beautiful aspects to living in the mountains of southern Spain…

First Snowfall

At my language school (Castila), my classroom has a view of the Alhambra Palace with the Sierra Nevada mountains as the backdrop. Each day in October I would ask my teachers when they thought the first snow would arrive on the mountains (the highest peak of the Sierra Nevada is Mulhacen at 3,478 metres in altitude). We decided to have a bet in the class to see who could guess the day of the first snowfall. My teacher guessed 12th November, another student the 10th December and I decided that I wanted it to snow on my birthday – 14th November. Since I always celebrate my birthday in the warmth of an Australian Spring, it seemed significant for the first snow to fall on my birthday. And what do you know? This is what we woke up to!

Last Monday we ran out of kindling for the fire stove that we use to keep warm in our downstairs living area. We still had our rental car from the weekend so, after dropping the kids to school, my husband suggested we drive up to Alfaguara Natural Park in the nearby mountains to collect pinecones for kindling. As we ascended the mountain, the temperature gauge dropped to 5 degrees, then 3 and finally 0 degrees Celsius. The car kept flashing the temperature and beeping at us warning of possible ice on the road. When we arrived at the pine forest at about 1,300 metres altitude, there was fresh snow everywhere. We began our walk through the forest with the snow creating a muted and peaceful atmosphere. We were alone in the fresh powder with animal footprints the only sign of life. As the sun rose higher the sound of crackling, melting snow falling from the trees was magical. We took some time to enjoy the moment before busily scooping up five bags of pinecones.

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Happy Mexican and Australian who think snow is a novelty
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The deep dark wood all for us
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The loot of pine cones

Hammam Bathhouse

Another place that we have come to appreciate during these cold months is the Arab bathhouse (Hammam). Granada was the seat of a Moorish kingdom for nearly 800 years (from 711-1492) and there remain many Arabic influences to this day. We have become semi regular clients of Al Andalus Hammam and tend to go there to celebrate any special occasion and to relax and warm up. A hammam is a tranquil, candlelit environment with warm, hot and cold baths, a steam room, hot stone beds and a massage area. It is decorated with beautiful Arabic tiles, colonnades and geometrical plaster carvings. There is the constant sound of running water from the numerous fountains and water features.

After soaking in the warm and hot pools, you cool down in the ice cold pool and then have a turn in the steam room. During the soaking, at some point your masseuse will come collect you and take you into a separate area of hot stone beds, massage tables and water fountains. You are asked to choose between lavender, amber, rose or pomegranate oil before being massaged into a blissful and relaxed state. After all the walking up and down the stairs of the Albaicin, my calf muscles certainly appreciated the attention.

The warm pool at the bathhouse
The warm pool at the bathhouse (this is photo from the Hammam website since photographs are not permitted to be taken inside.)

Birthday Celebrations – family Olympics

A couple of weeks ago we celebrated my birthday on a Finca (farmhouse) in the Alpujarra mountains in a town called Orgíva. It is a sunny ‘pueblo’ at the foot of the imposing Sierra Nevada mountains. It was different for me to celebrate my birthday in the cold and in the mountains as I usually have my first ocean swim of the Sydney Spring season on my birthday.

We invited eight families to join us for a day of Olympic Games where each family, representing a different country, competed for Olympic glory. There are so many mixed nationality couples and families here that we barely had to double up on any countries.

It was great to see adults and children working and laughing together to try to win the ridiculous competitions we devised. The events were football (soccer), volleyball, sack races, three legged races, beanbag on the head races and egg and spoon races. The end  results were: Bronze medallists: Spain and England, Silver medallists: Canada and Slovakia, Gold medallists: Australia (I think our games master may have rigged a few events to make me feel like a winner on my birthday). Needless to say, the post-Olympic celebrations went on into the night and involved food, wine and music by a large fire. Are you understanding why I love the vibe here?

My good friend in Australia asked me last week whether it felt strange celebrating my birthday with people who I didn’t even know on my last birthday. I thought about it for a moment, thinking she had made a very valid point but my reply was a resounding ‘NO’! Somehow, we are so present to this new life that it feels like we could have been living here for years. We have managed to find the ‘pearls’ who make up our new friends here and we are grateful. If I am going to have my mid life crisis, it can wait until we get home next year. For now, despite the FREEZING COLD, we are riding too high for me to have a crisis.

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Teams gather for the sack race

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There was some collateral damage

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And some fell flat on their face

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The competition was fierce on the soccer pitch- check out the horse watching at the back

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Team pep talks with the Sierra Nevada as the backdrop

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And then the post Olympic celebrations moved indoors

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By the cosy fire