Saturday, 31 March 2018

4 days in Madrid

Before I start. Here's a funny thing. When we arrived in Japan a few months ago. My bags went missing and the airlines had to get them from Helsinki Airport to where we were staying in Takamatsu. Consequently I didn't have any clothes at all and Rachel, through a quirk of random packing, had no underwear and we had a buy a few things to get by for a few days. Move on two months and when we left there and arrived in Madrid I found that whilst I had packed our overflowing bags beautifully I had failed to check all the drawers and lo and behold I had left all of Rachel's underwear back in Japan. It's back to the knicker shop for us and just hope DHL work over Easter.  

So, Madrid. What a great city! Architecturally stunning, vibrant, cultured and busy. But this 4 day break during Easter came as a stark contrast to our lengthy stay in the quiet Spanish mountains and, more so, our sojourn into Japan. Our white-faced badge of difference has gone and we are but one of the many in this cosmopolitan place. Coming from the land of uniformity we are acutely aware of the huge variance of sizes, colours and personal features of the people. We seem to have forgotten how to walk busy streets as westerners. No longer do people flow around one another. Rather, they bump and jar. Attitudes to others are more careless here or rather less obvious. We can sense an underlying tension here that doesn't exist in Japan.  An energy among the thronging crowds that is quite palpable and feel more alive. You can almost taste it. I notice with surprise the many beggars and tramps sleeping in doorways. More than one, ironically, taking a rest from holding out a hand with a begging bowl to holding a large cup of Starbucks takeaway coffee.

Gran Via Madrid
Graffiti is everywhere -  spoiling walls, posts, railings and just about anything big enough to hold a pointless tag left by a thoughtless delinquent - quite frankly I don't give a fuck about whether some oik passed by or that the scrawlings are the 'visual outcry of the repressed'. I have never got graffiti. I do not find it 'cool' but rather it is aggressive, invasive and inconsiderate. To me - Banksy is Wanksy and our cities, underpasses and impossibly precarious patches of walls would be better off without airbrush vandalism.

Litter seems to be very popular in Madrid as well. It is everywhere and again comes as something of a shock after the sanitary streets of Takamatsu where the the 5 second rule could easily be extended to the 1 minute rule without fear of catching anything. But again that very thing that is negative makes the place feel more real. Don't get me wrong it would be better if the streets were cleaner and there was less debris but it sort of fits here.

The Puerto del Sol and the bear statue which is the centre of spain
We loved Madrid. It is a livable size with lots going on. We were near the Palace Real and hereabouts the countryside just suddenly starts. The grey turning suddenly green with the trees stretching away to the mountains in the distance. Still capped with snow and looking all majestic.

As usual we covered countless kilometres mooching about the city. Stopping here and there for a coffee, more often a beer and tapas but, most excitingly, for hot chocolate and churros. The chocolate so thick you were not sure if you were eating or drinking it. We people watched and especially enjoyed a group of prostitutes working a stretch of street - all sporting shiny lipstick, black leggings, huge shoes and, weirdly, never smiling.

I recall once seeing in Venice, whilst travelling by boat down the grand canal, a scaffolded building cloaked with a representation of what an eventually renovated building would look like. I thought that was impressive. But not a patch on the cloaking in Madrid which we encountered a few times. even close up the deception is remarkable. What a good thing though. To maintain the beauty of a place with such clever artifice. Sadly the authorities could do nothing to camouflage the wind damage caused in the city parks a few days earlier. Consequently they were all closed so we didn't get to see these apparently extensive and picturesque areas that make up a large amount of the city area.

Look closely at the picture. 90 percent of the
buildings are a facade

This weekend was Semana Santa (Easter) and therefore the whole city was rammed. We went to see one of the many processions going on in the town on Good Friday. It was in impressive...well, in the tourist brochure it was impressive. We were hundreds of people back from the point where the large religious artefact was carried pass. All we could see of the dozens of attendees dressed in black robes with black pointy ku klux klan stylee headgear was the tops of the hats and the artefact was sadly blocked by a wiggling 4 year old on her dads shoulders in front of me. But there you go. When Mr Jesus is in town on his big day there is bound to be crowds. 

World's most shit picture of a religious procession. You have to do the
'Where's Wally' thing to find the pointy hats of the pious
Besides graffiti and car park charges one of my great hates is queueing and it seemed that anywhere of import had people snaking out of doors and into the far distance. We therefore skipped the palace and the free evening opening of the Prado museum. We did opt for a look around the botanical gardens which had no queue and its not surprising why. Brown and a bit tatty sums it up admirably I think. Rachel likened it to a zoo we went to in India where all the animals were made of plastic. Except this wasn't funny, but then plants rarely are. Although Rachel did tell me a very funny plant joke:

A man walks past a fridge and thinks he hears some onions singing Bee Gee's songs but when he opened the fridge he discovered it was only the chives talkin'

Anyway well done Madrid. loved the tapas and the vibe so keep up the good work.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Japan revisited.

Well our two months in Japan have nearly finished. We have performed our duties as carers admirably. The boys are still alive and our dear friend Mitsi is on the mend. The apartment is clean, the car is undamaged and all is well in the land of the rising sun. However, the country still befuddles us and we still don't know what is happening half the time. I wonder if everyone feels that way?

Let's start with some observations. 

Follow the rules: 
Two Japanese people riding their bikes along roads that are perpendicular to one another. There is nothing obstructing their vision of the road or the other rider. However, when they arrive at the intersection, since there is no signage or indication of who has right of way, they carry on and inevitably, crash. Now, we have views on this because we have seen variants of it over and again in our time in Japan. It could be physiological - the shape of the eyes lessening the peripheral vision. It could be psychological  - Sheer bloody mindedness on behalf of both parties. Or, most likely, its conditional. The Japanese are programmed to comply with authority from early on and follow the rules. Therefore something like the above happens because there is no protocol. People will walk into the road without looking if they technically have the right of way. They will stand for 5 minutes on the side of a deserted road if the crossing sign says "wait". If there is a rule, no matter its relevance, it will be followed. And, when you couple this with the ridiculous amount of bureaucracy it can be so frustrating. There is of course the flip side which is that if everyone follows rules then everyone knows the score, accepts how things are and society sort of works... Albeit in a somewhat robotic way.

Guide book for going abroad: 

I am told by a Japanese friend in the know that only a small amount of Japanese nationals go abroad. This is partly due to the ever circling urban myths of how things are outside of Japan. "People have horns and will probably eat you" might be a step too far but ideas of cleanliness, lack of respect, quality of service and rampant aggression are commonly cited reasons for staying put. There is even a government issued guide book which gives suggestions/instructions on how to deal with or, better still, avoid confrontational situations with Gaijins.

OTT gift giving: 
Most cultures would accept that if you re just popping round for a cup of tea and a chat that the host will provide a cup of tea and a biscuit and there is no obligation on the part of the visitor to contribute. Not so here. Minimum gift entry level is a beautifully wrapped and presented biscuit set. Ramp it up to a small tea party and the amount of fayre brought will exceed the provision by at least double....all beautifully wrapped, rarely opened and therefore, I guess, reused by the recipient for the next party invite. Thinking about it there could be food gifts circulating Japan that have been doing the rounds for years!!

Education system:
Having worked in the system and now observed, at close quarters, what it is like for the child. I feel i am able to say what a poor system it is for both students and teachers alike. Granted there are some good things like the cleaning of classrooms and the serving of fellow students food at lunch. But as far as I can see that's it. The teacher student ratio is so high that there is no real opportunity to give any individual help and rote teaching is not uncommon. The homework is onerous and often pointless because it is generally checked by the students themselves. The pressure to confirm is enormous and any child with individualism, difficulties or abilities are a hindrance to the system. A system that is so overstretched that many children have to go to cram school to ensure they have grasped the subjects and therefore can get the grades to make it to High school. Then there is 'club'. Endless hours starting early morning to late afternoon in the holidays and for a couple of hours after school during term. Ostensibly they are learning baseball, football, music, chess etc but a lot of the time there is no actual teacher so not sure how much gets done....But, hey, it keeps 'em off the streets. 

Customer service:
In Japan if a member of staff has to leave a customer to go and ask advice or get something for that customer. They bow, bow, apologise, bow and run both there and back. on return they apologise, bow, bow and smile the whole time. Service is king here and performed willingly by the employee who expects nothing more than thanks and certainly not a tip.

Loveliness in the gym:
When people have finished doing an exercise on a piece of equipment or in an area they will wipe and clean it. I mean really wipe and sterilise the fuck out of it. They will replace things where they found them and even ensure that they are positioned neatly with the labels facing forward.

Dry your hands:

If you come to Japan then bring your hand towel. Everyone is expected to have their own. Hence when you wash your hands in public toilets there are often no towels or tissues.

Now on to the stuff we have been doing.

Mainly we have been tending house and children. This has been an interesting exercise, especially for Rachel who has never been a mum. But, as with everything, she rose to the occasion - making sandwiches, encouraging study, washing, cooking and then falling asleep exhausted by 10pm. Arrrghhhh the joys of parenting.... We did manage to get to Osaka once whilst Mitsi was languishing in bed there moaning about having Cancer and was fortunate enough to meet up with her lovely dad, Shigeo, who took us to the castle then out for Sushi before we headed back - Mitsi of course had to stay in the hospital and eat baby food.

We have played Uno till our fingers were sore. (Playing the proper rules this time and not the crazy ones made up in Nepal). We have watched countless episodes of The Big Bang Theory. A firm fave of the Morikawa boys. We have laughed a lot and talked loads of nonsense, in particular with Miki who is very funny and loved walking out from the shower clasping a bundle of clothes over is dick and walking away showing his ass but forgetting we could also see his balls.

When not doing the housy stuff we have wandered around shops - Takamatsu has the longest covered shopping street in Japan. Something like 2.5 km long!!! All filled with interesting shops, boutiques, cafes, piped musak and mingled bikes and people.

We decided to cut out drinking and and join the gym when we arrived. It's gone well. We have only had a handful of drinks in the two months and and have been working out pretty much every day for and hour or two. Consequently are muscles ache and our tummies are flat (well not exactly flat but a little tighter).


We had a lightening visit by friends of ours from Hiroshima - Lee, Tohru and their young children  jumped on the Shinkansen, costing a small fortune, and met us in Kurashiki - a charming old world village not that far from us where we had a delightful lunch and the chance to see their lovely faces once more. Thank you guys, it was appreciated.

We have made a lot of new friends who have been kind, thoughtful and interesting. We also have had to refuse many offers from total strangers to come their homes for tea; to accept their free guidance around the area or to take proffered vegetables??!! Yes, vegetables??What can I say - we are exotic beasts and as such are sort after in Japan.

One of our new friends, Haruko, is setting up her own tourist guiding business and to get some constructive criticism (and to be nice) took us on a sightseeing tour par excellence. A fancy cruising trip around a few islands in the Seto sea and across to the main island of Honshu. Our private boat took us to a deserted island that was populated by deer who ran, or rather bounced, down to the beach to see us. On Honshu we visited an old village called Tomo where we ate the the local Udon noodles and wandered the old streets and temples, A flying visit to the lovely island of Sensui (a place we had visited previously) where there is a fantastic coastway walk and open air onsen on the beach and finally, we visited an extraordinary island with a virtual ghost town. The island has a village of 50 to 60 houses clustered around a small bay but only 12 of them are inhabited. The rest are either derelict, slowly rotting or overgrown. Simply left by their owners when they moved from the island. It is a bit like a movie set and a little eerie (and sad) that the island is dying. However, the island also provides a home to absolutely huge 1000 year old Camphor tree. The branches and trunk so thick that we were reminded of the tree in the movie Avatar. It was truly magnificent and standing beneath its shadow was almost spiritual.


Such fun... Me and three ladies in a room of 2.5m by 1.5m with two big monitors, a leatherette settee, coffee table and hand tablets to order drinks, food and song selections. This is Karaoke Box. A tiny room where inhibitions, dignity and appreciation of the tonal scale are stripped away and participants, armed with mikes, can boom their voices out in all their suddenly awful glory. It was fantastic. A little oasis of crazy. Hired by the hour (soft drinks and ice cream included) you can forget the outside world and lose yourself in beer drinking, Whitney, Gloria and Abba and emerge 3 hours later confused at where the time went. And sorry, no pics or vids because what happens in Karaoke stays in karaoke

Possibly the worlds nicest religions if you are looking for one. In a nutshell it is an inclusive belief system that respects others, welcomes others, and draws upon the teaching in all  other religions. There are no icons, no smiting, martyrs, zealots, false idols or preaching. They don't come a knocking with pamphlets, proselytising, or planting bombs, they don't advocate burning in hell, or the playing of harps. They are humanists. Encouraging good rather than worship, encouraging love over obeisance and generally going about being a bit nice. Kathy, a resident of Takamatsu for 44 years and originally from Canada invited us to a pot luck lunch where we sat about, ate good food, briefly mentioned something that inspired us and then just chatted. It was nice. Nice enough for us to return for a second time - which, incidentily, fell on my birthday and where we were joined by an international pianist who treated us all to two pieces which were extraordinary to hear and, almost more so, to watch - those delicate fingers moving in caressing motions over the keys in one section and then moving with extraordinary dexterity and speed in the other.

So that's it. leaving Japan again. It's the same feeling as always. Sadness and relief. Its got its faults like any place but its a great country both geographically and in its peoples. I just think that maybe it's just not for us........yet.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

The quantum physics of housesitting

Oh, the pressure of feeding the seemingly bottomless appetites of our readership can sometimes be more of a burden than a bounty. We have barely finished one piece of reportage before the pleadings, wheedling and clamor for more begins again. And, whilst I want to just pull the covers over my writing-weary head and lay nestled among the warm arms and legs of my lovely wife and the now cold hot-water-bottles, I have a morning piss to take and a duty to perform. That done here it is, dear readers, I hope you enjoy it. All three of you.

When you look forward in time you do so as if looking the wrong way down a telescope. Time distorts and hours become days and months seem like years. For us the prospect of completing this long house sit was just so. We would learn Spanish - speak it fluently probably; We would stop drinking, eat more healthily and build up a respectable number of on line English clients; We would make friends and maybe even write that bestseller. We had months to fill and things to fill them with. 
Suddenly, however, we are nearing the end and we found that the telescope lied. Time wasn't stretched and, in fact, house sitting time has the same relativity as everywhere else. Irrespective of looking backwards or forwards. You either use it or lose it! 

Don't get me wrong. We don't measure our good use of time by things we have achieved in it. Rather, by the contentment we have derived whilst moving through it. It's so easy to feel a failure if you fail to achieve something. Much better to see the positives, the small blessings bestowed and feel grateful for simply being. There's something to all this mindfulness stuff. 

An inciteful and funny read
The result is that we do not speak fluent Spanish - but we speak some. We are still drinking - but now Christmas has gone (where we drank religiously in honour of baby Jesus), we are drinking far less. Shame really since it almost feels like saving when you pay so little for the stuff here. We actually do eat healthily as long as you forget about the crisps and chocolate and whilst our on-line teaching is not exactly educating the masses. We have some clients and its all on an upward curve (even if there are no warning signs about the steep incline). Friends have been a different story and one best left for after dinner tales in closed company. However we were, for the first time ever, shunned by a somewhat backbiting couple who , no doubt, had views on us once we had left. All in all though, its been a hoot passing time here. Another fantastic experience and a place where we have gathered more warm memories to cheer us when we are too old to do this stuff.

Its a bright day this morning and there was a particularly magical slice of moon lit by the cresting sun as it cleared the mountain tops. The darker blue vignetted to a brilliant shade of powder blue that reminded me of the skies over Japan. Today will likely be like most others. But, since it's Sunday, we will stay in the house so the hunters in the valley don't gun down our furry friends. We will do some computer work, some gardening, maybe go out for lunch then return for a walk and log fire as that same sun dips out of sight again and the stars return.

As I write this the three dogs are on a mat in front of the fire (the embers from the previous night still there - Olive wood is dense and slow burning). Pod and Rosa are lying head to tail with Phil sitting at one end. All three are preening and licking and gnawing legs - some belong to themselves, some to other dogs. It all seems idyllic until Phil decides it's a good idea to sit on Rosa's head, who then jumps up and bites his ass and in the process stands on Pod who growls so there is a seething swirl of tails and teeth and yelps and growls and flying fur and its not so idyllic anymore. I stand up and shout "Enough!". Rosa immediately rolls over in her submissive kick-me-in-the-stomach-if-you-have-to position, Pod scarpers - never one to be caught nicking the sweets and Phil. Phil the instigator of this fracas, gives me that "Wha? What happened? Wasswrong?" look. Dogs huh? We are really going to miss these chaps badly.

On Boxing day we left Mizala in the capable hands of the owners and set off for a few days in Granada. We thought it would be a good break and we hired a nice apartment just on the outskirts of the city. We were looking forward to warmth in the newly built flat and adventure outside. But fate had other plans. The apartment was nice, well positioned and large but the electricity supply was limited and the heaters small and ineffective. In summer this is not a problem but in winter when the temperature is in single figures, with snow on the surrounding mountains and wind and drizzle falling, it's not so good. A one bar heater and one radiator were little match for the elements (no pun intended). And we constantly juggled (not literally - that would be dangerous) the microwave, heaters, hair driers and lights. Trying to get as many appliances working without everything cutting out. Bonkers.

Our first day was walking around Granada which was great. The sun was out and although cold it was bright and fresh and lovely. We had hot-dogs and beer in a sort of tapas place. Standing at a bar wrapped in our coats with side of the place wide open. We wandered the old Arab quarter and throughout the shopping streets and alleys. It's a great city to mooch about. Lots of little plazas and places to stop and views to see and buildings to peek in. The streets in the old sections are quaint and narrow and in the large modern centre, wide and lined with good shops. And, of course, Alhambra stands atop a mound in the middle of it all looking magnificent and picturesque.


Day two we were to walk along the Caminito del Rey. A tramp along walkways affixed to the sides of towering rock canyons. Apparently its much safer than it used to be. But with vertical drops of hundreds of metres it would still have been fun had we been able to do the walk. We drove the 150km from Granada for this experience. Wind and rain lashing the car most of the way. We were hopeful that the weather would improve and sure enough as we got nearer our hopes were met and the sun came out. Hopes that were soon to be dashed by finding that no-one at this fairly major tourist site had put a notice on the website saying that it was closed for a week! Lots of swearing, double-taking, growling and sticking up of the two fingers was done before we headed back home to the still wet, rainy and cold Granada. On the note of 'sticking up of the two fingers' - try it. Its out of fashion but quite therapeutic. Especially if delivered with a screwed up face and the hand going up and down. 

Day three was to be a skiing day. The Sierra Nevada rises to impressive heights just outside of the city. A short drive and there would be piste aplenty. Rather, would have been pistes aplenty had it not rained for a few days and the temperatures only dropped to freezing at night which meant it was both sludgy and wet; had there been more than 20cm on the upper slopes so the rocks were properly covered, and, had the cost of clothes hire, ski and boot hire and a pass for 4 hours not been about £100. Foiled again. We gave up and headed back to Mizala where it had been beautifully hot and sunny the whole time......

New year was fun. We spent it eating, singing songs around the old Johanna like what they did in the war and laughed alot with the house owners. A great evening. New years day and night we spent with Rachel's old Boss, Gareth and his wonderful G&T making wife Jane. They have a flat nearby and we spent time eating tapas and drinking. Finally Christmas festivities came to rest with Gareth and Andrea, a couple we had befriended and were living in a fabulous villa in the mountains near Bedar. Lots of drink (way too much drink) and burnt/undercooked - but still lovely food and a warm bed in a warm bedroom was a good end to the fun. hoorah!

Now we are alone again and nice as it is to have had all these people about its good to be just us and the dogs. Rachel can wear her sad bastard two piece velour, over sized pajamas (really the woman has no dignity) and we can stop showing off and just be us again...

To close. The reason we are ending our housesit a little early is because a dear friend in Japan is in need of assistance and we have time available to give that assistance. So we are off to Japan on the 9th for two months. Effectively to be slaves to her little family whilst she does exciting things like has operations and lies around recuperating and eating chocolate. 

So until next time. Adios mi amigos

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Getting married again and again and again

Flipping heck it's cold at night here. Not as cold as England but somehow colder. In England you go go out but first put on your boots, cardy, coat etc. You do whatever, get a cold face and hands and then come in where you take off your coat, cardy, boots and, because generally, houses in Blighty are well built, insulated, probably carpeted and have effective house-wide heating. You can be snug and smug looking out of your double glazed windows at the drizzle and slate grey skies. Here, in Southern Spain, in this old finca with thick walls, draughty doors, single pane windows, stone slab floors and one fireplace it's the complete opposite. Outside (in the day) the sun is still pretty hot. It shines brightly in blue skies for 8 hours a day and you can wander about in a tee shirt and jeans a lot of the time. Come inside and you need that cardy, sometimes two, definitely slippers and occasional scarf to keep the blood moving and dew drops forming on your nose. The warmth of the day does not permeate inside and that's great for 9 months of the year but where we are now on Christmas Eve and it's a bit of a challenge. At night its just cold both inside and out. So if you are in England and its damp and wet and miserable. Put on the telly, crank up the heating, maybe have a shower or a poo in your bathroom without appendages freezing and think of us. Shivering by our computers with a blanket on our legs and trying to coax heat from the living room to our bedroom ...... Ah. Sod it! don't worry. We'll just go outside on the roof terrace, find a corner in the sun and drink our 1.59 Euro Cava with some Tapas and just have to make do. 

Mark, Helen, Chris Shady and Rachel - Agua Amarga
So, Christmas. In truth we hadn't given it much thought but there are a few things on. Mark and Helen, the owners are back for a couple of weeks so we spent Christmas day with them. Walking in the mountains, drinks down at the beach and then a sumptuous meal - for which we were not allowed to lift a finger. That goes against the grain but eventually managed.We are then off to Grenada for a few days followed by a few soirees with old friends and some new so it should be good.

So whats happened since I last posted a blog.

Saying our vows
Rachel and I got married. Again. Well, sort of. We decided, when we got married and made our vows on the mountain top in Miyajima in Japan that we would renew these vows every year. A sort of marriage re-evaluation process where we would think deeply about our relationship in the previous year and what, if anything, needed work in the following one. Plainly it's not really that process led and is very much a romantic affair. But we both thought it a good thing to really focus on our relationship at least once a year. Last year in Mexico we were fortunate enough to know Polly. A lovely lady and celebrant who gave our renewal ceremony a degree of legitimacy. And we made our promises in front of new friends on the beach wit the warm seas lapping behind us and palm trees swaying overhead. This year we transformed a derelict ruin at eh side of the finca into our 'Love Shrine'. 

The Love Shrine
We transformed this overgrown, rubbish strewn, jumble of old metal, rocks and plants into something quite lovely. Clearing it all, putting down a floor of flat rocks, creating a copse of white painted Pitas (a woody, tree like growth that supports flowers from a particular cactus), making some wooden structures like tables, seating and a fire pit and then sort of landscaping the area into a flowery garden with serpentine edges beside hard mud walkway scattered with bits of crystal rock. It took hours and was a real labour of love that was worth every ounce of sweat to create. Our close friends Gary and Mel flew over for the weekend to celebrate with us. How lovely is that. Didn't have to pay them or anything!!!! And so, once the sun had gone down, we four and two new friends - Margreit and Jos, gathered in the folly and we said our words. It was fantastic. The night was clear and the sky filled with stars, the folly was lit with tea lights in the Pita trees on the floors and tables. We had tears in our eyes, joy in our hearts, champagne in our glasses and good people to share this with. Thank you all and especially to Rachel.

Dogs. I mentioned the dogs briefly in the last blog. They have become an enormous part of our lives here. Their personalities and peccadilloes keeping us entertained, annoyed or entranced. We watch them interacting for hours and never get bored of seeing them in action. Most of us see dogs in an urban setting. Being led on leads, or running in a park. At most we see dogs doing agility stuff at a fete. These dogs have hundreds of acres of rock, scrub, mountain and valley to play in. 

Christmas morning Mizala Valley
They can be out foraging, hunting, playing for hours and there is no telling where they get to. But, when we walk them or I run with them in this environment you get to really appreciate the agility and abilities of these creatures. Their power and speed, their surefootedness, their sense of smell, hearing and sight and how they work as a pack. We have watched with wonder as they have sprang into action chasing hares or rabbits, been amazed as they have disappeared into the distance on the heels of a fleeing deer, all of them bounding over rocks and bushes as if it were a flat surface. And most recently being shocked seeing two of them in pursuit of a huge wild boar. Who, I am sure, chose to run rather than had to since it was twice the size of our biggest dog and has big tusks to boot. We have come to love these creatures and so dealing with their owner endorsed lifestyle of living as freely as they like has taken some getting used to. Although, what a life! Better, I feel, to have chased deer and ran wild and carefree than to live a more sedentary life in front of the fire. This view point was put to the test when one of their number - Pod - disappeared one day and remained missing and presumed dead for 10 days. During which time our imaginations ran riot as to what had happened. We had given up on ever seeing the little chap when he suddenly appeared - skinny, scabbed, cut and a bit rough around the edges but basically sound and demonstrating that as tame as these dogs are they are still capable of surviving.

The dogs in their playground
We have had Rachel's parents visiting us. They in need of a break from the strains of an impending house move came ready to bath in the perpetual warmth we had spoke of. To sup cold white rueda wines and a glorious and ridiculously cheap little red number we have been drinking. They arrived and almost instantly the weather changed. A cold wind and grey clouds speckled the first few days putting something of a dampener on the mood and even when things improved the temperatures remained lower than before they came. No sooner had they left. The next day in fact. The temperatures went back up, the clothes came off and once again the naked gardener was seen rambling among the olives. Just their luck! Still the wine was plentiful and what they missed out of in the 'basking in the sun' department they made up for by 'basking in an alcoholic fug'. 

Maureen and Dave and photo-bombing Pil

As mentioned we got a visit from friends Gary and Mel. Very pleasant time here. Weather was warm, their company was superb as always and got to climb a nearby peak with Gary.

Its so nice getting visitors to this lonely outpost of civilization so anyone who is looking for a few short days away please come. However, we can no longer guarantee the weather, the wine, the number of dogs or anything that could conceivably go wrong.

Olive grove finished
There's not a lot more to say really. We have finished pruning, cutting and clearing the previously overgrown mass of mostly dead vegetation known as the Olive Grove and made it look like, well, an Olive grove. I nearly broke my neck falling off a ladder whilst putting the final touches on the love folly - bruises, scratches etc as I fell through the trees. Rachel fell down some stairs in the house. Nothing too serious as she landed on her bum - plenty of padding, We have been on nice drives to some beaches, done walks up to look out points have made a few friends Margriet and Jos and Gareth and Andrea and had tapas a few times in a bar in Los Gallardos. Oh yeah. We have worked at our on line teaching presence. Rachel has picked up several students and got glowing reviews and is actually earning some money. Not much money but more than me. I have one student and b ut cannot seem to attract any more. I obviously don't have the charming looks and smile that my wife portrays on her profile....grrrrrr!

So that's it for now. Happy Christmas everyone

Monday, 13 November 2017

A day in the life of the High Plains Drifters

Well here we are in the Mizala Valley, in Andalusia, in Southern Spain for our five month housesit. It was a bit of a surprise when we turned off the motorway to discover that the little village of Mizala was so …. little. More of a hamlet really, actually more of a little hamlet. It has no shop, no restaurant, no bar and only about 10 people. Although we have only seen three. So there goes the opportunity to sit around chatting, eating tapas and drinking with the locals.

To get to our lonely finca we have to leave the heaving streets of Mizala and continue on a progressively deteriorating road that goes from loose tarmac to dirt track with potholes over the 3 kilometre drive. It’s pretty remote. There are some nice ex-pat neighbour's about a mile back up the track but that’s it. The track stops at our house and, as far as I can tell, our address at this housesit is:

The last house in Mizala Valley, 
A few kilometres down the dirt track from Mizala,

So, picture any spaghetti western and that is pretty much where we live. There’s scrub, tangleweed, cactus, dirt, cracked earth, loads of old ruined fincas, limestone karsts, fissures and dried rambla (river beds). We live in a valley with 200/300 metre sides It has a few old terraces (no longer farmed) that are dotted with olive trees. The silence is ridiculous. No traffic, people, crashing waves, industry or anything apart from your own echoing voices and twittering birds.

The sun breaks over the mountains and light the valley at about 7.30am at the moment and the mountains turn from silhouettes, to gold, to orange and as the sun strengthens. It is beautiful and rugged and since nearly every day is sunny the first few hours of any day are glorious. Nights draw in pretty quickly and by 7.00 the huge night skies show themselves. No light pollution – just hundreds of stars and eerie silence and occasional bat.

Its not an easy place to live. It has solar but the input and storage is not quite enough. There is no mains electric so we have to be a little careful once the sun goes. Anything that drains power needs the help of the new generator. Water is mains but intermittent, so we have 30,000 litres of storage tanks to keep us hydrated when city hall is trying to save money. The finca itself is run down or being done up. Depending on your view point. There is a lot of land and its full of lots of things that are stabby and want to hurt you. But that’s why its remained looking like this since forever.

It’s a grower, this place. It’s so different from many places we have been in. Sometimes it’s challenging, sometimes it’s frustrating or boring. But then other times it makes you feel fantastic and free.

Rachel had to leave a little time after we arrived to fly back for a wedding of her dear friend Pam (Pammington) to Eric. So whilst she jetted about and enjoyed a party, a wedding and the company of old friends. I had to spend a few evenings getting drunk with Helen (the host) and her daughter and son in Law - Anna and Johnny. Good fun.

We have to go shopping once a week for provisions and get rid of rubbish which involves a 30 kilometre driver to Garrucha or Vera. The first couple of times we also took the opportunity to spend a little time on the nudist beach tanning our bits. But lately there’s been a bit of a chilly wind down at the beach so we have had to stop that shenanigans.

We are trying to build an online teaching presence and have signed up to several sites and are slowly getting clients. If this works out we can theoretically take them with us wherever we go and never have to make the decision of where we will actually put down roots again. It’s a very different feel to teaching in person but allows us to be masters of our own hours etc. So that’s us tied up for 3 or 4 hours a week. Workshy? No. Actually NO!

Given an opportunity to do stuff we want to do then we are both really hard working. We have been doing stuff around the place both for our own physical/mental wellbeing and as a nice surprise for Helen who, I think, gets a little overwhelmed by the amount of stuff to do. Do date we have been repairing the track and filling in potholes and ruts. Hard graft made easier only by singing of slave tunes and supping of cool refreshments. We have cleared the cactus garden of weeds and I got covered in little spines that left me sitting in a bath shaving my body hair like a drag queen to get them out and scratching for days. We have weeded the drive, cleared the palms and tidied the debris. Rachel has started a herb garden and is now overrun with tomato plants. We have both re stone walled a patio area and are removing old olive trees and seriously pruning those we leave in attempt to rescue the dying orchard. And we have created a love shrine to have our wedding renew ceremony in (more on that in a later blog). So we are keeping busy, losing fat, getting fit and starting to enjoy this latest adventure.

Oh I forgot, not sure how, to mention the dogs we are looking after. Rosa (aka Edna Snippypants – a canine librarian type who is smalled than the others but feisty as fuck forever making Phil yelp). Phil. Big lumbering, lovable dolt who looks like he is made of straw and seems to constantly get in the way of us wherever we walk because he likes some kind of human contact. Finally, Pod, Walks on tip toes the who time. There is a something of Steve McQueen (the Cooler King o the Great Escape) about him. There's a big enclosed area that he is always escaping from. Hes very friendly and patient and stubborn as heck. These three very different personalities are both amusing and worrying. They have hundreds of acres of unrestricted playground to run around in and chase rabbits through and that’s exactly what they do. Sometimes going missing for 8 or 9 hours at a time then turning up gasping for water and exhausted. I am sure we will be reporting more on them in the future.

As for people - Angela (my sis) and Howard came out to see us for a few days which was amazing. Finally able to play host to them for a while instead of taking their hospitality. Gary and Mel (old pals) are joining us for a wedding thingy along with the neighbours so stay tuned for that one and Rachel's parents are even coming out to see us and hopefully they will provide some fun and games for us to report

That’s it for now though. Dogs have just arrived after being out for 10 hours!!!!

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Back on the road again!

What were we thinking. Hard on the heels of driving an old van to Scandinavia we decide to drive our old £400 Ford Fiesta ‘Ron’ down to Southern Spain. Ron was a bargain buy bought before we arrived in England back in the spring. After driving the camper, the Fiesta seemed fast, quiet and responsive. Our somewhat rampant imaginations likening the experience to being in an electric sports car – The new Tesla perhaps!?. Just for the record – we do know it’s not a Tesla but if we enjoy it as if it was one then these two delusional idiots just saved themselves thousands. Anyway we had lots of stuff to get down to our 5 month housesit in Southern Spain including two bikes which we are yet to actually ride, so a 2000 mile road trip seemed worth doing.

We had the car checked before going and after purchasing a service, an MOT and a travel tin of sucky sweets for £151.99 and we were ready to roll.

First stop Dover, then a ferry across the channel to Calais and over the top of Paris to head South down to Dijon.  Well, what can I say about Dijon… Nothing, actually. We stayed on the outskirts, we bought some pasta at a supermarket, we ate and went to bed. Didn’t have any mustard or anything.
Leon. No, sorry, not a lot in the brain about there either apart from hundreds of keen young freerunners with as yet unbroken bones, practicing tumbles and jumps. I guess the later lessons will deal with plummeting after mis-judging a leap and wearing hoodies.

On we headed. Now, with a respectable number of miles under our (cam) belts we at last decided to leave the expensive motorways and take more of a romanticised meander through the byways of France. We finally meandered along avenues of plane trees, dipped in and out of some sleepy villages where old men played boules in shady squares. Sadly. There were no lazy day picnics with baguettes, olives, wines, meats and tartes in daisy laden fields. (I love a tart in a field!).

One particularly large detour was to Carcassonne. It sounds as cool as it is. The old town part sits atop a hill. The place is surrounded with castellated walls and a moat with statues that remind you of Shrek. Inside there are cobbled streets, turrets and windows for archers to shoot the tourists from and of which there are many. However if one ignores (accepts) there will be other people then the visitor can enjoy the architecture and sympathetic d├ęcor and have a well priced meal in one of the numerous restaurants in the little alleys and nooks of this charming place.

Montpelier. Nice city that just feels really French! It has all those lovely Louis whatever style buildings with the nice roofs and all that French style signage on shops. It’s like the picture in your school French text book with boulangeries, patisseries, tabacs and lots of French looking people doing more daytime drinking in cafes than actual shopping. There is a nice park bit and a fine square with cobbley streets coming off of it. There is also a pretty cool palace/ governmental building that sits on high with great views of the surrounding metropolis that is dotted with some monumental street art.
Montpelier: Spot the street art
Moving on we slip across the border at Mary Aqua and into Spain. Prices drop instantly. Hooray!

Since Spain is to be our home for a little while we have concentrated on getting the language under our belts. It’s so much easier than Japanese which after 18 months still had us pretty well flummoxed and we hope to come away from Spain with enough to get by in most circumstances. We are staying in a little village iin the South called Mizala. It’s about 50km North of Almeria so our drive is down the East Coast of Spain. Through Costa Del Civil Uprising (Catalan was trying to go it alone and have many a scrap with the elected government) on past some other Costa's to Andalucia (love the sound of that)

Tarragona street festival
Tarragona was an unexpected joy. We stayed with a charming young thing in a well-placed apartment and had a good nose around the city. Lovely streets, amphitheatre, sturdy walls, shady squares, an excellent walking area with all sorts of shops and a back drop of the blue, blue Med to set it off. There was a festival when we were there. It doesn’t matter what it was for since they all seem similar. Crowds of people lining the street, floats with Madonnas, noisy fireworks and ridiculously dangerous roman candles and Catherine wheels attached to effigies of dragons or bulls squeezing through the throng. Fantastic! Down with H&S.

Our final day was just a short burst along some free Spanish motorway through rugged hilly landscape. A slip road, a short stretch of B road, under a bridge onto a D road and into the Mizala Valley and onto a road that gradually wasn't. Until next time Chicas!

Yum. Tapas

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

UK part 2, Sorry,forgot, so overdue!

Memory is a transient thing. At times vivid; sometimes clear; usually selective and sadly, often sketchy. I urge you all to commit events to something more permanent than the neuro-network of your brain. Whether it is the collecting of a mementos, a few words in a diary, a blog or the snap of picture. These things are actions of worth because they return so much more than the effort they take.

If only I did as I said! Were it so, the UK blog and accompanying pictures would be so much more…Or would they? With only me giving witness to these events I can tell you all sorts of things. Suggest that Rachel and I live lives that would be the envy of starlets. That we have done marvelous things and have friends even. I’m rambling. For those who know us – you know us for what we are and hopefully want for nothing more. For those who don’t, well you would soon figure it out. So here is the UK blog. Overdue, under-cooked but filled with a few tasty morsels ….

The Scandinavian Adventure finished we returned back to our freeloading ways of taking food and lodging from friends and mainly family. We probably outstayed our welcome on several occasions and whilst we are sorry we are also self-serving and ignorant. So. Make no mistake we will be back unless legal paperwork reaches in the meantime.

Gary and Mel are our oldest joint friends. They didn’t exist before Rachel and I (I mean they did. Just  not in our worlds). Consequently, it was a big thing to be there for their small and beautiful wedding. We have shared much with these folk and it was an honour to be amongst the few close family members at the do. We arrived in Crawlie and managed to convince a farmer to let us park in his farmyard just a few 100 metres from the venue. We therefore arrived all glowing on our bikes (the hotel had banned our down-market mobile home to grace their manicured tarmac) and left several hours later to pedal home happy and full of champagne.

Our second big event on returning was to re-evaluate what we would do next and that was narrowed down very slightly by figuring out what we didn’t want to do. Namely, to continue living in Crawlie and travel around Europe. Crawlie was perfect in so many ways but you can only cover so many miles at 60mph without air-con whilst worrying that something would break. The idea of spending summer months in the van no longer appealed so she had to go. And go she did. Like shit off a shiny shovel. I placed the add in Gumtree at 9.30am and by 12.00 we had sold her. All too quick! There was no time to have one last forage; one last cosy up in the comfy bed; one last engine catastrophe. We felt a little bereft. In truth she will probably run without a hitch for the next two or three years now. Sadly not with us driving her though. So good luck John Smith may you cover happy miles.

We did a few housesits whilst we were back. These to give us a location near to people or away from people. Depending on your perspective. Ipswich was nice with a dog that looked like Barbara Streisand (go figure the breed) and just a short way from Colchester; one in Weymouth. A fantastic seaside town of yesteryear with Punch and Judy stall, dripping ice cream, tatted-up Londoners with out of place walks and muzzled dogs and people swimming from the knees down in the still cold water. 

We stayed in a cosy cottage with miles of running to be had amidst rolling downs and sheep shit. Here we got to see Holly, Jim and new grandson Teds – more in a bit on that - and, due to excellent timing, got to meet up with an old friend who happened to be sailing around the United Kingdom with his dog in a 55 year old, 22ft long Waverley yacht. Peter Matheson is a singular man. Driven, Focused, mad and looking for something – although, not sure what. Anyway, Pete was 3 months into his voyage and hoped to make some money for childhood cancer. ‘Bumble Ahoy’, as the voyage was known, followed fairly closely on the heels of a similar piece of big hearted madness called ‘Tractor Bumble’ involving an old open topped tractor and travelling 8,000ish miles around UK and up to the arctic circle and back and is to be followed by ‘Giddy up Bumble’ – Yup! You guessed it. Crossing the Pyrenees and some more stuff on a donkey – Donations to any of these would be welcome as its costing him personally a small fortune to do this stuff. 

We stayed in a great Victorian place in Colchester. Opposite the Recreation Ground and just 2 mins from where I grew up as a boy. I was tempted to go smash some windows, play on the swings and set fire to stuff in the Lanes.

We did a further housesit in Chelsea Harbour looking after a lovely house and dog and got to spend time walking in London. Boy did we walk. Miles and miles each day. 2 hours with the dog then traipsing the streets and taking in all sites. Buckingham Palace, Horseguards Parade, Picadilly, along the Thames, Regents, Hyde, Richmond, St James’ Park, Saatchi Galley – Fantastic display on Selfies, The Natural History Museum (Which is the best - whale skeleton or diplodocus?), The V&A, The Wallace Collection, Kings Road…..The list goes on. I had no idea there were so many posh houses! What a great few days. And finally, the last sit in Salisbury. Again to see Holly and co and enjoy all the beautiful countryside and architecture that there is to see there.

So, back to Holly (my daughter), Jimmy (the husband) and Teddy (the grandson) who is the centre of their world. We got to spend a fair bit of time in different places eating walking, drinking and generally having a jolly time. They both work part time in order to give the little chap and each other the time together that they deserve and, although its all fairly new, I have high hopes for the arrangement. Teds gets loads of quality attention and they get the right amount of work/home balance so can give their very best to both. Its enviable and they are fortunate they can do so. Both Holly and Jim are loving parenthood and I understand that Teds is enjoying childhood too. He’s a lovely little chap and raises all sorts of emotions and memories in me – certainly enough of the good stuff for me to openly embrace grandadship. I am 56 after all!

My eldest son (who lives in London and was on holiday during the London housesit – grrrrr) has got engaged and is due to marry the lovely Victoria next year or so. We had a little champagne breakfast in Colchester when he was there to celebrate. They are a beautiful couple and were they rich I would expect Hello Magazine to do a full page photoshoot when the big day arrives.

My youngest son Rob lives in Colchester so it was easy to spend time with him and Justin and there very hairy cat. Rob and I like climbing so we took the opportunity to go a few times and even get some outdoor climbing done in Kent. A great day spent chatting where I had one of those seminal moments when I came to realise that my son was no longer a boy but a man. Well done Rob.

Rachel's niece Katy turned 18 when we are home and we got to spend a pleasant evening with her and her family to celebrate. Well done Katy but sadly its all downhill from here on in.

We had meals with old friends, rekindled some lost friends and hopefully cemented all those important relationships that may seem to be minimised when we are hundreds of miles away but actually aren’t. We hope you guys know this. We love you and need you.

I think that’s about it. Just, in closing, a very special thanks to Dave and Maureen – Rachels parents – for your generosity, wine, lumpy bed and terrible company. And my sister and Howard who repeatedly offered us a room and food.
Onward we go. Our next bit of life involves a drive down to the south of Spain in Ron (the burgundy fiesta) and a housesit for 5 months.