I was never very sporty at school. Small and studious, it was clear from an early age that I was never going to make it to the Olympics. Although I did attend a Maths Olympiad in University College Dublin when I was 15. Not quite the same levels of excitement.

The first (and only) time I tried to throw a javelin, I clonked myself on the head with it. Funnily enough, they never let me try the shot putt. My memories of volleyball are of falling on my arse a lot. Being less than statuesque, basketball stardom also failed to beckon, although I do recall being praised for my passing. Sadly my quick-fire passes sprang more from a deep sense of ‘oh my god, get this thing away from me’ rather than from any technical skill or savvy game planning.

And so it was that I limped (mostly metaphorically, although I did once sprain my ankle in a tangle with a trampoline) through my Physical Education in school. My long-suffering P.E. teacher Miss Larkin never lost her enthusiasm, however. Which sometimes somehow just made it all seem worse. But sometimes her positivity was so powerful it even reached me.

Her advice to us all that having a sport that we played would serve us well in later life as a means of meeting people and making new friends, especially if we ever had to move somewhere new, really resonated with me. I guess I was always about the friends. You can keep your medals but I will work hard for a decent social life.

And so it ultimately proved to be. Despite failing to find my ‘thing’ all through school, in my early twenties I found climbing. Dragged unwillingly along to a climbing wall in north London by an enthusiastic boyfriend, to my great surprise I quickly found myself hooked.

Here was a sport that was social without being a team sport. (All that letting your teammates down and being last to be picked gets a bit tired.) Here was a sport where you could just compete against yourself. Getting to the top of routes that felt hard to me gave me real satisfaction, it didn’t matter that others around me were doing far harder stuff.

Best of all, here was a sport you got to practice in the most beautiful and fun of settings. Weekends away with friends started to be spent at the crags of the Peak and Lake Districts and on the sea-cliffs of Pembroke. Holidays were taken to relaxing sports climbing destinations like Mallorca and Kalymnos.

And slowly, without really noticing it, I started to get fitter and stronger and healthier. And, (dare I say it?), even somewhat sporty. Finally gaining confidence in one sport made me much more open and able to try others. Later I would also get hooked on surfing. Being motivated to perform well in climbing would make me turn to pilates and core-strengthening exercises as well as being more aware of my overall aerobic fitness.

Me, climbing at Gandia, Alicante on New Year’s Day 2011

Now, as an ex-pat in Spain I have really lived the truth of Miss Larkin’s words. The quickest and easiest friendships to form have been with other climbers. They are also the deepest. Climbers are the people we spend the most time with. The shared sporting passion unites where language and cultural barriers could divide.

The two photos that accompany this post neatly illustrate the impact of this sport in my life. We had travelled to Alicante in our new motorhome to spend the Christmas fortnight in sunny southern Spain. On 31/12/2010 we pulled up at the foot of Gandia crag at around 7pm. Packing a bottle of Cava and a seafood platter we were ready for an exciting New Year’s Eve spent in our camper with our 14 month old son.

Richie stepped out of the van to make a phone call, as reception was poor inside. At precisely this moment, some Galician climbers we had previously met in Fontainebleau happened to be descending from the crag after a day’s climbing. And that is how we ended up seeing in the New Year with them in their friend’s luxury villa outside Alicante.

New Year’s Eve amongst friends

Sport. It’s a wonderful thing.

This post is for the Olympics inspired ‘Sport’ theme on The Gallery. Click below to visit more Gallery posts.


The Sunshine After The Rain

Well, April has lived up to its local billing – ‘en abril las aguas mil’ goes the Spanish refrain – and it has rained a LOT. On reflection, not the best month to choose for my 5 Goals. I’ve only managed to get out climbing once (seeping limestone is no fun, unless you’re a caver), the garden has been so waterlogged I’ve scarcely been able to set foot in it and all this crushing failure and being trapped indoors has positively driven me to drink! The classic vicious circle.

I know, I know....I live in Green Spain....and you don't get a herb garden this lush and green without a little water....but enough already!

Then yesterday the much-missed sun poked his head out from behind the clouds and instantly the world was transformed. The clouds lifted and once again I could see the mountains in the distance. As a gusty southerly wind quickly dried all memories of the rains, I rushed into the garden to check out what state it had been left in.

First to the garden’s borders where I had worriedly watched delicate young flowers become increasingly battered and bedraggled in the high winds and lashing rains. I feared that nary a petal would be left.

But with the first touch of weak sunshine after the rain the flowers had instantly perked up. Their green stems had snapped to attention and droplet bejewelled petals reached up, unfurling towards the sunlight.

Further down the field the seeds sown earlier this month that I feared would have been washed away in the deluge were now sprouting through, with strong, green shoots. Well and truly watered in, all that was now required was some sunlight to complete the cycle.

Above all, however, I was delighted to discover that my reign as Goddess of the Slug and Snail Kingdom has finally come to a close. For the last 6 years I have invested a lot of time, money and hard work in feeding said creatures only the finest of organic, gourmet baby vegetables. Ordinarily, over the course of just a few wet days and nights they would chomp their way through swathes of seedlings, pausing in their feasting only to occasionally toast my name with the beer I had left out for them in my otherwise pointless traps. But no more. Finally I have discovered an effective ecological method (Ferramol) of controlling the greedy blighters. We may yet have a decent harvest. How exciting!

As I continued around the field inspecting the progress where I had expected to see only damage, I felt myself unfurl a little too. I stood taller, drinking in the views revealed anew around me. A contrast to the last weeks of darting outside in gaps between downpours, always rushing along, hunched forward, head bent and hood pulled down tight against the elements.

It’s not been a fun few weeks, to be frank. But some necessary stuff got done – including the complete re-decoration of our rental house in time for our guests’ arrival last Thursday. Now that that hard slog is succesfully completed on time and the sun has come out to play again, everything is starting to feel a little easier. Small but significant positive decisions and actions start to follow freely and feed into one another. And just like that, a virtuous circle is born.


Camomile tea - sunshine in a cup

The Highs and Lows of Shopping with Amazon

I have just received a delivery from Amazon, two weeks late. Let me put this into context for you. Amazon packages are a little like crack for the ex-pat. The anticipation is enormous. On receipt of them a change in normal behaviour patterns may be observed: a withdrawal into the home, with much time spent behind closed shutters. Late at night, questionable decisions are taken, with the phrase ‘just one more won’t hurt’ muttered frequently.

This is what all the fuss is about…

Ah, the boxed set dvd marathon. Or latest page-turner. In your native language. It’s so difficult not to overdo it.

There is nothing better at the end of a hard day of struggling to think and speak and comprehend in a new language and culture than to slump on a sofa, stick your mind into neutral and let yourself be transported somewhere where you get all the jokes and understand all the references. Without even having to try.

When we first moved we were amazed to discover that would deliver here, to the mountains of northern Spain. We could order the latest English language books or dvds at Amazon’s knockdown prices on a Monday and have them with us by the Friday. It was like magic. It almost felt like cheating – we were ‘getting away from it all’ but taking Amazon with us.

As time passed, Amazon extended the range of goods that they would ship overseas to include things such as electronic items and toys. As our dependence on boxed sets decreased over time we found other needs to fill. They even introduced free shipping for orders over £30.

But just when it seemed everything was perfect, a change came to pass. Amazon stopped shipping via the regular mail and switched to a courier service. MRW. Three little letters that have come to spell disaster to me. (A tad histrionic? Well, what did you expect from a woman who just described Amazon packages as crack?)

Since then we have not received a single Amazon delivery without a string of complications. One even ended up being returned to the UK after a lengthy sojourn in Alicante, some thousand kilometres to the south of here. That, I discovered, was because our address and post code don’t appear on the MRW delivery database – so it seems someone just took a stab at it. Apparently nobody thought to try Google maps. Or asking me.

Bearing in mind we receive LOTS of packages a year from Amazon, all via the same driver, you’d think any kinks would have been worked out by now. We’ve even given our authorization, repeatedly, for them to leave any package with our neighbours so that they will never have to waste a journey if we happen to be out when they attempt delivery. Simples. You’d think.

This time round we placed our order (for a boring but essential text book) and then promptly forgot about it. Weeks later, having heard nothing I go to track my order on Amazon, where it is stated that delivery was attempted 12 days ago. When I was in. And with no note left or text or phone call to advise me of this supposed event.

I email Amazon, who respond promptly and courteously with promises of chasing it up (although with a disappointing negative on my request for reverting to the regular mail) Another day passes. The day after that I receive a text message from MRW to the effect that my package will be returned to Amazon if I don’t go pick it up from their offices, like NOW.

I rush down to their office, where they can’t find the package. After much hunting, a call to the driver confirms that it’s out in the van. So why the text? Oh, that had nothing to do with them, that came from the Barcelona office. God give me strength.

I then proceeded to calmly list to the manager the several and various ways they had failed to deliver on this and past occasions. (Luckily my Spanish speaking persona seems to be more assertive than my English speaking one. I think it’s because the Spanish are generally so gloriously plain speaking that it starts to rub off on you.)

I finished by saying that in future if they could just let me know when any packages arrived for me I would come and pick them up myself from their offices to avoid these ridiculous delays. To which the manager responded, horrified: ‘But Senora , there are procedures which must be followed!’

Ah yes, procedures that encompass countless back and forth phone calls between me and their local offices and me and their Madrid offices, text messages from their Barcelona office and emails with Amazon. Procedures that eventually culminate in me weeping softly whilst banging my head on the kitchen table the very delayed delivery of my order.

What on earth was I thinking? We couldn’t possibly skip all that out.

I’ve linked this post up to the Expat Blog hop at Windmill Fields. Click here to see more posts on the theme of shopping for expats!

Is It Really that Time Already?

The application period for admission into state schools is now open here in Asturias. It’s a snappy 10 days, 10th-20th April, so there’s no time to hang about if, like me, you’re planning to pack your little darling off to school here for the first time come September.

The Spanish government currently offers each child a place in school in the autumn of the year in which they turn 3. It is not actually compulsory to start in formal education until the age of 6 but most parents do take up the offer at the earliest opportunity. Apart from anything else, on a practical level, for working parents, it’s good, free childcare.

It’s a very generous provision, especially when you consider that children from rural areas are also provided with free transport and, in many schools, cooked lunches. Given the current economic situation here and with more cutbacks scheduled to be announced this week, one must wonder how long the Spanish government will continue to foot this particular bill. Already, cuts in nursery places have been announced.

But for now anyway, the admissions applications are being accepted and we’ve already collected our form to fill in and gathered all the requisite accompanying paperwork. All that remains to be done is some photocopying and the purchase of 2 passport sized photos of the would-be pupil. Oh, and some long, drawn-out parental soul-searching.

If Jack is to start school this year, he will be doing so two months before his third birthday. I mean, that’s clearly too young to be starting school, right? That’s practically still a baby. And good luck to anyone who thinks they can get him to sit still for hours on end. Or rather, no, bad luck to them. He is a vibrant bundle of energy that I really just don’t want to see tamed (for the sake of taming) too young.

Having said all that, while the under sixes may be starting at school they are not starting in ‘primaria’. They have their own ‘infantil’ (kindergarten/nursery) teacher and their days are much more play based and less rigidly structured. There is quite probably less ‘taming’ being practiced than I fear.

The school itself is small, with 15 pupils and 2 full time teachers (plus visiting teachers in English, music and P.E. – pretty amazing really!) and Jack already knows a lot of the children. Plus his three best buddies from the village here will all be there – Pelayo will be starting at the same time as him, while Cova and Alberto will be going into their first year of primaria – big kids already.

All of this should make the transition easier for him and, crucially, desired on his part. He is a hugely sociable little boy who just adores being with other children and really enjoys his current two days a week at nursery.

I guess the bottom line is that I still can’t help feeling a (not so) little pang at the thought of it all. Must remember, I’ve only got to hand the application over by the 20th of this month – not my child.


My next door neighbour is called Modesta. She is 89 years old and she lives alone in her little house in our tiny hamlet perched atop a hillside in Asturias, Northern Spain. She doesn’t drive and she has never travelled on a train nor seen a plane. She has never visited Madrid, nor even Covadonga (Asturias’ most famed tourist attraction, forty minutes drive from here). Nowadays, the only time she leaves the village is to visit the doctor five kilometres down the hill.

But none of this is to say that she hasn’t lived. Far from it. Quite apart from living through a bloody civil war and the subsequent dictatorship that still cast a long shadow on the Spain of today, her personal life has been hugely eventful and packed with more than her fair share of pain and suffering.

Modesta today in her kitchen, with some of her daily visitors

Modesta was only thirteen when her parents died. As she says, they died young in years but they were already old – fruit of a tough peasant life. Yesterday, as she showed me a sepia photograph of them, she calculated the number of years she had been an orphan – 76. That’s a long time to feel alone and unprotected in this world.

Modesta never married. But she did have a son. I can’t begin to imagine how difficult life must have been as a single mother in the ultra-conservative 1950s Spain of Franco. This was a place where many unwed mothers were told in hospital that their babies had died at birth and those babies were taken and given (or sold) to wealthy families who were struggling to conceive. Giving birth at home in the countryside, far from any hospital, with a local woman in attendance as midwife, quite possibly saved Modesta from that too cruel fate.

Nor can I fully imagine the deprivations of a life truly lived hand to mouth, scratching a living from the soil of a tiny smallholding. No wonder she often looks at me and shakes her head and mutters words to the effect – ‘You don’t know you’re born.’

As if all that weren’t enough, over twenty years ago, Modesta’s son died at the age of 40 in a car crash that also killed his wife. The couple left behind a 17 year old son, Miguel, but he gradually lost contact with his grandmother, an easy thing to do in those days before phone lines or a tarmacked road had reached this village. Ultimately he disappeared without a trace.

I have pieced together the fragments of Modesta’s sad story over the six years that I have lived here, as my Spanish has improved and my connections with people deepened. So naturally I was delighted yesterday when, on overhearing voices coming from Modesta’s kitchen, I ascertained that it was not her asistente (home-help) but a hitherto unknown great grand-daughter come to visit. Modesta had new-found family!

It turned out that a neighbour had set out to track down Miguel via the internet. Sadly, they discovered that, like his parents before him, Miguel had died tragically young – in a train accident five years ago. But he left behind a family, and his twenty one year old daughter had now made the thousand kilometer journey from Barcelona to meet her great grandmother and to spend a few days with her.

I was thrilled for Modesta and after chatting with her great grand-daughter in the morning I spent much of yesterday composing a blog post in my head – trying (yet failing) to control my schmaltzier tendencies. This really was a ‘telenovela’ (soap opera) unfolding on my doorstep, complete with Hollywood ending. I think I may even have quietly wept at one point, swept away by the lyricism of it all.

At 5pm I went next door, armed with my camera, ready to take a shot of Modesta with her great grand-daughter for posterity (and, let’s be honest, my blog). The girl had left for the evening with a cousin however and Modesta was not in a lyrical mood. ‘That girl doesn’t have the sense she was born with. I don’t know what she’s bothered to come here for’ was her somewhat crotchety take on the situation, leaving my soaring romanticism sorely deflated.

And I wasn’t the only one. Everyone in the village had been terribly excited about this family reunion. They had all come round to introduce themselves and to invite the girl round to their houses for a coffee and a chat. We were all equally disappointed that the visit had failed to have a miraculously uplifting effect on Modesta.

But then I realised that I’d been missing the point all along. The redemption in this tale comes not from a brief family reunion but rather from those who orchestrated it and those who care so much for Modesta and her happiness. It comes from the people she sees every day – us, her neighbours, her ‘familia de verdad’.

For Modesta may live alone but every day her friends and neighbours pop in to visit, to spend some time and to make sure she is okay. In this quiet country place, where for many years thirtysomething Sandra was the youngest resident, there are now six young children all of whom love Modesta unreservedly and who are unreservedly loved by her in return.

My own toddler Jack insists on visiting her several times a day – and not just for the biscuits she always gives him. He loves to bounce on her bed, to throw walnuts around her kitchen and to play hide and seek with her.

Even the cats and dogs of the village know that Modesta’s is a house where they will always receive kindness and affection as well as food. She worries about Dogly (our cheeky, accident-prone greyhound) if by midday he hasn’t scratched at her door in search of his daily biscuit.

As Modesta herself said to me today, ‘la vida da vueltas y vueltas’ – life has many twists and turns and many of the turns that her life has taken have been sad ones. But she knows she is loved and cared for by all her neighbours. And that is no small thing.

Our pussy cat pops in for a visit

Rules of the Road

So, yesterday, I was driving in town and as I approached a Stop sign two Trafico cars (Spanish traffic police, as you’ve probably guessed already) drove past me. Cue accelerated heart rate and butterflies in my stomach. (I’m the same walking through Customs. I blame my Irish Catholic upbringing – it’s made me so good at guilt that I don’t ever need to do anything wrong to permanently feel like I deserve arresting.)

Picture courtesy of Outisnn, Wikimedia Commons. Well, you didn't think I'd be brave enough to take a photo of a cop car, did you? I'd probably be arrested for it if I did...

However, having fallen foul of Trafico on a few occasions already I feel my anxiety in this instance is slightly less neurotic than usual. For example, at 9 and a half months pregnant (yes, really) Trafico stopped and fined us for not coming to a complete halt (the difference was barely discernible) at a Stop sign whilst making a left turn on an empty road (into the maternity hospital for God’s sake!)

Despite having the dream excuse at hand (or rather, at belly) unfortunately I wasn’t in the mood for hamming it up and faking an emergency labour. Being a heaving mess of hormones, I’m afraid all I could do was sit there and sob uncontrollably while the heartless b******* wrote my partner a ticket and fined us a hundred euros.

At this point my heart attitude soured rather towards the Guardia Civil in general and Trafico in particular. Strong words indeed coming from a convent-educated authority fearer like me. Hell hath no fury like a pregnant lady fined unfairly.

On another occasion they caught us in a speed trap and in addition to ticketing us for speeding they threatened to fine us for carrying a surf board in the car. The board was stowed in the boot, with one of the rear seats folded down to accommodate its length. The officer told us that it was illegal to carry anything that didn’t fit in the boot and that required folding the seat.

Which made me wonder: why do car manufacturers make folding rear seats? So you can store things in your car while it’s parked? Or maybe just for drivers in countries other than Spain? In which case they should just glue the seats in the upright position on all Spanish cars.

I happen to know that this can be done as I once had a car in the boot of which my then boyfriend accidentally spilt an enormous bucket of construction glue. That rear seat never folded again I can tell you. (Practicality was not Simon’s strong point. He also once sawed a sofa-bed in half to try and fit it up the stairs to our loft. Never quite the same again either.)

I digress. Back to yesterday. I end up following the two Trafico cars, casually checking my speed every 2 seconds or so. We are all approaching a pedestrian crossing where an elderly lady is leaning heavily on her walking stick waiting to cross.  And both cop cars sail over the crossing without so much as slowing their speed. I’m outraged, I tell you.

A pedestrian crossing - you're supposed to give way to pedestrians on these. No, really. Even if your job isn't specifically road safety. Photo: courtesy wikimedia commons

The difference between driver attitudes to pedestrian crossings here in Spain and those in the UK and Ireland has always struck me as immense. Here, crossings are all about brinkmanship. You must stride out onto the road decisively and with confidence in order for cars to stop. You don’t stand there watching and waiting for the cars to stop for you – if you do, you’ll be there a very long time. Still, you might have expected better from the pernickety, self-righteous upholders of the laws on road safety.

Maybe I’ll eventually get used to it, as with so many other cultural differences, but I think not. I really can’t believe that this device that was designed to assist people to cross roads safely was ever really intended to be used as what amounts to a giant game of chicken.