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As anyone who has read ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ will know, the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is, of course

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

As of yesterday, it’s also my answer to the question: ‘How old are you?’ (Hence the cake.)

I’m sorry to report, however, that I received no revelatory insights on the occasion of my 42nd birthday. Or at least if I did I must have promptly and absolutely forgotten them. (It’s a possibility, there was some celebratory gin consumed.)

I did have a very lovely day though. Which has got to be almost as good as unraveling the mysteries of the universe, right? An afternoon spent with good friends, eating good food, sharing good conversation and with a gang of children running about entertaining themselves. Flung together at the last minute, it really was one of the most relaxed and enjoyable birthday celebrations I think I’ve ever had.

Maybe this getting old thing isn’t too bad after all.

 

 

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Contrasts

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Our sleek black greyhound makes a fine contrast against the snowy backdrop of San Isidro ski station. His energetic charging about belies the few white hairs that are already sprouting in his fur.

Last weekend we nipped across the mountains of the Cordillera Cantábrica to León. At the top of the mountain pass, just over the border from Asturias, we stopped at San Isidro ski station to have a little play in the snow. (And to give the poor old motor-home’s engine a chance to cool down after the long slog up the windy pass.)

The ski station had long since closed for the season and the contrast between the hot, sunny Saturday in May and the deep blanket of snow that still enveloped the mountain tops provided the perfect physical illustration of the bipolar weather patterns of the last couple of months, as we have flipped back and forwards between spring and winter. Even this high in the mountains, at over 1500 metres above sea level, it is very unusual to see so much snow so late in the year.

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As we mucked about and laughed in the sunshine and snow I also couldn’t help but contrast the day with the last time I had been here. 20th December 2008, I ended the day in the first aid centre, with the ski-station’s doctor attempting, unsuccessfully, to re-place my dislocated elbow and putting a provisional cast on to protect my shattered ulna before sending me on my way to hospital. I eventually made it home on Christmas Eve, with a titanium plate and 7 screws in my forearm and a LOT of very strong painkillers in my bloodstream. It’s really no surprise that I hadn’t been back to San Isidro since.

Despite the involuntary shudder that passed through me when I saw the dreaded torture chamber first aid station and as I spied the exact point on the slope where I had been taken out by a snowboarder, it felt good to be back at the scene of the accident, whole and healthy and happy.

Indeed here I am, some 4 and a half years later, in an entirely different phase of my life but a phase that I may never have reached if it hadn’t been for that disastrous day on the slopes. With an enforced stop to all plans and activities for several months (no surfing, no climbing, no diy, no gardening, no writing, no trips) came an enforced pause for reflection and, with that, some life-changing decisions.

And that’s the thing. Even in our bleakest moments there always exists the seed of as yet unknown joys.

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Jack, born October 2009

The American Resident

Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall

The Early Bird

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The morning light snapped on the way back from the bus stop. Totally unenhanced. The whole, enormous sky really was this colour.

With Jack starting school last September one of the biggest adjustments we have had to make has been getting up at 7.30 every morning, Monday to Friday. (And, of course, weekends too as Jack’s highly trainable body clock doesn’t switch off just because it’s a Saturday. Dammit.)

It might not sound that harsh’ I know lots of people have much earlier starts, but before this I had carefully structured my life so that I never had to be consistently up before the sun was. I have been self-employed virtually all of my working life and thus had the luxury of managing my own diary. Never taking appointments before 10am and living within walking distance of my work place made for a nicely relaxed start to the working day when I lived in the UK.

A big part of the motivation for moving to Spain for both of us was to leap even further out of the ‘rat race’ and off the hamster wheel of racing to maintain our modern life. We came here to work less, earn less and live a little more. So naturally getting up before the sun didn’t really feature heavily in our plans.

The last few years have thus seen us taking our morning tea anywhere south of 8 a.m. A perfectly civilized time, I’m sure you’ll agree. The sun is also more consistently civilized in its own waking times here in northern Spain – we have none of that summertime 4.30am sunrise nonsense. The earliest sun up, even in the height of summer, is around 7a.m.

Having a baby did of course muck about somewhat with our sleep patterns. Or completely destroy them for a while, if I’m honest. But at least having the luxury of not having to get up and out the door first thing meant that a certain amount of morning time lounging compensated a lot for the night-time tortures.

Truth be told our favourite time of the day since Jack arrived has been the first hour or two, when we would have the luxury of a family lie-in. Cuddles and stories and cups of tea. A delicious, cozy, gentle sliding start into the day.

Alas, the family lie-in is no more. With school came enslavement to the beep of the alarm. Up and at it, there is not a moment to spare in wrestling a small child into readiness for his walk to the bus stop.

There are some compensations for our newly manic mornings however. (Apart from the obvious one of having subsequent child-free hours to get on with stuff.) For example the light can often be outstandingly beautiful at this time of the morning. There’s something special about being outside in it, fully immersed in its glory. It’s definitely good for the soul.

And then last Friday morning, as we slipped out the door into almost total darkness, a very special thing happened. The barn owl that I have long suspected to be lodging in our loft chose that very moment to swoop across our patio (and heads) and demonstrate his clever trick of folding his giant wings in and squeezing through the small hole in our eaves.

After several months of trying to catch him in the act or to discover his bolthole in the attic I finally had my proof that those nightly ‘toowhit-toowoos’ weren’t just in my head, they really were coming from just above it.

The hole in question. Our pussy cat stands guard.

The hole in question. Our pussy cat stands guard, back in the autumn.

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Sky

A spectacular Spanish sunset. Valdehuesa, León

The photo I posted on Sunday prompted a flurry of cloud-related comments. The hypothesis was proposed, seconded and swiftly carried that Spanish skies are far more interesting than their English counterparts.

A quick glance out my window does nothing to dispel this notion. Right now, the sun is setting off to the west and the sky is stained a cinematic blood-red. In the early mornings we are often privy to a cloud inversion. To be above the clouds whilst still earth-bound is a heady sensation.

Even on more muted days, when atmospheric conditions conform to the norm, it seems the sky here cannot fully suppress its epic tendencies. Cloud formations sweep in from the sea and crash against the foothills of the mountains where they experiment with form and texture in the manner of a particularly daring avant-garde artist.

I love walking under large skies. I love watching ever-changing horizons. I love being caught up in the storm of imagination that crashing clouds can provoke. I love living where I do.

Having said all that, I don’t know for sure whether Spanish skies really are more epic than English ones. Maybe it’s just that our experience of the English sky is often limited to that drab sub-section that hangs over cities or our commute thereto. Maybe it’s just that we’re often too busy in our adult lives to even notice the sky above us. It can take a holiday, a new country, a change in the day-to-day to drop the blinkers from our eyes and yank our heads heavenwards.

Perhaps the best sky of all is always going to be the one you laid under as a child on a summer’s day. The one you gazed up at as you dreamily pictured your future spread before you as the cloths of heaven. Perhaps gazing up at the sky today, wherever we may be, is one way to drift deliciously back into that younger self, those former dreams.

What about you – what’s your patch of sky like? Do you get enough chance to gaze up at it and daydream? When did you last sit and watch the sun set?

Sport

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.

Delicate

I took these photos on an early morning dog walk. It had rained the night before and the day had dawned damp and misty. The light was dull and the normally spectacular views were masked. My eye was drawn down and in to the hedgerows, which suddenly revealed themselves to be laced throughout with delicate spiders’ webs.

The gossamer webs glistened with raindrops caught and held; a natural magnifying glass facilitating a fine inspection of their intricacies. Soon the sun would emerge fully, the droplets would dry and the webs would retreat into hiding once again.

This post is for Week 108 of The Gallery: Delicate.

Click the icon to visit more posts on this theme.

 

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.