Reflections on Barcelona

I originally wrote this piece on Barcelona following our most recent visit in July 2017. I felt compelled to write it because of the genuine internal conflict that this visit, and our previous journey there in May, provoked in me. I loved visiting Barcelona, but by visiting, am I perpetuating a cycle that is slowly destroying the city and the quality of life of its residents?

I was in the process of trying to sell this article to various publications when events in Barcelona overtook my efforts, making the issues touched on in my piece less immediately relevant and, therefore, the article less newsworthy. However, they’re issues that are still very much affecting the city and will continue to do so when the news cycle rolls on and the attacks in Las Ramblas join the ever-growing archive of terrorist acts. 

Our hearts go out to the people of Barcelona and anyone else who was caught up in, or affected by this senseless act of violence. We know that the city, accustomed as it is to turmoil, political unrest and the occasional outbreak of violence, will bounce back. For now, we add our voices to the multitude calling for peace, love and understanding to be prioritised above greed, violence and retribution. 

T’enviem el nostre amor Barcelona!


Now that my family and I have finished our second stint in Barcelona, I think we are in agreement that its reputation as one of the world’s great cities is indeed well-deserved. There’s an vibrancy about the town, particularly in neighbourhoods like El Born or Vila de Gràcia, that fairly oozes possibility and an attitude of industry and creativity that leaves one energised, inspired and grasping for more at every turn.

But the capital of Catalunya is also a city that is fundamentally conflicted about its popularity and is in many ways is struggling, both conceptually and physically, to find a balance between opening itself up to the world, while retaining the strength and character and unique cultural identity that is so compelling to both its residents and the millions of transient visitors who fill its streets every year.

As a travelling family, we were captivated by everything this wonderful city had to offer. There was something – a multitude of things really – to delight, intrigue and ignite the imagination in each of us. We loved the adventure of exploring the various neighbourhoods, never knowing what to expect around the next corner. Even the obvious attractions – Gaudi’s remarkable architectural creations, Las Ramblas, La Mercat de la Boqueria, for example – are of such undeniable quality and international significance that even the most cynical “anti-tourist” traveller would be forced to concede that they’re worth visiting (even if clandestinely, to avoid losing their hardcore traveller’s credentials).

But to describe Barcelona as a single, homogenous entity would be misleading and overlooks a fundamental contributing factor as to why it is universally recognised as being one of the world’s great cities. In actuality it is the agglomeration of a number of discrete towns, districts and neighbourhoods barris, each with their own unique character, history and traditions, brought together into one sprawling urban metropolis by the industrialisation and inexorable population increases throughout the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

On our first visit we stayed in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, which in theory is a separate city with its own municipal identity and administrative structures. However, other than the wording and colours of official street signage, there are now few physical identifiers to separate it from greater Barcelona – the urban sprawl continues unimpeded from one street to the next. The second time around our digs were at the opposite end of town in el Clot, a fiercely proud tight-knit working class barri in the Santi Marti District, which has a history dating back to mediaeval times and a reputation for artistic production and strongly held political beliefs, which has more than once in its history resulted in violent uprising and revolution.

 

Each of these districts, and all those between and further afield, has its own distinct personality, proud history and secret corners waiting to be discovered by the adventurous visitor. When out exploring the city on foot, we instinctively recognised when we’d moved into the next barri, simply because between one block and the next everything around us changed – the shops, housing and even the people. It wasn’t overt, but we crossed a street and the polished modern storefronts, linen tablewear and neatly dressed denizens of Eixample were traded in for the small neighbourhood fruterías, plastic chairs and tracksuits of Ciutat Vella. The atmosphere became somehow more relaxed too, as if a layer of formality and pretension had been stripped away.

And each barri has its own set of crusted-on local communities whose sense of identity is as solid and self-assured as the very bricks of the buildings that form their few thousand square metres of real estate. Indeed, the residents’ fealty to their barri often seems stronger than their loyalty to Catalunya, and much, much more so than any allegiance they may have to the greater Spanish state.

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The Catalans are a fiercely proud people with a considerable legacy of achievement – intellectual, artistic, commercial and industrial. They have, for generations, argued, struggled and often taken up arms to assert their independence from external rule, whether from Spain or other powers to the north. Many times throughout their history they have tasted self-determination on some level, only to have it snatched away violently by whomever happens to be seeking dominion over them at the time, be it the Bourbon kings of Castilla, the armies of Napoleon or the fascist junta of General Francisco Franco.

Today this struggle continues, with a debate currently underway to instigate a referendum process which could, in theory, see Catalunya become an autonomous member of the European community. Signs of support for autonomy can be seen all over Barcelona – the Catalunyan flag hangs from countless balconies in every neighbourhood, alongside banners simply stating “Si!”. Pro-Spanish flags can also be seen, but they are very much in the minority. There is considerable cynicism in the community about the likelihood for success, due in large part, perhaps, to the region’s interdependent, yet chequered historic relationship with the rest of Spain.

It is a testament to the inclusive atmosphere that currently pervades Barcelona that these dissenting views can be openly displayed. Past experience shows that people with differing viewpoints have not always coexisted peacefully within the city limits (read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia for an example). Given the parlous state of the Spanish economy, rising unemployment and external pressures such as immigration and an increasingly unpredictable climate, it is not inconceivable that tensions could rise again as the current march towards autonomy progresses.

Barcelona is an incredible place to visit, but despite the overwhelmingly positive reports you’ll read all across the internet, I would issue a word of caution about wandering blithely into town without recognising that it’s a city feeling the pressure of this reputation. The sheer weight of numbers of people visiting the city, while fuelling the economy, is having some significant and increasingly negative consequences, both physically and socially, that were obvious even to the first (and second) time visitor. Barcelona’s civic infrastructure is ageing and, if the regular whiffs of raw sewage are any indication, struggling to cope with the load being forced upon them by the estimated 30+ million annual visitors. And in a great many of the traditionally working class inner-city barris, el Clot included, you can find evidence that the residents’ patience is thinning.

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The share economy, particularly in the realm of accommodation, has fundamentally changed the nature of tourism and travelling. Platforms like Airbnb allow travellers like us to have access to a much wider variety of accommodation options and, to a certain extent, the opportunity to embed ourselves within the communities that we’re visiting. Since we started our adventure we have sourced the vast majority of our stays through Airbnb and for the most part they’ve been excellent experiences.

However, there is a flip side to this, one that is having increasingly negative consequences on local communities in Barcelona and other tourist-heavy European cities. Low cost housing is becoming increasingly difficult to find for the inhabitants of Barcelona. People who have historically rented cheap housing and whose families may have lived in the same neighbourhood for generations, are being priced out of their homes by the demand from affluent short-term visitors. In 2017 the government of Catalunya introduced laws seeking to impose restrictions on short term rentals in an effort to stem the tide, but they’re fighting an uphill battle as more and more people have chosen this route to supplement their income. Realistically, what choice would the owner of an apartment make when the opportunity is placed before them to make in a night through Airbnb what they would normally get from rent in a week?

I was aware that there were problems the first time we visited Barcelona, but we were only there for a couple of days and it didn’t really impact on our stay at all. But this time, perhaps because we were staying in el Clot, where this has had a greater impact (or the local community is more politically active), there were signs everywhere that resistance to both rampant tourism and real estate speculation was building. In many places I noted graffiti opposing development at the expense of local communities. On many balconies, alongside the ubiquitous Catalunyan flags, hung banners with a clear warning for wealthy real estate speculators (either foreign or domestic), and in one or two places I saw painted slogans with a direct suggestion for us and other visitors to the city, the words of which I won’t publish here – I’m sure you can guess the gist of the message.

I love Barcelona. It’s a beacon of intellectual, artistic, political and philosophical experimentation and it’s just erupting with creativity. More so than just about any other place we’ve visited, I feel like creative, socially-progressive folk have a strong influence and are carving out a space where this kind of activity can continue to flourish. I felt like it’s the kind of city where, if you had a creative idea and the will and means to turn it into something tangible, you’d be able to carve out a space and be accepted within one of Barcelona’s many thriving neighbourhoods. It was a compelling and energising sensation and I must admit that I was very attracted by it. But as a visitor and an increasingly intensive user of Airbnb and other share accommodation platforms, I’m forced to recognise that I’m actually part of the problem, and this left me feeling seriously conflicted during our stay in Barcelona.

I haven’t yet found a way to reconcile these two opposing drivers. On the one hand, I could recognise my role in perpetuating the cycle that’s destabilising this wonderful city and choose to stay away. Selfishly, I don’t feel that I’m ready to adopt this course of action, because then my family and I would miss out on visiting one of Europe’s and the world’s great cities, thereby diminishing our own travelling experience and depriving our children of an opportunity to engage with this spirit of creativity and industry, and limiting their development as active, thinking human beings. Besides, it’s too late for that now – we’ve already visited. Twice.

Another alternative, and one that sits more comfortably with me, is to find a way to give something back to the city; some kind of positive, meaningful contribution to reinforce one or more of the elements that make Barcelona such an amazing place, and that helps to support the local community in some way. Then maybe, just maybe, we can offset the harm caused by us and the millions like us who, day in, day out, continue to flock to this marvellous, embattled city.

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An introvert’s guide to meeting people while travelling

So we’ve been in Spain for two months now, and all of us are increasing in language confidence, discovering many new places, and investigating the ins and outs of life in a foreign country.

We’ve slowed down our travel, allowing us to immerse ourselves in each place and really delve into new experiences. This has led to some incredible moments, from a farmer asking us to come and see his baby goats (which the kids got to hold), to the kids being invited to an English Language school for an end of year class party.

All of these experiences have been invaluable. The kids have made some very close friends and it has been hard for them to leave them when we do. Last night ended up in a pile of tears as we left some of their favourite new friends.

What we have found, however, is that we were constantly pushing the kids to step past their comfort limits, when Cass and I were not. ‘Go on, say hello to those kids on the playground’ we urged, however when faced with another adult, we would say ‘hello’ and then just go about our transaction without pushing any further.

It dawned on us one day that we were pushing the kids, and they were having some genuinely profound interactions, while Cass and I were missing out.

At home Cass and I truly value our strong friendships with a few close friends, however we have never needed a lot of social interaction. Both of us always got what we needed socially from work and those close friendships. We are naturally introverts who like the company of a small dedicated group. This doesn’t work when travelling, when expanding horizons is what it is all about.

We’re not new to travel, we’ve both travelled before, but as solo backpackers, where it is easy to make conversation with a similar vagabonding type over a meal in a hostel or a drink in a bar. Now we travel as a pack of four, stay in Airbnb type accomodation, and interact with each other in our own little bubble – it is so easy to get by without meeting anyone at all.

Cass and I have had to develop strategies and games to really push ourselves to have more meaningful interactions with people around us and it has really paid off; Cass met a fellow surfer taxi driver who told him all about the local conditions and explained some new Spanish surfing terms; we met a shop owner whose best friend is a coach with the Adelaide Soccer team; and we’ve made friends with the owners of a local tapas bar, who gave us an impromptu round of free Spanish liqueurs to try. These strategies have extended our experience to be so much more rewarding than before we tried them.

Here’s some little games and strategies we use daily:

1. Say something unnecessary

Every time you have an interaction with someone (buying something, riding in a taxi, asking for something) you try to say something that is completely unnecessary to the transaction. For example; when buying bread, ask if there’s been much rain lately, when at the bar, ask who is playing the football on the television, when in a taxi ask for a good place to eat. It’s amazing how often such a simple statement or question can lead to a larger conversation about something very interesting.

2. Go to the same place regularly

If you find somewhere good, go there often. We found a tapería where we really loved the food. It was cheap, near our accommodation and is owned by two brothers that were very friendly. We went back three times and by our third visit we were chatting about all sorts of things (they were the ones that gave us the free selection of Spanish liqueurs and even put some non-alcoholic colourful ones in similar glasses for the kids).

3. Say where you are from

If you tell people early on where you are from, it will often launch a conversation. It’s easier to drop in than you might think. If you don’t understand what someone says you can easily say in the local language, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand, I’m Australian’. If you are feeling a bit more confident you can say ‘I’m sorry, can you please say that again, I’m Australian but would like to practice my Spanish’. Usually this turns into a further conversation, perhaps they will ask where in Australia you are from, or tell you that they’ve been there, or know someone from there. It’s a good starting point.

4. Ask for help

This seems obvious but I’m not very good at this. It works in so many situations. I don’t eat much meat and we used to walk around looking at menus hoping that we would find something herbivorous. Recently we’ve learned to ask the waiter if there are any vegetarian options. This has led to finding better options for all of us, as the waiters often recommend something that is especially good on the menu, or offer a suggestion for what the kids might like. This can then give you a chance to ask more, such as what ingredients are in it, where does the fish come from, how is it cooked, for example.

5. Say yes (when you can).

It can be scary, especially when you are always thinking about the safety of the kids, to say yes to things. I was terrified of letting the kids go to an English Language school party without us in a foreign country, but it turned out to be an excellent experience for them. Of course sometimes you have to listen to your instinct and say no to something that isn’t a good idea, but generally, saying yes is going to find you in some unexpected places.

Have you got any other fun strategies or games for getting more our of your experience in a new country? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

Five things to do with your kids in Burgos

It was not without regret that we boarded our train this morning and left Burgos. The ancient capital of the kingdom of Castille fairly oozes history – from being home to one of Spain’s most popular folk heroes, El Cid, to more recently having the dubious honour of being the capital for General Franco’s ultimately successful 20th century fascist rebellion. It’s a wonderful city and, for a variety of reasons, a fantastic place to visit with kids.

We found the people of Burgos to be overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming, and lightheartedly tolerant of our bumbling attempts to communicate in their mother tongue (Castellano, better known outside of Spain as “Spanish”, originated in the lands of Castilla – Leon and La Mancha). Eating out in Burgos was a particularly pleasant experience, and there were plenty of things we could do with the kids that kept them engaged, enthusiastic and wanting to see, do and know more.

Because of this positive experience, we thought we’d share some of our highlights from Burgos for those of you who might consider bringing your children to visit this wonderful city in the future.


1. Museums
It might sound like I’m taking the easy option by mentioning museums, but there are a couple of truly exceptional ones in Burgos that more than justify their inclusion at the top of this list.

The first one we visited was El Museo del Libro (The Museum of the Book). This small, unassuming institution, laid out over four levels just off the Plaza Mayor, ambitiously seeks to chart the entire history of writing and books – although I noted that there was little mention of anywhere east of Mesopotamia or west of the Iberian Peninsula.

Following the story from Sumerian clay tablets through to the 21st Century and the Kindle, you’ll find a range of examples of how humanity has recorded its thoughts and the influence that books have had on the rise and reformation of western civilisation throughout history. The Museo uses a variety of multimedia and multilingual resources to inform and engage visitors of all ages.

To be honest, I was surprised by just how interesting the kids found the Museo Del Libro, but I suppose I shouldn’t have been, given La Chica’s obsession with reading. We were the only people in the Museo the day we visited, which was both a shame – because it would be great to see such an important subject more well recognised – but also great, because it meant we were able to take our time and discuss the exhibits as loudly and for as long as we wanted. We recommend this museum to anyone wanting to fill an hour or so in Burgos

Museo del Libro Fadrique de Basilea
Travesía del Mercado 3, Burgos
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday,10:00-14:00 & 16:30-20:00
Entry: Adults: 3€, Children <14: Free

The Second museum we visited was a definite highlight – not just of our time in Burgos, but of our trip to Europe so far. El Museo de la Evolucíon Humana (The Museum of Human Evolution) is one of the best natural history museums that we have ever visited, anywhere. Using a range of innovative and highly engaging technologies and storytelling devices, the museum’s installations guide the visitor through the galleries and display spaces outlining the scientific disciplines and techniques used over the years to trace the evolution of the human species.

We all loved it, but it was particularly engaging for the kids, who literally sprinted from one display to the next, impatient to find out more about this fascinating area of scientific investigation.

The Museum was built to underpin the incredible archaeological work done at the nearby World Heritage Listed dig in the Atapuerca Mountains. This is one of the world’s most important sites, in terms of an archaeological record of ancient humans, and it has contributed significantly to our understanding of the evolution of ours and other closely related hominid species. But the museum covers much more than just this one site, with sections on Darwin, the role of fire and much much more to engage and fascinate visitors of all ages.

No trip to Burgos is complete without a visit to this museum. Full. Stop.

Hint: we arrived at 6.45pm and discovered that entry was free after 7pm. Because the museum closes at 8, this only left us an hour to explore the entire institution, which was nowhere near enough time. If you’re thinking of taking advantage of this little work-around, we’d advise you to plan to come to the museum on two, or even better, three consecutive days, so you can take in everything that this incredible place has to offer.

El Museo de la Evolución Humana
Paseo Sierra de Atapuerca, Burgos
Opening Hours: Tuesdays to Fridays from 10:00-14:30 PM & 16:30-20:00. Saturdays, Sundays, public holidays & July, August & September 10:00-20:00
Entry: General Admission: 6 €
Children <8: free. Other benefits and concessions are available for a range of visitors – see website for more details.

2. Eating out
We had some great eating experiences in Burgos. The city is renowned in particular for its soft, white sheeps’ milk cheese and morcilla (rice-filled blood pudding), but there’s so much more to this city to justify its title as Spain’s gastronomic capital for 2013. Here are just two suggestions for places to eat:

Acuarium – We discovered this awesome little bar quite by accident one evening while enjoying a paseo through the city centre. Located down a laneway just off the Plaza Mayor, Acuarium drew us in with its sign promising “Free Tapas”. The croquetas that came with our first round of drinks were pretty good, but a couple of minutes later a delivery of food to a neighbouring table really caught our attention. On enquiry, we discovered that they were having piparra en tempura, crispy tempura baby peppers, and we couldn’t resist ordering a plate for ourselves. The tapa was huge, and mouthwateringly delicious, but unfortunately it didn’t suit our kids’ frustratingly conventional tastes. Thankfully, the alitas de pollo (chicken wings), that came soon afterwards brought about a minor miracle, at least in our little circle – zero complaints, even effusive praise, for a meal ordered out in Spain!

Acuarium

This might not sound like much, but we’ve had an incredibly frustrating time with food here in Spain – well, the food hasn’t been frustrating, it’s our children’s unwillingness to try new or “different” foods that’s been doing our heads in. But since Acuarium, we’ve found that they’re beginning to demonstrate a bit more enthusiasm for trying new things (even if chicken wings aren’t all that new).

The service here was also really friendly and professional, and their willingness to tolerate our poorly framed questions about the food was greatly appreciated.

Acuarium
Travesia del Mercado, 9, Burgos (right opposite the entrance to El Museo del Libro, coincidentally)

Another of our memorable eating experiences was had at Viva la Pepa. Mem led us to this cool little bar//cafe, having found it on the vegetarian/vegan search portal Happy Cow. As a non-meat-eater most of the time, she’s been finding eating out in Spain particularly difficult, given this country’s strong focus on the cooking of flesh of every conceivable variety. We’ve found Happy Cow indispensable in finding places that offer a less meat-heavy menu, particularly in larger towns and cities. Viva la Pepa, which backs onto the Plaza outside the Catedral de Burgos, was one of these finds. Mem’s falafel burger was a winner, while they also satisfied my carnivorous inclinations with a meatier offering, and were able to keep the kids happy with their menu infantil and a pair of generous fruit smoothies.

Viva la Pepa
Paseo del Espolón, Nº4 Plaza del Rey San Fernando, Nº6
Burgos

3. Exploring & playing outdoors
If we were to write a book about our current nomadic adventure (and we may well do just that at some point), it could quite justifiably be titled “A Guide to the Parks and Playgrounds of Europe”. If we were to do that, Burgos would warrant almost a whole chapter to itself.

One activity we all thoroughly enjoyed was the walk up to El Castillo (the castle), which sits atop a knoll overlooking the old city. The ridge behind the Castillo is interlaced with a network of paths winding in and out of the pine forests and undergrowth, which proved a real adventure land for the kids. When we got there, the Castillo was unfortunately closed, despite opening hours which would seem to state otherwise. However, just nearby we discovered – wait for it – a playground, next to which was a bar that served cold beer and patatas bravas (amongst other things), so everyone’s needs were satisfied.

Also great fun for these visiting Antipodeans was discovering the numerous storks’ nests – massive structures built on many of the city’s highest towers with no respect for history or eminence.

Storks

Another highlight, from an outdoors perspective, was the Parque de la Isla, which we discovered by following the Camino de Santiago markers along the river, and which also had an “awesome” playground.

4. Eating in
Eating out and discovering new and interesting dishes is one of the most exciting and energising things about travelling. But sometimes, whether it’s because you want to save a few euros, or you can’t face another plate of fried whatevers, you just want to cook something for yourself and have complete control of what’s going into your body, and those of your family.

Up until Burgos, we’d been pretty underwhelmed by the quality of produce available in Spain, particularly in the south. It was all just a bit tired looking and there wasn’t a great deal of variety. Paris, by comparison, was awash with beautiful fruit, vegetables and a thousand other high quality ingredients (the wine, the cheese, the… well, you get the point) – but that’s another story for another time.

Thankfully, in Burgos we rented an Airbnb flat with a functional kitchen (and good knives – the owners also owned a restaurant) and we were able to find some excellent quality ingredients. This meant that Burgos now also carries the title of “Best Homecooked Meal by the Selwoods”. The benefits, for both your physical and mental wellbeing, gained from good quality, fresh vegetables should never be underestimated, and their availability definitely influenced how much we enjoyed our time in Burgos.

One place we chanced upon and which we recommend to anyone visiting Burgos and looking for good quality organic produce (amongst other ingredients) was:
La Tienda Organica (the organic shop)
C/ Antonio Valdés y Basan 1

5. El Camino de Santiago
No post on Burgos would be complete without a mention of the Camino de Santiago. This pilgrim trail, which winds its way from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in the north-west of Spain, dominates Burgos, which is one of the major towns along the route. One gets the impression that the bulk of Burgos’ tourism trade is centred on catering for the needs of the tens of thousands of pilgrims who attempt the Camino every year, and it gives the town much more of a cosmopolitan, international feel than many of its counterparts in other regions of Spain. Shops are filled with paraphernalia, including walking sticks, clothing and other souvenirs marked with scallop shells (the symbol of Santiago – St James the Apostle), while restaurants and hostels advertise special rates for peregrinos (pilgrims).

The camino itself splits into two as it passes through Burgos, and we had a great time looking out for the trail markers – tiles with the scallop shell insignia – that lead the pilgrim through town. Although we’ve only done very small sections so far, the Camino is high on our bucket list of things we want to do before leaving Spain. While you’re in Burgos, however, we recommend a day’s walk out and back along the Camino. You’ll soon find yourself out in the beautiful countryside that surrounds the city, sharing the route with people from every corner of the globe. There’s a real collegial feel to the Camino and you and the kids are bound to meet some interesting characters along the way.

Check out the Wise Pilgrim Guides for some more really good information on the Camino and Burgos.


So that’s just about all we have to say about Burgos. The city treated us incredibly well – we felt welcomed, entertained and well fed, and came away wanting to return to finish off some experiences and find time to check out a number of things we’d wanted to do, but just didn’t get time to this time around.

Logistics

Getting there: Burgos is 2.5 hours from Madrid and 3 hours from San Sebastian by train. If you book far enough in advance it’s a surprisingly cheap journey. Our favourite portal for booking trains in Spain is Trainline.

You can try it through the Renfe website, but we’ve had no luck on that front because they don’t accept payment via Australian (and possibly other nationalities) credit cards, not even our travel money cards (WTF Renfe, I mean seriously!?)

Accommodation: We stayed in a terrific little family apartment sourced through Airbnb.


Have you travelled to Burgos with your family? Have any other hints, tips or general comments on travelling with kids? Feel free to leave a comment below and let’s have a conversation.

For more details on the area see the Lonely Planet guide below (affiliate link):
Spain travel guide - Castilla Y Leon (2.936Mb), 11th Edition Nov 2016 by Lonely Planet
Digital version of Spain travel guide – Castilla Y Leon, 11th Edn Nov 2016 by Lonely Planet

The Rhythm of a Spanish Day

A friend asked me the other day, ‘what do you do all day’? I hadn’t really thought about it, but I suppose when you no longer have a traditional work schedule, it might seem a bit daunting to have no structure, no particular plan, and nothing to occupy oneself.

However that is misleading. There is a structure to our days, and it has been said by many people, many times, kids need structure. However the structures of our days have to fit with the rhythms of a Spanish day which are very different from those we had in our Australian life.

In Australia, our daily and weekly schedules were shaped by school and work. Here, we have none of those constraints, but we do have siesta, longer daylight hours, and different eating times to contend with.

It took us a while to settle into the rhythm of a Spanish day. With most shops and businesses closing for siesta in the early afternoon, the errands and important matters need to be done early in the day. This can provide a real sense of accomplishment in the day. When all the nitty gritty has been taken care of early, you can enjoy the rest of the day for living.

Siesta means different things to us on different days. Sometimes we try and have a sleep, sometimes we relax in a park, sometimes we sit and read, sometimes we ignore it completely. Days where we take the time to relax in the afternoon are definitely the best. We can recharge, and it makes one day seem like two. Sometimes we laugh as we think we did something yesterday, when really it was just before siesta.

After siesta, I love the slow crescendo of the noise outside as people re-emerge from their dwellings. Around 5pm is one of the most bustling times here, and it is full of energy and excitement. Kids run to the football field, grandparents stroll along the streets, friends meet at a bar. It reminds me that we are really living, and I enjoy the importance placed on this social time of the day. It is a time that is focussed on family and friends. I think we as a family have been missing this in Australia and it is something I want to hold on to.

Spaniards eat much later in the day than we are used to. We find most people here eat a very minimal breakfast, have a snack mid-morning to tide them over, and then eat the main meal of the day around 1 or 2pm. Then there’s another light snack (often accompanied by a small beer, a caña), and then a late small meal after 8 to 9pm or later. In our first month here, we struggled with this schedule. We were wanting our main meal in the evening, usually too early for anyone to serve us, and on the odd occasion we found somewhere to eat at an hour that suited us, it was a touristy place with less interesting food, and a higher price tag.

Slowly, we adapted our eating patterns to fit our surroundings. We have the odd day where we are out exploring where it’s easier to fall into our Australian patterns and have a sandwich for lunch, then eat a bigger meal late in the day, but we’re now eating much later than we ever would have at home. The biggest impact this has had on us, is that we’re no longer trying to cook a main meal at the end of the day when we’re all tired and worn down. We’re now able to spend the evenings doing fun things together, such as going for a paseo, playing a game or sitting in a bar having a drink and discussing our day. This family time in the evening brings us together at the end of each day, and it feels good to go to bed this way.

Bedtime has disappeared since we arrived. It used to always be a time of stress at home when we were tired from work and school. The kids would want to stay up, we would want them to go to bed and that difference in opinion would result in arguments. Now, the kids are allowed to stay up until we’re all too tired, and we flop into bed. Some nights it is earlier than others, and it isn’t always without argument, but it is much simpler than it used to be. It helps that we don’t have commitments early in the morning unless we have a train to catch, so the kids sleep later in the morning than before. The wind down that we get in the evenings without having to cook a meal or stress about bedtime makes for a more joyful and relaxing evening, and I really value this time I get with the kids.

And to answer that question, what do we do all day? We explore, we ask questions, we talk in jumbled Spanish with people we meet, we teach the kids about the world, we find hidden pockets of places, we look for secret paths, we eat, and we enjoy each others’ company. Sometimes we split up so one of us can get some work done, sometimes we stick together. Sometimes we just relax, sometimes we walk all day. Sometimes I bring a book and sit at a playground soaking up some sunshine, sometimes we go for a long lunch in a mountain town. It is fulfilment driven by curiosity, and the rhythm of a Spanish day is what makes it work.

Photo Essay #2 – Animals

So when Aunty Lucy heard we were composing photo essays on a certain theme as a means to get the kids to engage in the world around them, she made a request that we spend one day looking for and photographing animals. She’s a zoologist, so it wasn’t out of character at all for her to make such a request which, incidentally, the kids loved.

Ever since, whenever they see something that’s even vaguely animate and has a pulse, they ask if they can take a photo for Aunty Lucy. It’s taken about three weeks, six stops and two international border crossings, but we’ve finally taken a moment to put together our (heavily curated) animalian photo essay, with shots from Cadiz, San Fernando, Barcelona, Paris, Saint-Jean de Luz and Porrua. This is for you Tia Lucia!

Saving Nature – a guest post by La Chica

We live in a beautiful world but we are endangering all the animals and plants. Every day millions of people contribute to global warming by driving cars, riding motorbikes and many more. All this makes the polar ice caps melt more which means polar bears and Arctic and Antarctic animals will have no where to live.

If the animals die out there will be no plants, no insects, no us, and no more lovely planet Earth. There are so many more reasons that I cannot write about them all.

The Sierra Nevada from Guadix

But we need to look after our planet because our lives depend on it.

Thank you for reading.

I hope you all think this through very carefully because our environment is our life.

Cave House with eroded hills

Creative Fun for the Engaged Junior Traveller

One of our great motivators in planning this adventure was that we knew it would open doors for our children and show them that the world is full of opportunities, if they only have the courage and confidence to step up and grasp them.

But travelling with children, while full of unexpected moments of joy and wonder, is also not without its challenges. As we expected, being in a country full of unfamiliar sights, smells, sounds and speech has at times been quite overwhelming for the kids. We’ve had days where they’re beating down the door to get out into the world and soak up the novel experiences, and others where they just want to hunker down in the safety of their own little world and shelter in the familiarity of each other’s company.

This was not unexpected, and we understand that this is a necessary part of the process of familiarising themselves with their new circumstances. Thankfully, our schedule has been flexible enough to accommodate these periods of withdrawal, which we ourselves also crave at times.

However, we also know that it won’t be doing us or the kids any good if we shut ourselves off from the outside for too long. Life is there to be lived and there’s a world of experience to be had just out the front door. So despite their protestations, some days we browbeat the children into getting dressed and we drive them out the door to see what surprises the world has for us.

We’re always thinking of new ways to encourage them to engage with the world around them; to help them gain confidence and be more comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings. I’d like to share one game that I came up with, which we trialled a couple of days ago and which worked quite well.

At the start of the day, one of the children chooses a theme. It can be anything – a colour, an animal, a shape – anything they can think of. Then throughout our adventures that day, whenever they encounter an example of that theme, we photograph it and at the end of the day we sit down together and compile a photo essay on the theme. While we do this, there are many opportunities to dig deeper into the world around them, opening the door to lessons on history, architecture, language and a myriad other subjects. If Mem and I don’t know the answer immediately, well there’s an opportunity for further research.

So we kicked off the first of these days with La Chica selecting the colour Red as our theme. Below are the photos we took as we trekked our way through the ancient town of Guadix, located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in Andalucía, in southern Spain. You’ll note that we even managed to find an Australian native plant to include in the day’s photo gallery – a bright red bottlebrush we found poking its way through a wrought-iron fence in one of the more affluent barrios that we passed through.

Our First Week in Spain as a Nomadic Family

We’ve been in Spain for a week now, and it feels like a month. Each day stretches out before us as we fill it with experiences.

We have watched hot air balloons hover over our mountain-cave home, danced at a local charity fiesta, watched locals create incredibly simple but delicious foods, climbed to lookouts to see the vista, explored hidden alleyways full of surprises, eaten a variety of tapas and run through hedge mazes in the middle of one of the world’s great cities. It feels impossible that we could have done all this (and more) in just one week.

Between our two nights in Madrid we managed to see a large proportion of the city. We spent the morning in the Parque del Retiro  and then in the evening we explored around Plaza Mayor, Plaza de Sol, Palacio and Almudena Cathedral. There’s still a lot to discover next time we come to Madrid, but we had a good overview of the city.

Since then we have been living in a cave (Cueva Balcón) in Guadix that we found on Airbnb (click here to get a free travel credit for your first stay on Airbnb). While it is a little cool in the mornings and evenings, the ambience is incredible, as is the view from our balcony. We can see the snow on top of the Sierra Nevada, the cave houses nestled into the pointy and jagged hills, the white lines of the Church at Ermita Nueva, the rugged Moorish Alcazabar, the deep green orchards on the plains, and the tall bell tower of the Cathedral.

During our ten day stay, we are coming to know some people around our local area, and finding some amazing places that are a little off the tourist track. Local butchers, bakeries and bars are very accommodating of our stilted Spanish and always enjoy finding out that we’re not the usual Spanish or English visitors to Guadix.

The kids have been starting to pick up Spanish words here and there. Walking down the street, they’ll sometimes ask us about a word they have heard from someone we’ve passed, or they’ll read something in a shop window. Occasionally we hear them practicing the sounds, which sound like a Spanish gibberish, but is all part of them training their muscles. They each bought a Spanish kids’ magazine yesterday. While looking at them together, it was clear that they were understanding more than just the pictures were describing. If they can pick up this much in one week, it will be amazing to watch how their language progresses over the next month. Hopefully when they start interacting with Spanish kids their confidence will increase.

Some valuable travel lessons have been learned in the last week too:
* Australian credit cards (including travel cards) cannot purchase train tickets online. We’ve had to buy them all at the train stations so far.
* When looking up something online, the price will go up if you go back and look at it a second time. A good work-around is to use ‘incognito’ or ‘private’ mode on your browser.
* Atocha railway station in Madrid is not easy to navigate, nor were the staff very helpful. Arrive with more than 30 minutes before your scheduled departure to try and find your platform. We only just made our train.
* Getting a Spanish sim card was one of the easiest things we’ve done so far. The man in the phone store was very helpful, and the SIM cost us €10. For €20 credit we get 2GB of internet and €20 of calls. SMS between us is free as we are on the same network.

We’re living exactly the life we wanted to create. I can’t wait to see what’s around the next corner.

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Goodbyes

We have said so many goodbyes this week and each of them is unique. Some goodbyes are joyful, others are tearful. Some have a business like tone, ‘see you next time,’ with a handshake, but some are extended well wishes, hopes and thoughts.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the people we are saying goodbye to, and how their lives may change, how the kids will grow in our absence, how they will pull through their trials, and how some of those battling illness will get by.

I’ve been thinking about distance, and how it can be hard to be so far away when life takes a new turn. But distance also forces you to be more active in friendships and relationships. This I promise.

As I say goodbye to family, friends, work colleagues, people who have influenced me, people who have supported me, people who have embraced me, I realise exactly how important each of these people are in my life. They are the true fabric of existence. The act of leaving has renewed my perspective and made me truly appreciate each and every one of them.

There are some people I know I will never see again for various reasons and that is the hardest thing of all. But I know I’m lucky to have the chance to say goodbye.
Saying goodbye is hard but these goodbyes have taught me that there is no perfect way to do it. No matter what you say, it never feels like enough.

So to all those that we won’t see for a while, we love you. We’ll miss you.

Most importantly, stay in touch, send us a message, write us an email, Skype us. Let us know how you’re doing. And we promise to do the same.

Until next time….¡hasta luego!