Fear of finishing

Paris welcomed me back with open arms. It was cold and wet and the bus I was on terminated a stop or two earlier than expected but I enjoyed walking through its streets again. It was just on dusk and the rain made the streets all clean and shiny as the light from the street lights bounced and reflected on the footpaths and cobblestones. As I turned into Cité Bergère, I felt at home. I man walking towards me smiled, nodded and said hello before I could return the greeting he started to apologise saying in English “I thought you were someone that I knew”. I laughed and touched his arm saying, “you do know me Phillip – Genevieve”. We both laughed at his mistake. Phillip is a friend of both Jackie and my friend Cate. I met Phillip when I lived in Paris earlier this year. After chatting for a few moments I made my way further down the narrow street to Jackie’s. Madame Bouchard, a neighbour of Jackie’s walked past said her greetings and spoke to me in French. I nodded and smiled with no real idea of what she was saying, but the general understanding that she was pleased to see me again and that Jackie will be happy to have me back. They all know that I am Jackie’s sister.

I spent almost two weeks in Paris. It was cold and it was wet most of the time. I didn’t visit any of the sights or the galleries. I walked a lot around the areas I knew well. Walked across and along the river. Walked to the left bank a few times. I walked more aimlessly than ever before. Looking back now, I know I was suffering from the fear of finishing.

Christmas was two days in Normandy in the dual towns of Trouville-Deauville. These beautiful towns are separated by a river – which when I was there looked more like an empty storm-water canal. Deauville is flashier, high-end, its sister Trouville is much more Bohemian in its look and feel. At Christmas with fairy lights and decorations glimmering and glinting on the streets, both towns made me feel I was living in a fairy tale. It didn’t snow but it was cold. Christmas Day was spent with Jackie, Cate and Phillip eating seafood. If it hadn’t been so cold it could have felt like an Australian Christmas.

After leaving Normandy I returned to Paris for a few days before beginning the journey home. I spent two of my last three days in Paris in bed feeling tired and ill. From my bedroom at the front of Cate’s apartment in the 9th, I could hear Paris wafting up at me from the Rue de Hauteville below. I could hear Parisians taking as they walked past three floors below. I could hear the angry beeping of horns as someone blocked the street which would often turn into yelling or and ensuing argument. One time, I heard a woman sobbing as she passed. I felt for her and wondered what could make her so sad as to sob so loudly as she walked down the street. As I lay in my sick bed, willing myself to feel better before having to begin the journey home, I soaked up the sounds of Paris, hoping never to forget them and hoping to hear them again.

Jackie met me at Cate’s on the morning of my departure to walk me to the Gare du Nord to catch the Eurostar to London. I would spend one night in London with an old school friend before boarding my flight to Melbourne. Jackie was in a bad mood – maybe it was because I was leaving, maybe it was because she was over-tired, maybe it was because she thought she was coming down with the same bug I had and was irritable that I had ‘given’ it to her. Whatever the reason, it made for a funny walk to the station. Jackie cranky is still witty but woe betide anyone that deigns to think they can speak to her. By the time we had reached the station she had told-off a handful of people in both English and French. It was only as we were about to enter the station I looked up and said to her “Jackie, this is Gare de l’est not Gare du Nord”. A few minutes of expletives started our short walk to the right station. When we got there it was absolute chaos. Long, long lines of confused people, harried staff, arguing couples, children crying. I looked at Jackie and told her to go. In her mood, it wasn’t a good place for those near us to be.

Finally, I get on my train which is now looking like being an hour late. The journey is uneventful, as I watch the French country side speed past. I look out at Calais, before we enter the tunnel to travel under the English Channel. I see the fences, high fences, that end in spikes and barbed wires. These fences are to stop refugees risking their lives, as they attempt to use the tunnel as a means to enter Britain. It is a sad sight to see. In London, my old school friend is waiting for me at the station. I haven’t seen Eraina in almost 30 years. Not surprising I am a little nervous about how much time has changed us both and if we would still get-on like 17 year old best friends. There was no need for nerves. With true friends, time always stands still. Despite the grey heads of hair, despite having our own teenagers (possibly the cause of our grey hairs), despite the difference in the lives we have led, it is like we are still teenagers at school. We laugh at things we remember, we talk about the other girls, we do a bit of facebook stalking to see what some of them are up to. We remember and remind each other of a time before we began the journey that would become our lives. Eraina’s husband and children are wonderful too yet before I know it Eraina and her daughter are driving me to the airport for my flight and I am wishing I had stayed longer.

Now I am back in Sydney almost a year to the day since I left. It has taken me a while to finish this final installment. I started, I stopped. I wrote and I deleted. I opened my computer and closed it again. I just could not seem to find the motivation to write. I moaned about writer’s block to my friends in Victoria. Finally, someone said three words to me that really was the problem. Fear of finishing. Now I have finished. My gap year is over and I must go back to the real world.  The real world does not consist of living out of a suit-case, or walking 800 kilometres for the sake of it. The real world does not consist of walking up the side of volcanoes or accidentally stumbling into nudist villages. The real world consists of a steady job and the straight and narrow path of a middle-aged woman setting herself up for comfort in old age. After all …. who needs adventure?

The beginning of the end

As I prepared to do just as Nina did and leave Madrid for Paris to begin the journey home, I reflected on our journey together. Sure, I took a slight detour or two, Estapona and Lanzarote – but our paths merged for one last time that final night in Madrid. Prior to leaving Madrid, Nina spoke to the maid, Rosita, about all the places she missed out on visiting. I too am thinking about places I missed out on seeing but more importantly, I am reflecting about all the places I have been. Not just in following Nina’s footsteps on this trip but my whole gap year. I was preparing to return to Paris – back to where it all began.

I took my last paseo from my hostel, up and through the Puerta del Sol towards the Plaza Mayor. I looked around me as I wandered through Sol. The usual buskers, beggars, touts and lottery ticket sellers were there. I remembered Nina’s description of the paseo. She wrote:-

“All the street-sellers are out, and all the beggars. Shabby and dusty, the necktie vendor moves hither and thither offering to the strolling crowd a score or so of silk ties flung loose across his arm. The cake-seller stands against the wall, an uncovered basket at his feet from which passers-by who have no fear of germs may purchase sugared buns or fine little pipes of bread or sponge-cakes smeared with jam and then rolled in coconut. The peanut man, the lottery-ticket man, the cool drinks man, the newsboys are all aboard for the paseo shouting their wares.”

The beggars and the lottery-ticket sellers remain but newsboys and peanut man are long gone, as are the tie-sellers and cake-sellers. Now the street-sellers offer trinkets from north Africa and children’s toys. There are mini trumpets that the children in prams blow loudly as their parents push them through the crowds. There are plastic things that light up brightly when propelled into the air by elastic bands. They don’t last long – after three to four trips up in the air the elastic gives and the children cry. Another plastic gadget changes the sound of a voice when it is spoken through. There are glasses and ears and headbands that light up in flouro-colours. African women walk through the crowds in traditional dress with baskets on their heads. Make eye-contact and the baskets are whipped off to show the wares, hand made leather wrist-straps, elephant and camel key rings, fruit baskets that fold into a bread board shaped like an apple. The statue buskers stand still hoping for a few coins to be thrown to them. Others dress up and charge one or two euros for a photo with them. Sol’s Christmas light and decorations shine brightly and the Christmas tree stands tall and shines brightly in its ever-changing colours. People stop to take their photos in front of the tree – and while all of this is happening, the Madrid crowd surges past at its own pace with its own sound.

I looked around Sol before seeing more of the same in the Plaza Mayor. I moved with apprehension. Not because of the Madrid nightlife or its people but I knew the following morning I would leave for Paris. Paris – it is the beginning of the end. It is the beginning of my trip home. It is the beginning of resuming a normal life at home. This time, home will not be to pick up a few months work in a different city. This time home is back to Sydney. To live, to work, to once again be with family and friends. The apprehension stems from the knowledge that I will have to find work and to start life over again. My optimistic self is telling me it will be ok. The pessimist inside is rolling her eyes and sighing heavily. There is the nine-to-five to get used to again. The crowded public transport, the traffic, the people – yet before all of this, there will be Paris. I reminded myself about Christmas in Paris before one night in London and home on New Year’s Eve. It seems to appropriate to sleep the last night of 2017 in Australia and wake up and begin a new life again in 2018 on its very first day.

When Nina spoke with Rosita before leaving for Paris they listed off places Nina should visit in the future. Reflecting on where I have been, I thought I would make some lists.

Top seven places I visited during 2017 that I had never visited before

  • Seville
  • Granada
  • Lanzarote
  • Sicily
  • Dresden
  • Burgos
  • Naples

Top seven experiences

  • Walking the Camino – this will be number one for life
  • Climbing Mt Etna
  • Boating around the feet of Malta
  • Spending quality time with friends in Melbourne and Victoria
  • Meeting the Italian relatives in Molochio
  • Feeling like a Parisian
  • Driving around Lanzarote (don’t mention the guard rail!)

Worst seven experiences

  • Gibraltar – what a let down.
  • Taxi strike in Madrid
  • Hitting that guard rail with my little red car in Lanzarote
  • Avoiding all the cyclists that train in Lanzarote. I was pleased I avoided them it was just an added anxiety getting past them safely
  • My last dinner in Madrid
  • Loneliness that crept up on me at unexpected times.
  • My break-down on the Camino when the pain got too much

Places to visit or re-visit

  • Sicily
  • Seville
  • Lanzarote
  • The rest of the Canary Islands
  • Bilbao
  • San Sebastián
  • Granada

I guess that means I’ll be travelling to Spain again some day. Preferably not alone.

Expect the unexpected – it may be worth it

I am driving on the right-hand side! It is exciting. After getting some confidence up, I decided it was time to go over to the other side of the island to the Timanfaya National Park. Actually, my confidence isn’t that great yet, so instead of going along the highways, I decide to take the nice quiet country roads. I expect that they will be a lot more quiet and a lot easier for me to drive. For the first time, I go up the hill in front of my place. Well, it isn’t quite a hill – more of a mountain really. It is a two-way road but it also isn’t much of a road – more like a goat track that clings precariously to the side of the mountain as it winds its way ever upwards. I am a cold sweat. I am trying to stick to the right hand side of the road, but the mountain face drops straight down. I am hoping nothing comes in the other direction and am unsure which approach I dread more. To meet another vehicle on the straights where I don’t want to get any closer to the edge or on the dreaded hairpin turns. There aren’t even any trees to hit and maybe stop you, if you do go over the edge. Just straight down. I am slowly crawling along, even if I wanted to turn back, I can’t. There is nowhere to turn so I just have to keep going up. After what seems like forever I am up the top and with a great deal of chance, I didn’t see another car. There is a view point, so I get out for some respite, breathing heavily as the wind chills me even more cold due to the cold sweat. The view is amazing and when I see the road I had just driven up, I can’t help but swear loudly.

Not far from the view the goat track meets, what the map calls, a main road. The road base is better, and slighter wider but now the hairpin turns come through cut-outs in the rock. You cannot see if anyone is coming in the other direction or not. Also because it is a main road there are more cars. I am too anxious to head completely over the other side of the island and decide to return by another route and visit the Cactus Gardens instead. The gardens were great, again designed by Cesar Manrique, the signs on the both the men’s and ladies toilets were fairly impressive as were all the cactus plants. After this,  I decided a coffee was in order and headed for the nearest town on the coast.

Driving into the little town, Charco del Palo, there is a large billboard. On it are a naked man and women, holding hands looking back over their shoulders and smiling at those who enter the village. “HA!”, I snort, I have found the nudist beach. I have a short stroll around town to check out what looks like the best place for a coffee. I pass one, it looks a little boring. I see a sign for another café that proclaims it has a tropical garden. Thinking that sounds nice and relaxing after the drive, I head towards that one. It’s closed but there is a sign out the front promoting their “naturists dinner nights”. I laugh, so the nudists come up from the beach to dinner. I head back to the boring one and get my coffee fix. Inside I notice a sign while paying my bill. It is printed out from a computer. There is a naked man and woman but they have clothes over the top of them. In Spanish the words say “no nudity here”. By now the penny has dropped and I realise the whole town is a nudist town. I just chose the clothing only café. On leaving town, I came to a stop sign. Stopped the car, looked right, looked left – where a group of naked men are walking along the street – swinging in the breeze. This time my “HA” was extra loud, as I wondered how long I could stop there for before they spotted me. I drove on. That was a sight I had not expected to see.

I finally did make it over to the Timafaya National Park the next day. The line of cars to get in was horrific. It took me an hour from just outside the entrance until I got to the parking lot. The bring the visitor cars in by sections. They will let about 10-12 cars in and get them to stop. When 10-12 cars leave, the waiting cars get to move up to the next waiting stop and so on. This takes forever. Finally I am there but I don’t see what I am looking for. The landscapes are surreal but I was looking for the black circles that make the ground look like a moon or a giant black golf ball. In the gift shop I buy a post card that bears the image of what I am looking for. On the way out I ask the man, whose job it is to get the geyser to blow by pouring water into it, where I can see what is on my postcard. He gives me directions and I am off. Not far away is the sight I have wanted to see. It’s different from what I imagined, probably because I am at street level and the images I have seen before are all from a bird’s eye view. Rather than a naturally occurring phenomenon, these circles are actually built. They are round walls of volcanic rock and in the circles is volcanic soil – it is a farming practice to grow things. While not what I expected it still looked really cool. Was it worth the wait to get into the national park? I think so, I did get to see yet another Cesar Manrique inspired work of art in its buildings, its landscapes and chefs cooking food by volcanic heat.

Art and driving.

There is a cockatoo here where I am staying. I think Samuel, the guy who got me the car looks after it. It whistles and talks – in Spanish – all day long. Sometimes, it is the only sound you can hear up here on my mountain. That and the rooster that wakes me at pre-dawn each day. After I get the car keys from Samuel and had explained that I was Australian, which is why I made gear stick motions with my left hand, I tell him that the cockatoo is Australian too. “Si?”, has asks, “cockatoo-ah?”. I told him in Spanish that I was certain. As I pass the cockatoo on the way back to my room, it talks to me. I stop and say “Hello cocky, hello cocky” and then sing to it “Dance, cockie, dance cockie”.  The cockie asks me “Que t’all?” which is “how are you” in Spanish. I roll my eyes and smile, thinking to myself, lucky cocky living here but there is no hope for you.

After grabbing my bag and my sunnies, I head for the car telling myself that I just have to remember that I need to be near the middle of the road, not next to the curb. This has helped me stay on the right side of the road, but has not stopped me from grabbing at the door quite a few times when I need to change gears. I start off easy, going to the nearby village, the one I usually walk to. It’s fine, no problems. I even successfully negotiated the round-about. Courage up, I drive north to the small fishing town the ferry leaves from to go to La Graciosa. I take a slightly different route back and drive up to del Sebo Mirador del Rio, which from my understanding of Spanish, means there is a view to be had. Once there, you have to pay to go into a building to see the view but seeing the building was work every cent. It is a curved building on the top of the mountain looking out to the sea and La Graciosa. The building is simple it does not detract from the landscape rather it complements it.Yet there is so much to look at both inside and out at the view. Far below the ferry bobs its way through the tough Atlantic waves back to Lanzarote. There are several levels to the building, curved white walls lead me up to another level. The stairs are white, topped with a black timber. It makes me think of piano keys. There is a restaurant, but it is too late for lunch. I stop off at the souvenir shop to add to my collection of fridge-magnets. As I leave, I think about what I just saw, it was art, it was  architecture and it was the natural environment – all rolled into one single work of art.  On the way home I drive  through the town of  Haria, where majestic palms line either side of the road. The island appears more fertile on this side. The town is crowded and I can’t find a park. I head back home and I am feeling that maybe I will be ok with driving.

The next day I was planning on going to the other side of the island to visit the lava lunar landscape, but think maybe I should stay another day or two without having to go through the main towns to the south until my confidence is a bit higher. I head north again. There is a tourist destination called Jameos del Agua. I’m not really sure what it is. The bus stopped there on the way to the ferry and the place was packed. The car-park was full and people were lining up to get in. I had thought to myself that maybe it was some sort of aqua-farm as there was a sculpture of what looked like a lobster outside. Remember, the only real research I had undertaken before reaching Lanzarote was to look up IMDB and find out where Almodovar filmed. I turned up just after ten o’clock, which is when everything in Spain opens. The car park is not yet packed but there is a line to get in. While waiting on the line, I quickly jump on-line to read what this place is. I am informed reliably by the web, that it is not an aqua-farm but rather a tourist centre combining nature and art and the habitat for blind crabs. There is also a concert hall and a really good restaurant. Okkkkaaaaayyyy. My turn, I pay the price and walk in. It is a lava tube formed when the outside of a lava stream cools quickly and the inside of the lava continues to run out to the sea. It is magical. Inside, there is a sense of refinement, waiters are setting up tables for the day but it is way too early to lunch. There are plants and lights among the rock that give the whole place an air of peace and serenity. The tourists are not at all loud in this place. Down the stairs I go and then further down. There is a natural lagoon on the inside. This is where the blind crabs live. They are not just blind, they are albino and no bigger than one centimetre. At the bottom of the pristine water of the shallow lagoon, the blind, albino crabs sparkle like stars against the black night sky. Exiting the cave into the bright sunlight there is a beautifully landscaped area. It’s not just landscape – it’s art. There are small unobtrusive sculptural pieces among the gardens and a blue pond glistens in its white surrounds. The contrast of the bright white to the black volcanic rocks and stones and the green palms, cactus, mosses and lichens is surreal in a natural beauty of something that has been designed and built.

Like lava, I flow through this place re-entering another part of the tube. This tube has an amphitheatre  shell-shape to it and has been designed as the concert hall. Concerts are held here two nights a week in winter, more in summer. The stage is down in the corner of the shell-shaped tube and black seating with white cushioning make their way up to the back of the theatre like piano keys. It is understatedly beautiful. I start thinking it must have been designed by the same guy as the building from yesterday as again, this place was art, architecture and landscape rolled into one work of art. Also, maybe he designs the roundabouts. I make a mental note to do some research.

If I had been told that morning that by day’s end I would have a new favourite artist, I would not have believed it. That is exactly what happened and his name is Cesar Manrique. Firstly I have to overlook the fact that he voluntarily fought on Franco’s side during the Spanish Civil War. I can do that. He did start off studying architecture but gave it up after a few years. Cesar was born on Lanzarote and had a great love for the island. He lived in New York for a couple of years after receiving a grant from Nelson Rockefeller but returned to his home. He was more than an artist. Cesar had a major influence on local planning decisions. His influence was successful in that there are no high rise buildings on the island and all buildings use the traditional colours on their exteriors. It is heart-warming to see that one man’s passion for nature and for his environment can have such an effect on a place.

I have just found out that his old house is now an art-gallery. Bubble-rooms are dug into the volcanic rocks. His art is on display there but also his own art collection which houses works by Miro and Picasso. I just wish he had lobbied more successfully for better roads. Some of the roads I drove on today were quite fright inducing.  I think that visiting his gallery should be my drive tomorrow. I just wish I had not read that he died in a car accident not far from here.

I have an itch to scratch

I think I first got the itch to visit the Canary Islands on my first visit to Spain back in 1987. There was talk about ‘contraband’ coming into mainland Spain from the Canary Islands. I can’t remember what the contraband was, it was either bananas or hashish. It sounded so exotic and mysterious. I wanted to visit but it did not happen. Years later I was hunting through a book stall and I found a small travel book on the islands, complete with maps. I didn’t know then if I would ever make it to the Canaries or not but for five dollars, I bought the book and poured over the maps. I read about the year-round great weather and the history of the islands. A few years after that, I was watching a film by the Spanish director, Pedro Amodovar, Broken Embraces. The scenery in the film was so stunning. There were black lunar landscapes. Stark yet contrasting landscapes. Large mountains, black beaches and strange sculptures on roundabouts. I had to see this. Since then, like the Camino, the Canary Islands has itched at me that I needed to see it, to relieve the itch, to soothe this itch. I wanted to visit after I had finished the Camino but neither my visa nor my bank account would allow it.

The Canary Islands are 100 kilometres, off the west coast of north Africa. They are adjacent to the Moroccan and Western Sahara border. They are governed by Spain who have controlled the Canaries since around 1495, despite some takeover efforts notably by the Dutch, yet are so different from any other part of Spain I have been to. There are seven main islands and many smaller ones. I read somewhere that many people believe the Canaries were named after the birds however, the more popular belief is that they were named after the Latin word for dog ‘canaria’. I haven’t seen any canaries here but I have seen a few dogs and lots of evidence that there are plenty of dogs around – judging by the dog poo on the sides of the road.

After making it to the airport on time despite the taxi strike, I board my plane and am excited to have not just a window seat but the row to myself. As we fly into Lanzarote, my face is pressed to the window. I can see the blue Atlantic with almost no horizon against the blue sky. There are volcanic craters, sticking their heads out of the ocean. There is a medium sized barren island with two small, white towns hugging close to the sandy shoreline. Then we start to descend onto Lanzarote. There are hills, mountains, more craters, not many trees and colours of green and black against a thousand neutral tones. While waiting to get off the plane, I start to chat to an elderly English couple. They come here all the time and ask where I am staying. I look up on my phone and show them the name of the accommodation and the address. “Ooooh”, he says, “that’s up the  north. It’s very pretty. We are staying up the north too, but further north than that”. I ask them if it is easy to get around the island. “Without a car?”, he questions. As I nod, he slowly says, “There are buses but they don’t run very often. You should download the app. We’ll be getting a bus but I don’t know if it goes through that town. A taxi is likely to cost you fifty euro”. I gasp, eyes pop. I should tell you that the only research I did prior to booking my trip and arriving, was to look on IMDB to see which island the Almodovar movie was filmed on. I booked the cheapest flight plus hotel that I could find on a travel website I had never used before – but hey, I’m flying by the seat of my pants.

Outside in the warm sun, I tell a taxi driver where I am going and show him the address on my phone. He asks another driver and four or five more enter the lively conversation on where it is. Finally, they all agree and I am off. Each roundabout we go through, has on it either a modern sculpture, a landscape feature of cactus, a landscape feature of other plants that don’t need a lot of water, a landscape feature of dry stone walls made from black volcanic rock artistically placed or a combination of some or all of the above. The road north pretty much hugs the east coast as we fly by white villages. To our west large mountains loom in their emptiness. Apart from the roundabout and the villages, there are no trees, especially on the steep mountainsides. We reach my accommodation and although I am only forty euros lighter, I feel the pain of such a high cost of a taxi but am happy as I would have had to do the ‘bag drag’ up the hill from the bus stop I noticed. Ricardo is there to check me in, but he wants to hurry. There is no reception at the place and I had to meet him at a specific time, hence the taxi rather than the bus. The accommodation is a kilometre up the road from the main highway and the coast. It is in a tiny village. I comment to Ricardo how far it is, wondering to myself how the bloody hell I am going to get around. He shows me my room. It overlooks a small blue pool and over the stone wall, I can see the ocean. It has a bedroom, a large living room/kitchen with the very basics and a small bathroom. I ask Ricardo if there is a supermarket nearby and if there are any places to eat in the village. I have a kitchen but no food. He tells me there is one place in the village about 500 metres up the hill. It is only open at breakfast. As I said, Ricardo seems to be in a hurry, he tells me if I want a supermarket I will have to walk down the hill and to the left to the gas station. It’s two kilometres there and back. “You can walk four kilometres”, he says to me. I can, but ….. “ok, adios” says Ricardo and he is gone.

So after the siesta and when the weather has cooled, I walk down the hill. I have to walk on the road as the sides are covered in low-lying brush and rocks with some cactus plants thrown in for good measure. I get to the highway, still no footpath, so along the road I walk, facing the on-coming traffic and get blown and buffeted about by the tourist coaches as they thunder past. I do the Jesus shop, water, wine and bread plus I add a few easy to carry items home to have some sort of dinner. Back along the highway I go, back up the big hill I go. It is so quiet up here, I enjoy my first night thoroughly. The wine helped. I watch tv and sleep like I haven’t slept since I left the farm in South Gippsland.

The next day, I head to the village ‘social club’ for breakfast, the one Ricardo told me about. It’s pretty good, with a tanned woman about my age, wearing short shorts, a singlet top, masses of curls and bright red lipstick who sways to Spanish music as she serves me. A few of the locals are here too, including one man who points to planes as the fly over, looks at me and laughs loudly. On my way out, I see she has tourist maps of the islands, something they did not think of supplying at my place, I grab one as I leave, thankful that I now have some basis of a plan – a map. After breakfast I head back to the gas station. I buy more water, more bread and a few more supplies. On the way past I stop at both bus stops going in either direction and take photos of their timetables, there are just a handful of times in both directions during the day. My plans are firming up. Later that day I research day tours and the bus routes. The day tours are pricey and most start from the populated beach resorts on the south of the island. However, I have a plan for the following day.

The next morning I wake, I can now eat breakfast at home thanks to cereal, pomegranate and yogurt bought at the gas station. After breakfast, it is down the hill to the bus stop to head north. The small island I saw from the plane is the first adventure. The bus detours from the highway, stopping at small towns and villages. It stops at what seems to be a BIG tourist attraction. I am unsure what it is but there is a metal sculpture of what looks to be a lobster. I think maybe it is an aquaculture facility. The bus arrives perfectly timed for me to catch the ferry across to La Graciosa. The ferry ride is fun as the little ferry battles the huge Atlantic waves crossing over the pass between the two islands before settling in to a calmer route along the island. The mountains on the Lazarote side are huge and a string of para-gliders and hang-gliders float and fly above and in front of the black stone sea-facing wall. La Graciosa, has some mountains too but they look small – like mere hills in comparison. The main mountain on Graciosa, gives the appearance that it has been painted using a marbling technique. The colours that radiate out from centrifugal points are neutral, subtle but the effect is amazing.

On the island, we motor into the main village. It is pretty, the houses are all white with either blue or green trim on the doors windows and shutters. The streets are sand. Just sand. I am amazed that the houses stand so straight but I guess under the sand is hard rock. There are restaurants and supermarkets and bikes to hire to ride up the amazing mountain or to some of the remote beaches. I explore for a while before lunching on the waterfront. I explore some more after lunch, there is a bank, a post office, a police station. It is quaint. A perfect setting for one of those light-hearted police or doctor based British mini-series. As we ferry back to Lanzarote the sea is much more distressed, we bob up and down into the headwind and seem to make no progress at all. It is a slower trip back but equally as enjoyable. Once back on Lanzarote, I need to wait 45 minutes for the bus, I pass the time walking around town looking for a supermarket. I figured, if I could by my supplies here I could get off the bus at the bottom of the hill and save walking along the highway. No luck, lots of restaurants, but no supermarket. I have to get off in the town of Arriete, stock up and walk along the highway and up the hill. I reach the corner of the highway and the street up the hill and their is a rally car race down my street. I ask a guy if it is ok for me to walk up the hill “Si, si!” is his reply. I dodge the racing rally cars the whole way up, occasionally jumping to safety into the brush and avoiding the cactus plants which I am assuming would be only slight less painful than a rally car hitting me. I am home but perhaps need to consider a hire car. Doubts flood my mind. I haven’t driven much in the past year. Can I drive on the right hand side of the road? My last attempt, 17 years ago, met with a couple less side-mirrors on other people’s cars. Surely I can do it.

The next morning, I decide it’s time to visit the main town. Down the hill I go to catch the bus. It again takes the coastal route before turning inland. More villages, all white, with the green or blue trim. More mountains. More cactus plants. Lots of tall majestic palm trees in each village. The main town Arricife – ACE is its airport code which is cool – is a pretty town with lots of pedestrian only streets, beaches, shops and marinas. I spend a few hours here before going to a supermarket to get supplies before I head on home and back up the hill. I have made a decision. I will get a car. At home, I start exploring hire car options, then I find out I can get a car from my accommodation. Why didn’t Ricardo tell me this. Expletive laden rant about Ricardo. I ring the number on the website. A man answers “Diga”, (speak) he commands.  I ask if it is Ricardo to whom I am speaking with. It’s not, it’s someone called Francisco. When I ask if he speaks English, he replies that he does. He doesn’t.  In a Spanglish conversation he tells me the bicycles are free. Bicycles? Ricardo didn’t mention those either. I use the Spanish word for car. At just 20 euros a day, I can get a car. I tell him yes, that’s great, I will take one. He tells me someone will come to my room soon and sort it out for me.

Twenty minutes later a guy called Samuel knocks on my door. I pay him the required amount. Samuel speaks no English. I ask if the car is automatic or manual, making gear stick movements with my left hand. He tells me yes, it is automatic and makes gear stick movements with his right hand. We laugh as we both work out it is manual and I work out that I am going to have to get used to changing gears with my right hand. I drive manuals but was hoping for an auto simply because of the fact that I know I will reach for the door rather than the gear-stick whenever I need to change gear. As I am making payment, I think to ask about insurance. Samuel has no idea what I am asking. I am tempted to say “insurancia” but know that would be stupid. I then think of mimicking my screaming and crashing but don’t want to scare him or put the mocca on myself, so tell him not to worry. He takes me to my car. It is a small, bright red Fiat. It suits me fine. I now have wheels. Look out! Look out!! More adventures ahead as I realise visiting just two of the Canary Islands may not be enough to soothe my itch.

Adios Madrid. Adios Nina.

It is now my turn to leave Madrid. I feel after all the art and the Cathedrals and churches, I am no longer in need of divine inspiration. I need natural beauty and landscapes. I need inspiration of landform, and colour and light. I am off to the Canary Islands. I decide to take a taxi to the airport and call the taxi company. I have telephoned once before on my trip and it all went easily enough, despite my Spanish. This time however, something is amiss. I have no idea what the recorded message is tell met. I call again, the same rapid fire message leaves me reeling. I try one more time. Nothing.  I decide to walk up the street as I have seen taxis around close to my accommodation and also up the hill on the main street. There are no taxis. I wait ten to fifteen minutes. Ask a passing guy, he apologises and says to me that this is not his neighbourhood. I wait another five before crossing the road and standing near a bus stop.  A woman comes along, I ask her the best place to catch a taxi. “Aqui”, here she answers. I ask if I just wave them down, she replies yes. I wait, she jumps on the next bus and is out of there.  In the past ten days I have seen lots of taxis on this street. Today there is none. Another ten minutes go by and another woman arrives. I ask her the same question.  “Yes, here is the best place”, she tells me. I tell her I have been waiting a long time and none have passed by. I give her my phone, pressing in the last number I called and ask her to speak to the taxi company for me. She listens, speaks into the phone, hangs up, hands me back my phone and says “they are not working”. Now I am desperate, my Spanish is failing me, and I can feel the gastric juices of stress flooding my stomach. She keeps on and on, speaking to me in Spanish, helping me look. I can see the penny drop and she knows that I am right, there are no taxis. Her bus comes. She turns to me and says, “get on the bus with me, it goes to Sol, there are lots of taxis in Sol. If not, you can catch the train to Atocha, and then a then the metro to the airport. I jump on the bus with her. We sit next to each other and she keeps talking to me in Spanish. I have told her my Spanish is limited but this does not stop her. I catch a word, here and there and know that I have no choice but to trust this woman. When the bus arrives at Sol, she looks around, shakes her head and says “no taxis”. She tells me she will come down to the train station with me and help me. She works just over there, she tells me as she waves a vague hand towards the other side of Sol. Downstairs in the metro, she gets help from one of the station assistants, turns out the taxis have gone on strike but now I have two new friends helping me. Instructions are written on a piece of paper, I have a ticket, they both wish me “Buena suerte!”. I thank them both, especially the first woman. As I sit safely on the train, knowing I will make my plane I realise that in the end, Madrid did not disappoint. It came to my aid and helped me when I needed it most. Farewell Madrid. Farewell Nina.


Madrid. The thing that you do.

I had been pierced by grief. I didn’t see it coming, I didn’t feel it at first. Then slow trickles of pain and tears careered towards enormous pain and lots of tears and then nothing. I sat. I couldn’t write. I would go do things in Madrid and as soon as I got out into the sunlight my grief would begin to subside. The sky over Spain has such depth to it. When it is blue – as it has been since I have been here – there are so many different hues of blue. The winter light enhancing the magic of the blue sky. Madrid has long been my favourite city but I have never visited it alone before and it has been difficult to find people to engage with. Perhaps I should have stayed at a hostel instead of my small basement apartment. My apartment is just on the outskirts of the city. It is a walk to everywhere but I have been enjoying the numbness the walks bring to my head and to my heart and allowing the winter sun to warm me. Back in my basement apartment, my bedroom has a window where I can see people’s legs moving by. I feel like Laverne without a Shirley. Other times I feel like Shirley and Nina is my Laverne, all bossy but not quite as uncouth as she would have viewed Laverne. It is quiet  here and comfortable. Certainly it is the most comfortable bed I have slept in since I last slept on mine on 15 January this year.

I have followed Nina in Madrid and I have done my own things in Madrid. I will soon be done with Nina and then be on my own again. I face that day with happiness and fear. Like the last day of high-school. The security and friendship of Nina – not to mention her leading the way on this trip – will be missed. On the weekend I left Nina back in the apartment and spent the weekend as a Madrilena. I spent my weekend as the people of Madrid do.

It started Saturday morning, after breakfast at about 10:30. I left my place and headed up the hill through a couple of different small neighbourhoods and worked my way to the Plaza Mayor, Madrid’s biggest plaza, surrounded on all four sides by what looks to be the same building, with arch shaped door ways on entrances in all four corners and on the east and west sides. The Christmas market has been set up and stalls line one side of the plaza like mini-streets, selling food, Christmas hats and stockings, gifts and pieces for the home Nativity scene. You can buy your individual pieces and make your scene as big and interesting or as small and intimate as you want. The have intricate little pieces, like baskets you can put on the wall on one side of the stable, Joseph’s tools where he obviously worked right up until Mary went into labour. I guess some people add to their home nativity sets with a new piece each year. After dodging the tourists, the tourists on segways, the tourists following a person carrying an umbrella, the buskers, the weirdly dressed, the wedding party – actually I stop to take a quick photo of them – I head up the crowded Puerta del Sol. If I had thought the Plaza was crowded – I truly was mad.

In the Puerto del Sol, there are even more people, heading off to shop, out to eat, lining up to buy lottery tickets. The line at the main ticket box stretches the whole ways across the plaza and you have to find a chink in the line to get across it. Other lottery sellers line the edges of the plaza, sitting cheek-by-jowl next to their displays of lottery tickets. Calling to everyone that passes. The women who try to press rosemary into your had before asking for money are here too, harassing everyone that passes. I go to Vodapone to recharge my sim with money so that I can access data – especially important when I need directions. Vodaphone is also packed and a 45 minute wait ensues to do something that takes less than five minutes. I sit in the upstairs section waiting for my number to be called. It is hot and we all wave ourselves with vodaphone advertising pamphets in an effort to keep cool. It is a good vantage point to see the plaza below. Two young women walk about, their voluptuous bodies in skimpier-than-skimpy Santa Claus type costumes. Yet they wear wings on their back that say I heart Madrid. I ponder over their purpose. A large buck, possibly a tourist, wears a loin cloth and Native American head-dress and flexes his muscles at the passing parade. There are a few robots – I’m thinking Titus Andronicus – a few angry bird type things and other dressed up buskers, all who charge to take a photo with them. Finally I am out and back on the streets. I go shopping, to look not to buy and then head for some afternoon tapas. I pass a young sporting team all wearing Australian track-suits. They are some sort of Australian football team. I can’t resist and give them an “oi, oi, oi” as I pass, much to their delight and amusement.

Where to for tapas? There is the Mercado St Miguel, back on the other side of the Plaza Mayor. Inside there are little stands selling different tapas dishes. It is very touristy but I stop for one. The tapas in Madrid have been hit with the fusion stick and they are not all that bad. One appeared to be a spring roll but inside it had some morcilla sausage (blood sausage) and a spicy thin sausage, salchichon. The taste is amazing.  I then head down the Cava Baja, the street that takes me back out to my basement flat. This street is full of Spanish people. It is off the main tourist tracks so you don’t get as many touristas down here, the tapas are cheaper and the staff more friendly and fast. I stop at two of my favourite places before heading home for the siesta.

Later that night I venture back up to Plaza Mayor before dinner. The Christmas lights have been turned on and it looks fantastic. All the usual suspects of touts selling things you don’t need are there. There is one selling small horns to children. I could kill that one if I could find him. As prams are pushed past me with a shrill plastic honk on the small horn. The Spanish are all either ending their day by having their very late afternoon tea or starting their night with pre-dinner drinks and tapas. Tonight I am on Spanish time and enter a restaurant that has been recommended to me, close to where I am staying. The place is packed and there are people ahead of me waiting for seats. The woman behind the bar tells me that as I am on my own, I can have my food at the bar and stay with her. “I will look after you”, she says. Although I had to stand it was a great place to eat dinner. I could see the comings and goings of the patrons, the ham being sliced at the back of the bar and hear as many different conversations as I could manage to understand. Mainly words and actions but it was a fun evening.

Sunday mornings brings the flea market to Madrid. El Rastro – the rat- is the biggest market in Madrid. It is known as the rat as that is where the fleas live. El Rastro main parade is down a very long street, but there are off-shoots into other streets. Most of the antique and second had dealers open their shops and put things out on the street as well. Some of the off-shoot streets specialise in particular wars, paintings, magazine, books, etc. This market is a living organism in its own right. Sometimes the crowd actually stops as there is no-where to go. A human traffic jam. In this market you could almost find anything you want. There is the usual market fare of t-shirts, hats, hippy clothes, jewellery but you can see some amazing old stuff in the side streets. All year, I have been on the hunt for a butter dish – but that’s another story – and I was certain I would find one here in El Rastro. I didn’t but after a quick rest-stop and sustenance it is off over to Retiro for the Sunday afternoon paseo.

The Retiro is  a huge park behind the Prado. Madrileno families love the Retiro, especially on a Sunday afternoon. The playgrounds are full of children, prams are being pushed and row boats full of teenagers mucking about and lovers fill the lake. Elderly Spaniards walk hand in hand.  I visited the Retiro on both my previous visits plus another time. The first we walked around with relatives, eating the peppitas, sun flower seeds, and spitting the husks onto the ground. The second with Robert and joseph where we spent most of our time in the playgrounds. Another time, my sister Mary and I nursed slight hangovers from over-indulging in one sangria too many in several of Madrid’s bars on a quick weekend trip to Madrid when we were in Europe. Today the park was a welcome respite after the crush and heat of the flea market. I walked alone, smiling up at the blue sky, laughing at the kids, feeling the piercing pain of grief ease. The trees helped me by celebrating the end of autumn and the beginning of winter with their red, orange and yellow leaves.