Homeward Bound

So ten weeks of travel are at an end. I am happy and relieved that I managed it all, with only a few low moments. It gives me confidence going forward. No matter where I go, I reckon I can handle it.

There were so many memorable moments…

Spain: watching flamenco dancers in the upstairs room of a Madrid restaurant, part of the welcome reception for the volunteer program. Playing the role of newscaster in a skit as part of the program. Running around the resort grounds taking group pictures in crazy poses (e.g. “pretend you are flying” below.) Jiving with my new friend Toby in the bar, far too late into the night. Saying good-bye to the Spaniards and volunteers, with hugs and tears and promises to reconnect.


France: Walking the streets of Paris, the morning light reflecting off the freshly washed cobbles, glancing off the rooftops. The waiter in a Menilmontant café persuading me to try the luncheon special and very good red wine. Giggly glances shared with students in our French classes as the teacher explained an exercise we couldn’t made head or tail of. Struggling to master the subjunctive tense and the use of the word “dont”. Learning about French cinema and the music of Serge Gainsbourg.



Standing outside the house I lived in as a child in Montmartre, and remembering youthful escapades. Dining with family friends from that time, laughing and catching up as though no time had passed. Visiting Stratford friends in their beautiful flat in the banlieue and stuffing myself on excellent food and wine. The cafes of Paris, the Seine, the parks and vast squares.


Door in Montmartre, but not “my” door

The exquisite light in the south of France, casting a magical glow on everything. Walking along the canal du midi, basking in the sun overlooking beautiful gardens. Gazing out my all bedroom windows, all the way to the snow-capped Pyrenees.

IMG_1503fullsizeoutput_f0eAmsterdam: Oh the canals! And bridges! And the chill truth of Ann Frank’s attic and all that went on in that stifling space. Van Gogh’s wild artistry. Playing dice with Scarlett in a coffee house, dodging the fierce cyclists (there are more bicycles than people in Amsterdam).


Scarlett in Amsterdam

Scotland: Wandering the streets of dramatic Edinburgh, meeting the world’s best tour guide, Robert, on the steps of the Scottish Academy (‘wearing a wide-brimmed hat’). Listening to Nicola Sturgeon in the Scottish Parliament. Trying haggis. Soaking in information while on coach tours. Standing on Hadrian’s Wall. Gazing out from Queen’s View over Loch Tummel. Scotland’s wild beauty.

IMG_1718IMG_1754England: Reconnecting with people from Atlantic College (where I did my last two years of high school) – not only Scarlett, but our room-mate Kate – with whom we saw Travesties and a 60’s V&A Exhibit. Lunching with our housemistress in Stratford-upon-Avon, 45 years after we’d last seen her. Driving to Norwich to visit another friend from the College and his wife. Motoring on the Norfolk Broads in their boat, sipping wine. Wandering through Norwich.


Scarlett, Mary Ann, Bruce & I at Norwich cathedral


Norfolk Broads

Reconnecting with my daughter-in-law’s parents, whom I only met at the wedding, at their lovely home in Saffron Walden. Meandering the English countryside with them.

Seeing theatre. Walking in Hampstead Heath, many times, with Scarlett. And especially spending time with Scarlett (probably rather more time than she wanted!) It is a bit mind-boggling to be so close to someone I met when I was fifteen, who has always lived at least an ocean away – and yet, here we are in our sixties, still having a great time together.


Hampstead Heath

IMG_1856Of course there were less positive experiences, like sweeping up piles of foul dust in a dark attic in Ventenac-en-Minervois. And I must say the actual travel was less than inspirational. I spent a total of 12 days (out of 70) in transit. Enough to last a lifetime, really. Most irritating was the time spent getting to and from airports – particularly in London where it is both expensive and time-consuming to get into the city from ANY of the 4 airports. I will not miss the travel days.

And today is my last one (for a while). Stratford, here I come, with a great sack o’ memories slung over me shoulder. Thanks to everyone who made this trip special – not least of all, you, my blog followers! I’m ready to be home.






Spanish Stories #3: A Woman of Many Talents

On the first or second day of the program, Belen made a debut appearance in a slightly racy, very funny skit: this small bright Spanish woman was a good choice for the part – and we all laughed heartily. Then I began to hear about her as I spoke with other Spaniards about my life (this was always a two-way street). By the time I had my first session with her, probably 3 days into the program, I knew she was a chef and that she taught in a culinary school. I was keen to meet her.

IMG_1073We talked at length about the restaurant industry and culinary schools, comparing notes. Belen speaks very good English. Not surprisingly, there are many similarities between the culinary worlds of Spain and Canada. It is a male-dominated profession, with long hours and poor pay. Belen and her husband (also a chef) ran a restaurant in Madrid for two years, then gave it up because it was too stressful and left them no time for other things. Now they both teach at a cooking school in Leon (in the northwest of Spain) – and are very happy there. It is a small school that takes in about 30 students each year and loses about half of them by second year. The students cook for the public in both years. They study classical cuisine in year one and more contemporary cooking in year two. They design their own menus for the school restaurant. A Number decide not to pursue a career in the business after experiencing its rigours


Belen with her husband

Everyone in the program knew Belen was a chef and we would all seek her professional opinion of the food we were served in various places. She was diplomatic and positive, but we knew when, in her opinion, the food was not up to snuff. “A little heavy on sauces”, she commented once. We all nodded. She spoke to me about the challenges of being a woman in the restaurant industry. A couple of years ago, 5 female chefs (of Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain) and their assistants (she was one of those) went to design and prepare menus at Iberostar resorts in the Caribbean/Mexico; the local male cooks had trouble dealing with directives from women. Fascinating to hear how similar circumstances are in different cultures. So hard for women to gain respect in that industry, even though at home, women rule in the kitchen (well, except for at Carolina’s house!)

Why did she want to improve her already excellent English? Because Belen has another passion: horses. She judges/stewards competitions in Spain but wants to get her qualifications to become an international judge/steward. English is required – and I believe she is taking her qualification exam this coming week-end. (Good Luck, Belen!) Once she passes, I hope she will come to North America for a competition so we can meet again. And I am sure she will pass. Nothing gets in the way of this woman’s drive to succeed!

Belen & horseWe talked often during the week. Like me, she has two sons, young teenagers – and she clearly missed her family. Walking one day she told me she’d spoken to her son, a serious musician, on the phone that morning. He was upset because his music teacher had made harsh comments; he needed to talk to his mother.


with her family

At age 49, Belen is a ball of energy, and a force to be reckoned with on the mini-stage and the dance floor, not to mention in the kitchen/classroom or at equestrian events. She kept us all smiling with her radiant presence. Next time I am in Spain, I will go to Leon, just to see her and meet her family. It will be a delight – as it was getting to know her. Another Spanish jewel.

Spanish Stories #2: St. George’s Day in Catalunya

This is a shorter post (I wish I had more time, to share ALL the stories I heard!) with, alas, no photos.

Teresa is a retired schoolteacher from Barcelona; she’s determined to improve her English because her daughter and grandchildren live in Dubai. She wants to visit them often to help out and take care of the children, but needs to speak English there to be useful.

All the Spaniards had to give presentations at the end of the program, and Teresa talked to me about her topic: the St. George’s Day rituals in Barcelona. If I understood correctly, St. George is the patron saint of Catalunya. His “day” is April 23 – the anniversary of the deaths of Shakespeare and Cervantes (both in 1616) – also Shakespeare’s birthdate.

The day is celebrated by an exchange of gifts – originally between men and women, but now also between parents & children. The men give the women roses, the women give the men books. On April 23, rose sellers abound on the streets and sell thousands of roses. Booksellers also set up stalls and sell thousands of books. One suspects the giving of books relates to the fact that it is the anniversary of the deaths of two of the world’s greatest writers.

In the schools, each child is invited to bring a book, no longer needed at home, and put it on a special table set up for the day. The older students then arrange the donated books by age category and each student gets to choose a book to take home.

According to Teresa, it is a truly wonderful day in Barcelona, where everyone is in the giving mode, the men gallantly presenting roses, the women responding with books. It is full springtime, the days are getting longer, and everyone is happy and excited. So if you are planning a trip to Barcelona, think about getting there by April 23!

Spanish Stories #1: A Spanish Viking (?)

Normally when I travel – if there IS a normal anymore – I do not get to know many people from the countries I’m visiting, especially if I don’t speak the language. I have conversations that mostly consist of “Hello”…”How are you?”…”Where is the toilet?”… “Can I have some more wine?”

In the Pueblo Ingles program, I would not say I got close to the participants, but because I did talk to every Spaniard for at least 50 minutes one-to-one, I learned quite a lot about them. As a result I gained insights into Spanish culture and these individuals that linger with me.

IMG_1144Carolina is unusually tall for a Spanish woman. She speculates that somewhere in the past a member of her family had an affair with a Viking. While talking to her, the subject of marriage as an institution arose (it had been a discussion topic earlier in the week.) She told me that although she has been married twice, she never really wanted to marry. Her first husband, however, did, and she agreed, even marrying in a church because it was important to him (although she is not religious.) She married the second time to ensure that her partner had legal next-of-kin status because she was very ill with breast cancer, and she wanted him to be the one to make decisions for her if she was not able to. (If they did not marry, this role would have fallen to her mother and she preferred that it be her husband.)

As we talked more, I developed a huge admiration for this woman. She explained that she has worked her whole life as a woman in a man’s world (she works in claims, for an insurance company) – and she is clearly able to hold her own. She is obviously deeply attached to her husband, but they respect each other’s independence and frequently do things separately. He does most of the cooking (and her mother disapproves, upbraiding her for lying on the sofa while he works in the kitchen). But he likes to cook and she does not; he often comes home from work in a state and barricades himself in the kitchen for an hour to relieve stress by cooking. Then he emerges and tells her he has not only prepared dinner, but has made her lunches for the next few days. Meanwhile she is free to play the piano or whatever else she wants to do. Pretty good deal, she thinks – and I couldn’t agree more.


Carolina with her husband

Carolina has had a difficult few years. She was so ill with the various cancer treatments that she could barely walk. For about a year she was off work and someone had to be with her at all times because she was so weak. When her husband was working, her mother came to stay with her – and tried to coddle her. But Carolina’s husband objected fiercely to anyone pitying her and told her mother that she should never say “poor Carolina” or anything like that. Carolina agreed and insisted that she get up and fetch a glass of water herself, even if it took her 10 minutes to get across the room and fill the glass. She values her independence hugely.

She also said, that although she felt utterly wretched during that year, it was not all bad, not at all. It freed her to contemplate her life and to do the things she wanted to do (once she was able) – like learn to play the piano, take singing lessons and focus on improving her English, not because she had to, but because she wanted to. She was also very moved by the support she received from friends and colleagues.

She lost all her hair – in fact one night asked her husband to cut it off after it had started coming out in clumps on a windy evening when they were dining with friends and she feared everyone’s food would be full of hair. Before the cancer, she’d had long curly hair. Now it is short and utterly straight. She has been back at work for a year, doing fine, but she still tires easily and the intensity of the week-long program exhausted her. Not that you’d know, given the energy she brought to our conversations.

IMG-20170309-WA0001It was my great pleasure spending time with Carolina. She lives in Barcelona, a city I love and certainly hope to visit again. If I do, she will be very high on the list of people I want to see. And I think she is a Viking: brave, strong and independent!

A Remarkable Week in Spain

I hardly know where to begin describing my experience volunteering for the Pueblo Ingles program this past week. There were 43 people involved: the MC (an amazing character, who led all the activities), the program director (who handled all the logistics and scheduling – a huge undertaking), 21 Anglo volunteers and 20 Spaniards determined to improve their English.

The nonstop pace (and the fact that I had a nasty flu throughout) made it exhausting. The program and the people make it extraordinary. I suppose whenever a group of people are in close contact for a period of time – e.g. classic desert island scenario – bonds develop quickly. Perhaps it was even more the case here because we all chose to be there.

By the time we left yesterday, many friendships had been formed, many of the Anglos were already thinking of returning to do another program. Some are regulars and spend almost half their time doing this – possible because they live in Spain. Others (like me) would like to return every couple of years. Many of the old-timers (the oldest was 85, I believe) said your first program remains the most memorable. As we said our goodbyes there were tears, laughter, warm embraces and heartfelt wishes to stay in touch and host/visit each other when we travel in the future. The Anglos applauded the Spaniards who’d worked so hard and improved their English so much. The Spaniards (some of whom may also return – but likely only once!) applauded the volunteers for their willingness to give up this time & pay their own travel expenses in order to help them with their language skills.

I come away from the program feeling my life has truly been enriched by the contact with these people – and, of course, some in particular – and I want to share some of the stories I heard and insights into other lives that I gained (with their permission of course.)


La Alberca main square

One of the surprises of the program was the fantastic location – not just the “resort” itself, with the little villas for two, meeting room, bar and dining room attached to a larger hotel/castle at some distance from anywhere, but the actual village of La Alberca (a kilometer away).


Our MC took us all on a tour one day (what a tour guide!) It is a gorgeous old cobblestoned town with narrow streets and almost Tudor-style buildings. It is a stop on the silver Camino route, so a seashell is embossed in stone on an old church where pilgrims get their “passports” stamped. There is also a building in the central town square with the stone symbol of the Spanish Inquisition above the door and an underground passage to the main church… gave me shivers!


Symbol of the Spanish Inquisition

By the main church there is an odd alcove, up high on the wall with 2 grated windows – behind each is a human skull. These represent souls who are in purgatory, as their bodies were never buried.


There are 12 main families in the town of La Alberca and to this day every night as dark falls, the family responsible for that month of the year rings a bell to summon the lost souls into the church for the night. Although the tradition goes back a long way and was once practiced in much of Spain, today it is only in La Alberca that, early on a winter’s night or later in the summer, the family tolls the bell to keep their dead ancestors safe through the night.