iPhones, tea and creches – Monchique, September 2013

Leo was due to start at the local crèche in Monchique at the beginning of September. I had decided that I would take him there for three afternoons per week while I went to the library and did some work. Good for him, good for me.

It didn’t go quite to plan. His age group (12-24 months) sleep from 12.30 – 2.30 (even though Leo still sleeps in the morning and afternoon) so I got there at 2.30 when the little ones were waking up. Only some of them were twice the size of Leo. With long hair and big feet. But I was assured they were less than 24 months – just, as it turned out. It took about half an hour before I managed to unclamp Leo’s fingers from my arm and put him on the floor with the others. I got some mismatching rings on a little plastic pole – similar to something he has at home and sat down with him on the floor. The room was stifling. The woman in charge opened the window but no air seemed to get in. The other children were somnolently wandering around holding pieces of plastic vegetables. One little girl with corkscrew dark curls pushed a pram with a one-armed human-like doll. The girl smiled but her eyes were tired.

Leo looked in horror at a pile of dolls with broken limbs and went instead for an aubergine. A blonde-haired boy came and snatched it from Leo so I snatched it back. That is to say, of course, I gave the other boy a potato and Leo the aubergine. No one spoke apart from the staff as they changed nappies and chatted to each other and monologued with the little ones. ‘Come here, Maria, it smells like you’ve done a poo, come on, let’s change you…’ The children didn’t answer but as soon as they were released continued pacing the room. One by one they were sat down and given a yogurt. Not one of them tried to wriggle away –unlike Leo, who tried to climb out of the window. It reminded me of a scene from ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ – except with little people.

Leo loves water, which he calls ‘tea’ and he always plays with the watering can at home – both a toy and a real one. I found him a toy one and he happily took it and went to a tap and turned it on. But the tap wasn’t real. Leo looked up at me, with saudades in his eyes, and said, ‘Tea? Tea?

Leo_watering can

Later, at home, thinking it would be fine, it was just for a few hours a week in the afternoon, my iPhone rang.

‘I’m sorry,’ said the educator, ‘but we can’t accept him only in the afternoons. He must be here before 10 am.’

‘But what about mums and dads who work in the afternoon?’ I asked.

‘They must come in the morning.’

I said I would call her back. Now I don’t know anything about crèches or child pedagogy but surely it makes sense for the parent to spend as much time as possible with their child and for the crèche to try to accommodate that?

I paced around the terrace at home wondering what to do while Leo happily played with his real watering can and real ‘tea’. I thought that maybe two days a week from 10-3 pm would be okay.

‘What do you think, Leo,’ I asked absentmindedly. ‘Would you like to go the crèche a couple of times a week?’

He ignored me and went on playing with his watering can.

I went into the kitchen to get a real cup of tea. I decided I was being silly, suffering from separation anxiety. I would call the crèche and book him in for two days a week. Just then Leo let out an ear-piercing screech. I ran outside and found him pointing to the fenced-off water tank aka swimming pool – two square metres of tea. 

‘Tea, tea!’ he said. There was an unusual sense of urgency in his voice.

Yippee! I get to stay at home!

I looked in and there was my iPhone lying at the bottom of the pool floor. I screeched, opened the gate, jumped in fully dressed and retrieved it. It was, not surprisingly, drowned. Leo went on happily playing with his watering can while I tried to give my phone the kiss of life. Miraculously, after a few hours and some gentle massaging with a dry towel it came back to life. That is to say the internet and camera work, as does text messaging, but unfortunately the phone itself gurgles and then goes dead.

So I was never able to call the crèche.

El Rocío, Andalucia, August 2013

August arrives. I take a deep breath and look around me. Leo is one year old. He is already a little person, walking and talking – almost. I did it! The hardest part is surely over? I persuade my mother to come to the Algarve to look after Leo for a couple of days. Paul and I are off to El Rocío – a place I visited a few years ago and have always wanted to go back. To ride through Doñana Parque on horseback.

IMG_0817Imagine.  A town where there are more horses than people.  A town where there are no tarmac roads or pavements – just sand. Outside every house, restaurant, shop and bar there are hitching posts. Alongside the houses are parked coaches and carts – as well as cars and horse boxes. On the outskirts of the town are hundreds of acres of common land where hundreds of horses are tethered (2,500 is the equine population). The circles in the sand are made not by UFOs but by horses practising their paces. The town is famous for its ‘Romeria’ when about a million pilgrims (many on horseback or in wagons) gather for a religious festival but fortunately that happens in May.

We wheel spin into the town on Paul’s motorbike. The August heat beats down on our protective clothes and helmets in one of the hottest parts of Spain. We find shelter in a small, pleasant rural hotel and wait for the sun to back off a bit before making our way to the visitor centre to wait for Grigorio in the air conditioned hut.

I watch a webcam trained on a couple of cub lynx but they are crashed out under a tree and just occasionally flick a tail or slowly roll over. Grigorio arrives and Paul and I, together with two very smartly dressed young Spanish boys from Seville, get into a 4×4 to go to the ‘stables’. Everywhere horses graze on sand and straw. Plastic bottles and ice-cream wrappers grow like bushes out of the summer wasteland. No shelter or shade. Some horses live in gardens no bigger than that of a semi. I think of the pampered horses in the UK or Germany, with wooden fenced paddocks, fluffy beds of clean straw, hay nets and shiny buckets.

When we arrive at the stables there are no horses ready and no stables as such, only a few ramshackle huts that house old coaches and carts, old tin buckets and brushes. Dry land divided by wire fence.

‘Do you need a hand?’ I ask Grigorio. He is in his twenties with black eyes, black short hair and a blinding white smile. Getting five horses ready would take me half an hour.

‘No problem,’ he says and grabs five bridles and five horses and within five minutes they are all saddled up.

I put my foot into a stirrup that looks more like a shovel and mount ‘India’ and we set off. I am the only one with a riding hat. It is 7pm and torrid. We pass by El Rocío. Horses, riders, carts and carriages jog and jingle past each. Some of them trundle, some race, some reverse, some do fancy spins.  On the sand circles riders practice flying changes, piaffs, half-passes, full-passes. My eyes open wider than if I’d seen a UFO. It was as if these riders were practising for the Royal Andalucian School of Equestrian Art.  An enormous cart goes by pulled by five horses. Inside an entire family and their neighbours picnic.

‘How old were you when you started riding?’ I ask Grigorio, as he makes his horse go sideways and forwards in a half pass and texts on his iPhone at the same time.

‘One,’ says Grigorio, looking up. ‘I ride before I walk.’

‘One!’ I say. That’s not possible.

‘Before I was one my father carried me in front.’ Grigorio flashes me a white smile. ‘But I didn’t have my own horse until I was four.’ He continues texting.

Four!

‘Everyone here can ride a horse before walking.’

Just then three kids pass us bareback on one very beautiful black horse, its neck beautifully arched. They were older than Leo but not much. A cart passes us, also driven by children.

‘And you do these riding tours on your own?’ I ask. It seemed like a lot of work for one person.

‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I study engineering in Seville but it wasn’t for me. This is my passion.’

Later, when we are sitting outside a restaurant draining several cold beers, exhausted from our three hour ride, we watch everyone parade through the town. Young boys accompany their fathers, older boys wearing sombreros Sevillanos – the black round disks, holding their heads high, pretending not to look at the group of girls who pass by on three dainty horses. One of them is side-saddle. This was about more than horses. This was the town’s stage and everyone was acting.

All night horse and coaches tinkle by – either family outings or young couples. We see single horses, pairs and even a troika, as well as the five horse train. At midnight riders and horse and carriages are still passing by.

Now I can’t wait to get home and get Leo on a horse. He can, after all, almost walk.

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To act or to strip – writing fact or fiction? Monchique, June 2013

These days, when I’m not making ‘tea’ for my 10 month old baby (it’s the only word he knows and its multiple meanings include milk, breakfast, lunch, dinner and, possibly, tea), I teach predominantly online creative writing courses. Online courses are a great invention. Both myself and the students are in the comfort of our own homes – well, I’m sitting amongst saucepans, bin parts, mops, pegs and various child proof barricades so not that comfortable but at least I’m near the kettle – and I travel around the world. I have students from Cannes to Cambodia, Newcastle to Nigeria, Australia, America, Afghanistan. I once even had a student from Tonga (I quickly had to look that up on Wikipedia). I say my thanks daily to the gods of technology.

I teach fiction and memoir – or life writing. While they both share similarities in that they employ characters, require a structure and a setting, there is a fundamental difference between the two: quite simply, one is true and the other is made up. That may sound obvious but many people get confused. Life writing is about developing your own voice, about telling your story, or someone close to you. Biography falls into this bracket as well but relies more on interviews and research. Whether we know the person or not it is about presenting a life as honestly as we can (while recognising a certain amount of  subjectivity). Fiction, on the other hand, is about developing the voice – or voices – of your characters and telling their story. In fiction you, the author, are not important – you become instead your characters. You, at best, are the director. In memoir you are centre stage. So, it is a matter of choice. Do you enjoy acting? Or do you enjoy stripping? Of course there are grey areas. There are writers who watch and imagine others strip. This grey area is sometimes referred to as ‘faction’ – such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

‘But what about when you’re writing about a friend?’ one of my students on a life-writing course writes in a forum. ‘Why can’t I write from that person’s point of view? You’ve written on my work that you don’t know how I know the person or the event. I wasn’t there but he’s my best friend and he told me everything!’

‘Why didn’t you say that then?’ I suggest, with a smiley. ‘You could easily establish your relationship to him and then it would give you the authority.’ I go back to look at his work and read the first paragraph.

Jose was sitting at a bar in Soho, pounding a straw into a tequila sunrise. His toes curled. The bar was full of semi-naked women and three men – himself, and two suited businessmen ogling a couple of the women who were at their table drinking a bottle of champagne. Jose had simply followed the half-price cocktails sign and only seen the flashing naked woman – too late – as he went down the burgundy carpeted steps.

 ‘Do you want some company?’ a young woman with green eyes and hair corkscrewing over her naked shoulders. She wore a black holey top that his mother would want to sew up and a too-short skirt. ‘Or are you just here to see the show?’

‘What show?’ he asked.

She smiled. ‘The strip show.’

‘No! No! I’m just having a drink.’

‘Can I join you?’

Jose looked around. Other women sat at the bar talking to each other. No one seemed interested in them – except for the barman who scooted over and asked him what she wanted to drink.

‘I’ll have the same as you please.’ She turned towards him slightly, crossing her left leg over her right.

‘Do you work here all the time?’ he asked. It was hotter than Seville in August.

‘At the moment but what I really want to be is an actress.’

I explain again to the student that I would read this as fiction. It is possible to go inside  a subject and use the third person intimate as long as the reader knows that you are reimagining. The point is to be clear. There is a contract between the reader and writer. We read and react differently if we know something to be a true story. And the writer should be clear if he is acting or telling the truth.

Teaching in the comfort of home.

Teaching in the comfort of home.

‘Tea!’ Leo says. ‘Tea! Tea!’ Louder now. ‘Tea, tea, tea.’

This time I think ‘tea’ means dinner. But before I go and trip over saucepans, I would like to be clear that the above example, despite appearances, is, in fact, an example of acting and no students have been involved.

Writers in the Algarve, Monchique, May 2013

writers1 I thought I knew most of the writers in the Algarve. I once scoured both the mountains and the beaches for writers who would be prepared to write a short story for the anthology, Summer Times in the Algarve, and finally excavated eighteen – writers tend to be well hidden. Very well hidden in fact.  At the Algarve writers’ lunch and general get-together at Parque das Minas organised by Nuno Campos Inácio from Arandis Editora, out of the thirty odd writers present, I knew no one – other than my German friend, fellow writer and cultural entrepreneur to the Algarve, Catrin George, and Uwe Heitkampf, editor of the new Eco 123.

Language is partly to blame. This was a Portuguese affair and I was the only English person there. I speak the language almost fluently and yet still that barrier is there. Language is another country.

The idea of the meeting was to get all the writers together, show off our wares, moan about the state of publishing and have (in true Portuguese style) a big lunch. I’m not big on lunches and certainly not big lunches as I’m a vegetarian and the Algarve – particularly Monchique – doesn’t do vegetarian. Other than omelettes and salads, the only other vaguely vegetarian food is migas. Migas is a type of bread crumbs, which sounds vegetarian except it is usually cooked in ‘banha’ – pork fat. I ate it once in the Alentejo, thinking it was vegetarian and I was sick for the next twenty-four hours. But an omelette a week is fine and Catrin and I wanted to be social and meet all the other writers. So after a couple of minutes of showing off books, moaning about the fact that Amazon has no amazon.pt and ebooks are almost unheard of (a Portuguese moan) and the difficulties of distribution and general dishonesty amongst certain English book sellers who have packed up, pleaded bankruptcy and not paid for books sold (my moan) and an hour’s tour around Parque da Mina (an old private and house that used to belong to a wealthy Monchique family), we were bused up to the restaurant Luar de Fóia, one of the many restaurants on the road up the mountain to Fóia (the highest point in the Algarve) and seated at the three long tables reserved for us. The three male writers to the left were not interested in talking so I began a conversation with a delightful woman called Fatima Peres, a presenter for Radio Fóia, who is described as ‘the highest voice in the south of Portugal’ Rádio Fóia (97.1 FM). Opposite her was the founder of Radio Fóia, Antonia Ventura, who also had an electrical shop in Monchique. It turns out that Fatima is almost a vegetarian and began telling me how to make the most delicious smoothies – using celery, ginger… A waiter interrupted to tell me that there would be a vegetarian lunch for me. Excited, I asked what it would be.  ‘Vegetable migas,’ the waiter said, but assured me it would be cooked in olive oil and not ‘banha’.

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Meanwhile, Fatima was still rolling out the vegetarian recipes with a passion for vegetarian food that I could only dream of. She began talking about soya milk smoothies and, at that, Antonio protested that soya could not be milk and drew a little design on a napkin that read – animal – milk, plant – vegetable. The male writers on the left were becoming more animated after guzzling the carafes of red wine. Antonio was making a joke about how if God had found the perfect woman he would only have created one (not sure where that came from). And so, the lunch went on and on. Needless to say by the time we got back on the bus I began to feel queasy and so I missed the President of Monchique’s speech and failed miserably to meet any of the writers. But I had met some enchanting people from Radio Fóia, and learned a lot about vegetarian food and I now know that there are many more writers in the Algarve – see Arandis Editora

Blogging, Babies and Sherry, Jerez de la Frontera, April 2013

As a newcomer to all this, I had no idea there are courses on how to blog, and a very good friend of mine in London pointed out an article published in The Guardian. For anyone wanting to write a blog this is worth a read. Most of it is obvious but there are some good tips. It is important, apparently, to keep your blogs short and with one subject heading. There should, for example, be three blogs here:

1. How not to blog

2. Travelling with a baby

3. Sherry in Jerez de la Frontera

It is also recommended to blog at least once a week – if not every day. Ah. I was actually thinking of missing this month but after reading that I have dragged myself to the computer in the dark with my camomile while the baby sleeps. But I’m afraid I have to cram the three topics together – as I did before. And try harder next time.

JerezAs a newcomer to babies as well, I had no idea how difficult it was to travel with a slightly bigger baby. I managed with Leo at four and a half months without too much difficulty (despite the sterilizing and bottle making morning ritual and the three hours a day spent feeding), but eight and a half months is a completely different story. Things needed include wet wipes, high chair, travel cot, toys, 6 dummies and dummy chain, food (frozen and pouch), bottled water, magic plastic spoons that change colour, wet wipes, backpack carrier, frontpack carrier, buggy, clothes, nappies, bottles and did I mention wet wipes? The list goes on and on. Eight hours later and we (‘we’ being myself, Leo, and my friend, Paul) are all crammed into the Toyota pick-up. Another eight hours (plus a few screaming fits) and we finally make it to Jerez de la Frontera (pronounced ‘Herez’ and nothing like Sherry so how one came to be the other – even for us mono-lingual Brits – is a mystery).

We stay in an apartment at the edge of the historical city which has parking – very important for loading and unloading. Another eight hours later we are enjoying a glass of wine on the roof terrace overlooking smoking factories and general city industrial outskirts. If I look to the right I can just about see the famous icon of Tio Pepe and his guitar looking a little worse for wear. But the three months of rain has finally stopped and Spain heaves a sigh of relief as it prostrates itself to the blue sky. Leo crawls on the plastic grass and beelines for my wine glass, fingers worryingly outstretched. Later I make myself a camomile tea (Manzanilla in Spanish) and he screws up his face when I offer him some.

I am quite alarmed at babies’ attraction to wine (assuming Leo isn’t alone?). So I wasn’t sure that a visit to the Bodega to sample the fortified version was a good idea. But there are three things to do in Jerez. Go to see the dancing horses. Go to see flamenco. And go and drink sherry. There are other attractions such as churches and a cathedral, the Alcazar (worth a visit) and a motor track. We give the flamenco a miss as the shows are on late and appear touristy. We do see the horses and they do, indeed, dance – some of them without touching the floor. The Royal Andalucian School of Equestrian Art is a big affair held three or four times a week at midday in a grand indoor school with a bursting gallery. The horses are like ballerinas as they point and pirouette, bow and leap in time to the music. They don’t quite do pliés but I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had.

Then to the Bodega. ‘SHERRY IS ONLY PRODUCED IN THIS PART OF ANDALUCIA AND THIS, MY FRIENDS, IS THE BIGGEST AND BEST SHERRY PRODUCING BODEGA IN THE WORLD…’ the little but loud trilingual guide tells us in English, Spanish and German. Incredibly, Leo sleeps through this and on the tourist train that takes us around the grounds but wakes up as soon as he smells the barrels of sherry. He doesn’t appear interested in the explanations of the many different types of sherry (‘DO WE UNDERSTAND NOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FINO, MANZA… AND OLOROSO OR DO I EXPLAIN AGAIN?), or the way they are made (‘SO IT ALL DEPENDS ON THE TIME. SPENT. IN. THE. BARREL. AND THE PROCESS OF OXIDATION…’) and he positively screams through the film so I take him to the toilet to change him and he bangs his head on the floor (there are no changing facilities in Spain, or soap or toilet paper in any restaurant or public toilet that I have ever visited) which makes him scream louder. But he becomes quiet for the tasting and, fingers outstretched, tries to grab my glass. After all this I’m feeling the need for a cup of tea so on the way home we stop at one of the many bars decorated with photos of bull fights, flamenco dancers and singers. I am only a little surprised that when I ask for a Manzanilla (meaning camomile tea) I receive a glass of sherry. Leo … well, you can probably guess.

Anyway, it is getting late and the sherry is nearly all gone.

The Via Algarviana, Troika and Experimental Fiction, Monchique, March 2013

I have steered away from blogging and facebooking and, in fact, most things to do with ‘social’ and ‘media’ – mainly because, until recently, I used to teach on a computer, write on a computer, practically eat on a computer and there were only so many hours in a day I could sit – or lie – at a computer. However, recently and very belatedly in life, I had a baby. Leo, together with the half a donkey I share with a neighbour, three cats and a whole horse means that now I only have one precious hour a day on a computer. (I remember once going to a reading by William Gibson who claimed that he wrote Neuromancer while looking after the baby – a baby what I wonder now?). But I still can’t face Facebook so Goodreads looks like a good platform. The idea that there exists a huge online reading group makes me happy. For writers like myself who do not have a big publisher beside them it seems to me that this is an important place to be. So I will try to post something vaguely interesting on a monthly basis but, not being William Gibson, I can’t promise. However, I hope to tell a little about life in the south of Portugal which is, on the whole, thanks to the EU, Troika and the torrential rain this month, not what it was.

This month saw the release of Herdeiros da Revolução, a film directed by Uwe Heitkamp, with the premier in Ochála, a tea shop in Monchique – that is a small mountain town in the Algarve near where I live (the choice of venue had nothing to do with the fact there is only one cinema left within a 100 km.) The film takes us along the Via Algarviana, a 320 km trail that crosses southern Portugal. Some of the filming is stunning with Portugal’s photogenic blue skies, ochre land, eagles, vast empty valleys and green mountains, whitewashed crumbling villages, and the interviews with the few locals on the way really do capture old Portugal. It has a political angle that juxtaposes the expectations of the 1974 Revolution with the upcoming Troika Revolution. One old shepherd says that ‘this time blood will spill’. After visiting Lisbon last week he may well be right.

lisa_donkey_ianI am keen to write a book about the Via Algarviana but with a more practical, less political, approach. Well, slightly more practical. I cannot walk far due to bad knees so I had planned to ride the donkey but since last month when I started riding him again to get him fit he’s started limping. I’m sure he’s pretending but it’s a long way to hobble home if he isn’t. The horse is keen and able but she’s nervous of lumps of concrete and I’m afraid she’ll imagine a lion or a Findus logo in a rock, run for her life and then all I’ll see is ochre dust. So then I thought about a bike, an electric bike, a Stealth bike actually… Or perhaps all three? Perhaps I can create my own Troika with a horse, a donkey and an electric bike? But all that to be decided. In the meantime, I recommend the film to anyone who wants to know anything about life in Portugal, walking, or how to make medronho… Of course, you would have to contact Uwe (00351 918 818 108) as the film is unlikely to make it to the one cinema left in the western and central Algarve.

For culture we tend to have to head to Lisbon and last week we went to see the super talented Rodrigo Leão. The concert was packed with a very cultured, well dressed and heeled crowd. Even more surprising, Rodrigo Leão composed music to poets’ lyrics. A packed auditorium for what seemed like an experimental performance? What about austerity? At 1 am we were stuck in traffic trying to get across the city. Lisbon, despite the rain, was in full throttle and Benfica hadn’t even played. The next day, while half the city nursed hangovers, the other half crawled out of mouldy apartments and down to Praça do Comércio with their banners, ‘Que se Lixe Troika’ and singing, Grandola, Vila Mo-re-e-na…, the song of the Revolution.

Revolutions aside, the poets reminded me that there is a new literary prize, the Goldsmiths Literary Prize for new daring experimental fiction. Unfortunately, All entries must be submitted by an established UK publishing house (‘established’ is defined as a house that publishes a list of titles by different authors, that produces titles with an ISBN and that distributes them through established retail outlets). Self-published books are not eligible for the Prize.

And neither are small publishers because in order to sell through established retail outlets the company needs to have a turnover of at least twenty grand. Surely most experimental fiction is refused by major publishing houses and so doesn’t that defeat the object? My objection is, of course, personal but I’ll go into that another day. My hour is up. The donkey is braying and baby Leo is waking…