There’s nothing much better than sketching a tree. Especially an oak, in the warm burnt-umber, sun-dried fields of Madrid’s Casa de Campo. You breathe summer, you breathe the sun. And the dried grasses glimmer and sway in the wind.
I have happily signed this change.org petition to allow the roughly 24,000 British people like me who live, work and pay taxes in Spain, the right to double UK-Spanish nationality.
As things stand, the most sensible thing to do now for people in my position in response to Brexit is to take on Spanish nationality, something I am delighted to do as I feel more than half-Spanish after 18 years here, but under current legislation, that means I have to renounce my British nationality to the Spanish authorities at the same time, as they do not allow Brits to have double nationality (they do allow this however to all South American citizens, and a few other countries, so it is quite possible).
To give up my British nationality feels like renouncing a great part of my identity, and allowing double nationality with the UK would solve this serious problem that Brexit has created.
I still read a lot of biographies, mostly on wikipedia, the ‘early life’ section, to see how very talented people got where they got to. I sometimes wonder if this is healthy, but then again 20 years ago it was obituaries that fascinated me, and seeing as a lot of the bios that I read are about people that are still alive, perhaps I’m heading in the right direction.
The answer to how very talented people get where they get to is that they usually started doing what they do very young and did it obsessively for ever afterwards.
So now I’m learning the guitar I read bios of guitarists that fascinate me, always interested to see the path they took, and I discover that they all started somewhere between the ages of about 9 and 15, and were usually very good very quickly.
But why am I so fascinated by this? Do I want to become a famous guitarist? No! Yes! (…says my inner teenager)… No – really, it isn’t necessary.
One of the best days I had recently was up in the mountains above Madrid on my own watching butterflies in the woods, thinking they live for only a day and look how well they spend it. Fluttering amongst flowers and grasses. Relaxing on sticks or tree bark. Finding a mate. Then they’re gone.
They just live. And in fact they live from between a week to 9 months or more, the one day thing isn’t true, but still, not long. And unless there is a butterfly Jimi Hendrix or Mozart or Shakespeare which we have no idea about (who knows!), I’m pretty sure they aren’t comparing themselves to famous butterflies and just fly about, enjoying the flowers, being outside, and consider that a life well lived.
I’d have to agree with them.
This is self-art-therapy. All that’s missing from the image above, is my own arm reaching up to operate the pump! Because I’ve only got myself to blame for my recent Youtube indigestion!
The Net is so immense, such a vast all-you-can-eat buffet these days that I really have to take care when I sit down in front of a screen. First, years back, I managed to kick Twitter, fed up with it sending me all over the place for half an hour every time I checked in. Then Facebook, which tipped me over the edge when the autoplaying videos got added, but Youtube? I thought I was safe there!
No! With my new interest in guitar playing I now have twenty seven quintillion 2 to 15 minute videos to watch! Want to learn a Simon and Garfunkel song? Here are 423 people to show you how! Want to find out about a new amp you want to buy? 735 reviews are ready to watch right now!
And I sit and watch them all, and stuff myself ’til I’m dizzy and nauseous and swear I’ll never do it again… until the following morning! But I’m learning, slowly. This human body isn’t up to opening the great Internet Tap and sitting thirstily underneath, senses wide open, gorging and gorging.
So here’s to internet self-control, to ‘consumo responsable’ as it says on bottles of booze in Spain. The internet is incredible. In the right doses. These days, I’m better off outside.
This morning I was walking back from dropping my son off at school with a Spanish dad, talking about food in the north of Spain – how incredibly good it is, and what insanely abundant portions they give you.
A ‘menu del día’ in Asturias might involve a light soup for starters, followed by a mighty ‘fabada’ (bean stew with chorizo, black pudding and ham – and the serving bowl is left on your table so you can serve yourself as much as you want), then comes the main course… I usually, prudently, go for fried eggs and chips, though there’s usually a vast steak on the menu.
Then pudding, often a home made ‘flan‘, egg custard. All for ten euros, bread and a bottle of wine included. The trick is to leave not feeling completely overwhelmed from overeating.
When I first got to Spain 18 years ago, I couldn’t understand why the Spanish talked about food so much. I couldn’t eat olives either. Or start a night out at 9 or 10pm (“what am I going to do until then?!” I used to think). And now having lunch at 2pm, chatting about food for hours, and eating every kind of olive under the sun, is the most natural thing in the world.
18 years in Madrid… after I decided, aged 26, that I couldn’t face another winter in London. So I jumped on the Eurostar, then an overnight train from Paris to Madrid, and, intending to do a TEFL course for a month then head on to the coast, have been here ever since.
I’ve got a Spanish wife, children, have been an English teacher, a travel writer, a translator, and for the past ten years my wife and I have run Notes in Spanish, an online business teaching Spanish via podcasts. I’ve helped run mindfulness retreats round the country, and am on the committee for the school fete.
Increasingly I feel sort of half Spanish. I never feel that there’s any barrier between me ‘the foreigner’ and the other parents at school for example. There are occasional jokes about English habits, and jokes about the Spanish from me in return, but I feel absolutely accepted here, and absolutely part of the fabric of school and family life. That took a while. The first five years I kept catching myself walking around Madrid and thinking “what on earth are you doing here?! How on earth did that happen?!”
Someone suggested I write about what living in Spain has given me, to encourage people to see the benefits of the UK staying in Europe. After so long away I admit that I feel very disconnected from the whole debate because my life is now so centred here. It did occur to me that if the UK leaves the EU I might one day need a visa or something to stay here, which seems a bit crazy and unlikely, and is purely a selfish concern.
As a foreign person living in a close-knit school community, and benefitting enormously from that, it also seems a bit mad to want to leave the support a community provides, even if the other members drive you mad sometimes and do things you don’t like. But that’s about as far as I get with the politics of the whole decision.
But certainly I can talk about what being an Englishman living and working in Spain has give me. It’s given me everything. Work, family, friends, food, landscapes, olives, the streams and forests of the Sierra de Madrid, the joy of running the school fete, a whole new language, a sort of surrogate Catalan family in a small village north of Barcelona that I visit often. Spain has enriched my life more than I could possibly have dreamed when I wandered over here 18 years ago, and I’m immensely grateful for that.
Sitting on a rock in the middle of a stream, a tumbling mountain stream in a pine forest in the Sierra de Madrid, I see a tiny, unusual creature in a very small pool at the edge of the water. It looks like a hermit crab, about 2cm long, but its shell appears more like a bit of stick. It seems to be trying to crawl out of the pool. Watching it for a bit I suddenly see that this is simply a tiny form of life. The daisies on the hummock of grass next to it are just another expression of life. And the birds singing around me, the flies, the orange-tipped butterflies – even the stream – just life!
And so of course, me too. A form of life. Why do we humans elevate ourselves so much? Why do we complicate ourselves so much? Why do we enter into so many dualistic judgements? “This is better than that… you should do this… they should be like that!” How crazy!
The creature in the pool, the daisies, the birds, the butterflies and gnats, the man on the rock – all just life. All the same.
The straight, bright green grasses and nettles on the bank, the blue sky, the sturdy pines, the tumbling, laughing stream, that’s it. That’s it.
What a spectacular month June is! May is a wonder of wild flowers and the greenest month around Madrid, but here’s June, and although all the green at ground level will slowly turn to the warm umber shades of dried grasses, the tree tops are greener than ever and the weather is warming up wonderfully. It’s a month for shorts, T-shirts and sandals, and warm evening walks.
Although you can’t see it in the photo above, taken an hour ago on a wander around the neighbourhood, the air is full of fluffy white seed-flakes – like snowflakes, drifting happily along the streets and up into the sky. It gives the day an ethereal, dream-like quality. But then the earth is ethereal and dream-like, and this June I intend to be outside as much as possible to enjoy it.
In fact, I’ve taken the laptop and a chair outside into the garden, and am writing this in the fresh air – the new summer office
Ah, incomparable June! I’m so glad you are here!
Yesterday I felt I needed a dose of Dan Price. I love the person that is Dan Price. I see him as a companion on the same sort of path I have found in life. I discovered him when I first got into drawing, and found that he had a ‘zine called Moonlight Chronicles, and a book by the same name. I never ordered the ‘zine but the book was full of similar material – an illustrated diary of his wanderings around Oregon and beyond, through mountains and towns, with his simple words, drawings and photographs.
He stopped doing the Chronicles recently, after about 20 years self-publishing them, and now spends his time playing the hang drum and wandering, publishing photos occasionally on his Instagram account.
Sometimes I feel I need a dose of Dan, so I check his photo stream to see if there’s anything new. But really it’s because I need a dose of someone that’s living a simple life, mostly outside, and being free enough to dedicate his life to doing what he wants – right now playing music.
Catching myself getting a ‘dose of Dan’ yesterday afternoon, I realised I was just living vicariously his life of freedom. As an outsider again looking at something better. “How stupid!” I thought. If I want to be back on track as a companion of Dan’s again, all I have to do is turn off this darn computer, and get outside. Get up into the hills every day to see the wild flowers. Draw… play the guitar… do whatever it is that constitutes that free and fine life for me, instead of watching others do it. Then I can go and see what Dan’s up to later on as a fellow friend, not as someone doing something better than I am.
So, I switched off the laptop, and headed out into the garden to tend the plants for an hour. Later I played the guitar. This morning I headed up to the hills to walk amongst the wildflowers. Much better. Now I like to think of my friend Dan as a companion again, doing similar things and having a good time.
I hope you are too. It’s so easy to watch others from the outside and think ‘I wish… I wish…’. And it’s just as easy to have a good time doing pretty much what they are doing too, or a good enough version of it. So may I not live vicariously the fine lives of others, but be inspired by them as companions, to get out and carry on with this fine life of mine right now. It’s all out there!