What Spain Has Given Me

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.

Hot and dry


Casa de Campo, Madrid.

So wonderful and dry. Feels like it’s in its element beneath a dry, warm Sierra wind.

Dry grasses, a few remaining bright yellow flowers. Invisible birdsong.

Meditative Holm Oaks quiet beneath the hot sun. Feels like the essence of Spain.

Expressions of Life

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!

Don’t live vicariously, live.

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!

Tuning In To Radio Happiness

A friend said to me the other night, ‘I heard a theory that our thoughts aren’t ours, they are just out there in the universe, and they sort of pass through us, we have them – but they’re not ours’, and I said it reminded me of Neil Young who said while chatting between songs on an album that when he writes a song it’s like he is a radio, that the songs just come to him, the radio that picks them up, and he writes them down.

Here we are, catching things from out there – thoughts, songs, poems, this blog post…

I wondered later, if I’m having thoughts from out there in the universe, why do I often have unpleasant thoughts? Worries, fears, negative judgements and so on.

And I remembered my favourite Zen Master Thich Nhat Hahn telling us we can ‘change the TV channel’ or ‘change the CD’ in our minds if we are having unpleasant thoughts, to a channel that is happier, more positive. Instead of listening to ‘Radio Negative’, we can move the dial over to ‘Radio Happiness’.

How do we do that? What are pleasant thoughts like? Instead of fears and judgements, I suppose that Radio Happiness is made up of thoughts concerning reasons to be happy, gratitude, simple appreciation of beauty in nature, music, art, other people – our good enough lives.

It might be hard to make the channel change, I think it has to be cultivated with lots of practice. Maybe catching the unpleasant thoughts quickly when they come, smiling at them, and deliberately swapping them for a few happy ones. I’m committed to this, to moving the dial, changing channel to Radio Happiness.

As well as changing to a happier channel, there’s the option of turning the radio off entirely, which is where mindfulness and meditation come in. Then I suppose we are just present observers – we aren’t a radio anymore, but part of the thoughtless here and now. I am not a regular ‘formal’ meditator at all, but I can most easily turn off the radio when I’m out in nature, just walking in the woods looking at the wild flowers, plants and trees. And I always come home happier after turning the radio off for a while.


But you know what? If the thoughts really are just out there, and we catch them or have them, then perhaps instead of trying to control it all, the best thing is just to listen in to the radio in our minds as it chatters away, and decide whether we want to pay attention to it or not (whilst helping to create space for it to be silent, ‘off-air’). Perhaps it’s as simple as that – listen in, tune in, tune out. It’s an ongoing investigation for me, something I’ve read about in countless books, but it’s time to work it out for myself!