I swear by the Almighty God to do so…

•May 27, 2009 • Leave a Comment

You may laugh but for some strange reason I had a curious urge to say my oath thus: “I swear by the Almighty God to so do”… wouldn’t it be more esoterically legalistic to have the words in that order?! I think so. And yet… we (as I can now refer to myself as one of ‘those’ people) of the black robes, stiff little curled wigs and starchly pressed jabots are seemingly trying to make everything more approachable about our profession to the common man – even the oath of office. About b****y time too. However, I do not want to sound either grossly superior or crassly vulgar in this post – and I especially don’t want to make fun of an oath that I took roughly 24 hours ago in absolute and austere seriousness.

I can’t honestly say that I was very excited about my Supreme Court admission ceremony going in to it. After 7+ years of (at times) incredibly difficult and emotionally/physically exhausting study the crowning moment of ‘admission’ seemed a little spare; kind of like a bare monks cell after the architectural grandeur of a monastery. To be honest I was more preoccupied with the fact that my beautiful chocolate coloured shoes which I had stupidly worn sans stockings were gradually eating into my heel.

I was, of course, staggeringly early to the Supreme Court having made the mad dash across Melbourne from Burwood East to William St in what felt like record time. ‘Staggering’ in a literal sense as well as metaphorically… I needed a moment on the steps to reassess my obsession with timeliness. The security guard looked askance at my appearance and utterly bewildered by what he deemed a premature arrival of deadly proportions. Nevertheless, he ushered me through (while retaining the bottle of ‘Eight Songs’ I’d trucked over from the Barossa for Neil – apparently he thought it was inappropriate for the Supreme Court) and I trotted around the corner to wait.

Presently I was accosted by a Supreme Court volunteer who also seemed actually appalled to learn I had chosen my extra time to sit on a bench in the peaceful and hallowed halls of the Court reading about Gerald Durrells forays into a steamy portion of African jungle in search of baboons – but then maybe she thought that was inappropriate too. She gently suggested I leave and go get something to eat so I wouldn’t pass out at the critical moment; too overwhelmed by the largesse of it all. I must’ve looked disbelievingly amused because she hastened to assure me it was no joke. People had fainted in the past. So have I… I went to eat.

Coming back I realised the tumultuous mess of grey, black and white outside the SC entrance was in fact people. Lawyer people to be more precise. Lots of wigs and black robes crisply snapping in the playful Melbourne breeze with neat jabot nestled at every throat. What an austere and prepossessing sight – I moved through security a second time and went right through to the Court 1: Banco Court foyer. This rounded room has a dome of glass overhead around which a balistrade could be seen and doorways; presumably leading to chambers of various right honourable members of the judiciary. As we, the candidates, milled around on the delicately tiled circular floor, an occasional body would appear on the terrace above peering through the domed glass at us less fortunates – a bit like looking at a pen in the zoo. I suddenly felt rather alone and some horrible overwhelmed shaky feeling crept across my shoulders and forehead to sit hot and uncomfortable over my eyes. Suddenly I was so nervous & having to concentrate on not emptying the contents of my stomach on the polished floor. Bless that volunteer who ordered me to get lunch – she took that exact moment to walk past and check if I was okay. I don’t know how she knew it considering she was blind but I will be grateful to her for some time to come.

Eventually I had enough of standing around. I found a bench and was just pulling out my phone when Neil appeared – broad and tentative smile… maybe he was also a bit nervous about talking in court! Thank you again for agreeing to make the motion Neil – you’re an utter champion! Around the same time the doors creaked open and candidates started organising themselves in a queue. You could tell most of them were from Melbourne. I’ve not seen any other city in Australia queue the way Melbourneans do.

I was number 6 in the ‘vow takers’ which guaranteed me a spot on the front bench bang in the middle with an excellent view of the front of court. The court associate assigned to read out all our names was at the door checking pronunciation and, poor soul, hesitated at the sight of ‘Holzknecht’ (it is a little unfair – 2 vowels and 8 consonants is enough to strike down the boldest court official). Unfortunately, I also had a blocked nose and so after carefully listening to me he wrote down ‘Holzcleft’ on his notes. Neil bravely stepped in (watching the process over my shoulder and only minutes previously having attentively recited it with me a few times in the corridor) to correct him and I hurried off to take my seat.

The first thing that struck me about the courtroom was all the marvellous glowing dark wood… the second thing was that there was craved in graffiti on the bench in front of me. I had to chuckle. I also wondered if this graffiti holds some significance because it had clearly been varnished over at some stage rather than sanded back. Regardless, it seemed incongruous – graffiti of the ‘Bazza Waz Ere’ kind in the Banco Court room.

There was quite a bit of agitated shuffling on the navy leather seats as we waited for everyone to be seated. All the candidates were lined up neatly in the court general benches with the multitude of counsel arranged behind us in a solid wedge of black and white. I could hear as someone leaned to a friend and whispered with righteous indignation “Look at the affirmers and their cameras”… This entertained me for two reasons; one, the use of cameras in the court room is strictly prohibited so I was a bit perplexed and two, I couldn’t quite believe that there was already a differentiation between ‘them’ (the affirmers) and ‘us’ (the vow takers). It’s almost ludicrous that the choice of oath is such a distinction but it is one of the first questions asked. I looked over and chuckled internally even more as I realised the affirmers had all whisked out their iPhones as cameras – I was amused even more by thinking about the justifications for bending the rules that those same people might’ve come up with.

Eventually we were all seated and the ceremony began. If you’re interested in how the whole thing ran the webstream is available at (look for the event titled ‘Admissions 26 May 2009, 4.30pm’) : http://scv2.webcentral.com.au/admissions/#

And that was it. We started off as applicants, became candidates then moved parties, then Australian lawyers – all within the space of 30 minutes. After sitting there and congratulating everyone around me for a few minutes the court clerk came to lead us befuddled embryo lawyers off to the back exit where we were given our certificates and asked to sign the Roll of Australian Lawyers book. Again, I had to smirk at myself – such a large and extravagant signature when all the others above me were that nondescript strong wiggle across the page… never mind. No doubt it will waver into something even less legible as time goes on.

Trotting outside onto William St white tube with certificate inside clutched in one hand I found Neil and he led me back around the front for the obligatory ‘Supreme Court plaque’ photo and then I dashed back inside to find the wine and pass it over (with superfluous thanks!) before rushing off to catch my airport bus. After having conversations with friends about autistic people who have to run from place to place rather than walk I wonder a little what people think when they see me literally trotting from place to place with looks of intense concentration on my face as I try to concentrate on not twisting an ankle or dropping anything… and it happens far more often than it should (timeliness is a virtue… or something!).

It wasn’t until I was on the SkyBus on my way to Tullamarine with time to spare (again) that I had sufficient head space to think about what had happened… With dusk falling and the bright sparkly dots of twilight winking at me through the gradually deepening orange sunset that I imagined how really a mantle of responsibility and ethics has been thrown around my shoulders now. Perhaps thinking about it so seriously is unnecessary and indulgent but it struck me forcibly that I now have a duty of care much higher in some respects than others – this choice of profession calls on one to behave with integrity, foresight, compassion, diligence, efficiency and to keep confidence in amongst other things. It is a proud profession (perhaps too proud) but this pride needs to be tempered with the knowledge that it is profession that serves.

Chinchón con anís, por favor…

•December 11, 2008 • 1 Comment

It was a miserable weekend but we weren’t going to let it get us too down. On Sunday we suffered a mishap with the location of the buses and were forced to delay our trip to the little town of Chinchón until the public holiday. My first Spanish public holiday! Yippee for long weekends.

The rain continued through to Monday but that wasn’t going to stop us and we hopped on the bus for the picturesque hour bus ride to the south east of Madrid. The ride itself was quite interesting – again, lots of funny little stumpy vineyards (only one on trellises that I saw!) and many many olives groves. Luke said on the way that it felt quite a bit more ‘wild’ than the Spanish countryside that we had seen before. I agree, but partially I wonder if that was due to the scores of dilapidated disused houses, both small and grand, that we saw along the way. The grasses and trees and general wildlife was running riot in these places and sometimes it kind of cracked my heart to see gone everything back to the earth so completely.

One sight on the way which I’ll have trouble forgetting was that of a storks nest – perched improbably on top of a telephone tower! The tower itself went up to a point and those clever storks had fashioned something that really must be classified as a modern engineering wonder – it looked rather like a 1.5m tall icecream cone made of sticks. I’m not sure how they did it but sure enough it was home-sweet-home to two of them, one standing tall like a statue and the other nestled in among the top with just the head and beak visible from our lowly viewing point on the bus. Unfortunately, the bus was travelling too quickly and the windows weren’t clear enough with all the rain for me to get a photo… so you’ll just have to take my word for it – it was pretty incredible.

Our arrival in Chinchón was greeted by more rain but we gritted our teeth and wandered up the cobbled streets to one of the more famous Plaza Mayors (that I’ve heard of in any case). Every town in Madrid has one of these but this one is really rather spectacular – a vast circular shape, where most of them are square. Around the edges are three story high galleries hanging off the sides of the restaurants and other public buildings. These galleries are the perfect spot to hang out, drink the local liquor ‘anís’ and watch bullfighting during the summer months – from May through to October. The Plaza is shaped like a rather large bowl and I understand (from pictures) that they must fill this bowl up with sand for the bullfights.

The rain cleared a little so we took the opportunity to walk the twisted streets in an effort to find our way up to the Iglesia de la Asuncíon. This massive church stands on the top of the hill, overlooking the Plaza and opposite the other hill, on which stands a castle. The town sort of lies in the middle of these two hills. The view down into the heart of the town was wonderful but the inside of the church also had its charms. It was marvellously warm (as these gigantic stone churches go) probably thanks to all the parishioners who were exiting just as we rocked up. Luke was disgusted to see the name of the dictator prior to Franco engraven in an official looking stone outside the church with other names, but we’re assuming it’s there because he originated from Chinchón and is therefore a notable. Inside was quite delicately grand; not at all in the sort of outrageous gaudy fashion you find with some of these churches. There were a few alcoves with golden icongraphy but some of the more understated works of art lined the back walls of the church and were quite moving. Goya lived in Chinchón for sometime, but because the art was hung quite high and there were no little tourist signs to point the way, I couldn’t figure out which were his.

We wandered around for a little longer. And started looking for somewhere to eat. We settled on a place that was thankfully a little cheaper than the rest and turned out to be a rather masculine joint with 4 gigantic bulls heads pinioned to the wall. I assume that the bar was either owned by a current or ex- Matador because of all the bullfighting paraphenalia, or maybe the owner was just a tremedous enthusiast! Video footage of spectacular bullfighting snippets was being played non-stop on a television in one corner and we assume it was all fights that had happened in Chinchón because of the shape of the ring and the spectator arenas. The lunch menu consisted largely of meat, meat and more meat and came with a whole bottle of wine which we, very restrainedly, did not finish. Nevertheless, getting up from the table made the world rock a little.

After lunch we ambled back up the streets to Meson Cuevas del Vino – a rather fancy restaurant which we decided not to eat at but which is located in an old olive oil mill and has it’s own bodega (wine cellar). The name of the restaurant says more about it than anything else ‘Caves of Wine’. We took the tour into the caves underneath the restaurant and were quietly impressed. It seems, in this part of Spain at least, that wine is matured not in wood but in massive clay jars. These babies were about twice the size of a man in height and equally substantial in girth. After the tour we stopped at the ‘cellar door’ for a degustacíon of either vino blanco o tinto. We both tried the red and I was interested at the honey flavour of the wine. It tasted like someone had mixed port in but when we asked, the gentleman said it was a very young wine. Huh… go figure. Can any of you wine buffs account for that sort of taste? It had been stored in clay as well.

Next on the list was to go upstairs and sample anís which is principally what Chinchón is known for. It comes in three strengths: dulce, seco y seco especíal. Anyone who likes ouzo would enjoy this beverage – it is just as the name suggests and is made from aniseed. I wasn’t sure I could handle the potency of seco so opted for dulce which is quite a bit sweeter and (I think?) slightly less alcoholic than the others. Luke had seco. The traditional way to drink this stuff is to mix it with a little water which together create a chemical reaction that makes both clear liquids a lovely opaque milky colour. We had our drinks on ice and it was an added attraction that you could see where the ice was melting because only that part of the drink looked cloudy! Unfortunately, they were rather sizeable glasses and after all the red wine I started feeling a little worse for wear. My drink only 2/3rds finished and we decided we’d be able to make the next bus if we left now so headed out of that warm cosy little joint down to the bus stop.

Chinchón also has a fifteenth century castle that looms menacingly and stark over the lip of the hill that Chinchón winds its way around. We didn’t get to see that, except from a distance. I remember that when we drove in we both said we’d like to try and find our way there during our visit, however I think that plan was  forgotten in the happy, fuzzy delirium of the vino tinto/anís combination and the desire to get back home & warm up!

Patones de Arriba y Abajo

•November 24, 2008 • Leave a Comment

The weekend sported beautiful mild weather – although a little windy. So early on Sunday morning we set off by bus for a little town outside of Madrid called ‘Patones de Arriba‘.

Our guide book has the staggering total of one paragraph about this little town and sums everything up by saying ”…there is little else to detain the casual visitor”. It seems rather harsh especially when you get there and see it for yourself. To be truthful we were told about it by a friend who is compiling a book about hikes and hiking in and around Madrid. The longest trek is described as a medium intensity 14 kilometre walk. Luke and I weren’t prepared for the hike so we kept our explorations to the town – however, we both want to go back and do the hike because the scenery was just spectacular and I can imagine that the hike would be wonderful.

The town is located to the north of Madrid at the foot of the Sierra de Guadarrama. The bus dropped as at Patones de Abajo which is on the plain and we had to hike it up into ‘ de Arriba. As you may be able to guess – arriba and abajo refer to ‘up’ and ‘down’. As one of my students told me this morning: there are a lot of these paired towns around Spain. The arriba townships were usually the first in place, set strategically high in the mountains to avoid detection from enemies and to make the town easily defensiable. As Spain became more settled and unified, parts of the arriba moved onto the plains for agricultural purposes. I can understand that having stood on the ground above the town and wondering how on earth anyone could grow or cultivate anything on such rocky windswept slopes!

Luke on the way up... The town is there, I promise!

Luke on the way up... The town is there, I promise!

Luke and I took the scenic route up to the Arriba and on our way passed a bunch of rock climbers inching like lizards up one section of the limestone cliff like boulders on one side of the gorge. We also came across a little sign about the town which listed some interesting statistics (how accurate they are is always a question!) however, in 1557 the population of the town was 5 – at this stage it was only Patones de Arriba. Nowadays the combined population of Patones de Arriba y Abajo is around 378. So still very very small – definitely a pueblo! Another interesting fact about this town was that it was the only Spanish town undiscovered by the French when they invaded – in fact, some Spanish nobility hid out there during the French years and escaped the fate of the rest of the mob who were taken to France as hostages.

Patones de Arriba was abandoned in the 1930s but has since been restored using the original black or blue slate that litters the hilltop. It has been beautifully done and really it is a most extraordinary little town. Also very intriguing are the bits that haven’t been properly restored but which still stand from goodness knows when! Luke and I stood at the top looking over the township for quite a while puzzling over the flat, slightly circular terrace-like spots that dotted the mountainside over the town. Trying to picture what it may have looked like at the peak of its habitation it really is rather mindboggling because there is so little agriculture that could’ve been done in such a desolate place… maybe sheep or goats??!

Here it is! See the strange flat circular space at the front? Hmm...

Here it is! See the flat circular space in front? Strange...

Our guidebook also assured us that we would be able to find a fine meal down in the township and indeed we did. We went to a little tiny place called La Cabaña – which, from the outside looked like it could barely fit 5 people but which turned out to be a very snug (albeit low ceiling-ed!) rabbit warren filled with people and delicious smells. The food and wine were both very aromatic and very very good.

As we left the restaurant we noticed some rather menacing black clouds being pushed in over the horizon by the gusty winds. We had already explored the ruins rather thoroughly and so wandered back down to Patones de Abajo to have a peek around there. Back we went past the rock climbers and stopped to chuckle at the guide shouting instructions to one of the people on what was obviously a ‘tour’ – ”arriba tus pies…arriba arriba… aqui aqui!!!” (Roughly translated: ”Life your leg…up up..there there!!” It’s such a beautifully blunt language.

The view down to Patones de Abajo... pretty huh?

The view down to Patones de Abajo... pretty huh?

We took a detour through a very facist looking playground. Really, it’s not so difficult to see what has been built in a traditional or modern style, and what was probably erected sometime during Francos reign. It’s very austere and somewhat grandiose… I couldn’t believe that those words could even be applied to a childrens playground! But this really was.

The sunset was just lovely coming under and behind the heavy black cloud – it didn’t take long before the temperature dropped and Luke and I started looking for the return bus and/or somewhere to take refuge from the cold! With an hour or so before the next bus and the little town explored (I think it consisted of a whole 4 or 5 streets), we decided to brave the local cervecería and hopped inside. It was lovely and warm inside with a real fire (!!) going – I was very excited by the fire, I’m really very fed up with fake gas heating, as I was by the smell of wood smoke that was drifting across the town when we arrived. Luke got a beer and I had a coffee (which was truly delicious) which came with genuine tapas – a pile of green olives and a slab of tuna. Luke doesn’t like tuna or olives so was suitably annoyed but when he grudgingly tasted them was delighted to find they had a flavour rather like fritz! How to make olives taste like Fritz… an interesting question.

We watched a grandfather paint his granddaughters nails a pearly white, laughing at himself with his friends the whole time and then trooped back into the cold for our bus ride home. A very pleasant Sunday afternoon excursion!

Meeting Nina from 2º…

•November 18, 2008 • 1 Comment

I just had a singularly unnerving experience…

As I entered my building a tiny little old woman was struggling through 2 suitcases and a handbag the size of her torso to find the keys to get in – so I let her in. I figured she wasn’t out to burgle anyone…

As I held the door open for her she chatted at me and handed me her handbag. Once we were inside, she started asking me questions – I could tell by the inflection and the upward lift her eyebrows as they came flying out. Apparently I had answered her ‘Gracias’ with a much too eloquent ‘…nada!’ (short for ‘denada’ or ‘it’s nothing’/’no problem’) I had to admit to her that I didn’t have any Spanish and I was sorry. She grasped my arm and gave it a little squeeze of sympathy – poor foreign fool. But it didn’t stop…

She repeated her questions much more slowly and I was able to discern that she wanted to know where I lived. I managed to stutter out something about the fourth floor and derecha, exterior. She beamed at me and announced something about the ‘cocina’… I might’ve heard it wrong but it’s also possible her kitchen (or mine…there’s an equal chance here) probably has something to do with it…?

I fished around in my memory for the word ‘help’ and miraculously found it, or what I thought was it (the quizzical lift of her eyebrows and puzzled earnest expression maybe proved something else) – completely forgetting that I learned the permissive phrases (ie; Can I…(help you)? or Can you…(speak more slowly!)? about 3 days ago… Shit. So I did what I could and made a motion with my hands toward her labouriously heavy suitcases. She waved her hands around and I heard ‘segundo’ – that being the second floor I started walking that way and she trotted after me still talking. At least I don’t think I was being asked any more questions… I did hear her say ‘molestar’ at some point – being exactly what it sounds like ‘molest’ and just hoped that I wasn’t being chastised for molesting her and she was just apologising for bothering me… they seem like very similar phrases and when there’s really only the conjugation to separate them and I didn’t hear that bit.

Finally we got to her floor and she grabbed my arm again and said something like ‘bonita’. I admit it really could’ve been anything at this point and I was just desperate for a word I knew. Then she said something very quickly and looked at me very intensely – willing me to understand… I concentrated and she repeated…

‘Me llamo Nina’…. hang on… I knew that bit… ‘My name is Nina!’

I managed to point at my chest and mutter ‘Heidi, me llamo Heidi’. She seemed satisfied by this interchange and thanked me – very kind of her. I said ‘…nada’ again with far less confidence and wandered off down the stairs.

Thank goodness I had the forethought to buy a steadying bag of chips on my way home!

In Europe now, Toto…

•November 14, 2008 • Leave a Comment

If I listen very very carefully right now I can hear a few sounds – the water rushing through the pipes heating our little house, the general chitchat of people on the street, cars and the usual paraphenalia of travel noise and occasionally the tiny ‘peep!’ of a sparrow, or slight purr of a pigeon under the eaves across from our terrace. I don’t think I’ve heard much more bird song here than that… This is how Washington Irving describes it:

‘… for the greater part it is a stern, melancholy country with rugged mountains and long sweeping plains destitute of trees and indescribably silent and lonesome, partaking of the savage and solitary character of Africa. What adds to this silence and loneliness is the absence of singing-birds, a natural consequence of the want of groves and hedges. The vulture and the eagle are seen wheeling about the mountain cliffs and soaring over the plains, and groups of shy bustards stalk about the heaths, but the myriads of smaller birds which animate the whole face of other countries are met with in but few provinces in Spain…’

I would hold this to be absolutely true. In fact, it didn’t really come to my attention until our visit to Granada and while trying to find our hostel we came across the raucous chimes of what must have been hundreds of little birds crammed into the only completely ‘green’ Plaza I’ve seen in Spain. Obviously they were drawn to the variety of trees and fountain in the middle – bird guano covered the little narrow pathways across the Plaza and the choking cloying smell of birds was very very strong even as you approached the square from a side street.

Nevertheless, the *sound* of the birds was what first drew my amazed attention. I’d never heard such an array of birdsong in Spain before – the noise was incredible and seemed totally out of place! The same thing happened a few days ago as I was sitting outside on our terrace enjoying the few rays of sun that land there during the winter.

First it was a funny little ‘honk’ sound and I thought it might have been a noise from the street. Then I heard it again… It sounded like a heron or some other water bird from back at home but that couldn’t be right!? I glanced at the sky but there was nothing there so shrugged and went back to my book. Then it sounded out again – this time a few different honks all together. Looking up I saw a huge beautiful ‘V’ of migrating birds. In perfect formation they pointed exactly south, south-west. I’m not sure what they were aiming for – I’m pretty sure they’d end up at the southern most tip of Portugal or maybe they’d get a little edge of Africa but perhaps this was just the first leg and they’d readjust their trajectory a little further down Spain.

I sort of laughed to myself as I realised that that sight (amusing in itself: I love that the formation is so blatant ”We’re going THIS way!!”) – migrating birds was not something I was ever going to see in Australia or certainly not as spectacular as that particular sight. I tried to get a photo but they were very high up and my camera is unfortunately not particularly good at distance photography. Perhaps you can see the tiny shadow of the ‘V’ as it wings its way south?

The birds tell us where the party's at...

The birds tell us where the party's at...

Gumboots & Fashionistas

•October 27, 2008 • 1 Comment

Let’s clear one thing up straight away – Spanish people are, on the whole, very fashionable and dress very well. The women in particular are almost without exception dressed to the nines, whether they are stepping out for some shopping or going to a ball. As the standards on what is acceptable seem higher here, it’s likely that most Spanish women would be ‘overdressed’ for every occasion in Australia but here the rest of us, poor slops, look like dull duds compared with the colourful birds of Madrid!

However…!

There are a few fashions that I have noted and wondered at…

I have already spoken about genie pants and marvelled at the extent to which this trend has carried through the ‘pant’ world. There are genie pants in denim and cargo-style genie pants with a proliferation of external pockets and itty bitty hot pant genie pants: they come in all sizes and for all styles. Incredible.

Another fashion I hum-and-har over here is the ‘palestina’ – a neck scarf popularised, as far as I can tell, by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. I’m not sure if the fashion is a tribute to this, now dead, leader as quite possibly it’s release into the fashion world may have been around 2004 – the year of his death. Regardless of the origin, I was told with a certain measure of authority, that Spain ‘invented’ this fashion and thus are very proud of it. I was skeptical to say the least. Whatever my feelings on the subject they *are* very common and one is able to buy them in a myriad of colours. My general dislike of over-popular fashions is somewhat tempered in this case by the sheer practicality of scarfs in all shapes and sizes (except for those long skinny ridiculous pieces of ribbon that were out a few years ago). I love scarfs so although I personally will not be endorsing this fashion by purchase, I will generally approve of it from afar.

This afternoon as I climbed the 5 elevators out of my Linea 10 metro stop, I noted again another fashion which I openly chuckle at. This is calf high leather boots with calf length capri jeans or pants. I *suppose* this is a concession to women, like myself, who have quite large and/or muscular calves and find the fashion of stuffing ones pants into ones boots difficult due to what is already wedged into said boot. Or perhaps it is just another wacky fashion that I don’t understand. For me it is distressing because I can only imagine how uncomfortable it is to have the leather rubbing against your cold cold skin first thing on a winter morning in Madrid and having ice cold air whistling around the back of ones kneecaps. Oh well.

Finally for today: gumboots. This is another fashion which, although it amuses me, I cannot really laugh at it because the practicality somewhat outweighs the ludicrousness. I knew before I left Adelaide that patterned gumboots were making headway in the fashion stakes but it wasn’t until a few weeks ago when we had our first cold winter showers that I realised how many people were getting into the look. Move over garden variety wellies! These babies are hot and floral and ready to walk accompanied with a leather and fur jacket, patterned tights and hotpants. The outrageousness of this outfit didn’t really get me laughing but the other morning I saw an instance that really did. Walking towards me was some sort of metrosexual-come-punk with the cool hair, aviator sunglasses and fairly tight black denim pants. However, he was also wearing business attire and black gumboots. The look, as I describe it here, does not seem so ridiculous but the combination was fascinating and from the way he was dressed these were not just gumboots to get around in the wet weather with, they were something to wear for the duration of the day.

This last weekend was not big on the travel but we did have a fairly interesting Saturday night: one of Lukes good friends here in Spain is an actor as well as an English teacher (for those of you who know the show, he is going to be the dubbing voice for Germaine in ‘Flight of the Concords’ in Spanish). This wonderfully generous guy managed to wangle 8 tickets to see ‘Queen’ and invited us along. My best memories of Queen are singing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ with Adelaide Uni Choral Society but have always enjoyed finding out that yet another of my favourite 70’s tunes was by Queen. Of course the band was minus Freddy Mercury but Bohemian Rhapsody was ‘performed’ half live by the remaining crew and half by Freddy Mercury as an old recording played on the massive screen behind the band. It was actually quite moving and the concert overall was alot of fun! I think it must be somewhat humbling to be the members of Queen whose songs are still riotously popular long after their ‘prime’ time. And Madrid was still mad for them – I have never heard such a massive crowd sing so perfectly in tune and have so many sychronised hand movements! It was a great night and a big thank you to Toni for the tickets and the company…

La Alhambra y Granada

•October 19, 2008 • 1 Comment

Granada… well.

If you ever get a chance to come to Spain I would highly recommend stopping for a few days in Granada. I know I’ve said that about every place so far so perhaps I’m just cautioning the unwary visitor to Spain that generally you will feel sad that you don’t have more time to spend in all these places!

We travelled down to Granada from Madrid by bus – the 5 hour trip was not particularly pleasant in such close quarters but the scenery was interesting enough to make the time seem much shorter. The trip takes you down through the region or province of Castilla – La Mancha. For those of you with literature bents will recall La Mancha as the area where the legendary figure of Don Quixote roams. The most exciting thing about this for me was the sight of all the little windmills that the mad Quixote attacked because, for me, they have only been associated with fiction – it seemed like someone had cut the windmills out of a fairytale and stuck them on the landscape just for show. They tend to exist in groups – my favourite being a threesome perched on top of a little hill about an hour south of Madrid – which I suppose is due to those areas being the best for air currents.

The other windmills we saw were far more modern but after the lacksidasical attitude of most Madrileños to domestic recycling it was refreshing to see that somewhere in Spain someone is thinking of the environment and implementing alternative forms of energy!

Other notable bits from the bus trip include many many vineyards and many thousands of olive trees – the second statement is absolutely NO exaggeration. The rows of silver trees glowed for miles, the rolling hills seemed to continue forever with them – in some places literally as far as the eye could see the olive trees filled the landscape. Trees were planted in twos and very close together but instead of winding together the trees tended to bend away from each other in little arches. Every tree was also clearly pruned on the top – to prevent the tree from bearing fruit out of reach I suppose. What was even more staggering was that almost every tree I could see from the road was cared for and harvested – you could tell by the wide swept circle of earth around each tree. In some places it defied imagination as to how the olive farmers could possibly get any sort of machinery into the grove, which I suppose meant they did it by hand! After experiencing almond picking at home, I fairly fainted at the thought but olive oil and olive products are such an integral part of the agricultural economy I suppose there are multitudes of families that have cultivated olives for generations.

Enough about olives… what was interesting about the vineyards? Well. I suppose that years of fascist rule and a perchant for maintaining traditional methods in the face of global trends means that obtaining posts and wire to create upright rows may be difficult. However… and again I draw from vague memories of picking our old shiraz patch in the heat and dust of summer before Pa trained it off the ground… it really makes me feel rather ill thinking about picking the vineyards of La Mancha. There was the occasional trellised vineyards but mostly they were just rows of low shrub-like vines. I would actually like to go down and visit sometime during the upcoming pruning season to see if they create little baskets with the rods like our neighbour used to do, because, to me, it looked as though the pruning method was to simply cut the rods off quite close to the trunk so one was left with a kind of stump (I believe I saw a pruned vineyard on the way but I couldn’t make sense of the shapes so I wasn’t sure).

Regardless of the details of training and pruning the whole landscape was very beautiful in its autumn dress. Burnished reds and golds, bright yellows of deciduous trees and hints of green starting to come through after the heat of summer. And then of course the beautiful soft silver of the olive trees and closer to Granada spectacular pine forests in that deep rich green that also feels kind of fairytale like.

Hmmm. Several paragraphs down and I still haven’t arrived in Granada! I will try to be more brief.

We arrived in Granada at about 9pm and immediately went off in search of our hostel. People at the bus station were very helpful pointing us in the right direction to catch the bus into the centre of town and providing a map. We found our hostel with minimal wandering around backstreets although we did wander through the most bizarre chirping plaza! It was more heavily gardened and planted than any other plaza I have seen – the result was that birds seem to have decided this is a haven and roost there on a nightly basis. The ground was littered with droppings and after our first foray through there we skirted the edges to avoid  being ‘blessed’ from above. Also, the smell of birds was very very powerful, almost overwhelming in fact.

Having found our hostel and receiving yet more warm welcoming advice and assistance from one of the members of the family who run the place, we ventured out for a drink and some tapas. Granada is famous for the tapas – real tapas being small plates of food that were originally provided free of charge with drinks purchased to keep the flies from your beverage and also, presumably, to ensure tht patrons didn’t get too drunken and disorderly and could continue buying drinks late into the night. These days in many parts of Spain and around the world ‘tapas’ is a small dish of something that you pay for, like an entree, but in Granada the word is what it says it is.

Unfortunately, our first experience of tapas in Granada was nothing special. Lukes beer came with a small plate on which sat 4 little odd tasting meatballs and a small nest of potato chips. Lukes second drink (usually the tapas get more elaborate with every additional drink that you buy) resulted in nothing so we ordered some separate food and had a light dinner before retiring to bed.

The next day we had (fortunately) booked tickets for La Alhambra in the afternoon… *another note of warning – you really *must* book in advance if you want to see the whole Alhambra complex because it is so wildly popular and they limit the number of tickets to 8000 a day… so spent the morning wandering around central Granada near our hotel. There was plenty to see, including the rather impressive and imposing Renaissance style Cathedral – we didn’t get inside this building, but did see a collection of flamenco dancers with accompanying guitarists flambouyently dressed in bright red and green go inside as the entertainment for a wedding.

The afternoon arrived and we bused up the hill to La Alhambra to avoid being late and therefore missing to opportunity to enter… *even if you have tickets, you are only allowed into certain areas at certain times so you really need to be very prompt! We arrived early and so meandered around a bit – the area around the Alhambra is gardened and also quite pretty. I also think we might’ve seen a hummingbird! It was either that or a very large bird-like bee or other insect.

Our first access point was the ‘Generalife’ – pronounced ‘Heneraleefay’ not ‘general life’ as I heard someone say to their companion. This section contains the gardens and summer palace of the sultans. The grounds consist of extensive and neatly ordered gardens with beautiful water features dipping in and out of view but always audible in the background. It would be very hard to feel anything other than supremely relaxed and meditative in this space. Just behind the gardens is the actual palace – we entered through a fairly reserved and simple alcove designed for the arriving guests to dismount and have their noble steeds led away… I suspect it was also a small joke on behalf of the architect because it in no way prepares you for the splendour of the following arching rooms and phenomenally decorated courtyards… each room is even more opulent than the last – marble, delicate painted tiles, carved walls, ornate wooden windows and window frames, gold and the rich azul blue paint highlighting certain patterns. It is really beyond words to describe and I stopped taking pictures after a while because it was clear that trying to capture this on camera was only going to be a complete failure. For some hint of what it looks like please try and find some tourist website! I think my favourite part of this section was the… nope… I can’t really say. Although, there was a open air gallery that led from one beautiful bedroom to another room which presented one of the most phenomenal views of the old Arab quarter of the Albaicìn. This area is perforated with caves and is Spain’s largest and most characteristic surviving Moorish barrio [suburb]. For the last however many years this area has been inhabited by the gypsies – this is quite a distinct cultural group within Spain and they are not a nomadic peoples. However, the society is just as closed to outsiders as every other gypsy group in the world. The best flamenco dancers in the world are rumoured to be Albaicín gypsies but unfortunately, and like many other superstars, they are often also prey to cocaine addictions (cocaine is very cheap and easily available throughout Spain). Several of the caves have been turned into flamenco night clubs and it is possible to see some extremely powerful and gritty performances. However, everybody and every piece of literature we consulted on the subject also warned of the dangers of the gypsy quarter and with not that much time in Granada we decided to avoid the area at night and skip the flamenco.

So that was the first section – after the ‘Generalife’ we lined up (in the rain!) for entry to the Nazarid Palaces. I thought the the rooms in the Generalife were beautiful but nothing really prepared me for this! Again… it’s just not really worth trying to explain – you have to look it up or just go to Granada and see for yourself. It’s a bit of a cop out saying that but… well, I just can’t use sufficient or strong enough adjectives and it only when you are there that you have that overwhelming feeling of age, splendour and the extremities of that time.

I will tell you instead of the ‘Alhambra Cats’ (as Luke tagged them): in Madrid we have hardly seen any evidence of cats. Dogs yes. Aplenty. But cats – not really. I suspect that with all the dogs running around cats are difficult to spot and if people care as much for their cats as they appear to do so for their dogs I imagine the cats are kept inside and cossetted. Anyway, Granada, and in particular La Alhambra, was a very different situation altogether.