Saturday, 31 August 2013

Fat Boy

He had an unfortunate name, Fat Boy, deemed fat and ugly by his owner. The saving grace was that he was a Spanish horse and unable to understand the meaning of his own name. For me, Fat Boy was a highlight of Extremadura, an unrelenting part of Spain which you can only surrender to once there.

"Is everything OK, with the house?" the English woman asked, who managed the casa we had rented for a week. 

"Yes, absolutely, can I ride the horses next door?" I asked with unbridled enthusiasm, a kid on holiday.

And the following day Fat Boy turned up early in the morning, to avoid the heat of the day. He was dressed in a military saddle, like concrete to the bum.

" You turn left here, right by the olive tree, cross the road, go straight straight straight where you can gallop him and ride through the fig plantations...."

"What, you're not coming with me?" I asked the owner of Fat Boy.

"No!" he replied incredulously "You can ride can't you?"

"Yes, yes..." I replied keen as mustard

"Then you will not fall off, will you?" he said, a little curtly.

Off we trotted, turning left as we had been told, to do my favourite thing in the whole wide world - discovering strange lands by horseback. As the sun threatened to melt us if we were not back by 10, I had just one hour all by myself, shouting "hola!" to the farmers and letting him gallop just a little.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013


Part of the fun of going abroad is the food. The deciphering of menu's, the local delicacies, the bizarre dishes and teaching the children not to shout "Urrrrrrrrgggggghhh" when bowls of snails or unrecognisable parts of animals are carried to the next door table. Even better than that however, are the local supermarkets - they provide the most entertainment and are deemed far more superior than any museum, by both myself and the children.

The waft of salt cod hits you strongly as you enter any supermarket in Spain or Portugal, a strong fishy pungency which faintly makes everything we bought stink of fish, or it was in our nostrils for hours afterwards. The rows of familiar, but very foreign, crisps and biscuits. No 'salt and vinegar' flavours here but 'jamon and cheese' or 'paprika'. Same, same but different as was once said to me in India.

The vegetables still have soil and bugs in between the leaves, cheese is to be bought by the kilo, only 8 pints of fresh milk was available while a whole aisle was dedicated to UHT - as well silly-priced booze which made the adults ridiculously excited, and our livers groan in anticipation.

But the highlight of this cavern of surprises was a vacuum packed suckling pig  - a piglet in a packet. Oh, we laughed and how the children screamed!

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Back safe, rested, inspired and ready to go again...

I truly love Spain. Not the Costa Brava-Malaga style Spain, although those places have their own beauty as well; I mean real, raw, harsh Spain.

Extremadura in August was always going to be a challenge. Searing temperatures, bleached swathes of nothingness dotted with only a few olive trees or oaks, whose acorns feed the revered black pigs. Long straight roads all to ourselves for it was two in the afternoon when we arrived, a time when everyone was sensibly asleep. Eagles soared on the thermals, creating beautiful arcs in slow motion, spying the ground for a tasty rodent, but nothing else was occurring. Nothing at all.

Life slowed to a manageable pace, of eating little, drinking a lot, lazing in and out of sleep by the pool and summoning up the energy to visit ruins and architecture left by the conquistadores. A week passed in this fashion, with a story or two to tell, before moving on to Portugal - a country surprisingly beautiful, green, mountainous and puzzling. It was here I passed into my 41st year without a bump or a glitch, a smooth transition aided by lunching on a precipice, swimming in an icy cold river and barbequeing at the yurt, washed down with unmentionable amounts of Portugal's finest fizzies.

We swam in rivers, lakes, the high side of dams and the municipal swimming pools feeling very foreign, not a word of Portuguese between us - and Spanish does not help at all. With a splash of English, a try of French and a fair amount of pointing and international signing, we got about, had fun, got laughed at and laughed it off. We were certainly outsiders in this part of the world.

We drove back through Spain, stayed in castles, wondered about cathedrals, walked the cities battlements, and ate oniony gazpacho which stayed with us all day. We taught the kids how to siesta, to eat jamon, to try out their newly acquired Spanish words and to swim. They learnt about scorpions and gecko's, Romans and medieval towns, they spotted stork nests perched on top of religious buildings and spiders the size of their hands, they moaned about the towns and revelled in the space and cool waters. They drew pictures, collected stones, rated the serviette holders of various bars, tried lollies and ice creams alien to them and watched intently at the boys and girls of their own age.

They learnt, we learnt, I relaxed while he is still horizontal - and we are planning our way back, maybe one day forever.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Too much fun - it's only just begun!

Holey moley, are we having a corker of a summer.

The weather is great, he has 3 months off 'gardening leave' before starting a new job, the children are being fantastic and are at the wonderful ages of 5 and 7. I'm feeling very lucky indeed, what a way to start being 40.

As soon as school was out we motored down the familiar M4 to Somerset, enjoyed beers in Mum's garden - a crumbling, fading wall gave view to a sea of nettles. The children adore the place, full of interesting junk, hidey holes in the garden, stuff to fiddle with and wander about as well as a dog whom they love - he is not so keen, preferring adult company and a quiet time.

On to a dear friends wedding when for the first time in weeks it rained, really rained. But just like the Bacardi advert, when the party gets going because there's nothing else for it, everyone was in the beautifully decorated marquee, mingling, mixing, remembering, hugging and appreciating the detail of the effort that weddings are. It was one of those evenings that when we ate at 6pm it was suddenly 1.30am, just like that. A fair amount of booze, silly dancing, giggling about the past, promising to be in touch more, poncing a malboro light for old times sake and flopping into a hotel room, which was hardly appreciated at all. Oh boy, what a hangover.

And on to Wales, for castles and dramatic skies, belly aches and liver aches with friends. I like living on the road, out of a bag. The children are completely adaptable, having done it from birth. Sleeping in strange beds, no routine, playing with other children only faintly recognised - we didn't see them for days, such was the absorbency of their intricate games.

And finally back to Sussex with a mountain of chores, work and lists to complete before flying to Spain tomorrow. To be 40. I can't bloody wait!