It’s proving hard to find inspiration for my blog right now. But lots of interesting things are happening so I’ll try and do a travel blog just to keep the page alive. I’m not especially inspired so be warned :).
I’m writing this from Leon in north-west Spain, where I’m spending time with “the Spaniards” who I befriended in Cambodia. My first trip to Spain was in 1993, to the Costa Blanca as a poor student nurse. But I fell in love with the country on my second trip in 2002. At that time I was working 12 hour shifts at a London hospital. With an Australian friend doing similar shifts at a nearby hospital, we clustered our shifts together, so that most months we had at least ten days off which we used to travel, mostly on the European continent. After one visit to Barcelona, I needed to return and did so at least twice, including a three week trip through Spain. Perhaps the thing I loved most at that time was the “town square culture”. Every town has a Plaza Mayor (main square) with buildings encircling it on four sides, outdoor cafes lining the inner edges of the square, often a fountain or other feature in the centre, park benches and other attractions drawing people in. Both young and old congregate in these squares to socialise and there is a very relaxed and festive ambience. Returning 12 years later, this is still the most appealing aspect of Spanish culture that I’ve seen so far. The Plaza Mayor is also not the only square in town – walking through Leon the other day, visiting some favourite bars for sangria and tapas, we seemed to find a square around every other corner.
After spending time here as a tourist, it’s very different to experience it as a guest of locals, especially with people I feel such a connection with after our time in Cambodia together. The only person missing is Kim who was with me when we met the Spaniards. She is in America, living in post-Ebola isolation having just completed time with MSF in Liberia.
After the fabulous time with Kate and her family in the Dordogne area of France, I traveled south to Toulouse by train last week, to visit a French friend, MSFer and Phter Koma fellow Director. Sipping wine on her terrace on our first evening was followed by foie gras and pasta in a gourmet restaurant. The next day was spent cycling around Toulouse city, something I never would have been brave enough to do, in a beautiful and ancient city I likely would never have visited, without her. Day 2 together was spent with another friend who I met briefly in Cambodia, at a town called Albi, about an hour from Toulouse city. My cousin emailed me from Australia to say that she has wanted to visit Toulouse since seeing the movie Moulin Rouge, “because Toulouse was the short guy’s name”. Albi was the birthplace of artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, aka “the short guy”. It is a picturesque medi-evil town with ancient winding alleyways, a huge Gothic/Rococo cathedral and an old castle which now houses the Toulouse-Lautrec museum, dedicated to the life and art of the-short-guy.
My Toulouse friend has done a number of missions with MSF including a year in Cambodia some years ago when she was instrumental alongside some Khmer colleagues, in establishing Phter Koma Childrens Home. We Skyped with the children together on Friday morning, greeted by 15 children shouting “Helllloooo” at us, followed by a chorus of “IIII’mmm fiiiine, and youuuuuu”! Water shortages continue to blight Kampong Cham where the well supply ran out unexpectedly and town supply has been connected to the Mekong, so that people are showering in muddy river water which many are also forced to drink.
From the basics of life in the water-deprived heat at Phter Koma, our final couple of days were spent with friends at a most amazing mountain hideaway in the Pyrenees near the beautiful alpine spa town of Bagneres de Bigorre. I got to glimpse French life with a bunch of weekending French people in a beautifully designed and constructed architect’s home, under the watchful eye of the snow-topped Pic du Midi just across a few hillsides from us. Mountain goats with cowbells around their necks rang in constant unison from the fields below as we sipped Pomerol wine which our host seemed to have an endless supply of. We three women sat at the wooden table spanning the length of the massive kitchen and seating up to 16, as the three men chopped garlic and peppers, prepared soup, vegetables, lamb chops and entrees. Conversation was dominated by wine, cheese, bread, cooking techniques, French lamb vs NZ lamb and various other culinary subjects I had never considered to be discussion-worthy before.
From Toulouse I traveled by connecting trains via Narbonne and Barcelona, to Leon, arriving at 0500am to the welcome sight of Maria and Bianca (not their real names) walking towards me on the platform. Leon is Bianca’s home town. Maria is from Madrid and we’re spending a few days at her parents’ place there before I return to the UK next week for Hannah’s wedding. My Spanish is better now, at least partly due to my time in Cambodia with translators and teaching English, which made me think about language more than I ever had. Maria and Bianca are very encouraging and I’m sent to pay the bill or converse with people, practising my lines before making my approach! We are having lots of conversations about language in general as well as helping each other out, although their English is highly advanced against my basic Spanish. Maria is very creative. She says things like “Italian and Spanish are so similar that if you don’t know a word, you can guess it and you will probably be correct”! It seems to me as though people who grow up exposed to other languages develop “freestyle” skills.
Bianca’s old family home is a very Hispanic and rural establishment. Heavy wooden farmhouse doors open onto an outdoor courtyard which is entirely enclosed by the house and property walls, providing a private central garden, much like the house in the photograph below. Old converted stables which once accommodated horses, donkeys, pigs and chickens are now a part of the house. Bianca, in her early 30s, lived a very rural childhood here. She tells some interesting tales of various family ceremonies, including the killing of a pig twice per year, taking place in the courtyard. Until recently the village water supply came from a well at the end of the main street which has since been covered by a traffic roundabout. She tells some funny Vicar of Dibley-style stories about church, choir, congregation and priest, the local bar, the mayor and other village characters.
Today we visited the town of Astorga, about an hour from Leon, and a nearby medi-evil village. We arrived just as siesta time was beginning so we found a restaurant for lunch. A common Spanish meal is “Cocido” (“Kor-thee-do”), which is served as three courses – soup, chick peas (surprisingly, these are critiqued the way the French critique cheese!) and meat. The Leon area is home of the Maragato people, who were once skilled tax collectors for the King. As busy traders and travellers, they were often in a hurry so they would eat their meal backwards to ensure the most nutritious intake first. It is now tradition in this area when eating Cocido, to start with the meat course, followed by the chick pea dish, and finally soup. Along with wine and bread, and followed by custard and a coffee liquor, we spent two hours in a busy and charming restaurant, being served by a lone jovial elderly waiter who kept the whole restaurant served efficiently while befriending his customers with light hearted banter.
Today’s other lesson introduced me to El Camino Santiago, a hiking pilgrimage which I’d never heard of before. Santiago is a town in Galicia, near the north west coast of Spain where the remains of the Apostle Saint James, Patron Saint of Spain, are said to be buried in the cathedral. Pilgrims have been walking to Santiago for centuries and today it is a popular hike for tourists who are named Pilgrims regardless of their reason for walking the various trails which lead to Santiago from within and outside of Spain. We passed many pilgrims on our drive today as part of the route follows the national road between Leon and Astorga. Many were also in the town with us, eating at the restaurant, sitting in the Plaza Mayor, visiting Antoni Gaudi’s En Palacio Episcopal and the majestic cathedral built between the 16th and 18th centuries. I now understand what the man meant yesterday who asked me as I sat in the Post Office beside him “do you work to Santiago?”.
Soon enough my time in Spain comes to a rapid end, for now at least. A wedding, possible trip to Paris to see a Khmer colleague attending the MSF Annual General Meeting, various commitments in London which include lunch with my now-adult god daughter and her family (her mother and I worked together 25 years ago) and another lunch with my boss from the same workplace when I was a secretary at Price Waterhouse on #1 London Bridge. In mid June one of the New York Karens is coming to Provence and I am joining her for a week. Around these scattered commitments I’m unsure what I’ll be doing but time is running out very fast and there are not enough days left to do everything I want. I haven’t even mentioned my time in the public gallery of a court at The Old Bailey hearing part of a murder trial; visiting a stately home in Kent with friends; seeing the newly-returned Miss Saigon at London’s Prince Edward Theatre; hanging in London with an old nursing friend who traveled up from Brighton for the day; the pubs and cinema and galleries and museums. It’s worrisome to think about how “work” will ever enter my reality again? I have another six months before worrying about that minor interference.