The medina and the market: colours of Tangiers street life

Women selling fruit and vegetables in a square in the medina of Tangiers.

Women selling fruit and vegetables in a square in the medina of Tangiers.

Tangiers, Morocco

A woman shells peas to sell in the street.

Tangiers, market, Morocco

A mix of dried spices, leaves and flowers. Moroccan cuisine is highly aromatic.

The classic colours of Morocco at a spice stall.

The classic colours of Morocco at a spice stall.

market, Tangiers, Morocco, Medina

Stalls have an amazing variety of goods, including garlic, ginger and volcanic pumice stone.

Tangiers, medina, Morocco

A turquoise street in the Medina with yellow and red houses.

For me, the most memorable part of my all-too-short visit to Tangiers was wandering through the Medina – the old city, just below the Kasbah. In my last post, I talked about our guide, Aziz. If I had been trying to find my way through alone, I would certainly have got horrendously lost – normally a fun part of exploring a new city, but when you’ve only got a day, with lots to see and learn, not ideal. But as it was, Aziz knows these labyrinthine streets and took us up steps, around corners, and under archways. We saw the real Tangiers, which is a third-world city without running water in some homes, with refuse on the streets, and with a vital sense of life. As I said in a previous post, this is my first time in a developing country in over a decade, so I was looking through newly naive eyes.

Morocco, Tangiers

Coloured, patterned leather slippers are reminiscent of tiles and plasterwork, with their intricate patterns.

House in the medina, in a shade close the famous albero of Seville.

House in the medina, in a shade to close the famous albero of Seville.

Tangiers, Morocco, market, olives

Fat, juicy olives in all colours, in the market of Tangiers.

When I  mentioned to a very well-travelled, highly-experienced photographer friend that I was going to Tangiers, and asked what advice would she give me – especially in case of not-ideal climatic conditions (it rained) – she just said “colour”. Only showers, as it happened, but those zingy colours can’t be suppressed by a light downpour – houses, spices, clothes (not the djellaba, the long hooded kaftan, which we only saw in earth tones – white, grey, brown or black).

Berber, market, Berber market, Tangiers, Morocco

Berber women selling fresh fruit and vegetables.

market, Berber, Berber market, Tangiers, Morocco

Produce from the countryside in hand-woven baskets.

oranges, Tangiers, Morocco, market

A moped trailer piled high with oranges, fresh from the farm.

We were lucky enough to be in Tangiers on a Sunday, when the Berber market takes place. Berbers are the native people of Morocco, before the Arabs arrived; they’re nomadic, tribal people. They come into the city – mostly women, but men too - bringing their fruit, vegetables, milk, cheese and eggs (and even live chickens, too) to sell on the pavement next to St Andrew’s Church, by the Grand Socco, on Sunday mornings.

Some handy tips for visiting Tangiers

One euro = around 11 dhirams. Most places accept euros, but give change in dhirams.

Some Moroccan women don’t like being photographed; I tried to avoid capturing their faces.

Alcohol is served, but discreetly, as Morocco is a liberal Islamic country – mostly in tourist hotels, and smarter bars and restaurants.

Kif (marijuana) smoking is tolerated for Moroccans, and very popular among the young, but illegal (if also popular) for tourists. Beware.

In future posts, I’ll be looking at Tangiers in artistic, musical, cinematic and literary terms, as well as telling you about the trip I took out of the city to the coast.

A trip to Tangiers: first impressions

One of the most beautiful sights in Tangiers: a public fountain in the Kasbah with Islamic tiles, exquisite plasterwork and carved wooden roof .

One of the most beautiful sights in Tangiers: not a palace, or a mosque, but a public fountain in the Kasbah with colourful tiles, exquisite plasterwork and carved wooden roof.

Tangiers, port, Morocco

First stormy view of Tangiers from the ferry – terminal with red flag for the king’s visit, medina, and on the skyline two towers: a minaret (right) and the bell tower of St Andrew’s church.

 

A snatch of plaintive Arabic music, small children playing marbles in the street, a Berber woman covering her face with a scarf… narrow alleyways dotted with rubbish, houses painted azure blue, canary yellow, terracotta pink; ancient, exquisite carved wooden doors; piles of gleaming fresh aubergines, tomatoes and strawberries stacked high in a market stall; figures wearing the djellabah, a long, medieval robe with pointed hood; young men glued to a Spanish football match on TV in a bar, with the sweet aroma of hashish swirling around. Snapshots of a brief but intense experience.

Readers who follow my blog’s Facebook page (see Like box on right, part of snazzy new self-hosted look) will know that I recently went to Tangiers.

This was my first ever trip to Africa – a new continent, and a new country: Morocco. Separated from Europe at Spain’s nearly southernmost point by just a few kilometres, the two continents pushed apart by Hercules, so the legend goes. After 10 years, finally I got around to making the short, easy trip. Having been warned to expect hassle I was apprehensive, being out of practice at coping with third-world countries (trips to Europe, Asia and South America from my late teens to my mid-thirties seem like a lifetime ago), while at the same time being more excited about visiting a new place than I have been for years.

Morocco, Tarifa, ferry, Tangiers

Between two continents: crossing the Straits of Gibraltar – Africa (Morocco) to the right, Europe (Spain) to the left.

The ferry takes a smooth hour from Tarifa, with a modern, efficient system where your passport number is printed on your ticket – and the return is open, so you can always decide to delay coming back (it’s tempting, believe me). At the other end, few touts were waiting as the ferry terminal disgorged the latest batch of arrivals, mostly day-trippers. Driving away from the port towards the Kasbah, the fortified area at the top of the medina (old town), what struck me most was that the city looked remarkably like Spain – a wide avenue lined with palm trees and a variety of glass-fronted, first-world shops.

But then, but then… we climbed a hill and turned right through a series of low, narrow arches, the horseshoe shapes found all over my beloved Andalucia – and we stepped back in time. This was Bab Kasbah, the gate to Tangiers’ medieval fortified area, high up above the rest of the medina. Once inside, we saw tables and chairs set out under an ancient tree, old men whiling away the day – and then our riad. These are traditional Moroccan houses built around a central patio – just like in Andalucia, I hear you say. Not surprising, considering that north Africans, known in Spain as the Moors, occupied Andalucia for 800 years. Their architectural legacy is highly visible, providing some of the region’s most famous and beautiful monuments – Granada’s Alhambra, the Mezquita of Cordoba, the Giralda in Seville. So I suppose it wasn’t surprising, then, that in many ways, Tangiers felt familiar - like a place whose features are already so well-known, it’s as if I’d dreamed about them. This is where so much of the literature, culture and gastronomy of Andalucia came from – pomegranates (granadas in Spanish), oranges, rice, almonds.

Hotel La Maison Blanche, Tangiers, Kasbah,, Morocco

The hotel’s patio with the glow from its welcoming fireplace – a cosy spot on a cold day.

hotel, La Maison Blanche, Kasbah, Tangiers, Morocco

The fountain, with its hand-laid mosaic tiles, is the centrepiece of the hotel’s patio. Fresh flower petals add a pretty, romantic touch.

La Maison blanche, Tangiers, Morocco, Kasbah

Our red room at the hotel, with handpainted walls and moody lighting.

Our small hotel, La Maison Blanche, a newly-restored riad with just nine rooms, was decorated only with Moroccan artesan pieces – from the most gorgeous lamps, to carved cedar-wood doors, to metalwork bins (no plastic or IKEA here). Everything felt authentic and of its place; the heavy print fabrics weren’t all to my taste, although our boudoir-ish red room was heavenly; one upstairs room, with north African light drenching its antique metal four-poster bed and white furnishings, was right up my alley. They haven’t used wallpaper; just fabric hung on the wall, or hand-painted designs. Yes, it’s that classy. The interior designer was French, and the owners are a Moroccan-Spanish couple, Aziz (Tangerino) and Pilar (Malagueña), so it’s a hotel with French sophistication, Spanish warmth and Moroccan style.

tangiers, kasbah

Tangiers is full of stunning multi-layered doorways like this one in the Kasbah.

Kasbah, tile, tiles,

Craftsman working on a tile – the glaze is chipped away to make the design.

kasbah, tangiers, museum

The museum, housed in a former sultan’s palace – for another visit.

When we arrived in Tangiers it was wet and cold, and by the time we got to the hotel I was freezing (yes, I had dressed warmly: a fleece and hiking jacket, FFS), so we had a hearty Moroccan breakfast of flatbreat with goat’s cheese and pain au chocolate by the open fire, sitting in plush rich-red chairs. I was itching to explore the city, so Aziz, who is a professional guide – American travel writer Rick Steves (his word is gospel for many US visitors) is a big fan – took us on a walk around town. That’s the only way to get around these streets – few of them are wide enough for cars.

We walked down to the main square of the Kasbah, past the 13th-century mosque, the madrasa (school), the museum (a former palace), and the house where the Rolling Stones recorded Continental Drift from the Steel Wheels album with a Berber group called Jajouka in 1989, and through another arch to look out to sea. We saw a craftsman in his workshop, meticulously chipping glaze off a tile to create a classic geometric shape, as seen on azulejos all over Andalucia.

Bab Bhar, the gate which looks out from the Place du Kasbak to the sea.

Bab Bhar, the gate which looks out from the Place du Kasbah to the sea.

Kasbah, Tangiers, Morocco

A detail of that fountain. Islamic art is astonishing.

As it turns out, my first impression had some logic to it: as Aziz told us, they’re building a new multi-million-euro marina in Tangiers bay, supported by King Mohammed VI, who is keen to see the city develop economically – he was visiting while we were there, and red Moroccan national flags were everywhere to honour his presence. In parallel, monuments in the Kasbah, such as the mosque’s minaret and the old city walls, are being restored, and illegal houses built along the outside of the walls will be knocked down. The horseshoe arch which looks out to sea from the Place du Kasbah’s archway, Bab Bhar (in the photo above), has been shored up with ugly concrete, blocking out the horseshoe form – luckily you can still make out the original stone shape. Let’s hope it can be restored to its original glory as part of these plans.

Those were my first few hours in Tangiers; I will be writing more about this African adventure soon: markets, carpets, movies, artists, and our gorgeous hotel.

Foodie heaven: fishy business and FAB sherry in Vejer with Annie B

A typical street in Vejer, with its white walls, tield rooves, balconies and potted flowers.

The picture-postcard pretty pueblo blanco of Vejer, with its flower-lined white walls, tiled rooves and iron balconies.

Annie Manson, Annie B's Spanish kitchen

Annie with the besugo (sea bream) we bought at Barbate market..

I often mention on this blog how I find cooking a drag. I don’t mean baking cakes, and creating salads and puddings – the fun stuff – but nutritious everyday meals for the family. You know how when you get older, you hear yourself starting to sound like your dear mum? Well, mine loathes cooking; creative flair is a foreign concept to her. She eats healthily, but her repertoire is limited and she’s terrified of trying anything new. I wouldn’t quite put myself in that bracket, but I need some inspiration to rediscover (or just discover) my cooking mojo.

So I was delighted to be invited to Annie B’s Spanish Kitchen in Vejer de la Frontera. Annie is an ebullient Scottish chef with an infectious smile and a zest for life, who has lived in the gorgeous white hill town of Vejer, near Tarifa, for 11 years. She is a huge fan of the local seafood – Vejer is just inland from the coast – and wine, especially sherry, made in nearby Jerez. Anne is one of a sizeable group of interesting foreigners, including sundry media and movie folk, who have inhabited this exquisite town with its medieval fortified area, pretty cobbled square with steep, narrow flower-filled streets and new gourmet market, stunningly located atop its hill looking over the sea to Africa.

A prett way of displaying sardines.

Sardina arenques (herrings), cousin of the sardine, at Barbate market.

A Ray, complete with tackle. One of the strangest-looking fish I've ever seen.

A ray, complete with tackle. One of the strangest-looking fish I’ve ever seen.

Our cooking day started off with a trip to the fishing town of Barbate, a few kilometres south on the Costa de la Luz, to visit the famous fish market. The morning’s shopping activities were made more intriguing by a performance event involving a group of local people dancing around the centre of the lonja. No one seemed to be quite sure why they were there, or what they were doing, but they added to the surreal atmosphere provided by fish that were so fresh they were still breathing, their gills opening and closing in an alarming manner, and a huge ray hanging up with his tackle on show, so to speak – their reproductive organs are external. (Too much information?)

Barbate, dorada, gilt-head bream, Costa de la Luz, fish, Spain, Andalucia

A dorada, or gilt-head bream – so-called from the gold band you can see between its eyes – in Barbate’s famous market.

Choosing fish seemed quite a pedestrian affair against this background drama of life, death and sex. But choose we did, a pargo (sea bream) and a lubina (sea bass). We also saw dorada (gilt-head bream) – you could clearly make out the gold markings on their heads – which are fab on the barbeque. It was amazing how different these specimens were from those at your local supermarket fish counter – their scales were positively gleaming, as well as slimy (a good thing, Annie assured us; you need to touch them to ensure they’re naturally moist), their eyes were bright, and the gills, opened by the stallholder to show how fresh they were, a fierce bloody red.

almadraba tuna, tuna, Cadiz

Almadraba tuna cuts (wild red tuna from the Cadiz coast) – one of the best, although notoriously difficult to obtain, is the morrillo, or neck (left of picture).

Then it was off to the shops of the local tuna companies – La Chanca, Gadira and Herpac, all a stone’s throw from the market. Barbate is famous for its revered almadraba tuna, which is caught in an ingenious system of tunnels and nets invented by the Phoenicians, every spring along this part of the Costa de la Luz. These fish are fat and juicy, having spent the cold winter months in the Atlantic building up blubber, and so by the time they’re pootling past here on their way to the Mediterranean, they’re in prime condition for being caught and turned into sushi – much of the meat is flown off to Japan within hours. But if you’re lucky enough to taste it, you will never forget that soft, melting texture. I tried almadraba tuna on my hiking trip last autumn, and I can confirm it was to die for. I go misty-eyed just thinking about it.

Ijada, no 7, is the best cut for preserving tuna, while fresh lomo (5) is good for sashimi and ventresca (6) for cooking.

Ijada, no 7, is the best cut for preserving tuna, while fresh lomo (5) is good for sashimi and ventresca (6) for cooking.

In Gadira and other shops, we saw tins of almadraba tuna, a cut above your normal canned fish. The tuna industry is such an integral part of life in this fishing town – the factories are just outside – that many local families live off it. Environmentalists say the area is being over-fished; locals say the quotas are fine, and anyway it’s in their interest to stick to them. In an area with little other industry or agriculture to speak of, and endemic drug problems, their livelihoods depend on being allowed to take their boats out into the waters of the Straits of Gibraltar.

Preserved almadraba tuna flank - works out as 108 euros per kilo.

Preserved almadraba tuna flank – works out as 108 euros per kilo.

Annie told us about the finest cuts of tuna – morrillo (neck), although this is hard to get hold of; ventresco (belly) for cooking; lomo (loin) for making sashimi; ijada (flank) for preserving. In another shop we spotted smoked tuna, and tuna in PX sherry. She explained that there are four almadraba traps along the coast – Barbate, Conil, Zahara and Tarifa – each marked by orange buoys. When she sees those buoys, she gets excited as it means the nets are out, and the tuna will be dished up soon. Barbate also has a tuna festival every year in May, when you can get a tapa with drink for as little as 3 euros.

Vejer, Vejer de la Frontera

The view across Vejer’s old town from Annie’s roof terrace; on a clear day, you can see across to Africa.

Vejer, Vejer de la Frontera

Annie’s fabulous roof terrace, where you eat, drink and experience the sun-soaked Andalucian lifestyle.

Annie B's Spanish Kitchen

Fellow blogger Marianne, me and Michael, Marianne’s husband Michael.

Back at Annie’s gorgeous house in a tiny street in the highest part of Vejer, with a swimming pool, roof terrace with stunning views, and of course a wonderful kitchen for learning, cooking and chatting, we donned our snazzy green aprons and set to work on a gastronomic feast which was to extend from lunch through to supper, in true Spanish style. Marianne, whose excellent blog East of Malaga is a must-read for everything from gardening to quirky local history, and her husband, both former police officers, completed the group. They were great company, telling us how at dinner parties with work colleagues, the favourite topic of discussion would be how to pull off the perfect murder.

Annie B's Spanish Kitchen, Vejer de la Frontera

Tuna salad in a Moroccan bowl. A colourful, easy storecupboard staple.

In the midst of this drama, first we made a tuna salad, which was so simple even I could do it, and so delicious and brightly coloured my children will eat it – and nutritious too. Yes. They. Will. Tuna, boiled eggs, red peppers, red onion (reduce the amount, or remove altogether, when cooking for kids), and a few secret ingredients. It’s a must for barbeques, picnics, or a last-minute lunch for unexpected guests, and would be heavenly heaped into a baguette. We also whipped up a supremely easy chocolate and almond cake, using a blender – no kitchen should be without one, as they take out the slog of beating batter by hand, making the whole process quicker, simpler and more fun.

raisins, sherry, PX, Pedro Ximenez, Annie Manson, Annie B's Spanish Kitchen

Raisins soaked in PX sherry – the easiest and most delicious dessert, or DIY tipsy cake-maker – just pour over and allow to soak in.

Annie imparted many tips, most of which I shall not reveal here, but one was how to chop herbs properly – the correct angle, motion and speed of the knife are essential for minimal effort, maximum effect, and to avoid squashing your parsley and losing the nutrients. Let’s just say, my herbs have never been more evenly or professionally diced.

Another tip I will share with you, lucky reader, is raisins soaked in PX (Pedro Ximenez, sweet sherry). I tried this at home with a mix of dried berries, and it is divine. Leave them to soak together in a preserving jar in the fridge for at least a week, pour over a cake, add some creme fraiche, and there’s a no-effort, gorgeous, boozy pudding (I tried it on little bizcocho squares from el super; thumbs up). Divine with ice-cream, too. My own tip is to be careful when taking the jar out of the fridge; it will be damp from the cold – my first attempt ended up with an ugly mess of sherry, broken glass and semi-rehydrated fruit all over the kitchen floor after it slipped out of my hand.

Then Annie introduced us to one of her favourite aspects of Spanish gastronomy: sherry. She is passionate about this much-misunderstood fortified wine, and is a Qualified Sherry Educator, which means the Top Brass in Jerez have confirmed that she knows her stuff. The grapes used to make this uniquely Andalucian and increasingly trendy wine can only be grown in certain areas. Sherry must be made (FAB, explained Annie: fortified, aged and blended) within one of three towns – Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria. The sherry is aged in oak barrels stacked in “cathedrals” (Tio Pepe’s in the Gonzalez Byass bodega in Jerez is an architectural wonder, designed by Eiffel), and the method of blending proportions of differently aged wines, called solera, is like none other. And so is the result. Sherry tastes quite unlike all other types of wine, and its wide range of flavours, from dry fino to sweet PX, means it is especially good for pairing with different types of food.

Prawns, Sanlucar prawns, gambas

Sanlucar prawns with spicy chilli dip.

Annie B's Spanish Kitchen, Vejer, Spain, Andalucia, cooking classes

The fish covered in salt, ready to be baked in the oven.

We tasted a bone-dry fino sherry and a manzanilla (a kind of fino only made in Sanlucar), which have a subtle difference in taste; I couldn’t say which I prefer, as any dry sherry is my bag so I’m partial to both. Then we had my favourite dish of all: Sanlucar prawns with a spicy dipping sauce. You usually boil these delectable little gambas to eat them, but we also tried some sushi-style, in other words raw, and they were a revelation. Uncooked shellfish is always a risk, but they were worth it, with the element of danger adding an extra frisson. We packed the fish in coarse salt, then baked it, in the traditional Spanish way, cracking open the rock-hard case to eat the soft, moist flesh inside. This was an endless gourmet feast – great food, great wine, great company, in a beautiful house, in a beautiful town. You get the picture.

Menu at the excellent Los Cuatro Gatos in Vejer.

One section of the menu at the excellent Los Cuatro Gatos in Vejer.

Chupitos (shots) at Los Cuatro Gatos: cod with (left) and mussel with red pepper. Tasted as good as they looked.

Chupitos (shots) at Los Cuatro Gatos: cod with potato and pearls of orange (left) and mussel with mascarpone and red pepper. Tasted as good as they looked.

gourmet market, Vejer, Vejer de la Frontera

Artistic squid pintxos, with trails of their own black ink, at the new gourmet market in Vejer.

Annie proudly guided us around her vibrant Moorish adopted home town, bursting at the seams with trendy gastro-bars serving groovy tapas shots and purple bread; bakeries, artesan shops, boutique hotels; a beautiful tiled gourmet market full of exquisite pintxos; a buzzing monthly street market full of quirky crafts (knitted doggy pencil toppers made great presents for my kids).

Even the doors in Vejer have character.

Even the doors in Vejer have character.

This star of David on a church in Vejer shows how the building was shared by different religions for their ceremonies and rituals.

This Star of David on a church in Vejer shows that centuries ago, religious buildings were shared by different faiths.

Washing hangs on the ancient walls of Vejer's fortress.

Washing hangs on the ancient walls of Vejer’s fortified area.

_Vejer, Vejer de la Frontera

Until the 1930s women in Vejer wore the cobizada, a full body covering.

One night we went to a caverny bar to hear an excellent, haunting Arabic-Andalusi band; Vejer is part of the long history of Moors and Christians in Andalucia (hence the name, de la Frontera, as it was on the border between the two kingdoms). Vejer was one of the first Moorish outposts after the Arabic invasion from North Africa against the Visigoths in the early 8th century; the town remained under their control until 1250, when it was captured by Fernando III; the fortified stone walls date from the 15th century. An interesting fact: until last century, women wore a traditional full-body covering called the cobijada, which was banned under Franco, as men used it to disguise themselves and thereby escape capture (although hopefully it also made them appreciate how hot and uncomfortable these burka-type garments were for women to wear).  I didn’t have time to investigate the history further, but this is a good website with more detailed information, while this blog has a weekly events listing.

Annie’s cooking courses provide an excellent opportunity to learn about Mediterranean cooking – she offers sherry, fish, and Moroccan-themed experiences – in one of Andalucia’s most beautiful hilltowns. As well as learning about food, you taste the wines, and discover the culture – gastronomy, history and music are all intertwined in Andalucia. And I haven’t even mentioned the fabulous beaches which are ten minutes’ drive away.

Her courses have been featured in top foodie holiday listings in both the Telegraph and the Times – and Vejer has now become a favoured destination for gourmets in the know. And I actually don’t mind cooking (most of the time) – I just have to remember Annie’s assertion that “There’s no excuse for mundane food, is there?” How true, and even more so here in Andalucia, with all its amazing local produce from land and sea. It is Annie’s extraordinary warmth and enthusiasm which make these courses (she does days ones, too) such an enjoyable experience. You don’t even realise how much you’ve learned till afterwards. Why can’t all classes be this much fun?

This short video offers a good overview of Vejer – the aerial shots are wonderful.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arCeZkBhePM&w=560&h=315]

The E-X-P-A-T of moving abroad

expat, move abroad, moving abroad

Which country would you like to live in?

As I’ve mentioned before, this blog spreads itself widely, nay extravagantly, over three classic blogging genres: mummy/parenting, travel and expat. As I live in a supremely photogenic area – sunny southern Spain, where even a technically-challenged individual like myself can manage to take half-decent pictures, thanks to the excellence of semi-professional compact digital cameras – most of my posts tend to be about places to visit in this area. I’ve been nominated for some mummy travel blogging awards, which was very gratifying. But I also dip into the expat blog world too, typically from my own personal perspective of living in Spain.

As someone who’s been living away from my home country for 12 years now, I am often asked what advice I would give to expats. So when international money transfer site HiFX asked me to contribute to their Expat Tip Page, I thought I’d give it a go. While I don’t think of myself as being in a particularly strong position to give advice, since my life is not a model of smooth organisation, financial competence or inter-cultural harmony, some of these pearls of wisdom might be of use to those looking to move abroad. All common sense really, but there’s no harm in spelling them out. Especially since I forgot (and indeed, still forget) half of them myself on occasions – I came here on a whim, so my situation was different from a planned relocation with its premeditated schedule. So here it is: my E-X-P-A-T of being an expat.

EExperience

Whether you’re moving to a different country for a few months, a few years, or an unknown length of time, you need to throw yourself into your new life. Many people are posted abroad, or apply for a new job, for a set period of time – say one or two years. If you know how long you’ll be living in a place for, then you make it your project to see and experience as much of it as possible during those months or years – some events are annual, so be sure not to miss them when they come around. Don’t say, we can always go next year, as you might not be there. Similarly, if you’re invited to an odd-sounding local fiesta, jump at the chance. There may be moments of boredom and confusion, but these will be balanced by unforgettable memories to treasure forever; the opportunity to attend such events are often one-off chances which should be grabbed with both hands.

X – eXpect

It’s more a case of don’t – when someone moves to a place to live, they’ll have spent months planning, dreaming, building up certain expectations about everything from the people, to the weather, to the food. Keep an open mind. None of it may turn out to be as you thought. Perhaps you visited in mild spring, and you’ll be arriving in scalding high summer, or chilly winter. Or the food that seemed so gratifyingly exotic/quaint/simple will pall after you realise that’s all there is on offer. In any case, one of the most important prerequisites for any expat is not to make up your mind about anything until you’ve been in your new home for a while, and have experienced plenty of inevitable ups and downs. Adapt to your new country as far as possible, and try not to compare it to home (too much, anyway).

P – Prepare

The boring-but-important bit. Paperwork; taxes; health care; language skills. Leave yourself plenty of time, as doing these kinds of things in a last-minute panic is horribly stressful and risks costly mistakes. What do you need to do before you leave – are you renting out your home in your own country? What are you storing, sending ahead, packing to take with you? Will you try to the learn the language of your new country before you leave, if appropriate? Have you looked into health care and education (if you have children) in the country? Draw up lists, have a notebook (whether paper or digital) to check off tasks and have handy contacts and references. While many larger multinationals have special staff dedicated to helping employees and their families to relocate, there’s no harm in keeping an eye on these things yourself. Read expat blogs, email those already living in the city or area where you’re going, visit forums, join Facebook groups – all great ways of getting practical tips and suggestions, as well as answers to specific queries, so that you don’t get any (well, not too many) nasty surprises when you arrive.

A – Advice

Once you’re in your new home, you’ll need to build a network of people, both natives and other expats. Don’t be afraid to ask them for help – for everything from how to fill in paperwork and where to take it to (often you can pay someone else to do this for you), what to wear to local fiestas (one friend was the only parent to turn up to her daughter’s nursery Carnival party not in fancy dress. She was mortified), where to find a language teacher, or recommending a reliable plumber or builder. When I arrived in my village, I had little practical guidance. Now an Australian family has arrived here, and I’m only too delighted to offer my tuppence worth on anything they care to ask me about. Most people are very happy to offer their time to a new arrival, to help them settle in, find their feet and let them in on where the best/nearest hairdresser/softplay centre/English language cinema is. Again, Facebook groups and local forums can be very useful for this too – a whole virtual knowledge bank out there waiting to offer the benefit of their experience. Use it!

T – Try

What? I hear you ask. My answer: everything! You’re out of your comfort zone now, away from familiar surroundings, so what have you got to lose (apart from your health, wallet, dignity etc)? Join local associations (the American Women’s Club has branches in cities all over the world) which organise outings, tastings, and talks; visit the library to find out about language classes; take up a hobby; volunteer. Experiment with the local food – so you may want to stick to established family favourites or home-country traditional dishes on birthdays and holidays, but go to the market and buy the strange-looking fruit, or weird, knobbly vegetable. Ask a friend or neighbour how to cook or eat it – you adventurousness is bound to impress them. Stray into the realms of the unknown. You’ll make mistakes, sure, but we all know that’s an important part of the learning. As long as you don’t poison anyone, or (possibly worse) offend them, you’re doing fine.

For more tips, look at the experts’ offerings on HiFX, where those better qualified than me have wise words for would-be expats.

Five lies we tell our kids (and the ugly truths behind them)

As every parent reading this will be fully aware (as well as those who work with children), sometimes, when dealing with small people, we have to be economical with the truth. So for a change in tack from my recent run of Seville and foodie posts - and inspired by, while in no way claiming to be on the same level as, my new favourite mum blog, The Ugly Volvo - I have put together a list of scenarios when telling a porkie pie (cockney rhyming slang: look it up, or take a guess) is perfectly admissible to get you out of a deep, dark parenting hole. You know, the situation where you can see nay a glimmer of light, only the blackness of shame, despair, and an endless vista of bickering, screaming children. (Or is that just me?)
Oh, what a shame. There's none left!

Oh, what a shame. They’re all gone!

“There’s none left”
You’re on a long car journey, where carefully timed snacks are as essential to a convivial environment as separate colouring books and pens, sugar-free drinks, and The Cat in the Hat and Other Dr Seuss Classics played on loop. Then it turns out that the kids are especially partial to your favourite stupidly expensive exotically-flavoured gourmet crisps. “But what’s wrong with your Fair Trade low-salt wholegrain rice cakes?” you enquire. When they clamour for some more of those delectable honey-roasted parsnip, cardamom and curry leaf munchies*, you put on a sad expression and sigh, “Sorry darling, they’re all gone“, while tucking the remaining half-packet down the side of your seat and smiling inside in a crazed, Dawn French chocaholic way: “Ha, suckers, they’re all mine!”
Ice-cream shop - tantrum central.

Ice-cream shop – tantrum central.

“The ice-cream shop’s closed”
You’re walking round the centre of town on a day out, it’s nearly lunch time and the last thing you want is that they spoil their appetites for the meal you’re about to enjoy together on a rare visit to a proper restaurant. The ice-cream monster child (there’s always one) sees the ice-cream shop that you had noticed and surreptitiously crossed the road to avoid, quickly pointing out an interesting shop-window display of flamenco dresses with matching accessories, or toy cars and aeroplanes (excuse the gender stereotyping).
The ICMC demands an ice-cream. “Oh what a shame – it’s closed,” you say, looking sympathetically at a hopeful little face. “But I can see people in there, Mummy,” counters the ICMC. (Damn! Think fast.) “They’re the people who make the ice-cream,” you explain. (Phew!) “Can we go and watch, Mummy?” “Ah, but it’s top secret,” you reply, sounding mysterious and important. “Noone is allowed to see. We’ll come and have a look later, when they’re finished.” In other words, after lunch, by which time it doesn’t matter anyway. Crisis averted.
road, journey, trip

“Not much further now, guys!” (Where the f*** are we, anyway?)

“We’re nearly there”
You’ve been in the car for four hours, the kids are getting restless – OK, let’s be honest, World War Three is about to break out, with hostilities that would otherwise necessitate UN intervention. Everyone’s sick of Dr Seuss by this point (no I DO NOT LIKE green eggs and frigging ham), all the other CDs are scratched (note to self: must get MP3 for car), all colouring books have been exquisitely rendered, and even Eye Spy’s attractions have faded. The road you’re on and the map you’re using seem in no way related, and you have no clear idea where you are at this moment, or where you’re supposed to be going.
But you’re not going to tell them that. Oh no. With a convincing, practised air of cheery confidence you say, ”Not much longer now, folks.” They break off from bashing, poking and the irritating the hell out of each other for a few precious seconds to look out of the window. “Nearly there, my arse,” you think to yourself. “If you believe that, you poor gullible fools…” A least it’s bought you a brief break from the battle – distraction is the key skill in any such drama.
The Ultimate Carrot - technology is a great motivator for children.

The Ultimate Carrot – technology is a great bribe motivator for children.

“Yes, I’ll get you an iPhone/Nintendo DS”
You have unavoidably been put in a situation where you have to take your child to a business appointment. Child has been heavily bribed to behave nicely, to the extent where you have promised him/her the ultimate prize, the current obsession – whether it be a Barbie, bike or iPhone; Nintendo DS, Wii, or PlayStation – so that they do not cause you embarrassment and ruin your meeting. Of course, you have no intention of buying child said much-desired toy or gadget yet (you’ve agreed in principle), but they don’t know that, do they? After the event, if the child kept his/her end of the bargain, the time frame of the reward fulfillment will be expanded to next birthday or Christmas. “Yes, well, I never specified exactly when I would get you it, did I?”
"If you're Not Good, you won't be geting any of these."

“If you’re Not Good, you won’t be geting any of these.”

“If you don’t do what I say, no presents”
It’s the last few weeks before a much anticipated gift-rich event – birthday, Christmas or other major festival. Your children are hyped with anticipation to the point of driving you mad – ignoring every request, command, suggestion and other attempt to control their general insanity. “Right, that’s it, if you do that one more time, there will be NO PRESENTS.” A look of horror spreads over their adorable countenances, as dreams of all those toys and games, so long desired, crumple and disappear.
You know perfectly well that you would never do such a cruel thing to your little darlings. But they don’t – and they always fall for the threat (take my word for it). However with tidying up, “Do it now, or the toys go in the bin” – as threatened with remarkable frequency in my house (by my husband) – no longer works now, as the kids are wised up to the fact that Mummy would never allow it. A Spanish friend told me about an old schoolmate  of hers, whose kids are astonishingly obedient. My friend (who has three under 6, including 3-year-old twins, and is no slouch when it comes to discipline) asked her ex-school friend how she did it. Simple: the threat had indeed been carried out, and toys disposed of. Yes, really. Harsh, not to mention wasteful (I hope they found new owners), but effective.
By contrast to these lies, damned lies, I confess that I am brutally honest with my children on some subjects and in some situations. I have ensured, for example, they are fully aware of the fact that their (maternal, British) grandparents are getting on and will not be around for ever. I have warned my daughter against her current obsession, getting a kitten, seeing that one of our dogs has a strong hunting instinct and loves pouncing on small animals and playing with them in a not-entirely-friendly manner. He could well treat a baby cat in the same way as the rodents who are sometimes foolish enough to venture into our parcela: with no mercy. Basically, I told her it would be very sad for everyone concerned, especially her and the kitty, if small feline came to a sticky end.
Right: I’ve laid bare some of my parenting inadequacies tricks. Why not let us in on yours? How do you keep mayhem at bay in your house? Or are you one of those sickening wonderful families where no one ever shouts or argues, and everyone does what they’re told first time? Do you have a radical strategy like my friend’s ex-school chum?
* Please don’t try to find this flavour, as I made it up. Although I van vouch for the general fabulousness of Tyrell’s vegetable crisps.