A meeting of minds and Moorish magnificence by moonlight

Palacio Carlos V - a recent construction by the Alhambra's standards.

Palacio Carlos V – one of the more recent constructions by the Alhambra’s standards.

The circular interior of Charles V's palace. He was the first Holy Roman emperor and liked to make a statement.

The circular interior of Charles V’s palace – he was the first Holy Roman Emperor.

When you work from home, as I do, Social Media isn’t just for watching hilarious viral videos of animals falling off bicycles, comparing notes about X Factor, and poring over photos of your friends’ kids.

It’s a lifeline to other, like-minded people with the same interests, in the same field of work, often in broadly the same region. Anyone who sits alone in their house, shuttered away in an office/cubbyhole/sitting room/garden shed in front of a computer for a large part of the day, will know what it feels like to operate in a vacuum. Noone else to bounce ideas off, commiserate, celebrate, or just ruminate with.

So, when you’re largely isolated, and you live abroad too, an online forum of people who live in the same country as you, speak the same language as you, and have an enormous collective knowledge base to which you contribute and which you benefit from, is a godsend.

I’m lucky enough to be a member of one such Facebook group. Who’d have thought that Zuckerberg’s beast, great for selling unwanted furniture and stalking ex-boyfriends (plus engaging with customers, as any SM consultant will tell you), would be a launch pad for such a dynamic collaborative meeting of minds. Entrepreneurs, marketers, writers, bloggers, and creative types who live in Spain, and are passionate about the country. The name is WABAS: Writers and Bloggers about Spain.

A view of the Alcazaba, the fortress, from the entrance to the Nasrid palace.

A view of the Alcazaba, the fortress, from the entrance to the Nasrid palace.

Last year I attended the group’s second national annual get-together, in Malaga, which was hugely enjoyable, interesting and constructive. This year the WABAS venue was Granada. Friends, wine, expertise and the Alhambra. Meeting online friends in person (do they look like their photo? Are they what I expected?). It’s a winning combination.

We learned about topics relevant to media-savvy expats in business. We talked. We listened. We agreed. We disagreed. We ate. We drank. We drank some more.

these niches were used for jars of water, a symbol of hospitality, vases flowers or perfume.

These tiled and decorated niches were used for jars of water, a symbol of hospitality, vases flowers or perfume.

And we visited the Alhambra. At night. It was only my second time in this wondrous complex of Moorish and Renaissance palaces, the first having been nine years ago when I was pregnant with my first child. As an occasional tour leader in Seville, I was delighted that we were taken around the Alhambra by an excellent guide, Maria Angustia from Cicerone Tours. As this native granadina informed us, Maria Angustia is the patron saint of Granada.

She also told us that the Alhambra, which dates from the 13th century when this part of Spain was ruled by the Moors – cultured Islamic rulers from north Africa – was self-sufficient; its own independent mini-city. With no natural water source, usually an essential factor in establishing a settlement, the hill above Granada wasn’t an obvious location to build a palace; a river fed by the Sierra Nevada had to be diverted to provide water for the sultan’s new palace. But the Nasrid ruler Muhammed I obviously had a vision in mind. Titbits like these, about how the monument was initially planned, bring history to life.

We started our tour at the Palace of Carlos V, King of Spain and the first Holy Roman Emperor, for whom the phrase “the empire on which the sun never sets” was coined. He also built the Casa Consistorial (original Town Hall) in Seville and held his wedding to Isabel of Portugal in the Alcazar of Seville. This 16th century palace, a few centuries more recent than the Nasrid Palaces which are the main draw of the Alhambra, is unusual in that it was the first building to be square on the outside, and round inside. The Palacio Carlos V is used for concerts and exhibitions.

Arabic calligraphy and tiles.

Arabic calligraphy and tiles in the Mexuar Palace.


Arabesque detail of an archway in the Comares Palace.

Arabesque detail on an archway in the Comares Palace.

Painted decoration on a ceiling of mocarabe, modelled after stalactites in a cave where Mohoma took refuge.

Painted mocarabe decoration on a ceiling, modelled after stalactites in a cave where the prophet Mohammed took refuge.


Artesonado (decorated painted wood) ceiling in the Mexuar Palace.

Artesonado (decorated painted wood) ceiling in the Mexuar Palace.

Entering the first section of the Nasrid Palaces, the Mexuar Palace, we saw examples of the extraordinarily complex, multi-layered decoration for which the Alhambra is famous as the most perfect example of a Moorish palace in the world. A combination of geometric alicatado tiles, with designs made from tiny pieces of ceramic; the intricate white relief sections, often with plant motifs and Arabic calligraphy inscriptions, called arabesque; the coffered artesonado wood ceilings, with their gold details; and coloured mocarabe decoration (see photo above), and you have a dazzling array of never-ending abstract art, 360 degrees, on every surface. Maria called it “an explosion of imagination”.

Washington Irving was an American writer and diplomat who lived in the Alhambra in the 1820s.

Washington Irving was an American writer and diplomat who lived in the Alhambra in the 1820s.

We visited the rooms occupied by Washington Irving when he lived in the Alhambra as the US Consul. Most well-known outside Spain as the writer of books such as Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra brought the then-largely abandoned, but mercifully still intact, palace to the attention of a worldwide audience, drawing visitors to a then-unknown part of Spain for many years to come. This American author and hispanophile – he wrote several books about the country – is revered in Andalucia, and you can even follow a Washington Irving route across the region.

Two of the 12 marble lions on the Fuente de los Leones.

Two of the 12 marble lions on the Fuente de los Leones.

Courtyard of the Lions, with trees behind. The night sky with shadowy trees was full of mystery, while the courtyard by heaving with other visitors.

Palace of the Lions, with trees behind. The night sky with shadowy trees was full of mystery, while the courtyard was heaving with other visitors.

One of the most celebrated monuments within this UNESCO World Heritage Site is the Fountain of the Lions, recently restored. Each of the 12 carved marble animals is different, but the fountain wasn’t lit up at night when we there, so it was difficult to see their faces, with individually modelled eyes and mouths. Maria explained that the water has to be to very carefully controlled to ensure that it flows out of the lions’ mouths at precisely the same speed. As always with such fabled beasts, theories abound as to why there are 12 – signs of the zodiac is one possibility.

Courtyard in the Comares Palace - water was essential to Moorish architecture, for its soothing sound, artistic (reflective) qualities and cooling effects in the sweltering summer.

Courtyard in the Comares Palace – water was essential to Moorish architecture, for its soothing sound, artistic (reflective) qualities and cooling effects in the sweltering summer heat.

The Alhambra was very busy on the night we visited, too much so for my liking, and Maria told us that 50 visitors enter the complex every five minutes – that’s 600 an hour – and that the palaces are open for 14 hours a day. Three million visits per year.

Afterwards, we went out for tapas, as you do, and I exchanged guiding notes with Maria, and reacquainted myself with fellow WABASers, as well as converting virtual online friendships into real ones, over a few bottles of good Spanish white wine from Rueda. Networking in real life and online is a necessity for today’s freelancers, and if you can do it with the surroundings of such a legendary city like Granada, all the better.

For practical information on visiting the Alhambra, see this useful post by fellow WABAS member and resident Granada expert, Molly Sears Piccavey.


Want: 9 things I’d quite like, er, please

I’m not that active in the mummy blogging sphere, although there are a few Spanish or travel-themed ones which I read regularly.

So when I saw that fellow ex-Londoner, adoptive-Andalucian Bibsey Mama had tagged me in a meme, under her section heading of “Arse Posts”, I rubbed my hands with glee – her memes are always good, clean(ish), self-indulgent fun. Like a big slice of chocolate cake.

However she’s also one of the funniest bloggers I know, if not as appreciated as she should be (in my opinion), so while I cackled with delight when reading her “Wants”, I knew I she had set the bar high, as always. Bibsey’s a hard act to follow.

Anyway, here goes with my own Wants, jotted down earlier today in the bath on my iPhone straight after I read hers – it’s either do it on the spot, or forget about it for the next month.

1. World Peace – let’s start with the little things. A safe future for our children, etc.

2. Patience, especially with my children. By 8.30pm I’m usually at breaking point, especially if my angelic-looking-diabolical-personality three-year-old has yet again refused to eat her dinner. Gah. I’ve signed up for a parenting course (in Spanish) in our local town, so that’ll be interesting. If I can understand it.

3. An iPad. I coveted an iPhone for some years, before finally being offered a free one. If I do ever get one of these beauties (I had a taste with my Mum’s over the summer), prizing it out of the diabolical one’s iron grip while she’s watching Peppa Pig for the 89th time will be fun. I can’t count the number of times my son’s asked me to buy him an iPad. “I’m getting one before you, mate.” is my usual response. Also, I’ve spent the last few months writing about iPad cases and stands made of eco-gorgeous leather offcuts, reclaimed wood and recycled wetsuits, all the while drooling helplessly over the damn things.

4. Green fingers. We’re finally planting our huerta - vegetable patch – and I’ve never had much luck with plants, so I’m hoping that will change and we’ll have rows and rows of lovely organic carrots which the kids dig up themselves. I’ll be looking to Andalucian kitchen garden expert Chica Andaluza for tips.

5. Housepride. I’m not one of those people whose house looks like something from the pages of an interiors magazine. At all. To give you an idea, one friend who came to visit said, looking aghast at my bedroom with its heaps of children’s clothes on every surface, “But how can you live like this?”. I’m not remotely bothered about paint colours or fabrics either, but I can’t help feeling I should be. My house looks like a cross between a student pad and a garage sale where a gang of out-of-control children has been running rampage, scattering toys in their wake. (Er, the last bit’s true.)

6. A magic wand to tidy up all my unfiled, but terribly important, piles of paper which will be essential research material for an article one day, and cannot possibly be thrown away (as I tell me husband when he brandishes the bin in a threatening fashion, again). But getting around to sorting them out myself, well…

7. More controllable hair – curly hair is a curse – unstyleable, an impossible challenge for Spanish hairdressers, and please don’t mention straighteners. I’ve tried a couple of times and my son is still traumatized. “Mum, you’re never going to have straight hair again, are you?” he asks me, with trepidation, nearly a year later.

8.  Home-delivery sushi I love raw fish nearly as much as I love my own children, but as we live down a dirt track, it’s unlikely anyone’s going to be nipping along on their moped with some nigiri in a chiller bag from the hippest Japanese restaurant in town. Arse.

9. A brilliant business plan/money-making idea – I’m sure there are loads out there, just waiting to be grabbed. Still waiting for my lightbulb moment. I’ll keep you posted.

I’m going to be somewhat unoriginal with my tags for this meme – my much-tagged Sevillana friend, who will hopefully have some truly weird desires (please don’t let me down, Em!) Digamama, and Quiero Milk, a Seville-based Anglo-Spanish blog (it means “I want milk” – that’s the first one sorted, then). Go guys!

Friday’s main event (sadly, not the BIBS)

As I mentioned in a recent post (recent in terms of my characteristically unprolific output, rather than time-wise ), I’m a finalist in the BIB awards, organised by Brit Mums, a wonderful website which brings British (and Britain-dwelling) blogging mums together to give them a voice, offer inspiration, and provide support and a sense of community.

I am incredibly happy to have made it into the final of the travel section, along with seven other brilliant mummy travel bloggers (I’m not bigging myself up here – BIB stands for brilliance in blogging). The awards are being given out this very Friday – cleverly timed to avoid any England Euro 2012 matches.

However since I live here in Spain, and the Brit Mums Live event, which includes the award ceremony, is in London, I can’t go. We’ve just been over for the Jubilee, and will be back again in a month for our long summer visit, so it wasn’t feasible to hop on yet another super-luxe, all-the-hand-luggage-you-can-carry budget flight to London, much as I’d have loved to.

So this is my I-hope-I-win-but-won’t-be-surprised-if-I-don’t blog post. I wasn’t even going to do one, but a Spanish friend and blog-reader insisted that I acknowledge/reiterate that the awards are in a few days, I can’t attend, etc etc. They’re all for blowing your own trumpet out here. I think it’s an English trait, avoiding that. An English travel blogger friend recently “confessed” to being listed as Essential Reading in a respected travel magazine. I bet she didn’t feel guilty.

Getting nominated, and then shortlisted, and then becoming a finalist, for a blogging award was a very pleasant experience. I have to admit, my heart was racing as I clicked on the link to the finalists and scrolled down the lists of blog names – and yelped when I saw mine.

Sneak preview of son’s “graduation” T shirt, to be worn at tomorrow’s ceremony.

I’ll be following Twitter very closely this Friday, though I will have to be discreet, since the other reason I can’t go is because it’s my son’s end of school year (and educational era) show and party – he’s moving up from Infantil (3-5 years) to Primaria (6-12 years). Tomorrow is his year’s graduation ceremony, complete with outfits and two special songs. It’s a big week when you’re a five-year-old in Spain.

Not to mention the fact that his class is performing the Beatles’ Twist and Shout on Friday. Much more fun for me when I know all the words – at last, an advantage to being the only freak English mum. My anglo-andaluz boy hates dressing up, although it’s an easy outfit, so as a bribe, he’s been allowed to play the keyboard (yes, I know there wasn’t one. Artistic licence). And I have to be there to remind him not to sing in Eeeengleesh: “Tweeest and shout! (Tweeest and shout!)”. The three-year-old has it taped too now. And, of course, to immortalise the event for posterity and grandparents – between myself and my husband, we’ll shooting video and still images. I couldn’t rely on him to do it, could I?

Good luck to all the BIBS finalists for this Friday – I’ll be with you in spirit, if not in body. At least I get to wear a nice frock for the show; you’re not allowed to dress down at your child’s end-of-term performance in Spain. All the mums look super-guapa, so you have to make the effort. Time to start browsing in the wardrobe…

11 Questions: my answers

Many moons ago, one of my favourite bloggers, Bibsey Mama, a fellow mummy expat here in Spain for those who don’t yet know her fab blog, tagged me on an 11 questions meme. As I explained in a previous post, my blog has a split personality between travel, expat and mummy, three categories which can have a certain degree of crossover.

I was recently nominated, then shortlisted, now a finalist (yipee!), for the Brit Mums awards (see badge to the right) in the travel section (my mum content is probably less than my travel content, but as a mum I qualify). Anyway, I was invited to the awards ceremony, but unfortunately I won’t be able to attend due to a prior engagement: my son’s end of term show. They’re doing the Beatles. He’s got a guitar. He gets VERY nervous before hand and is not a natural performer. Missing it isn’t an option.

Anyway, Bibsey’s observations as mum of a toddler always make me chortle (how she didn’t get shortlisted for a BIB, god only knows – I haven’t read a funnier blog about motherhood), so answering questions from her is a delight: the blogger’s equivalent of eating a large bar of Green&Blacks dark chocolate with orange bits in, slowly and extreeemely indulgently.

I used to wonder what the point was of these questionnaire type posts, until I read more of them and realised they are totally fascinating, as they let you find out all sorts of juicy background dirt information on your fellow bloggers. So I hope this won’t be too dull – I don’t like writing about myself very much.

Here are her 11 questions and my answers:

1. If you can bear to, describe a mistake that you have made in the past and what you learned from it.

Just after I got married, my husband did a job for a friend. They fell out over money, and it cost me the friendship; I was pregnant at the time, and it was a very unpleasant experience for all concerned. I will never again mix business and friends. Big mistake. (Sorry, bit serious that one. This is supposed to be fun, isn’t it?)

2. I often wake up feeling like an old lady who’s been playing musical beds with a toddler all night. Strange I know. How old would you be if you woke up one morning not knowing how old you were and had to hazard a guess?

Either 25 or 55, depending on how (and where) I and my children have slept. We tend to play musical beds. If we all end up in mine, as often happens, child 1 has 50% of the bed, child 2 45% and me 5% (father gets relegated to the sofa).

3. And how old would you be if you woke up one morning having chosen how old you would be the night before? And why?

35 – I had met my husband, but we weren’t married and didn’t have children yet – we were living life to the full, in a nice flat in a cool barrio, travelling and going out. Not that I regret having kids, for one second, but that part of my life was pretty fun.

4. I have utter shoe envy where Claudia Winkleman is concerned. If you could walk in some one else’s shoes for one week, whose shoes would they be and why? (alive or dead, famous or not)

I don’t look much like her. Cate, I covet your shapely ankles.

Anyone with thin ankles, I’m not fussy – I have cankles which look especially horrible with dainty sandals. Cate Blanchett has nice pins and wears a frock well (and is a damn fine actress to boot. Ha).

5. Is there one particular blog post you have written that makes you most proud?  Tell us why and drop the link here.

My post about things I’ve learned since I’ve been living in Spain elicited a strong response, with lots of people getting hot under the collar – always nice for a blogger to see their writing provoke a debate. *Rubs hands together in glee.*

6. Going back to the Amazing Matron’s questions. You are the leader of a political party that has just won the general election, what would your first act as prime minister be?

Make all childcare free for working mothers. Women who have children and want to return to the work place (or never left it in the first place) are a hugely undervalued resource. Having subsidised nursery places for my kids has saved my career, and my sanity.

7. As a kid I used to wish that I went to school at Grange Hill – more than anything I wanted Trisha Yates’ hair. If you had to live as a fictional character, who would it be and from what book/film/play etc?

What a fabulous question – I love being sent off into realms of fantasy and make-believe. After much pondering, I’ve decided it would have to be Jennifer Beals’ character in Flashdance. Perhaps not to live as, but talking of school days, she made such an impact on an impressionable, terminally uncool teenager with curly red hair and glasses (not forgetting the cankles). Alex had the biggest and coolest apartment I’d ever seen, a job where she was equal to men, she got her dream, and she was utterly gorgeous – a face and body to die for. Never been remotely interested in dancing, but that audition sequence is one of my favourite movie scenes e-vah.

Watch it here - kicks off at 1:55 (sorry, no embedding).

8. The papers have a story on you, what would that headline be?

British expat journalist gets exclusive warts’n’all book deal with the Duchess of Alba.

9. I used to be able to down bottles of beer in one go via a thing called a beer bong (length of tube and a funnel). Did you have a ‘party trick’ in your twenties and do you still perform it now?

Blowbacks, and no.

10. It was quite a surprise when I conceived Bibsey and I am often to be heard saying to her things like “how did mummy and daddy make something as gorgeous as you?” and “what did we do to deserve you?”. Anyone might think that I didn’t know how babies are made. How are babies made? Where do they come from?

Babies are made of love and they come from the land of dreams.
11. I’m running dry here… erm, I promised seriously silly didn’t I? Perhaps, to end on a really silly note, you would like to share the silliest joke that you know (or can find on the internet).
An all-time favourite is: Why are there no aspirins in the jungle?
Because the parrots ate ‘em all (no? paracetamol!).
That’s it.
So now what happens? I come up with 11 questions for some poor, unsuspecting blog victims. Watch out!

Shortlisted: mummy, travel, expat blogger?

To the right of this post, there’s a pink logo which says “BiB” – this is a link to vote for me in the BiB awards – aka Brilliance in Blogging, run by the marvellous website Brit Mums. My category is “GO!”, in other words travel (it’s number seven in a long list). You can also nominate me in the Mads – just click on the pretty icon and then on the “Nominate” tab and fill in the form.

That’s the begging bit over with – if you want to stop reading now, that’s fine. Just so you know: I’ll send the boys round if you don’t vote for me. I know where you live. (If you take that seriously, it’s because you don’t understand English humour. It was a joke. Chill, dude. )

As someone who only does it – blogs, that is – when they get a minute, which isn’t very often, I was very chuffed to get on the shortlist, as there are some great blogs in there. There’s even a school contemporary of mine from 30 years ago.

It got me thinking about how I first started off blogging, back in 2008 (followed by a long break after my second child was born). Like many other journalists, I started blogging simply because everyone else was, so I realised I needed to as well – especially living here in Seville, where there’s so much to write about. It would be mad not to. It’s like getting a laptop, mobile phone, smart phone, Twitter account… you have to keep up (at the back).

One of the main reasons I dragged my heels was because I wanted to be selective about my blog posts – what I wrote about, and how I wrote about it. I find there are some bloggers who will write indiscriminately about anything and everything, and while some of it’s great, some of it *whispers* isn’t that interesting. Having said that, the great thing about blogging is that you can write about whatever you want to; all blogs are different, and they cater to every taste. You’re bound to find something you like out there. And, hopefully, someone out there will like what you write.

As a journalist with 20 years of experience, I’ve always preferred quality to quantity. Which is why I only post about once a week – twice is supposed to be the ideal. (That, and the squidgelet of time available after kids, house, paid work etc.) Less is more with blogging – keep ‘em keen. Remember I write for a living, so my perspective is different; also, I’m fanatical about grammar, which some aren’t. So I won’t read some blogs just becuase the blogger can’t write correct English.

But does all that really matter, you ask? To me, yes. I wince when I see a misused apostrophe. It pains me someone writes “would of” instead of “would have”. That may sound precious, but remember – I write for a living. So maybe other bloggers, who write without any training, deserve to win more than me, as a professional. Or maybe not. We all put in lots of time and effort. And none of us gets paid to write these blogs (apart from promotional or company-sponsored posts, which I haven’t done).

Finding topics for blog posts is never a problem, living here in southern Spain with all its craziness, but another of my struggles at the beginning was: who’s going to be reading this (if anyone)? For many years, I wrote for magazines, which have a specific target audience – we knew where our readers lived, how much they earned, how many times a week they ate out, how often they went on holiday, what level of education they had, what colour their knickers were… (OK, maybe not that).

We knew what to write about, and we could assume our readers’ familiarity (or lack thereof) with the subject, and we knew how they wanted to be treated – gently spoon-fed basic information without being patronized; or spoken to with confidence as knowledgeable/well-travelled/tech-savvy sophisticats.

At first, without a clear idea of who my potential reader was, I just bumbled on about what I’d done – bought a new Feria outfit,  or typical expat topics like the weather and cultural differences.

Then, as I got to know the blogosphere, I realised there are clear categories – including mummy blogger (which is what the aforementioned awards are for), expat blogger and travel blogger. The last two are obviously inter-related, as expats are by nature likely to explore, and the others can overlap too, but trying to straddle all three can get tricky. I read as many blogs as I can from all categories, but never as many as I want to, or feel I should. I’ve found some real gems out there: ones which make my laugh, and dream, and ones which hit me right between the eyes with their acute observations.  The blogging community is very supportive, with advice and suggestions always offered up by fellow bloggers.

As a journalist, I’m used to writing a post, and then editing and re-editing it ad nauseam until I think it’s OK to “publish”. I never just dash it off. And photography is so important now, hence there’s choosing, then fiddling with (wrinkle and cellulite removal, mine, mainly), the images too. However my technical know-how is seriously lacking; plug-ins schmugins. I can’t even embed a video. One of the things on my long list of Ways to Improve My Blog.

Inevitably, I end up blogging in the small hours, as daytime is for paid work and kids. Then, the next morning, I find spelling mistakes in my post and spend half the day correcting and rewriting. Ah, the perils of being a perfectionist. Who works late at night when tired. Not a happy combination.

So if you vote for me, you’ll be voting for someone who blogs for the love of it, risks exhaustion and familial ire for it, has quite strong opinions about it, and isn’t going to come out with insincere platitudes about other people who do it. Warts’n’all – that’s me. Ribbit.

Blog board picture credit