Winter Survival Plan

It’s been six months since my last post. I guess the delay was down to the August doldrums, soon followed by a trip to the UK.

In September, I spent two weeks self-quarantining at a friend’s daughter’s empty home in Wiltshire (I’d never been there before, and felt a bit like a spy holed up in a safe-house). I spent the time watching This Is Us on Netflix (the characters turned into a kind of surrogate family) and developing the creative writing course I’ve been planning to teach. When the quarantine was up, I squeezed in some beautiful walks along the Kennet & Avon Canal.

After 14 days’ self-quarantine in a strange house, it was lovely to walk along the canal

Then there were 10 lovely days at home with Polly-cat in London, while the house-sitters were away on holiday. The house was just as I left it, with all my pictures on the walls and books on the shelves, and it was wonderful to be back there – playing records, cycling, catching up with friends and going through things in the loft. It was so nice, in fact, that while I was there I decided to give the house-sitters notice and go back to live there myself for five months in 2021.

It was so nice to see Polly the cat again, I’ve decided to go back to London for five months

In October, I returned to Spain and launched the creative writing course. I’m teaching it online because of Covid, and have six committed students in Spain, Scotland, England and Germany. They’re a mixture of friends, friends of friends and a friend’s brother, plus one who joined after I advertised on facebook. It’s going really well. We’ve all bonded and the students are doing some great writing. As it’s currently a free pilot course while I get it perfected, the next task will be to knock up a website to publicise it and start charging!

I also decided I needed a Winter Survival Plan.

I find winters in the mountains hard. It’s cold up here, and the constant, repetitive work around keeping the fires going (pellet burner at one end of the house; wood burning stove at the other), plus the need to sleep under a duvet, sleeping bag, blankets and a jarapa rug while wearing three layers of clothes and a hat gets me down.

The survival plan is a mixture of respite by the sea and getting on with practical projects at home.

Escape to the coast
Covid put paid to my usual Christmas trip to the UK, so I decided to try and split the winter months between the mountains and the coast. The owner of a beautiful holiday flat in Carboneras was willing to do a deal if I committed to a few two-week stays over the winter, and away we went!

Fabulous walks along the coast to La Torre del Rayo in Carboneras

So far I’ve managed one stay. It was wonderful. It’s about 5 degrees warmer on the coast and the weather was amazing. I found a sheltered bit of beach and swam three times – the last time was on Christmas Eve. It was so warm I stayed in for 20 minutes and a handful of Spanish people got in, too! Some friends came to watch the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter from the roof terrace on 21 December, and a local pal came over for Christmas Day, bringing her Christmas tree with her! Most days, I carried on working – only with a view of the sea out of one window and mountains from the other. It was great.

Crack on with projects
The survival plan also involves cracking on with projects in the home and garden.

Sue and Pete with their biochar kiln – it’s a way of burning organic garden waste without smoke, trapping the Co2 in the biochar which is buried in the earth as part of a very effective compost.

Soon after I returned from London, my neighbour helped me clear a mountain of plants and cactus to make a new patio above the house. A few weeks later, acquaintances Sue, Pete and Maria turned up with their amazing biochar kilns to turn the green waste into nutritious compost. The next job will be build a frame for the grapevine and make a couple of raised beds for turmeric and vegetables.

Newly decorated lounge – it feels a bit Elle Deco!

Inside, I decided to finish the two rooms that weren’t renovated along with the rest of the house back in 2017. Work had already started in July, when the sitting room walls were re-plastered and ‘sofás de obra’ built. But the sitting room and office still needed painting. I’d procrastinated over colours for months, but my first thought on returning from the UK was that the sitting room should be light blue, and I just chose ‘Svalbard Sea’ from the catalogue and bought 10 litres.

In January, Luis the decorator started work. The blue was perfect, and we mixed the tester pots I got in the summer for a feature wall for the office. After all the agonising, the colours were fine. Luis also retouched the kitchen walls – so no longer do they look as if they are suffering from some awful skin condition when I put the corner lights on. For a blissful few months until the paint starts peeling again, which it always does here, I can enjoy feeling like I’m living in an edition of Elle Decoration!

The office feature wall is a mixture of random green tester pots!

Spanish Lessons
Other than that, I’ve been powering through my Notes In Spanish classes. I’ve done around 80 so far, with around 50 to go until I’ve got to the end of the ‘Advanced Gold’. Then there are another 80 advanced classes to keep me busy in the UK until I return to Spain in the autumn. I’ve decided that when I come back, hopefully with a pretty good level of Spanish, I’ll be able to find work, maybe just voluntary work, and get out into the community at last.

Affirmation
New Year always brings the opportunity for a positive affirmation. I do Qi Gong online, and in January my lovely teacher, Gill Hickman, encouraged us to write down, then tear up something we want to let go of, then write what we want to welcome into our lives on a fresh piece of paper. I’ve got mine on my desktop, and it’s been helpful to glance at it once in a while.

Develop a Routine and Write!
Lastly, the Winter Survival Plan involves sticking to a daily routine and including my own writing. Even though I keep slipping, I’m up to 30,000 words on a memoir and am developing some short pieces. I’ve decided the Carboneras retreats are the perfect place for this. I can’t wait for the next one – just as soon as the current Covid restrictions are lifted.

Hopefully, it’ll be spring before we know it!

This week’s musical track is Oct 33 by the Black Pumas. I found them by accident while on my Carboneras sojourn. Discovering new music is always part of the plan. I hope you enjoy.

Taking stock

I’ve just passed the two-year mark, and keep asking myself whether I’ve changed. I suppose I must have, but I guess it’s been incremental.

Perhaps the biggest clue is that I’ve started writing again. I arrived on 23 June 2018 armed with creative writing notebooks from around 14 years ago, but so burnt out (almost brain-damaged, I thought) I was unable to face them. I planned to teach English but had little experience and was terrified. Instead, I started blogging and experimenting with new things like Workaway volunteering. I went on an intensive Spanish course, volunteered as a teacher in Navarra for a couple of weeks and then went to the UK to close down the business that had squashed my spirit for the past 12 years.

When I returned to Spain, I landed a teaching job for a year at an English academia. It was good experience but rather soul destroying (low pay, rowdy students). And then came the lockdown and, although I hesitate to say it, things started to change for the better. My teaching went online, and I suddenly got new adult students from all over Europe. Not only was it better paid, but it actually became fun.

I learned a few useful lessons during lockdown:

buddha statue
Photo by David Bartus on Pexels.com

1: Meditation is good. In those strange early days of lockdown, one thing that kept me going were the free nightly mediation sessions led by my lovely yoga teacher, Belinda. The weather was terrible most of the time, so there was nothing more cosy than tuning in every evening to the light of the pellet burner and the sound of the rain pitter-pattering down outside. Belinda’s meditation is pretty pure. There’s about 20 mins of pranayama (breathing techniques – good for keeping the lungs healthy), followed by a long stretch of silent meditation. When it worked, the insights were really helpful. I tended to remind myself to believe in my own strength and value, and to keep the faith. When we came out of lockdown, I realised how effective this had been. Perhaps I just felt more confident. Things that would have wound me up before didn’t seem to bother me at all – I just found myself smiling, looking on the bright side and dealing with them.

Ardnamuchan Group no names 2
Fabulous Zoom parties with my oldest friends in the UK. A colander was used for disco lighting!

2: Friends (both old and new) are really important. I strengthened several friendships during the lockdown. I had funny Messenger conversations with one person, a weekly Zoom language-intercambio with another. Particularly great were the fortnightly Zoom discos with my UK holiday buddies (we had a week in Scotland booked for July). The first time, we all contributed songs to a Spotify playlist. It was a party, so we had to bring alcohol. I remember going to my local grocer and buying a bottle of gin, six cans of tonic and big packet of crisps. “We’re having a party this Saturday on the internet,” I explained to Juana as I took the goods to the checkout. “Well, I suppose you’ve got to find something to occupy your time,” she commented. On the actual night, after two weeks’ isolation, it was just amazing to crank the sound up, drink and dance like crazy.

Becca's playlists
Some of my YouTube playlists – the ‘private’ ones aren’t ready yet

3: Doing things for other people is key. My friends really liked my contribution to our party playlist and asked me to do a reggae playlist for them. So I did – compiling around 80 of my favourite tracks and having a wonderful time in the process. I sent the playlist out to other people, too. It was so well received, I decided to do more. First, I did a practice online radio show and then, because I didn’t have a licence for the music, shelved it and started doing curated YouTube playlists. It’s been an absolute pleasure researching the music to put on each one – I’m keeping on, with a view to perhaps turning it into something more one day.

I helped other people during the lockdown, too. It was great to have the opportunity. Doing things for others can be enriching in a special way.

4: Music and culture are essential. I listened to a lot of music and I tuned into various cultural offerings from the BBC/National Theatre etc. It was heartwarming to hear what was going on. Among other things, I enjoyed Grounded with Louis Theroux and the National Theatre’s YouTube performance of Small Island.

blue sofa
One of a pair of new yeso sofas with newly-discovered alcove shelves alongside – the room grew!

Coming out of lockdown has been as challenging as it’s been good. It’s been great to get out and explore again. I discovered a couple of new beaches and had some beautiful walks, including a moonlight hike organised by the ayuntamiento (town hall). I finally got to know someone I’d met briefly just before lockdown who it’s been fun hanging out with. I got some long-awaited work done on my house and have been swimming in the village pool (how fabulous to stretch out bones crunched up by months at home). It’s been great to enjoy canya and tapas again in the local bars, too!

Cabo de Gata after Lockdown 2
I can’t wait to do this walk again with a friend, one day when the coronavirus is more under control

cala cristal
Cala Cristal – no snorkel required!

The downside is a slight lack of focus and productivity, and continuing uncertainty as Covid cases start to climb again. It’s as if we’re in a kind of limbo. Half in, half out of quarantine.

In the end, our Scottish holiday was cancelled by the owners of the house we were going to rent. My UK buddies went camping instead, while I spent the week at home in Spain. It was a bit like a retreat as I stayed in and did almost nothing but think – processing the past four years since the 2016 Brexit vote that led me to apply for residency here.

I’ve been angsting about whether to go back to online teaching in September – and telling myself that I must feel better about it now as I have a year’s experience and scores of lesson plans. It’s obvious. A year ago I was spending hours on end preparing for a single class and having panic attacks. I guess sometimes you change without realising.

Last year, I remember saying, ‘Some things happen, and some things don’t.’ But, actually, nearly all the objectives I set for myself two years ago have now been, or are being met. I’ve enrolled on Notes in Spanish, a fabulous listening-based Spanish course, while the writers’ group I’d been flagging up for while had its inaugural meeting last month. We’re keeping it small, but already some magic seems to be working. Sometimes just having likeminded people working alongside you makes all the difference.

So here I am, one month into year 3, finally with space for the new and unplanned. It’s as if I’m just at the start.

There’s now four entire playlists to choose from for the musical section of this blog! This time, I’m choosing Playlist 3, which is a punky-reggae response to the horrendous murder of George Floyd in America on 25 May 2020. Let’s never forget that Black Lives Matter. 

Dominica Days

Wow. It’s been like three months and an entire lifetime since I was in Dominica. Two months into the Spanish confinamiento (coronavirus lockdown), my February trip to the tropics seems firmly rooted in the ‘life before’. But I’m just so happy to have gone. Those big, big memories of  beautiful nature, adventures around the island and amazing friendships both old and new are something to hold on to now, perhaps more than ever.

Tranto 1

I was in Dominica because I’d been invited to the 100th birthday of an old friend’s mum. I’ve known Pauline, her husband Godfrey and the family since Pauline and I were on the same course at Goldsmiths’ College in London in the early 80s. Pauline likes to tell the tale of how she spotted this punky girl with tons of ribbons and decorative hair grips on the Number 36 bus to New Cross, only to find her in the same reception class. Yes, dear reader, that young punkette was me – and 40 years later our friendship is still going strong.

Scotts Head
Scott’s Head, where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean Sea

During my stay in Dominica I split my time between solo days out and trips with the family. I was staying on the other side of town, in a great Airbnb near the top of Morne Bruce, hosted by Corinne, a French Rasta. On my second day, Corinne suggested I get a bus to Scott’s Head where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean Sea and return via Bubble Beach in Soufriere.

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The journey there was a bit like purgatory, jammed into a tiny minibus with seats that folded down out of nowhere at the last minute, making escape impossible. But on the way home I found the amazing La Belle (above) – an as yet unopened café and unofficial museum. The owner, Boyce, had real artistic vision and delighted in showing me the world through his eyes – the driftwood that looked like dolphins, the model of the first taxi to go along the road to Roseau 70 years ago, the tree trunk seats with chair backs attached, the ancient lime juicer, the old coal iron (for rich people) and more. He later took me down to Bubble Beach where a hot sulphur spring bubbles up through the shallows and introduced me to the guardian of the beach, Dale, who runs a little bar there.

Wooten Waven
Sulphur spring baths at Wooten Waven – a blissful way to spend an afternoon

The next day, Pauline’s family and I went to the amazing sulphur spring baths at Wooten Waven. Then, the day after, I took off on my own again, this time to Trafalgar. There I found the incredible Papillote Gardens created by Anne Jno Baptiste who came to the island in 1961. At this point, the holiday turned into an unintentional  pilgrimage because, as a former journalist, I’ve always been aware of Dominica’s Papillote Press, run by a lady called Polly Pattullo. Polly was the features editor on the Observer Magazine in the 80s when I used to send feature proposals out to the Sunday supplements – I’m sure I sent her a few! I asked Anne if she knew Polly and she told me that she lived almost opposite*. She urged me to go and knock on the door, but I didn’t because it was starting to rain and I was scared I’d miss the last bus back to Roseau.

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Day 4 was perhaps the most memorable – we drove to Pauline’s family’s ancestral land in Castle Bruce to the east of the island. We visited their portion of beach (yes, really!) and I swam in the river that divides the two halves. I nearly got swept out to sea and had to be rescued by Pauline’s daughter, Ella (a former lifeguard), but that’s another story! Celina grew up here in the 1920s – she used to have to wade through the river to get to school and had her own horse called Sultan. The beach had a beautiful atmosphere – it was somewhere that you just wanted to linger and talk about old times.

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Celina’s birthday party at the weekend did not disappoint. It was attended by the Dominican president and she looked completely regal chatting to him over dinner. After the moving speeches, a free bar and subsequent mad dancing to old hits like I’m in Love with a Man Nearly Twice My Age and new ones like I Love my Life by Dominican calypso star, Sour Sour, I went home to be greeted by Corinne and her daughter Lytleen who had just won Miss Teen Dominica! Two queens in one night! Talk about an eventful day!

Pauline and Celina
Pauline and Celina, at Celina’s 100th birthday party

Carnival queen
Back home: Lytleen Julien, winner of Miss Teen Dominica 2020

It was a fairly hungover group of four who set off to find the Pirates of the Caribbean beach the next day – myself, Pauline and her niece and nephew in law. Caroline and Noel from London are among the nicest people I’ve ever met and we’ve been in touch since.

Pirates of the Caribbean beach
The Pirates of the Caribbean beach!

I can’t finish this post without mentioning Louise Sandiford. I flew to Dominica via Antigua and stayed over for a night. Louise is the younger sister of another old, old friend and she lives there. She very kindly collected me from the airport and we met up later for a meal. I’ve always been intrigued by Louise – she just took off to live on the other side of the world one day in 1985. It was great to meet her properly – a woman who did something I perhaps would have liked to do myself but never dared to. Louise runs production company and location finder Caribbean Crews and also has an amazing guest house in the jungly depths of the island. She’s a totally top lady and I can guarantee you’ll have an amazing time if you stay there.

Lou eco picture
Lou’s eco-cabin in Antigua

Waking up in Antigua on the first Sunday morning, feeling the soft warmth of the air and hearing cocks crowing and a gospel service playing on a neighbour’s radio, I had the most curious (happy) feeling – like, I’m back! Somehow, I’ve managed to go to the Caribbean three times since 2016. In these strange days of coronavirus, I’m almost wondering whether the feeling might more accurately be described as, ‘I’m home’.

Maybe it’s just a throwback to childhood visits to my father in Hong Kong (also warm and humid), or maybe it’s something else.

Walking down Morne Bruce
The walk down Morne Bruce to Roseau

Who knows what the ‘new normal’ will be when we finally emerge from lockdown. Perhaps short holidays will become a thing of the past, begging the question as to whether long breaks might take their place? Perhaps that would be better anyhow. Perhaps there’ll be ways to work and be useful while journeying around the world.

I’m listening to the David Rodigan show on BBC Sounds as I write this, and by some weird synchronicity he’s playing I’m in Love with a Man Nearly Twice My Age, so that’s going to be the song for this post! Go on, have a dance around the house and enjoy!

*It turned out that Anne Jno Baptiste and Polly Pattullo run Papillote Press together

Stop the world, I want to get off!

We never thought it could happen, but now it has. The world has kind of ground to a halt because of the Covid-19 pandemic. While the horrendous virus has now killed over 100,000 people, has got millions under lockdown and has slowed the economy, putting livelihoods in peril, there have been unexpected gains for the environment. Carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide levels have fallen by up to 40% in locked-down countries, greatly improving air quality. In Venice, fish and plant life have returned to the canals.

Air pollution has been shown to be linked to higher death rates in people with the virus, so there are renewed calls for a recovery focused on green jobs and clean energy, building efficiency, natural infrastructure and the protection of the planet. [1] For now, the sky is quiet, cities and roads are still. We are suspended in the moment. The best thing to happen would be, eventually, for the world to emerge as a better, healthier place.

blue-water-underwater-dolphin
Dolphins have come closer to the shore in Sardinia since the lockdown started

People are reacting to the crisis in many ways, mainly good. The Today Programme on the BBC (which I still listen to, from Spain) has a Poem of Comfort and Hope every day, and also invites a world famous musician furloughed from his/her usual globetrotting schedule to play live from their home. Heartwarmingly, the National Theatre has streamed a series of live shows for people to watch for free. A multitude of online yoga classes, dance classes, book clubs, meditation and choirs keep our spirits up. WhatsApp groups rally to the aid of the vulnerable. Life is going on, albeit in a completely different way.

Up here in the Spanish hills we are relatively safe. Even though Spain has been hit hard by Covid-19, there are mercifully few cases locally. We’re not allowed out for walks, but many of us are blessed with beautiful views and outside space. I have my gardening to keep me fit. Obviously I’m distressed by the ongoing threat posed by the virus globally, but, on a personal level, lockdown sometimes feels less of a worry and more of a curious experiment – how will life have changed when it’s over?

So, what’s it been like so far?

Week 1 was a bit of a stress-fest. I’ve been teaching at a local after-school language academy and had to learn in a hurry how to do the classes online. I live alone, so was facing a few weeks with next to no face-to-face human contact. That didn’t bother me too much. I have a nice vantage point in my garden from which to watch the comings and goings below. I ended the first afternoon of lockdown with a beer in hand, enjoying the sight of the goats across the valley!

Week 2. By now, I was enjoying online yoga every Monday morning and online meditation daily. It was nice and cosy, meditating during the still-dark evenings with the pellet burner glowing. I also started updating my profile on various online teaching websites.

Week 3. I suddenly started getting online English students from across Europe, which was just as well because, midweek, I got a WhatsApp from my boss to say the academy was closing due to the pandemic, and that my next class would be my last with them.

We’re now at the end of Week 4, and it’s just dawned on me that my life has already changed, almost without me realising. From a somewhat badly paid teacher of generally unappreciative teenagers, I’m now a semi-fledged online English teacher with interesting adult clients all over Spain and France! So while the physical world has shrunk, the virtual world has got bigger.

online teaching
My classes have moved online, live and direct from the kitchen/dining room!

As well as teaching, my lockdown routine includes a weekly ‘intercambio’ with a friend – I practice my Spanish and she practices her English. I chat with other friends both here and in the UK, and I’ve been catching up with old friends. The days are full – in fact there’s suddenly so much to do that I’ve stopped watching TV and am living almost entirely in the kitchen/dining room. I do my lesson prep and online classes in here, along with the yoga, meditation and even an online disco with my London friends last weekend! At their request, and with no distractions, I’ve spent today (Easter Saturday) compiling a mega-reggae playlist on Spotify.

A friend asked if I was missing face-to-face contact with people. The answer is yes, but not as much as one might expect. I miss seeing my intercambio friend because the internet connection’s never that great, and I miss interesting events like a gardening-group morning and a sound workshop that had to be cancelled. Yoga is better in real life, too, and I’m really hoping that a holiday with my virtual disco pals will still go ahead in July. Nevertheless, virtual life is much richer than I’d have ever imagined, opening the door to all kinds of new possibilities. Which is good, because apparently the Spanish lockdown is going to last another month.

Result! Today’s music is not just one song – it’s 79 – namely the new ‘Lubrin Dub Club’ Spotify playlist. I must say, I’m secretly hoping that after having unexpectedly launched myself as an online English teacher in the first half of lockdown, I might unexpectedly launch myself as an online reggae DJ in the second half! Even if not, I hope you enjoy the music. To listen, just click below.

Lubrin Dub Club