DOG DAYS – revisited…

Sometime around the mid 90’s of the last century, for some reason I can’t remember now I decided to make a series of 6-box comic strips describing amusing experiences that had had happened to us – “us” being my wife Dido, our Maremma Sheepdog Aura, and yours truly – on our travels. Thus, while all of them are based upon actual events, some are more close to actuality than others.

1: Aura’s Big Sniff

I’m starting this series off with one of the less exaggerated episodes. In fact this is true in every detail, except that it happened in London, in The Alexander Fleming Pub in Paddington and not in the famous old wine bar in Malaga (La Antigua Casa de Guardia) in which the drawings are set. In addition, the barman at the pub was so amused by what happened that he gave Aura a Cumberland sausage as a thank you for making his day!

Again, do please click on the images to follow the comics in all their glory…

2: Phoning From Bar Angel

As with the previous episode, this too actually happened as described, but at the location depicted. Bar Angel was one of a handful of bars and restaurants located in our local mountain peublo blanco (white village), and in the days before mobile phones had taken on here in Andalusia, provided one of the few pay-phones in the area…

3: A Dog in the Room

This is the first in the series where I stretched the truth somewhat, insomuch as the last box is a slight exaggeration – in reality, Dido merely manhandled the hotel manager out of the room. This happened on our drive down through Spain on the journey when we actually moved here – in the early summer of 1993. The most amazing element of the episode was how passive Aura remained throughout the contretemps – which was fortunate for all concerned!

4: Michelin Maremma

This episode also occurred during our 1993 move trip down to Spain in a 2 Michelin Star establishment in the French Pyrenees. There are just two “slight” exaggerations in this strip: Firstly; we didn’t really exchange places with Aura – as much as we wanted to, and secondly; all the chef actually gave to Aura was merely a plate of duck carpaccio followed by sautéed calves liver in butter. There’s also one priceless thing which I failed to get across in this strip, and that was the horrified expressions of the mostly-American patrons at the neighbouring tables!

And a PS: Aura really did often eat reclining, true to her ancient Roman heritage…

5: Short-Back-and-Boobs!

This is almost totally true except for the fact that the lady cutting my hair had two girlfriends in the salon with her, and for much of the time my head was compressed by three sets of boobs rather than just merely one as they passed the time of day over my poor noggin!

The “salon” was situated in our local pueblo blanco, where, back in the 90’s “men were men” and never entered – let alone got their hair cut in such a “feminine” establishment. Thus, the hairdresser’s surprise and thrill at getting her hands on a head like mine was extreme.

Fortunately, Dido took pity on me and immediately raced me down to our local town on the coast for a remedial styling…

6: Swatting the Fly…

This one speaks for itself…needless to say, we avoided further visits to this couple.

7: Dido’s Strong Swim

The parable contained here is obvious; that a love of long distance, wild-water swimming and extreme myopia are a dangerous combination.

Those of you who know my wife Dido will be aware that this combination exists strongly within her person and the strip below tells the tale of what once nearly happened because of it. Just a couple of things to point out; firstly, the actual swim happened at La Serena on the Pacific coast of Chile, and not on a cold winter’s day in the UK – my point at the time (I made these comics in 1994) was to highlight Dido’s love of freezing conditions. She was one of those strange people who used to break the ice of the Serpentine Lake in London’s Hyde Park on New Year’s Day, and once, she even managed to shock a load of hardy Swedes by going for an inter-Island swim near Stockholm, in mid-winter. And secondly (and also obviously), she didn’t actually crash into the oil tanker (let alone sink it), but merely swam far too close to it, causing a crew-member to warn her away using a megaphone.

Aura and I spent many a terrifying hour, just as depicted in the strip, staring out to sea, waiting for Dido to return, which thank goodness, she always did, eventually, though often landing up a mile or so up the coast because of currents and her appalling eyesight.

These days, with the mellowing of age, and out of compassion for me, she only swims “laterally” so that I can keep an eye on her at all times…

8: The Last Almond

I’ve saved the most prosaic of my 1994 “Dog Days” comic strips for last. Prosaic in the sense that this is an experience, that to one degree or another almost everyone viewing this site will have gone through themselves – that infuriating feeling of the last, biggest, juiciest fruit being just out of reach. Perhaps, the only difference with almond trees though, from say apple, cherry or even blackberry picking, is that one does not customarily shake and whack the bejesus out of the host plant to acquire every last fruit. Professional farmers even have specially designed, automated tree-shaking machines for doing the job.

However, down here at least in the Axarquia region of Andalusia, almond trees are not irrigated during the drought season, and while this ensures the almonds have a richer more intense flavour, it also makes the trees highly resinous, thus causing many of the nuts to cling stubbornly to the branches.

Basically, the work is hot, sticky, scratchy, itchy, back-breaking and in the past, financially unrewarding. So, about six years after I made this comic we replaced our main almond orchard with a vineyard, the planting of which was also back-breaking, but with the promise of greater fulfillment – through the act of wine-making – and a hugely greater income. But, as our luck would have it, the market for traditional Malaga wines collapsed about the time I planted our last vine, with the almond price (due to the fruit’s recent elevation to “super-food” status) rising exponentially in the last ten years.

Still, at least we have enough Malaga wine for six lifetimes…

CHILE – OUR REAL CARTOON ADVENTURE (revisited and refined)*

In November of 1991 my wife Dido won a Winston Churchill Traveling Fellowship to Chile to study the role of folk dance as a therapeutic tool for children with learning problems. Because it was going to be a long trip – about three months in all – and we had been married less than a year we decided that I would go along too. As it happened, Dido required her work to be visually recorded and so she appointed me her video cameraman.

When we arrived, Chile had been a democracy about the same length of time that we had been married, so this was a dramatic voyage of discovery in more ways than one. In fact, looking back on that trip now, over 30 years later, Dido and I agree that it remains one of our two or three most remarkable joint experiences.

We decided to keep a written journal of the trip even before we left England, but within a few days of our arrival so many weird and wonderful – not to mention hysterical – things had happened to us that I decided to record the most amusing and surreal in a series of cartoons. Presented here are a selection of those pictures – made literally on the hoof; on trains, on buses and even on planes as we traveled the length (there is relatively little breadth) of one the world’s most spectacular, most beautiful and most crazy countries. These pictures are a humorous and affectionate record of all aspects of the-then new democratic Chile, through the eyes of two wide-eyed newly-weds.

In the words of Inti Illimani – “VIVA CHILE”!!

When we arrived at Santiago Airport we were virtually kidnapped by a trolley porter who then took us through the red channel. When we were then searched by fearsome looking Carabineros and I couldn’t find the paperwork for the large video camera in my possession. My explanation that the camera was not new and the property of the Ealing Educational Authority failed to impress the policemen who then separated me from Dido and escorted me – with the camera – to a small room by the side of the customs hall. Once in the room they told me to sit down on a low wooden chair in the corner and to keep the camera on my lap. There was a glass window in the middle of the opposite wall through which I could see a very worried Dido still standing among all our ransacked baggage and suitcases. For about twenty minutes I was left alone with one Carabinero, who stood leaning against the door just staring at me expressionlessly. Then two more policemen entered the room and – ignoring me completely – turned on a TV fixed to a bracket suspended from the low ceiling. There was a football match on and soon all three men were totally engrossed, occasionally shouting at the screen. At first I’d been too frightened by my predicament to take much notice of the game, but as the minutes passed I realised it was an international game and one of the teams was Chile. And then, as fear turned to boredom I began to watch the match too, until I finally recognised one of the Chilean players. Without thinking, at the moment I recalled his name I blurted it out, “Ivan Zamorano!” The three jackbooted Carabineros all instantly turned to look at me with looks of amazement on their faces. Then, one of them who spoke English asked me, “Zamorano! You know him?” “Of course! He plays in Italy for Internazionale” I replied, then added, lying through my teeth, “He’s one of my favourite players. I’m a big fan!” And with that it was as if I had turned on a switch. Next thing I knew, the three men were all smiles and charm personified and I was being escorted back to Dido, with our camera and sent on our way. Who says football is just a game…
Dido’s first port of call was the small Atacama Desert town of San Pedro – just over 1000 miles north of Santiago. We decided to use the same mode of transport that most Chileans used then for such long journeys – the famous Tramaca coach. Being only the start of the trip we were as-yet uncertain of how our funds would hold out, so rather than travel in the relative luxury of the cama bus with their lauded 1st class aircraft seats and cocktails, and airline-style meals served by attentive stewards, we opted for the regular-seated bus. We would be traveling to San Pedro in three stages, stopping first for a day at the port of Antofagasta – a journey of twenty-five hours. Initially, apart from the stunningly beautiful landscapes we motored through, there was nothing remarkable about the coach journey itself. But then we stopped for a  driver’s rest break and it was like no driver’s rest break on any coach journey we had ever encountered before. As the doors of the coach opened a virtual caravan of peddlers and food sellers streamed onto the vehicle, offering assorted newspapers and magazines, all sorts of drinks, from fresh juices to beer and tasty things to eat. Most delicious of all were the empanadas, fried and baked – reminiscent of Cornish pasties – filled with either cheese, tuna or meat. And there were also huge, green, sweet ripe palta – known to just about everyone else in the world beyond the borders of Chile and Peru as avocado…
One of the most exciting aspects for me in particular regarding our adventure was that it was my first time across the Atlantic Ocean – in fact, it was my first journey into a significantly different time-zone. So, when by our second evening in Chile I still hadn’t suffered any apparent symptoms of jet-lag it made me sceptical about the whole concept. That evening, following our long bus journey from Santiago, we were spending the night in the coastal city of Antofagasta before catching our next ride to Calama the following afternoon. Dido was still quasi vegetarian in those days (she ate some fish) and often got a craving for pasta, and as luck would have it, our Lonely Planet guide recommended an Italian restaurant as being the best place in town. After almost a day on a coach eating nothing but snacks, we were both ravenous and ordered extra large portions of pasta and we must have been about half-way through our respective plates of spaghetti when I was struck by an acute attack of something known as “delayed jet-lag”. The last thing I remember was feeling as if I’d been given a sudden heavy dose of anesthetic gas. Then, the next thing I knew, I was staggering into the street with my arm over Dido’s shoulder with Bolognese sauce all over my face. According to my mortified wife, I had fainted head-first into my pasta, and the maitre d, assuming I was drunk demanded that we leave – immediately…
The breakfast at the Hotel Splendid in Calama turned out to be as “charming” as the sleeping arrangements. As we took our table in the dingy breakfast room we were confronted with a pot of hot water, a jar of instant coffee and two slices of dry toast. When I asked the lady of the establishment – a stocky little woman with unkempt greasy grey hair, a cigarette stub apparently glued to her lower lip, and wearing a food-stained pinny –  if there was any butter, she grunted in the affirmative. Then, to my amazement and horror, she went over to the neighbouring table where an elderly man in a dressing-gown was eating his breakfast and took the piece of toast from his hand, picked up his knife and scraped all the butter she could from it. She then came back to us and spread his butter scrapings onto my toast…

Back in the early 90’s the place to stay in San Pedro de Atacama, at least if one considered oneself a real traveller, was “Bobby’s Place”. From what I can recall Bobby herself (Bobby was a she not a he) was an Australian lady in late middle-age. She was the epitome – almost to the point of being a walking-talking cliché – of the intrepid travelling adventuress, finally settling down in the  evening of her years. Long silver hair tied back in a ponytail; sun-stained leathery skin; bright eyes glistening with weary knowledge and intelligence, she could have been Karen Blixen’s antipodean younger sister. And her eponymous establishment was as laid-back, affable and welcoming-yet-world-weary as she was herself. We loved almost everything about our stay at Bobby’s – the faded Hemingway-esque hunting-lodge atmosphere, chilly evenings, sat around the vast open fireplace sipping her delicious pisco sours and the clean, comfortable quiet rooms. The only feature of Bobby’s place which failed to please was the shower. Not so much a shower actually as a gravity defying twin trickle/dribble of water which miraculously descended in a form of arc, so that if one stood beneath the shower-head it missed one altogether. Getting clean meant opting for one of the two dribbles  and having the patience of a saint…
Bobby had a large dog of mixed parentage and as with his owner, the dog was hugely affable towards all the guests staying at his mistress’s establishment. But on occasion, with guests who reciprocated his friendliness, he would take a special liking and become virtually inseparable. During our stay the dog took just such a liking to another couple. His affection towards them was understandable as they were particularly charming and charismatic. A little older than us, she was German and ran a travel business in Santiago, while he was a  junior English diplomat on secondment at the British Embassy. They’d come to San Pedro for a romantic long-weekend and their favourite pastime (when not in their bedroom) was going for ambles alongside the local river. On the third afternoon of our stay we were sitting on the stoop outside our room when we were confronted with the scene portrayed in the drawing above. But it was only later that night that we found out the story behind the picture: Our couple had gone off on their usual riverside walk accompanied by the dog, which was fine, until they passed by a woman grazing her two sheep. Without warning the dog jumped one of the sheep and killed it. The woman, naturally distraught and angry began screaming and shouting at our couple for failing to control their dog – at which point, as if on cue, the local mounted policeman appeared. After listening to the woman he told our couple that they would have to compensate the woman for her dead sheep. When they then explained the situation and their relationship to the dog, the dubious policeman told them to take him to the actual owner of the dog, which they did, with him – bearing the woolly carcass on his mount – the bloodied dog, the woman and her remaining sheep in tow. Of course Bobby sorted out the situation, and even cooked the sheep a couple of days later for her guests. It was the best mutton stew I ever tasted!
During our stay in Iquique we took a day trip to see one of Chile’s ancient man-made wonders, The Giant of the Atacama. We anticipated that getting to see the “largest anthropomorphic geoglyph in the world” with our own eyes would be a highlight of our visit to Chile, and so it would have been, if we hadn’t vastly overestimated the number of fellow travelers to the same site. We presumed The Giant would be a mecca for a whole host of visitors, including everyone from the millions of credulous believers in Von Daniken to the thousands of people with an interest in pre-Columbian civilization – and all those in between. Obviously, aware of the remoteness of the site we didn’t expect everyone to be there at the same moment, but we took it for granted that there would be dozens of people there at any one time. Thus, it never entered our minds that we would have any trouble getting to and from The Giant without our own car. Even worse, we had misread the distance on our – by now very worn – map, from the Highway 5 bus stop to The Giant as being only 2 kilometers (easily walkable, even under the desert sun) when it was in fact 12! Nevertheless, when a car stopped and we were given a ride to The Giant almost before we had even begun to raise our thumbs, our original presumption seemed to have been correct. However, we had been at the site barely ten minutes when our kindly lift-givers got bored and decided to leave. So, when they offered to take us back to the highway bus stop (which we now realised was 12 k’s and not 2) we had a decision to make. Ignore the significant fact that we and our ride buddies were the only people there, and stay on a while longer at this amazing site, or do the sensible – “been there / seen it” – thing and accept the lift. Like the classic “Darwin Award” idiots we all read about everyday in the newspapers (who go fell walking in sneakers, or swimming in pools known to be infested with salt-water crocodiles, or who light up a cigarette while standing over a cesspit) we decided to stay on “a while longer”… Needless to say, an hour passed and nobody came. So, we decided to walk the actual 2 kilometers back to the dirt track (marked as “minor-road 15) and see if we could at least get a lift from there. Problem was, by this time we were already down to the last few sips of water in our single 1/2 liter bottle and beginning to roast as the sun reached its highest point in the vast desert sky. By the time we made it onto the track we knew that we might be in serious trouble. There was no shelter of any kind, our water was gone, and our exposed arms were beginning to burn. At this point we didn’t know whether we should stay put or attempt the 10 k walk to the main road. After a ten minute rest we began to walk – or rather, stagger along the track, and then almost immediately we heard a vehicle approaching from behind, going in our direction. But our elation was only momentary, as the car sped past without even slowing down, it’s exhaust and dust adding mocking insult to injury. But then, after about another hour, a second vehicle – a small truck – emerged from the east, heading west and its driver , this time, took pity on us and dropped us at the bus stop. Now whenever we think of The Giant, or just about any other South American geoglyph our first reflex is to reach for a water bottle…
No stay in Chile’s northernmost city of Arica is complete without an excursion to the Lauca National Park – with its fabled lakes and volcanoes. Only problem was, the park sat at 4500 meters above sea-level, and altitude sickness was likely to be a serious issue. One of the ways of militating against the worst effects of this however was to make sure one traveled up to the park in the hands of expert guides with state-of-the-art oxygen and resuscitation equipment. But sadly, our limited budget made us forget the lessons of our near-disastrous trip the previous week to Atacama Giant and we opted for the cheapest guided tour we could find. We sensed the worst when we boarded the clapped-out minibus with hard wooden benches for seats and two broken windows. However, there was a big oxygen canister on a shelf above the driver, and it was only a day-trip for goodness sake, we reassured ourselves – what could go wrong on such a short trip? There were about ten of us on the bus, and by the time our vehicle had crawled up past 3.500 meters the more elderly passengers were already beginning to feel the effects of the thinning air. Dido and I at least, felt fine during the entire drive up and it was only when we disembarked at Lake Chungara that the “puna” (the colloquial term for altitude sickness) hit us both – like a brick. The only way I can explain the sensation was that when I tried to walk it felt like one of those bad dreams, when one is trying to flee from some horror or other and one’s legs won’t move. And it wasn’t just the sluggishness; it was actually quite hard to think straight. To this day, I have barely any recollection of how I managed to fill an entire roll of film with some the most spectacular shots of the entire trip – of the lake itself, the surrounding volcanoes, the herds of grazing guanaco and the incredible candlestick cacti. Even Dido, who was super fit in those days, had to lie down after a few minutes of walking around, while I found the only way I could be comfortable at all was to adopt a kind of Muslim prayer position on the ground. Meanwhile, I recall seeing people chucking-up all over the place and one other poor old American guy pass out altogether. It was then that the guide told us that the oxygen canister was empty, resulting in another member of our party – a retired GP as it turned out – having to resuscitate the American gentleman in the manner illustrated in the picture above. Eventually, we all managed to clamber back onto the bus where the guide had brewed up a kettle of coca tea. Whether or not the tea had any effect, somehow we were all still alive by the time we got back to Arica…
About halfway through our stay in Chile we decided to take a few days off and visit the lake district. We booked the train for the overnight journey from Santiago to Puerto Varas, believing we had reserved a compartment. However, we were disappointed to discover on boarding that we were in a couchette with half-dozen other people. A short time out of Santiago Dido went looking for the loo. She returned in an animated state saying that the next carriage comprised only compartments, and that they were all empty. When the porter then came to clip our tickets I asked him if it was possible to upgrade to a compartment to which he shrugged, smiled and muttered under his breath ‘perhaps’… Without thinking I reached into my pocket, and pulled out about $40.00 worth of Chilean Pesos from my wallet . Then, checking his expression and seeing that he was receptive I discreetly slipped the money into his hand. ‘Twenty minutes’ he said gesturing with his head back towards the next carriage; ‘I will prepare the first compartment for you’. And good to his word, the compartment was prepared. It was beautiful: Old British rolling stock from the age of steam, like a scene from From Russia with Love or Murder on Orient Express; only slightly faded, deep green velvet drapes and furniture and shimmering mahogany paneling. The porter had immaculately turned down the crisp Egyptian cotton sheets on the two broad bunk beds, in addition to his final touch – two expertly prepared pisco sours in old-style crystal cocktail glasses placed on the little pull-out table. We were in romantic heaven, and needless to say we enjoyed one of the best nights of our trip…

The Chile trip was our first and last experiment with Lonely Planet travel guides.  While most of gripes with the book could be regarded as somewhat subjective – e.g. our constant disagreement with the guide’s descriptive terminology, such as “basic”, when they really meant “squalid”; “faded” when they really meant “decrepit” and; “comfortable” when they really meant “incredibly uncomfortable” – the several times they got essential facts wrong were far more serious. The worst example was when we decided to hike the five miles from our old hotel on Lake Villarica to another hotel out in the country. We knew it would be a long hard yomp, carrying our rucksacks and that was fine, because we wanted the exercise and most importantly, because we also “knew” – from our Lonely Planet Guide – that the hotel was open and that because this was the beginning of the season there was absolutely no need to phone first to reserve a room. Sadly for us, the hotel didn’t in fact open until the following day. The picture tells only half the story as we had to walk all the way back too!

Before we began what would be an intense five days of work with the kids in Santiago, we hired a car and drove up north to the small coastal town of Tongoy. Set on broad sands at the south tip of a spectacular bay it seemed like an excellent place for enjoying a few days by the South Pacific. But as with just about every feature of our Chilean adventure whatever our preconceptions or expectations had been before we arrived at a given location, the reality had surprises in store for us. In Tongoy, as with so many of our previous destinations, it was our hotel which offered the biggest shock to the system. But in this case at least, it wasn’t a detrimental shock – no squalor, no shared butter and no gravity defying showers – but rather a jolt to our visual senses: For our hotel was decorated to such a degree it was like walking into a dazzling palace of kitsch. Each and every surface was coated, draped, carpeted or covered in garish, luridly decorated flower motifs – every façade clashing dramatically with its neighbour; Every chair, table and bed, painted, lacquered or otherwise coated in every colour, shade and tone of the spectrum and beyond; Each and every shelf and windowsill densely “adorned” with myriad pieces of chintz and fake ivory, such that if “ivorine” came from “real” plastic elephants, then plastic elephants would surely have been as an endangered a species as their actual living-breathing inspirations. And to cap it all there was the landlady: A movable temple of kitsch in her own right, who, as she strolled proudly through her establishment: with her stiffly set blue-rinse; down through her heavily painted, rouged and lipsticked face; to her violent-pink, be-flowered, polyester dress to her spangle-encrusted, patent turquoise stilettos, resembled a chameleon in a psychedelic forest…
We met several wonderful people during our stay in Chile, and made some enduring friendships. Perhaps the most exotic and exciting person we met was Georgina Gubbins, an English-born woman with a truly international upbringing, who had ended up with Chile as her’s and her family’s primary home. Craftswoman, artist, author and beautiful mother of three equally beautiful daughters Georgina was one of those energetic people whose bristling enthusiasm is so infectious she had the knack of getting her friends to do things they wouldn’t normally consider in a month of Sundays.
I can’t quite recall what prompted Georgina to suggest we try going up in a glider over Santiago – bizarrely it might have had something to do with me telling her about the acute flying phobia I was suffering from at the time – but I can honestly say it was an activity which neither of us had ever before contemplated. Anyhow, one afternoon towards the end our trip, before we knew what was going on, she had driven us to a Santiago gliding club and convinced us both to “have a go” in a powerless aircraft.
I should point out at this point, before readers get too alarmed that these were two-seater gliders, and that we were in the hands of experienced pilots. Nevertheless, as we were towed thousands of feet up into the sky by a single-engine biplane I’ve rarely felt a greater thrill.
Like most people who had only ever viewed them from terra firma I had always had two firm conceptions about gliders and gliding, both of which were dispelled the moment we were released from the towrope. Gliding is neither silent nor smooth; quite the opposite in fact! The air whistles and howls around the cockpit canopy, and the wind buffets and jolts the wings and fuselage with each and every movement of the aircraft for the entirety of the flight . So much so, that my pilot was forced to yelling at me when he wanted to point out all the gob-smacking sights and vistas beneath and around us.
Most of the flight was over Santiago’s sprawling eastern suburbs, but we also skimmed past the western edge of the neighboring Andean wall of snow-capped mountains, the tallest of which in the far Argentinian distance was the mighty Aconcagua. Towards the end of the mini-voyage we flew over a large compound that comprised the dwelling of the retired dictator, Augosto Pinochet, and shortly after that the pilot gave me control of the glider. The picture above describes what happened next – or at least how it seemed to me at the time, when in my over-excited state I put the glider into a virtual role. Thankfully, my pilot was unfazed by my surprise maneuver  and instantly regained control to land us safely back at the gliding club.
My amateur aerobatics notwithstanding, the brief glide over the outskirts of Santiago remains a vivid and treasured memory from a trip already rich in awe-inspiring memories. Thank you Georgina!
As a fitting finale to our trip, on our very last day in Chile, Dido had somehow arranged for a meeting with Chile’s top academic in the field of South American folk music and dance. Among other things she was keen to learn more from him about the native dances of Chile, especially the history of the national dance of Chile, the famous Cueca.
The good professor – who shall remain nameless – manifested as a human whirlwind. A cross between the Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil and a classical ballet dancer, from the instant he welcomed us into his small office at the University of Santiago until the time it came for us to leave he was in perpetual motion. We never sat down during the hour or so we were with him and neither did he – in fact I don’t recall seeing a single chair in the room. Thinking about it now, I don’t think that the professor was physically capable of sitting down, any more than a goldfish can stop swimming. Occasionally, as he considered one of Dido’s many queries, he would momentarily hover on one leg balancing himself by making elegant conductor-like movements with his outstretched arms. Then, as an answer came to him he would pirouette back into spinning mode, all the time grabbing papers and pamphlets from the top of shelves and filing cabinets – before seemingly in one motion, depositing them in an ever-growing pile in Dido’s grateful arms.
Like his beloved Chile, the professor was quirky and rewarding in equal measure, and we will never forget him or his equally weird and wonderful country.

THE FOLKS WHO WOULD LIVE ON THE HILL (reprise)

The story of the building of our home in southern Spain – in pictures

We’re often asked by people we meet, and who are familiar with our life story, if we watch the TV show, Grand Designs (on the UK’s Channel 4). For the uninitiated, in 1993 Dido and I together with a small team of local builders and on a limited budget built a house on a rugged hilltop in the south of Spain. Grand Designs is a program which follows people – often young-to-middle aged couples (as we then were in 93) – as they undertake unusual and ambitious house-building projects similar to our own, with much of the drama emanating from all the trials and tribulations of the process. Invariably dreams turn into nightmares and then finally – though not always – the original dreams are more or less attained. And perhaps because there was so much pain, mental and physical, during our building experience my answer to the question is that I rarely watch the program. The few times I have it usually culminates in me experiencing a mild form of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially when the subject suckers – I mean subject couples – go through their own darker moments and mini-disasters.

Nevertheless, at the risk of sounding clichéd, for us, as with most of the Grand Design people, it all worked out in the end and we now have an extraordinary house and home. The question of whether or not it was worth it, and if, given the choice we would do it all again is something of a moot point. Certainly, we wouldn’t do it the same way again. We wouldn’t restore an existing ruin and tie it into a new additional structure – a process that doubled both the time and cost of the project, and necessitated Dido and I becoming labourers on our own build to speed things up and to save costs. No, if we did it again, we’d do what the locals here do – bulldoze the site into a flat platform and build a completely new structure.

This is something of a second instalment to an earlier post called Walking over Almonds and some of the background, including what the original semi-ruined cottage looked like can be found there. Suffice to say here that with one or two expedient modifications from the original plans the build took around six months, beginning in the summer of 1993, and used up every penny we had (although at least we didn’t go into debt). Our architect was the gifted – Bartlett trained – Seattle-based Mark Travers (who we paid with one of my huge oil canvases of the Atacama). Between the three of us (with some help from a structural engineer friend of Mark’s) we came up with a well-built house exactly suited to our needs and passions, and, for a contemporary Andalusian dwelling, unusually sympathetic to its immediate environment.

This is an unavoidably larger post than usual, though I hope there is much of interest here, for those who know us as well as for those who do not, and perhaps even one or two useful pointers for those thinking of embarking upon a similar project…

Our hilltop property was only accessible by a goat track so the first thing we had to do was get a JCB to cut us a drive. For some reason, our beautiful Maremma Sheepdog Aura liked taking naps underneath it and getting covered in grease…
Said driveway…
The first priority was to build our main water tank. Until it was completed we had to schlep over to the local spring three or four times a day to provide the builders with water for cement etc. It took several weeks to finish. Here is the tank progressing. With all its steel it was the most expensive element of the build…
Here’s the JCB just about to demolish the old pigsty…
The water tank and bodega were excavated beneath the east side of the old cottage. They would eventually become the ground story of the east side addition, comprising our bedroom and library. That’s me inspecting the completed water tank. With its 38,000 litre capacity (designed to capture rain water from the roof and terraces) its completion represented significant progress…
It didn’t take long for us to realise that to stay on time and on budget we would have to get involved physically in the building. This was my “first day” and I’m using a pickaxe to make a pipe channel for the 5,000 litre grey water tank…
Here’s Dido cleaning hundreds of roof tiles reclaimed from the old house. The finished roof eventually comprised 1 in 3 old tiles and looked all the better for it…
One of dozens of truck deliveries…
Baldomero (our foreman), Paco and Pepe eating their lunch and taking shelter from a sharp north wind by one of Dido’s dry stone redoubts…
Two thirds of the house beginning to take shape – looking across the main room (the restored old cottage) towards the library and main bedroom…
A beer break – Dido up an almond tree, as usual…
We had to remove the old wooden roof of the original cottage then rebuild the tops of half-meter thick walls. Much of the resulting rubble was reused as aggregate in various parts of the new construction. However, this entire process was hugely time consuming. Mark and his engineer buddy (who had also worked on the Seattle Space Needle) came up with this trussed roof solution for preserving the old walls and making sure they could tolerate the weight of the new steel and concrete roof. The rods were meant to be temporary, but we liked them and kept them. Dido is standing in our front door…
The east addition roof taking shape…
We loved seeing the tiles go over the screed – real progress at last (one in three tiles was from the original house). Incidentally, Dido was on hoist duty, and we later estimated that she winched up more than 2,500 buckets of cement and mortar all told during the roof construction…
The trussed roof allowed us to have very high ceilings without the need for supporting walls or pillars. This is the restored main room. The original cottage was a warren of four tiny rooms…
Fortunately the library was sufficiently finished for us to move into it by the autumn. The stove in the background (christened Dalek) was a reclaimed BBQ and it doubled up as our oven…
These gesso’d book shelves looked great, but during the wet winter months they absorbed moisture like a bath sponge, ruining hundreds of our books into the bargain. You live and learn I guess…
Aura loved lying on the cool sand, much to the annoyance of the builders trying to finish our floors…
Our kitchen was constructed entirely from local materials including a fine wood-burning stove from Asturias, only cost us about £450 with labour!!
The south aspect taking shape, with the “original cottage” section and old casemate wall already rendered, while Dido works on her drystone redoubt
The east addition nearing completion. Here one can see how the library and bedroom form an upper story above the bodega and water tank. The little window is our en suite bathroom…
This is how the main room looks today…
And the bar and kitchen…
And the library, now with modular wooden shelving…
And our bedroom…
And finally, our emerging garden,
about five years ago. Welcome to Finca Carmel!

LEAVING SPIRES

a farewell to oxford

Oxford has been our on and off home now for the past ten years, and as someone from a family with far more connections to “the other place”, it has taken me most of that decade to come to really like and appreciate the city.

Typically, as luck would have it, my liking of Oxford has more or less coincided with our leaving the city for pastures new.

And pastures don’t come much more picturesque, or quintessentially English than those of South Park on the eastern edge of the ancient town centre.

And as for those famous dreaming spires, there’s nowhere they look dreamier than from the steepling fields of South Park on a late summer’s evening.

This view of Oxford; largely unchanged since Matthew Arnold penned his famous verse; and not that different from when Oliver Cromwell’s besieging army was camped on this very spot; and when this great dead English oak was a foot-high sapling, has gradually ingrained itself into the core of my consciousness, and something I shall carry with me and treasure for the rest of my days.

CAROB, SNAILS AND SARDINES

a postcard from a normal day in malaga…

Whenever people ask us about our commercial crops on our little Andalusian farm, we always mention olives and our almonds. Grapes were once a commercial crop for us – in the form of our Malaga-style wine – but that was many years ago. And, while it’s true we also once sold a bushel of pink grapefruit to a greengrocer in our local village, the only other crop we ever used to sell regularly was carob (algaroba in Spanish). Known as boxer in Britain, carob was best known as a chocolate substitute, especially during wartime, when supplies of the real stuff were sparse, and these days, it’s popular as candy (in the States), ground for flour, eaten as a dried fruit and made into syrups and even alcoholic drinks. But, in the 90’s it’s popularity seriously waned, and the price for the brown pods and seeds fell so low, it cost us more in diesel to get the carob to the factory than we got paid for it.

However, the emergence of veganism has seen a massive spike in the demand for carob, and a corresponding rise in its value, making it a worthwhile crop once again. And, in the event we were paid a handsome €60.00 for our modest three sacks, giving us in turn, a pleasant excuse to continue along the road, to spend our earnings – somewhat ironically – on some delicious, decidedly non-vegan Malagueño cuisine…

Adding our 50kilos (highlighted) to the mountain of carob at our local depot/factory.
Then off to Malaga to spend our not-so-hard earned pocket money – firstly on these delicious caracoles (snails) in a spicy, cumin-infused sauce (a recipe from Córdoba)...
…Then down to the beach, for a few espetos (wooden skewers) of sardines , roast against smouldering olive wood. This shot, taken through a Perspex windshield, gives the scene a slightly wobbly look!

Gibraltar’s Very Little Italy

We’ve been to Gibraltar several times over the past two years and each time we seem to discover something new. For such a small territory it’s surprising how many little secrets it manages to keep from the general tourist and day tripper, who’s itinerary seems restricted to a cable car ride to the top of the Rock, finished off with a pint at the pub and a plate of fish and chips. Not that there’s anything wrong with these activities, which do at least ensure the preservation of hidden gems like Rosia and Catalan Bay for the lucky few.

Our discovery of Catalan Bay was particularly accidental, as we had to arrange a last minute trip to Gibraltar, and the only room available was at the Caleta Hotel, on the relatively remote (remote only in a Gibraltarian sense), sparsely populated, eastern side of the Rock. But while the the bay on which the hotel sits may be named for Catalonia, the seaside hamlet along which it resides is far more reminiscent of a Sorento on the Italian Riviera – albeit, in microcosm.

Moreover, with the Caleta Hotel being Italian owned, with an Italian head chef, this tiny enclave has a feel and an atmosphere all of its own.

I would recommend the hotel as a decent place to stay (comfortable rooms and a bar and restaurant with a stunning, maritime outlook), but it’s to be torn down in January, with a Hilton rising up in its place. Nevertheless, for those visiting Gibraltar for more than a day or so, Catalan Bay is a charming place to visit.

Despite the overcast skies, I think these photos offer something of the peaceful, secluded atmosphere of the place.

“HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL…”*

as early signs of spring offer a little hope…

Despite some recent inclement weather, including frost and even a dusting of snow, the Axarquia is showing early signs of Spring. The pictures here, all taken over the past week, on and around our finca (small holding) in the foothills of the Sierra Tajeda remind us of nature’s imperviousness to the current dystopia we find ourselves condemned to inhabit for the foreseeable future.

Sometimes, pictures (even enhanced iPhone snaps) are far more eloquent than mere words…

Our hilltop finca, looking south west…
(Looking west) An almond tree, already in leaf
Marcona (almond) blossom…
(Looking north-east) Our local pueblo, Canillas de Aceituno, sitting beneath Mount Maroma and the Sierra Tajeda, from our house…
(Looking north-west) The pueblo of Periana and the Alfarnate countryside…
(Looking south-east) across our “main road” toward Arenas…
(Looking south-west) From our south vineyard, a neighbouring cottage and the Rio Velez valley beyond…
Fresh orange juice every morning, assured…
(Looking east-by-south east) But it’s the almonds stealing the show…
“Shepherd’s delight”? Here’s hoping…!

* From Alexander Pope (An Essay on Man – 1734)

MOODY BLUES AND STORMY HUES…

…AND HOW I DERIVED SOMETHING POSITIVE FROM OUR MOST NEGATIVE EPISODE

The past twelve Covid-19-infested months included, by far the bleakest time my wife Dido and I have shared together was our enforced eight-month sojourn in Boulogne-Sur-Mer, back in the early 1990’s, described in earlier posts ( here and here).

The Distant Breakwater – oil on canvas – 1995

Yet, few circumstances, however dire, are so unremitting that they totally lack the odd moment of emotional uplift. And for us, in Boulogne, these moments were generally provided during our regular weekend strolls across the local beach.

The Harbour Entrance – oil on canvas – 1995

The proverbial bracing sea air (even when tainted by the odours emitting from the local fish cannery on the southerly breezes); the angry waters of the English Channel, inky blue-black beneath a vast sky of tumbling clouds; distant rain squalls appearing like grey curtains drawn across the serrated horizon; and shafts of silver sunlight occasionally breaking through the blanket of cumulous like spotlights illuminating a white flecked, cobalt stage in perpetual motion – all conspired to blast us temporarily from our glum mental state.

The Fish Cannery – oil on canvas – 1995

In a way similar to how blues music comforts and eases the spirit, by both reflecting back, and articulating the nature and source of the angst, so those tumultuous blue-tinged scenes reminded us of our innate love for life and the adventures it offers. The three palette-knifed oils here, painted a year or two later in my southern Spanish studio, celebrate those precious moments that gave us the reason and the energy to persevere. A particularly apposite recollection I think for these troubled times…

DRAWING LIGHT AND SHADE…

and the dramatic potential of the humble pencil…

My recent post on line drawing was so well received that I thought I would follow it up with this look at a set of my more studied drawings from 1996.

The images here will be familiar to some, as they form the basis of one of my most successful and enduring themes, which I returned to many times over the course of decade or more. It all started with a casual photo-shoot on the sunny south terrace of our Spanish home, when my wife Dido (the blonde lady in these pictures) and Lynne, an old ballet pal of hers, performed a variety of impromptu poses for my camera. Mostly, they involved dance (see this related post), but they also acted these three, far more contemplative vignettes.

Unlike line drawing sketches, these take account of light and shade as much as form, giving them a more obvious dramatic content. But, as with line sketching, often, what is left undrawn, is as important to the feel of the picture as what is drawn. In the case of these works, it was my intention that the whiteness of the untouched paper in contrast to the painstakingly executed figures, and the shadows they contain and cast, would accentuate the feeling of the harsh Spanish sun, saturating the tender friendship of the two girls.

All in all, I think they succeed pretty well, and for me at least, remain precious moments captured in lead.

Dido and Lynne 1 – 1996 – pencil on paper
Dido and Lynne 2 – 1996 – pencil on paper
Dido and Lynne 3 – 1996 – pencil on paper

WHERE THE GRASS IS (nearly) ALWAYS BROWNER…

…BUT WHERE THE ALMOND blossom is ALWAYS WHITER

I nearly titled this as a third straight “yearning” post, in the sense that after three months lock-down here in Oxford we are desperate to get back to our finca in southern Spain. But seeing as we are actually returning there tomorrow I decided on a catchier and hopefully more optimistic heading.

In fairness, when we’ve been in Spain for as long as we’ve now been in England there’s plenty I miss about our other lives in London and Oxford, but the longing is rarely as intense as what we are experiencing right now for our Andalusian home.

And perhaps there’s the clue; the fact that our little farm in the foothills of the Sierra Tajeda is the nearest thing Dido and I have ever had to a settled home. We’ve certainly owned it for more than three times as long as any of our previous homes (separately or together), and then there’s all the sweat and blood we’ve dripped into the building of our house and the rocky soil upon which it stands.

But perhaps, more than all of that, it’s simply the way the setting of our finca has ingrained itself into the fabric of our being through the sheer power of its ridiculous beauty.

So, although we missed wonders like the almond blossom display this year, thanks to about thirty years of memories, and images like the ones on show here, we can never truly miss them – they live inside of us, rendering us unusually fortunate.