Although I promised the resumption of normal posting for this piece, I’d forgotten that I would be in Oxford, and thus geographically separated from my two hard-drives (one in Jönköping in Sweden, the other in southern Spain). So, for the third successive post I’m restricted to the material I carry around on my laptop and hence, this canine themed picture post.
This is in effect an homage to our late dog Aura, with whom we shared so many wonderful and wacky moments.
Regular readers of these posts will know all about our finca (small holding) in southern Spain and especially the adventures we had building our house. However, what I haven’t done thus far is said that much about the little farm itself.
Our biggest crop is from our two small vineyards (about 1000 vines in all), one preexisting our move (in 1993) and the other planted by us in 2000. The older vineyard comprises mostly Moscatel (Muscat) used for making the traditional local Malaga style sweet wine and the one we planted ourselves which is a third Moscatel and two thirds red Cencibel (a varietal of Tempranillo) with which we make a strong red fortified wine similar to port.
In addition to our grapes we also grow olives (for oil), almonds, citrus, and a variety of other fruits including avocado.
We harvest the almonds from about mid July through to mid September, the olives around the new year and the grapes, depending on the vintage, from late August when we also make our two wines.
The pictures here are a montage of our annual vendimia (grape harvest and wine making). Although we appreciate help from our friends with all the annual farming tasks it’s only the wine-making that people actually return for. The work is hard, and depending upon the weather – which can vary from sunny and hot to chilly and damp (like this year), sweaty, monotonous at times, but always rewarding once the must (mosto in Spanish) is all safely in the barrels.
Over the years various rituals have developed around the process, the most enjoyable of which is Dido’s Mexican feast on the final night, when the work is over. We’re not quite certain how this particular tradition started, but somehow delicious treats like tamales, enchiladas and re-fried beans washed down with margaritas provide a uniquely festive climax to several days of hard labour.
On behalf of Dido and myself, I would like to take this opportunity to offer special thanks to all those friends, who have helped us over the past 25 years, with special mentions to Pepa for returning every year and Valentina for her technological innovations. We literally, couldn’t do it without you! Finally, all volunteers welcome for next year…
We’re now back on our finca here in southern Spain for the Easter / Passover break (and a happy whichever one you may or may not celebrate), and in our case, dozens of farming chores of varying degrees of arduour. In other words, time is precious and I can only devote the bare minimum of it to this post, which will be mostly about the pictures. Fortunately, during our recent spell in Jönköping (Sweden) something particularly picturesque and photogenic occurred, in that the local Lake Vättern froze over. While the main lake itself was covered in great chunks of ice and snow drift, its small tributary Lake Munksjön, around which the center of the town sits, became a perfectly level and smooth outdoor ice rink. This proved a great winter tonic for the locals who seem at their happiest when on skis and especially on skates. The resultant images of impromptu ice hockey games, ice fishing and townsfolk simply strolling across the lake reminded me of paintings by the elder Bruegel.
I hope that these “gouache” enhanced pictures (taken with all I had to hand – my iPhone) give some sense of the stark-yet-charming beauty and drama of the scenes, of both Vättern and Munksjön…
Last March I published a post describing how we became stranded in Boulogne sur Mer for eight months (https://adamhalevi777.com/2017/03/31/boulogne-blues-the-story-of-how-we-became-stranded-for-six-months-in-the-famous-french-channel-port/) and in which I promised to follow that up with a record of some our subsequent Boulognaise tragicomic adventures. However, one of the many modern problems associated with a life lived in three disparate European locations is that portable hard-drives often end up in the wrong place. As now for instance, while I am currently in Sweden, the hard-drive containing 99% of my pictorial material is in Spain. This unhappy situation will continue until I and the hard drive are once again reunited in March.
The significance of this lack of pictorial record is that my posts for the forthcoming five weeks or so will be more sparingly illuminated than usual. Thus, the main visual record of our eight hysterically grim months on the north-west coast of France will have to wait.
Fortunately, I do still have access to some interesting and evocative pictures from that time, like the two presented here which in a way sum up that bleakest episode of Dido’s and my 29 years together more graphically than a thousand well-written words ever could. Someone once said I think, or at least should have said, that there is a profound pleasure in melancholy, and perhaps that is why so many of us are often just a subtle mood-swing away from that condition.
Both Dido and I, if not our canine companion Aura, were feeling particularly melancholic the Sunday afternoon I took these shots early in our Boulogne sojourn as we stared out longingly to the English horizon. It was Sunday blues in every sense and the only thing missing from these shots is the dull stench wafting across the sands from the nearby fish canning plant. Nevertheless, when I look at these images now, whether because of our sweet Maremma sheep dog staring down curiously at a lug-worm, or the fact I’ve been so fortunate with my life partner(s), I can’t help but smile.
Given the amount of travel related material I present here, it might come as a surprise to regular followers of this site, that for about ten years, from the late 80’s to the late 90’s I suffered from a suddenly acquired, debilitating fear of flying.
Debilitating for about the first seven or eight years, to be accurate, as I gradually cured myself of the affliction over the final two or three years with a combination of judiciously applied strong alcohol and the advent of budget airlines – specifically easyJet. But thanks to that magical cocktail of Jack Daniels blended with Stelios Haji-Ioannou’s heroically mundane approach to commercial air-travel (a story for another post perhaps) I thankfully managed to rediscover my inner Frank Sinatra. However, unluckily for us, the height of my phobia coincided with our move to southern Spain.
If the move had been the total success we had originally anticipated then my fear of flying wouldn’t have been thrown into such sharp relief, but because of constant need to migrate, firstly to northern France, and then later, back to the UK, things became tricky.
For a period of about three years we had to make the journey, firstly from Malaga to Boulogne and then from Malaga to London, between six and twelve times annually. And, while some of these journeys anyway necessitated the need for a car journey, most of them would have been quicker, cheaper and easier by plane. But, as there was no way I could fly, and short of Dido giving me the Mr “T” Novocaine treatment (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DaJOeLuUD94), this meant that for all of those dozens of trips, we had to drive.
More often than not, and especially towards the end of the period, when “getting there” had become the sole objective, we would stick to the main roads and cover the route in as little as two and a half days (our record was 18 hours – Malaga to London – 1400 miles – door-to-door), but on occasion we would make a small vacation out of a drive, and take some significant detours, in France and/or Spain.
The images presented here are from some of those early excursions compiled into one virtual tour. Their yellowed, grainy texture reflect golden memories of the beauty and the unsurpassed variety (in Europe at least) of the French landscape; in this case from the Pyrenees in the south, to the beaches on Normandy in the north, via Provence and the Auvergne. It’s amusing to consider now, that if it had not been for my fear of flying I might not have got to visit some of these extraordinary places…
Twenty-four years ago I experienced the dubious complement of being burgled of three of my favourite paintings.
We’d more or less completed the construction of our house in Andalusia when all our household belongings arrived from England. I say more or less completed, because we had yet to make the house secure with things like window bars and securely locking doors. However, situated as we were, in the proverbial middle of nowhere and with only a handful of people knowing our house existed, we felt reasonably secure receiving our possessions. And looking back on it now, I don’t suppose that eight months of living on a building site devoid of all creature comforts and luxuries had done much for our sense of judgement when it came to matters of domestic security?
A perfect illustration of just how crazy we were is represented by what happened the very first night we got our stuff back.
After an entire day of frenzied unpacking I decided to reward us by rigging up our much-missed stereo. Our ghetto-blaster had broken halfway through the build and for the past four months the only music we had to listen to was whatever happened to be playing on our matchbox-sized radio. Now, at last we could hear our music, on our wonderful sound system and most importantly of all, at our volume.
And as it was the volume I craved as much as the music itself my choice of tune for this auspicious occasion was Led Zeppelin’s superlative “Trampled Underfoot” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ftknR1gf9qw). My first hearing of the number was as a wide-eyed 15-year-old in the fifth row at Earls Court in 1975, when it had changed my life, and so it seemed like an apt song with which to celebrate this new chapter.
I put it on at full volume and immediately went out onto our north terrace to enjoy it against the appropriately spectacular view of the crimson Sierra Tajeda bathed in flaming sunset. Soon I was gyrating away in a state of manic bliss; then joined by our Maremma Sheepdog Aura, who, teddy in mouth joined in the head-banging. Shortly Dido appeared on our little bedroom balcony, next to the terrace, fresh from the shower, stark-naked, executing a superb go-go-dance.
All-in-all, quite a party…except that during one of the brief inter-riff silences in the music I thought I heard goats! And again, in the next silence, I could hear an instant of goat bell mingled with goat bleat. Then to my horror, I peered down the slope beneath the terrace, to the dirt track beyond our little vineyard to find myself staring into the face of one of the local village goatherds! I don’t know how long he’d been watching us, but his amazed expression was clearly visible, even from fifty yards away…
To cut a long story short, for years afterwards we were known in the village by the sobriquets that title this post. To this day, we still get odd looks from some of the older villagers.
Sadly, it wasn’t just the goatherd who brought us down to earth with a bump. The next evening, when we returned from a visit to the coast we found that three of my paintings had been stolen, including one of my favourites of the ships in Arica Harbour in Chile. What made the pain of the robbery worse was that we knew exactly who the guilty party was (not the poor goatherd by the way!) but for reasons too sensitive to divulge here, we also understood that there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it. Fortunately I did at least photograph the three pictures and have presented them here…
If you ever wondered what all those dots and dashes are for on Scandinavian words then the name of the town in Sweden Dido and I are soon to move to might help.
Jönköping without its umlauts (or “umplaghs” as Dido refers to them) looks fairly straightforward to the English eye. Jonkoping instinctively, phonetically looks like it should be pronounced “John-coping”, but the presence of the umlauts immediately sets alarm bells ringing. You just know that “John-coping” is wrong with the result that you find yourself instinctively “accenting” the word. However, unless you are familiar with “Northern Germanic” languages the chances are that instinctive accenting will be wide of the mark.
In my case for instance, before I knew better, I found myself pronouncing it something like “Jern-kerping” whereas after being corrected by a helpful Swede I was told to pronounce it more like “John-shopping”. Of course, “John-shopping” is only an approximation of the correct Swedish pronunciation, but it does at least indicate the effect of the umlauts. Moreover, since I’ve been using it, the constant stream of polite corrections from dismayed Swedes has ceased.
The one thing all our new Swedish acquaintances have told us is that our ability to pronounce Swedish words correctly, including Jönköping will improve over time.
Whether or not we have sufficient time in Sweden to master Swedish enunciation will depend upon how well Dido’s new tenure at Jönköping University works out. As things stand she’s planning on this being her professional swansong, but even at 57 this still leaves us with plenty of time – potentially…
Far more accessible than Jönköping’s correct pronunciation is its pleasant geography. The town is situated on the banks of Sweden’s second largest lake, Vättern (yes, another umlaut, and no, I haven’t been informed yet and all guidance welcome) and during our recent visit I manged to get some striking images of it, and the natives enjoying themselves along its beach.
One of the things that I’m falling in love with in Sweden, and something I already miss when I’m not there is the astonishing crystalline light and the startlingly vivid colours and tones it produces on everything it touches. These pictures illustrate this pretty well…
Standing a loved one or a friend, or even an animal before a fabulous vista is a cultural staple of the holiday snapper. For me, apart from the “I/we was/were there” element, the juxtaposing of a human and or animal before vastness simultaneously humanises and accentuates the majesty of the given panorama. Painters have been doing the same thing since the days of the great Dutch and British landscape painters of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, from Van Ruisdael to Caspar David Friedrich.
Presented here are sadly no Friedrich’s, but this set of enhanced-photos from all my years of travel do nevertheless express something of that dramatic relationship between “us” and the landscapes we move within…
This dates back to the late 70’s when my old mate Simon and I drove around Cork and Kerry in his old orange Datsun. This is Simon peering over the edge at Slea Head near Dingle on the Kerry coast (famous for being the location for the movie Ryan’s Daughter)…
Taken around 1981, this is the summit of Mount Gilboa. The field of boulders could seem to bear witness to the power of David’s curse in his great lament for the fallen Saul and Jonathan that nothing should ever grow upon the mountain’s slopes again…
Virtually penniless, we could not afford nor did we wish, to place our Maremma Sheepdog, Aura into the-then obligatory six-months of quarantine in Britain. We were in a pretty desperate situation, and if desperate situations require desperate measures, then the one we came up with was a genuine peach, although it did not seem so at the moment we conceived it.
Firstly, Dido took a job managing a paediatric occupational therapy department in Folkestone on the Kent coast, just a 40 minute Seacat (hydrofoil ferry) hop across the English Channel from Boulogne. Traveling as a foot passenger was cheap, and with a health-authority car provided at the English end, the daily journey would be both inexpensive and quicker than most commutes from the London suburbs into the City. It appeared to be totally reasonable solution to a tough problem; six months living frugally in a tatty loft then once we were more comfortably off, moving into a nicer flat in the charming old citadel above the port. Aura our dog was already 11 years old and towards the latter end of her life expectancy, and who was to know? Two or three years living in the charming quarter of an historic French town might actually be rather pleasant. The plan even seemed sufficiently fool proof that Dido need not disclose to her new bosses the fact she was living in France and risk their disapproval(the requirements for the post were that she lived within 30 miles of work… there were no stipulation as to whether the miles were measured across dry land or water). But then, to paraphrase a famous remark of a late British prime minister, “events” intervened to devastate our plans.
Having committed ourselves to the minimum six-month rental contract, we moved into our dingy lodgings the week before Dido was to start her new job. The flat was unfurnished, without even a kitchen, and so we spent the whole of the first few days madly rushing around in a rented van, using our credit cards to purchase the basic essentials to make the place habitable. Amongst other things, we got a type of sofa-bed (known as a clic-clac in France) and a tiny Baby Belling oven with a double hob. We couldn’t afford luxuries like refrigerators then, and still couldn’t afford one by the time we eventually left the flat at the end of the six months. Nevertheless, after we had scrubbed the flat half-a-dozen times and got our few pieces of furniture set up (including a table improvised from a lacquered MDF board) the place seemed habitable. That, in addition to the fact it was only a five minute walk from the Seacat dock gave us reason to think the next six months would be reasonably tolerable. However, it must have been the Thursday or the Friday when we made that walk down to the port for the first time since settling in that the bottom fell out of our world.
Without notice of any kind the Seacat company had cancelled all runs to Folkestone with immediate effect. Dido had talked to the ferry people just a week earlier—days before we had signed the contract on the flat—and they had made no mention of their plans to cut back their service. It seemed like a sick joke. We were now tied into living in Boulogne for six months, and the only morning and evening transport across the Channel anywhere near practicable for Dido’s requirements was a 40 minute drive up the coast at Calais. Moreover, the only affordable foot passenger service was on the regular ferry boats, which took-one-and-a-half- hours to Dover. Suddenly, Dido’s easy two-hour daily return journey, now with the commute to Calais and the 20-minute drive from Dover to Folkestone added to the mix, had mutated horribly into a return journey taking five hours—on a good day.
But, with no money, and Dido’s job starting on Monday she had no alternative but to do the Calais crossing.
As it happened, the commute turned out to be just one of the many grim and farcical components of what was to prove the most miserable period of our marriage—the details of which will be the subject of another future blog. Enough to say for now, that the France most people experience as tourists has little in common with the dingy, rough, criminal-infested street we inhabited during our sojourn in Boulogne sur Mer.
The origins of the pictures below lie in my numerous walks on Boulogne beach with Aura and apart from being a modest nod to great Dutch painters like Jacob van Ruisdael, express both the blueness of my mood in Boulogne, and my ever-growing yearning to cross that 20-mile strip of water back to England…
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 installment to an earlier post called Walking over Almonds (https://adamhalevi777.com/2014/10/26/walking-over-almonds-2/) 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 and the photos of the build, being from (crudely ) digitally converted old film, are not up to my usual standards. Regardless, 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…
Fr. Justin Belitz OFM is the founder of the Franciscan Hermitage and author of "Success: Full Living," "Success: Full Thinking," & "Success: Full Relating." His teachings incorporate spirituality, science, and art for personal growth and development.