Category Archives: Culture

Off Grid Festival – A Thriving Alternative

My feet hurt. You know that kind of “Festival Foot”, when the balls of your feet are sore from tramping through fields all weekend? I peeled off my slightly soggy socks to find four,  sore, bright red patches. At least my Festival Foot did provide an excuse to lie around in the unexpected Welsh sunshine, contemplating the incredible weekend I just spent at Off Grid Festival in Devon, England.

Relaxing in the Thrive area at off Grid Festival
Relaxing in the Thrive area at off Grid Festival

I wasn’t planning to go, but for the past five months I’ve been helping to promote the Festival. As I posted news of each fascinating new workshop, speaker or band, I gradually convinced myself what an amazing event it would be! The Off Grid College offered a platform for pioneers to talk about practical sustainability and appropriate technology. Low impact building, solar installation, permaculture and medicinal foraging were just a few of the themes on offer.  At Thrive, it was all about all things healing. Massage, mindfulness and yoga, as well as in-depth discussions around activist burnout, trauma and the future of elderly care. At the Community Convergence space, discussions ranged from The Power of Networks to Co-housing to the Economics of Happiness. Plus, of course, there was uplifting, original music from live bands all weekend.

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Seize the Day

As usual, my Festival experience was filtered through the lens of my camera, which gave me an excuse to grill various inspirational people about their passions. I also learned a lot about the art of podcasting from fellow festival journalist Carl Munson, aka the Barefoot Broadcaster, who set up his “field” studio to interview passers by and had them uploaded within minutes. Unlike my interviews, for which you’ll have to wait a bit, you can hear his exchange with Guy Coxall, Compliance Officer for CBD (cannabidiol, the non-psycho active ingredient in cannabis) right now!

Barefoot Broadcast
Barefoot Broadcaster meets Guy Coxall

Carl’s Barefoot Broadcasts are a from of alternative media, which, in this time of “fake news” are more important than ever. I spent more than 15 years working as part of the Undercurrents collective, reporting on environmental activism. We trained hundreds of people to create their own media and to get their voices heard, enabled by the revolution in video camera technology which made high quality recordings both accessible, portable and affordable. Now, everyone carries the technology for citizen journalism but instead, what do we use it for? Spruiking ourselves on socal media and pinging selfies around the world in an effort to gain attention.  What a waste.

Alternative media relies, more then anything, on an alternative ideology. Offering a fresh view on the world requires contemplation, discussion, a willingness to question and to go against the mainstream. The off-grid culture provides a natural home for alternative media, since it challenges all the mainstream systems and approaches which underpin culture and way of life. Off Grid means a challenge to the growth economy, the religious hierarchy, the mass approach to education. To Big Pharma, Big Oil and Big Banking. To top-down government, just-in-time commerce and housing as investment. To prioritising profit over people, humans over animals, and development over nature. An alternative media practitioner needs a strong stomach, a deep curiosity and a fearless attitude.

My involvement with Off Grid Festival, combined with this latest damning report from Reporters Without Borders, has reminded me of the importance of alternative media organisations and of how the people that contribute to them need our support. With this in mind, I’m making this the first in series of blogs featuring journalists and filmmakers who, in the widest sense, are spreading the Off Grid message. I’m beginning with James Light, a talented film maker who gave up his job in television news 8 years ago in order to tell the stories he thought really mattered. James has made some beautiful films for the Off Grid Festival but this year, was unable to attend because of a calamity which put his van off the road and himself into debt. As part of this profile, I’m sharing his crowdfund page, in case you feel like helping him get back into action.

James’ inspiring film “What’s Your Story?” is the true-life documentary about people who are daring to ask life’s ultimate questions. “Through sharing and listening to each other’s stories and experience we not only make everyone feel like a valued member of society, we also help drive innovation, as though sharing our thoughts and ideas we will be able to harvest more wisdom from our collective intelligence. Together we are stronger and through changing our story we can change the world.” To this end, James is a committed supporter of Off Grid Festival.
“The most enjoyable part of Off Grid Festival is feeling part of a strong, resilient community” says James. “What I really love is seeing passionate debate and people talking and the quality of that conversation across the board. Even if they disagree, there’s a way to which they disagree which is really comforting and nourishing and given the current paradigm of arguing across a room, that’s what fills me with hope.”

Hope is a big theme for James, having overcome personal tragedy when his brother died young of epilepsy and going on to pursue his dream of becoming a film maker.
“I now know that I am here to help tell a more compelling, loving and sustainable story of self. I am here to help shift the cultural narrative from unsustainable selfish greed to self-sustaining and sharing freely. The stories I tell are to help us all find or clarify our story, to help everyone discover their gifts and hopefully inspire them to share it.”

Support James’ fundraiser to help repair his van and get him filmmaking again!
https://www.gofundme.com/ydfek-keep-on-trucking

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Festa mayor parade winds through village of Sant Pere de Ribes, Catalonia

Building Resilience through Connection

In Buddhist circles, January is traditionally a month for retreat. It is the time of the monsoon, when the nomadic life of Gautama and his disciples was hampered by the rains. Instead of their usual pattern of roaming and teaching, they stayed in one place, waiting out the weather until the spring allowed them to once more take their message to the villages. With Husband away for 10 days visiting family, I decide to engage in a self-retreat, committing to stay in one place, more or less, until his return. It’s a way of connecting deeply to myself, but I’ve also been thinking that it’s a way of building resilience.

At the beginning of my retreat I impose boundaries, choosing the lines I draw between ‘normal’ and ‘retreat’ life, making an intention to limit those habits which I know take me away from my present state of being. I decide, above all, to limit my use of media. For me, there is no better tool for producing a sense of FOMO – or missing out on something, than trolling through Facebook! In addition to this, I commit to a daily practice of those things which enhance my sense of being present. Yoga and a daily walk – to bring me into my body. Meditation, to quiet and centre my mind. I add in a writing practice, to exercise creativity and ground my energy, but I promise myself that I will not expect productivity, which helps me approach it in a relaxed way.

The retreat begins as usual, with me  feeling very tired. It’s as though in the very act of turning my attention inward, I come face to face the effort of daily life. I sleep more in the first day and on the second, I really enjoy the stillness and softness of a warm home and little activity. On the third, my energy starts to rise and I feel surges of spontaneous joy. My walk takes me through the local village, which is celebrating the Festa Mayor of Sant Pau. What strikes me now about these festivities is how they manage to include the whole community. How everyone takes such pride in their role. An hour before the parade begins, I see people dressed in traditional costume walking purposefully through the village. Their white shirts and pants are immaculate, contrasting impressively with the bright red and blue of their shoes, belts, cravats and headscarfs. Small bells attached to their ankles jingle excitedly as they walk. There is a sense of anticipation in the air.

bona festa mayor
Festa Mayor Sant Pere de Ribes

In Catalonia, no festival is complete without a correfoc, a ‘fire run’, evolved from mediaeval street theatre. Bands of young people dressed in painted hessian cloaks hold aloft fireworks which rain sparks onto the crowds lining the street. Their hoods are adorned with bright red horns, their clothing painted with images of demons and fire. It’s not hard to work out the symbology. This is an ancient standoff between good and evil. These devils are followed by dancers, clearly from the same origins as Morris and Ceilidh dancers, leaping and jumping and swinging each other around, or bashing sticks one against another with a force that suggests the moves, like the katas in karate, mimic combat. Each crew of ‘devils’ is accompanied by an ear-splitting samba band. Each set of dancers by jovial pipers. The whole procession lasts an hour or more and winds up with a moving maypole attended by male and female young people and topped with an extremely lifelike owl. Back in my retreat space, I can hear the sound of real owls hooting in the forest around me as fireworks resound through the valley.

hermitage procession
Procession to the hermitage of Sant Pau

Maintaining my retreat intention, it seems fitting to join the celebratory mass at the hermitage the following morning. The day breaks cold, gray and rainy and as the same parade weaves out from the town centre, plumes of smoke from fireworks fill the damp morning air. The sinister sound of drums moves closer and closer, the fizz, splutter and bang of explosions creating a stir in the atmosphere. I am reminded of the noise and clatter of Tibetan horns, bells and symbals as the buddhas are summoned for a puja. Up close, it can be an unnerving experience. There is little doubt that the spirits are responding, for when the monks play like this, the room crackles with energy. This morning, two new players have appeared in the throng. A woman and a girl in the same fireproof gear join the head of the procession, but instead of demons in yellow and red, their cloaks are painted in white and blue with angels and doves . Amongst the noise and hubris of bedevilment, they make a calm case for the  peace and innocence.

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Triumph of good over evil?

Inside the church, where it is standing room only, I am moved to contemplation. The choirmaster conducts a willing congregation, producing melodic harmonies which rise past the elaborate chandelier to the simple arched ceiling. Outside, the dancers continue the procession, filling the space outside the church with a party atmosphere. A makeshift bar is doing a roaring trade in patatas bravas and beer. It seems that the whole town is here and everyone, from the smallest child to the greyest elder has a costume and a role to play.

correfoc youngster
Everyone has a role to play!

A week later, I walk the same path past the hermitage and out into the vineyards. I am accompanied by three other ‘pilgrims’ on a small yatra, a meditative walk, mostly in silence, to celebrate Imbolc, the beginning of Spring in the Celtic calendar.  Empty shells of fireworks litter the path and along the way we pause to take in the scent of rosemary and thyme growing abundantly in the wayside. All through the fields, the vines are bare, stretched out and prepared for leaves that will soon appear. Warm rays of sunshine have broken through the early mist and we peel off layers as we walk. Pink and white almond blossom, thronged with happy bees, gives pause for reflection.

In challenging times, these resources will create resilience.

Connection to self, connection to each other and connection to nature.

january almond blossom
Almond blossom Imbolc 2017

 

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boodaville-permaculture3web

Boodaville Permaculture in Spain

Boodaville. The name is a play on words, taking itself lightly, but underpinned with intention. This is not a folly. This is wisdom in action. The land is 1.5 hectares of tracks and terraces and trees on the border of Aragon and Catalonia. “Cross the blue bridge and take a left” says Anna Gurney, the permaculture teacher and activist who owns this land and runs the eco-project. Of course we miss the turning, and need to drive ahead some way and turn around.

boodaville-permaculture-catalonia
Boodaville Permaculture Project, Catalonia

All the best places I visit seem to be at the end of a bumpy track. At my home in Holtsfield, we have both a bumpy track (at the front) and a muddy lane at the back. The residents call the back lane “the time tunnel” because it seems, in this tunnel as it does on the track, that time slows down. You slow down. Somewhere between the worlds, a switch is flicked and the magical zone is entered. In this magical zone, anything can, and does happen.

What happens at Boodaville today is a permablitz. A group of enthusiastic people in shorts and sturdy shoes inhabit a newly-landscaped terrace. In huddles of three or four, they crouch, tending the soil, building small hills of compost and thumbing in favas (beans) and small plants of broccoli and spinach. The chatter is multi-lingual, strings of Spanish and English, smatterings of German and Portuguese. A slender woman with an indeterminate accent encourages us, initiates new tasks, and generally keeping things going. Progress is both swift and congenial.

boodaville-permablitz-gardening
Permablitz – a shared permaculture activity

On a higher terrace, a makeshift but functional kitchen is buzzing with life and the aroma of cooking wafts around, making me aware of my hunger. In a sort while, the group will gather to eat a hearty plate of stew and rice with fresh salad leaves and the conversation will crank up into laughter and even song.  But when I mention “hippies” to Anna, her response is dismissive. So where does the inspiration for Boodaville come from?

“It was a silly nickname given to me in my early twenties.” says Anna, a little embarrassed. “The first event we had was a birthday party, which got called Boodaville. Then the next event followed and still got called Boodaville. Then there was the festival…After a few years, it just stuck. So it was unintentional but it sounds a bit like buddha and there are lots of things about buddhas that we like.”

Anna’s modesty is a clue to the ethos behind the project, which is all about community. All of the events, training and workshops are designed to be collaborative and Anna’s long-term plan is that the land will be split between four families, who will live there as an eco-village.
“ With lots of projects, there is one person that is determined to make it happen, and that’s me. I always wanted it to be about permaculture and then I realised how close this community-led approach was to the ethos of permaculture, so it was entirely appropriate. People underestimate how hard it is to get a community project up and running and they often fail before they manage to buy land. Now I feel that having the initial bit done through our courses, activities, buildings, etc, will give the future community a head start.”

On the land, participants drift back to the garden to finish the day’s productivity and I take a look around, walking up the steep hill to admire the view over mountains both near and far. A newly-built cottage in traditional Catalan style will house a floor-full of tired party-goers this evening and the geodesic dome is being prepared for music and dancing.
“We always say that if it’s not fun, it’s not sustainable.” states Anna. It’s important to make sure people enjoy themselves. In order to learn, you have to be emotionally engaged with something – or at least, you learn much better.“

The day’s activities in the garden round off with a small ceremony – a tree planting to honour the life of Bill Mollison, one of the founders of permaculture who has recently died. Bill suggested that if people want to celebrate his life then there could be no action more fitting than to plant a tree, so here we are, holding hands in a circle, moving slowly around so that each of us can splash a symbolic handful of water onto a young almond sapling. I’m amused when the leader of the ceremony invites us to sound an OM together, which we do. Anna, holding hands as part of the circle enjoys the moment as much as anyone, though it somehow runs contrary to her claim of it being a “non-hippy’ environment!

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Planting a tree in memory of Bill Mollison

A couple of weeks after visiting Boodaville, I am inspired to see whether we can pull off a permablitz in our area. I open a Meetup group, which quickly gathers 15 members, some of whom sign up for a day at our property, sharing some activities. The day is even more successful than I could have hoped and we adopt Anna’s model of emphasising a good, long, lunch and plenty of conversation. We get a load of things done and people give each other big hugs when they leave,  talking what they’d like to achieve at the next permablitz! The focus on shared activity, shared food and shared learning makes a container for activity that is permaculture all over. If you haven’t already tried it, my advice is – don’t wait! Find your local permaculture group and pitch in with a project. Time spent collaboratively is good for the soul. You’ll most likely learn something new, share a great lunch and maybe, like me, you might even make some new friends.

permablitz at a property in Spain
Permablitz!
permablitz-lunch-spain
The all-important long lunch

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dragon-catalonia

Here be Dragons – Meditation on Uncertainty

Yesterday, as we sailed into the uncharted waters of Trumpdom, an artist came into my Catalan class to give a presentation. It was a workshop in emotional intelligence, using the dragon as a symbol of fear, though it might easily have been a signifier for Trump himself.  The artist, who sported a blue beard (for what reason we never knew) led us in a game. We stood in a circle and threw a length of cord between us, stating each our name, where we come from and where we now live. It is an exercise I have led myself, during workshops in film-making. “Em dic Helen. Soc de Gales. Visc en Sant Pere de Ribes.” Simple stuff,  but looking around at my classmates, I see what a multicultural world I live in. People from from Gambia, China and Pakistan, from Morocco and Ecuador, Andalucia, and Portugal. All making an effort to get their tongue around the native language.  I also see how the Catalan people, at least, are embracing those of many different cultures. As Trump closes US borders to Mexicans and Muslims; as Britain winds up the drawbridge to their tiny island and hopes to weather the storm alone; as Australia turns back the boats bringing refugees from Sri Lanka and Indonesia, I look around at these different faces, with different dress codes and different accents and I feel a certain warmth. I, too, am an immigrant here. In a recent exercise discussing whether our eyes are fosc or clar, I was the only member of the group with blue eyes.

The artist talks about maps, and how cartographers used to label uncharted territories with a drac. A dragon. For some, he said, the symbol of a dragon would instill fear and be a sign never to go there. For others, it would be an invitation to explore. In our own uncharted territories, the  outer and inner worlds we inhabit and traverse, there are also times when we encounter fear. Our dragons breathe fire and make loud noises, as if to scare us from ever going to that place. The dragon is both guard and protector. It warns us that it might be painful to go there. That we might need to prepare ourselves for disappointment, failure, or loss. But does that mean that we should not go? Coming face to face with our dragons is what makes us heroes. It helps us develop courage and strength. When our eyes (and hearts) are opened to new experiences, new people, new worlds, new challenges, this is when we tend to grow.
Sant Jordi – Saint George – is an important figure in Catalan culture. He is the dragon-slayer that we know from English stories but he has a special purpose here. El Dia de Sant Jordi is celebrated with two special customs. Men present women with a rose and women make men the gift of a book, bringing together the heart and the head – the organs of feeling and of reason. We can take this symbology as an object of meditation as we travel into unfamiliar waters. Whilst it would be foolish to completely ignore the warnings pointed out to us by the mind, it is unlikely that we will survive, let alone thrive, without the unique tool provided for us by the heart. If the times ahead are to be challenging, let us rely on the intelligence of the mind and the care of the heart, for one without the other will fall short, delivering us headlong into the teeth of the threefold ‘dragons’ of fear, hatred and delusion. The Buddha advised that our main practice is to develop the two ‘wings’ of wisdom and compassion. In times of uncertainty, we need them more than ever.

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frack-free-lancashire

Average, Normal People

The recent revelation that Theresa May’s UK government is set to override the wishes of folk in Lancashire and pave the way for fracking in their county. Locals petitioned their council to bar the practice on the grounds that it is potentially environmentally damaging and dangerous and the council agreed. Now the government have overturned that decision and given the go-ahead for exploratory exploration of coal seam gas in Lancashire. This authoritarian, dismissive act started me thinking about a discussion I was having the other day about “average, normal people”

It was early on a Saturday morning after a wedding party and we were having a fry-up in a seafront cafe. I had picked up a newspaper from the ones available at the cafe and it started there. The paper was one I wouldn’t usually read. Its views are pretty much diametrically opposed to mine, but as it turns out, so were my friend’s.

My habit with a weekend paper is to read out an article which has caught my eye and offer my opinion. “Hey!” I say. “Listen to this!” On this occasion, the exchange began with a journalist who thought that offering a help-line after the Archers’ storyline of domestic abuse was namby-pamby. “Who could possibly be upset by that?” he asked. “Surely there are more noble recipients of our sympathy, like soldiers, for instance?” Well I don’t wish to take anything from soldiers, of course, PTSD is a real thing and they could do with more recognition for it, not less. However…

The latest figures show that seven women a month are killed by their partners in England and Wales. 1.4 million women will suffer domestic abuse in the UK this year, mostly at the hands of their (male) partners. if that were a virus, it would be an epidemic. It follows that there must be a huge number of women affected by trauma, sometimes after years of emotional and physical abuse which too often ends in hospitalisation and in many cases, death. I pointed out that the author of the piece was a white middle aged man. I thought it relevant. White, middle-aged men hold a lot of power in the world. Their collective voice is pretty loud. In contrast, the voices of abused women are small and easy to drown out. Like I say, I thought it relevant.

My friend disagreed and took offence. Or rather defence. My feminist analysis clearly touched a nerve and he rejected the idea that patriarchy was a force for the oppression of women. “Patriarchy is an historical fact”. I argued, admittedly taking the bait. I treated him to a brief outline of the ways that patriarchy was evident in modern society – in the system of patrilineage that had rubbed out generations of women from the records and robbed millions of their inheritances; in the fact that men sit at the top of a vast majority of global organisations, hold power in the media, in education, in politics. He argued that we have a female prime minister. I countered that in order for women to hold such a role, they had to play a game of politics defined by machismo and strength. He said he’d rather have a leader strong in negotiations than a wimp.

This week, journalist Zoe Williams said it better than I could when commenting on Donald Trump’s boasting about assaulting women. Although loathe to argue that a female point of view exists in politics, Zoe suggests starting with freedom from violence and reproductive autonomy as good “muster points”. She goes on to point out “A constant eye on the future, a calm assurance that not everything of value can be counted, a love of international co-operation and respect for the institutions it has created, a knowledge that some things are too important to be left to the market, an empathy with the dispossessed : there is nothing essentially feminine about these ideas, yet where no women are, you never hear them.” I wished she had been there to put those ideas before my friend.
Our argument, for argument it was by now, lurched on, until my friend came out with the phrase “Average normal people”. That was it. The voice of Nigel Farage and his Brexit crowing ringing in my ears, I got up and left the cafe.
Outside in the early autumn sunshine, locals and tourists wandered up and down the promenade, enjoying their weekend stroll. I all but collapsed into one of the seafront seats. Tears came. If even my friends think like this, what hope is there? I moaned inwardly. I re-ran the discussion in my mind, trying to come to a place of peace and trying to understand what on earth he, and Nigel Farage meant by the phrase “Average normal people”.

This conversation mattered little. It was just a weekend morning chat in a lazy cafe in Wales, but when the words are uttered by a politician, they matter a lot. By uttering these words, a politician is inferring that you and s/he are the same, which, merely by virtue of their privileged position, let alone the opportunities that probably came about to help them get there, is rarely the case. (I acknowledge there are some notable exceptions to this but they are the exceptions that prove the rule). The language of politicians is designed to make us feel that we are all in the same boat, but we’re not. At least, we might be, but it is only they who have access to the first class suite and the life rafts.

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manuchao

Manu Chao – An Invitation to Dance

I can’t remember when I first heard Manu Chao‘s music, but I do remember when I started to spontaneously understand his lyrics. A performer from France and Catalonia, he sings in many languages including French, Spanish, English, Portuguese and Arabic. I’ve been listening to his music for years, connecting best with the lyrics in languages I understood, which I expect is the same for all his fans. One day after six months of living in Spain, the words entered my consciousness in the way that words start to after a while in a country – bypassing the “what does that mean?” translation and going directly to comprehension. “I understand the Spanish!” I squeaked. “Dia Luna, Dia Pena“, his wistful song about sadness and the moon began to be sung each time we spotted the moon rising over the mountain, or reflecting light over the balmy Mediterranean Sea. “Arriva la luna, ohea!” It’s become a bit of an anthem for our life in Spain.

So when we noticed he was playing in Barcelona as part of the annual La Mercè  festival, we planned to go. We knew it would be busy. A free concert in his home country? It would be packed. Our home is about an hour from Barcelona so we left early, taking a bus into the city, enjoying a walk through the animated streets and taking in the fireworks in La Barceloneta. It was then that my anxiety started, as a mass of people queued to access the Metro that would carry them to the concert grounds. I hate crowds and am quite claustrophobic, but I breathed deeply and pushed on, hoping he would be worth the effort. A friend of mine had already backed out. “I’m a flower” she confessed. “I’m just no good with big crowds.” Crushed into the underground train, I felt like a flower, too. A wilting one. It’s not just the crowds, but the noise, the shouting, the drunken behaviour and not least, the mess. Big crowds remind me of the enormous amount of waste we humans produce. The Spanish are really good with recycling and disposing of public waste, but the bins were overflowing and it brings home how when we move about, we tend to create even more rubbish. At the concert venue, the stage was a speck in the distance, but huge screens showed images of the performers so we felt we could see perfectly. The atmosphere was buzzing. When Manu Chao sang his more famous anthems, the crowd joined in delightedly. They clearly has no trouble getting the lyrics!

During his quieter numbers, I had time to reflect on my inner sense of conflict. The gathering of thousands of people for a music gig is a huge environmental cost. Any personal savings to my carbon footprint – by restricting my electricity use and car use, not taking planes, or reducing consumption is dwarfed by the impact of this gig alone. Flying in the musicians and their equipment, marketing the event, powering the stage and screens, stocking the bars with plastic cups. An environmentalist could argue that gigs like this should be banned. But when Manu Chao hands over the mic to a human rights activist from Mexico, and a banner appears stating “43 Ayozinapa” to recall the 43 young men kidnapped by the police in 2014, I remember how he uses his music to inspire, inform and mobilise. Through his focus on human rights and justice, many people will come to know about issues ignored by mainstream media. I look around at the waving crowd and think how he often sings of what it’s like to be an outsider, an “ilegal”. It’s quite a bonus that he’s great fun to dance to!

The atmosphere of camaraderie he generates throughout his set spills out onto the pavement with us and not even the heavy shower of autumn rain can dampen our spirits. In the queue as we wait for the Metro, someone is trying to get his mate’s attention. “Lend me two euros!”  he begs, but his friend can’t hear him above the noise. “Here you go” offers a man next to him as he smilingly hands over the coins. The crowd close by appreciate the gesture and gives him a cheer and as we jostle down into the subway station, the mood buoyant in spite of the crush and the rain.

The next day, I’m reading how the camps in Calais are to be dismantled and the refugees dispersed. I think of Manu Chao and the lyrics to “Clandestino“. “Perdido en el corazón/ de la grande Babylon/ Me dicen el clandestino/ por no llevar papel.” (Lost in the heart/of great Babylon/ They call me a clandestine/ because I have no papers). I check in with his Facebook page and see the photos from his shows. In Croatia with a “Refugees Welcome” sign; in France protesting against nuclear power; in Switzerland supporting the campaign questioning Monsanto’s human rights abuses; in Brussels over the TTIP – the Transatlantic Treaty
These contradictions surrounding our decisions are something we have to battle with daily and sometimes, the right decision will be to stay at home and not waste any more resources than are necessary. And sometimes, as Manu Chao would say…”Pachamama… te invito a bailar..”(Mother Earth…I invite you to dance.)

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pallet-panelling

Recycled House

So. House renovations are underway and I have to admit, I sometimes get depressed. Not just because the task ahead of us often seems insurmountable and not simply because my arms and neck are aching from hours spent hunched over a sander, hammer, or scrubbing brush. Much more depressing is the amount of time we seem to spend in FesMes.

For those of you around the world, Fesmes is the Catalan equivalent of B&Q (in the UK) or Bunnings in Australia. Do you have a version of that in the US? Anyway, every weekend, we appear to need at least one visit to Fesmes. First it was for water pipes, as the tubo that connects us to the local well had somehow been cut. Because we were complete novices, it took several visits and numerous lengthy conversations with Francisco, our fontanero, before the water finally flowed in the taps. Each visit also involves other discussions – about lighting, for instance. About possible bedroom, bathroom and kitchen layouts. About furniture or about various ways to rig up some shade in which to work when the sun is high in the sky and it’s hot as hell. The air conditioning in the brightly-lit store is a welcome relief from the burning sun outside, but that just means it’s consuming loads of energy. The  things in the shop are cheap, but that just means that the materials are likely to be unsustainably sourced. The trips leave me drained and feeling sad. In addition to the dreary trips to Fesmes, there’s another problem. Money.

The Brexit Effect has left us shorter of cash than we imagined, so we’ve determined on a plan. We will do as much of our renovations as possible from recycled materials. We will make friends with the segundo mano store and in addition, make as much as we can out of pallets. I’m thinking beds, shelving and tables. I’m finding I enjoy sanding pallets in the way that I enjoy ironing – it has a meditative quality, where the mind is completely focussed on one thing and the endless list of things to do stops circling for a while.

Husband is patching the holes in the bathroom wall with a mixture of lime, sand and water. We have yet to see if it will stick. Meanwhile, I’m attempting a bit of the old, varnished wooden floor with my hand sander. It takes ages so I come to the conclusion that we need to hire an industrial sander. Of course, everything seems to take a lot longer because we first have to look up what “industrial sander hire” is in Spanish. (It’s a ligadora para alquiler, in case you’re wondering.) Then we have to phone or go there and try to explain exactly what we want. Then we have to understand the response, the instructions, the price structure, the dangers…It’s exhausting!

Thankfully, Husband’s brother arrives for a visit. Our first volunteer. Someone else with whom to discuss the issues, problems and solutions. The discussions about spaces, materials, electrical and heating solutions go on late into the night and are accompanied by un monton de red wine and olives. I didn’t know he was such a dab hand with a hammer and when the lime plaster cracks and falls off in clumps, he helps to make a beautiful panelled wall from some of the pallets I’ve sanded. There is a bit of disagreement about what to treat the pallets with but a quick search online confirms my hunch. They are now looking healthy and glowing under a luscious coat of olive oil. Well, we do live in Spain…

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mimosa

Retrofit

Have you ever said “yes” to something and then, when you realise the amount of work that’s involved, wondered if you’ve done the right thing after all? In the wake of Britain’s Brexit vote to leave the European Union, I’m sure many ‘Leavers’ are watching the value of their savings/ pensions/ homes/ wage packets plummet and thinking that perhaps they jumped when they should have stayed put. Myself, I’m having the same kind of thoughts about the cottage we just bought in Spain. Before you condemn me as a someone who has abandoned the UK like the other rats from a sinking ship, or grabbed myself a luxury second home, let me explain…

The casita sits on the side of a shady hillside, surrounded by tall pine trees. One of only eight houses in the tiny urbanizacion, it has been empty for more then ten years. The rooms smell of neglect. The water supply has been cut. The garden is unkempt. When we first spot it on the Fotocasa web page in January, we are living amongst the noise and haste of Barcelona city. This small patch of countryside seems a far cry from that and indeed, it takes us an hour’s bus ride and a half-hour walk to get there. Following sketchy directions, we take an unsealed track off the main road and find it sitting there. Is it waiting for us? We clamber over the wall and perch on the abandoned swing, looking at the crumbling facade. The stairs and banisters that lead to the upstairs living space are falling away but when we peer in through the shuttered windows, the space inside seems free from structural damage or damp. It just needs to be loved.

The decision to renovate a house, even a tiny one, can not be taken lightly. We consult a lawyer, talk endlessly around all the options but it appears that the casita already has us in her sights. In the Spanish language, the way you express that you like something is to say that the object likes you. Me gusta means, literally, it likes me. I have to conclude that this house likes us. So we find ourselves saying ‘yes’. One hour from Barcelona, fifteen minutes from the pretty beach town of Sitges and five minutes from the authentic Catalan pueblo of Sant Pere de Ribes, we decide to create not just a home, but a refuge. A refugio. In undertaking the retrofit we intend to be as eco-friendly as possible. Natural and recycled materials, renewable energy, capturing the precious rainwater and re-using the grey waters from our sink and shower. Growing as much food as we can.

As I write this, the thermometer reads thirty degrees, the barometer firmly wedged towards ‘sun’. There’s a cool breeze wafting through the forest and I’ve laid down the hammer and chisel I’ve using to prise the tired tiles from the bathroom walls. Broken shards of sharp ceramic lie in piles on the floor and it strikes me that in order to create the change that’s needed, we sometimes first need to make an unholy mess. Before we can make something new, we need to get rid of the old. As I drift off into my afternoon siesta, it occurs to me that maybe Brexit was a way of doing this, of bringing the old ways crashing down like broken tiles and leaving the space open for a fresh new look. It may look like there’s a lot of work to be done but it seems clear that we can’t go back. It’s time to start imagining what a new Britain might look like and I’m pretty sure what’s needed is more than a fresh coat of paint. I think what’s needed is a complete retrofit.

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carrefoc8

Midsummer Madness

It’s midsummer and my world is the right way up. Well, sort of.  When I lived in Australia, I could never get used to the seasons being out of place. Christmas on the beach, my September birthday in Spring and yes, June being the middle of winter. It just felt wrong. Now I’ve moved back to Europe the seasons are back in the right place, but in the aftermath of the recent UK referendum, the world seems to have gone stark raving mad. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s characters are victims of a mischievous energy that confuses lovers and makes an ass of an ordinary man.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology of the name Puck is related to Old Norse puki (devil) and Welsh pwca (imp), but also has links to ‘unsettled’, like puke. Upon leaving the ‘civilised’ city and entering nature’s wilderness, our characters become disoriented and things appear not to be as they ought to be. The feeling is a little similar in this post-Brexit world. Somehow, the world has been changed, but nobody is yet sure exactly how. We only know that there is mischief afoot.
My midsummer celebrations began in Wales, where the weather was as un-Welsh as it is possible to be. I spent long, warm, sunny days in the beach with my friends and woke every day to blue skies. Bizarre.  I was grateful for the opportunity to get out and walk in the cliffs, to swim in the chilly Bristol Channel and to partake of the odd barbecue, but it couldn’t last, of course, and by the time I was on my way north to visit an old school friend, it was cold and rainy. This did not dampen the spirits in Flash, where the residents of the highest town in England celebrated mid summer with a traditional blessing of the well.

Flash-well-dressing
Well-dressing at Flash, the highest town in England

A custom from medieval times which is said to be associated with the spread of the Black Death, it marks an acknowledgement of the importance of pure water and honours the local source. In Flash, the well was painstakingly decorated with flowers and following the small well-side ceremony, the village takes to the streets in the ‘teapot parade‘. Waving banners and marching alongside a giant papier-mâché teapot, the parade remembers the custom of helping those in need by sequestering funds in the household teapot. As I stood back to take a photograph of the whole scene, a woman spectator reminisced about watching this same spectacle as a child. Her family, she said, could be traced back 700 years in her father’s side and 300 years on her mother’s. Her strong Peak District accent dragged vowels long and clipped consonants short, making disappointed claims that the parade was not as it used to be, when it was an excuse to dress up and for women to get a new hat. I looked down at my jeans, still muddy from the morning’s yomp across muddy moors, and countered that it was great that they still kept the custom at all.

Flash-teapot-parade
Residents of Flash celebrate the annual well-dressing and ‘teapot’ parade

In the church, we sang hymns and listened as the vicar gave a reading. He chose the parable of the Good Samaritan where, if you have not heard it, a man who has been robbed and left for dead is ignored by first a priest and then a Levite. The third passer-by, a Samaritan, stops and helps the man, sequestering him at an inn at his personal expense. I had not heard the story read since my childhood, but I remembered being told that the Levite would have been a local person of the same Jewish faith, but that the word Samaritan meant that the person was an enemy, as the Jews and the Samaritans were not on good terms. In the light of the current refugee crisis and the recent violent death of Jo Cox, the tale gained a new poignant meaning, as parables are wont to do, having a timeless moral code embedded in their codex. Even the giant teapot seemed significant, being a symbol of friendliness and neighbourliness in this land where people love nothing better than a nice cup of tea and who rush to provide one at the slightest suggestion of distress. The vicar did not spell it out, but he did take the time to bless those who would be voting in the upcoming referendum.

Back in Spain, I joined in more mid-summer celebrations, but occasionally, the air fell sour with the shock and disbelief of Brits, Europeans, Australians and US citizens. In this atmosphere of multiculturalism and warm abrazos, no-one could understand why the UK wanted a divorce. In my local village of Sant Pere de Ribes, they gathered for the Ball de Diables, where children young and old dress up in devil costumes and hold aloft screaming fireworks in a crazy display of anarchic energy known as a correfoc. Their carnival re-animates the eternal dance between light and dark, between good and evil. Embedded in these ancient traditions is the knowledge that at certain times, we need to be mindful of the uncertainty of our world and of the possibility, always, that mischief will win us over if we only open the door for long enough to let it in.

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elderflower-web1

Elderflower Champagne

I am sitting on the back step of my cabin. A shaft of warm sunlight filters through and splashes my foot. In my right hand, I hold a broad sprig of elderflower and with my left, I am plucking the dainty scented petals into a wooden bowl. The memory makes my heart swell, not just because I can feel the peace of that moment, but because behind it in my mind, are a queue of summer-flavoured images and sounds. My grandmother made this sweet, barely alcoholic drink every year and in my favourite scenes, we are sitting in her beloved garden on faded deckchairs, sipping until we are ever so slightly tipsy.

lemons1
The recipe I am using is her recipe. It was given to me by my Auntie Joan, long after my grandmother had died, and every summer I kept the ritual of sitting and plucking, before stirring in sugar, lemons and a touch of cider vinegar. My friends were wary of my gifts of elderflower champagne. Too often the bottles, expanding through natural fermentation beyond the limits of their fragile glass confines, exploded. The moment of explosion was scary enough but the aftermath – that sticky mess on walls, ceiling and floor, was sometimes more than pleasure of the remaining, intact bottle was worth.

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This year, I’m sharing the recipe with the community at Can Masdeu, this anarchist community that has become my haven. The large eldest tree in their courtyard has more than enough flowers. The community likes to dry them for a medicinal tea – a vitamin C-filled curative for coughs and colds. We pick the full blossoms and sit together in the Barcelona spring sunshine, plucking, then stirring, and later tasting. If it’s not too late, head out into the woods, find some elderflower heads and brew your own. But be careful of the explosions!

To make Elderflower Champagne
4 litres hot water

700g sugar

Juice and zest of four lemons

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

About 15 elderflower heads, in full bloom, picked on a sunny day (if you pick them in the rain they smell like dog pee)

A pinch of dried yeast (you may not need this)

1. Sterilise all your equipment. I like to use a few drops of tea tree oil in plenty of water, but it needs a while to air ‘cos it can be a bit smelly. Pluck the flowers from your elderflowers.

2. Dissolve  sugar in 1 litre of hot water in a fermenting bucket, then top up with 3 litres cold water. Allow to cool.

3. Add elderflower flowers,  lemon juice and zest and vinegar. The elderflowers contain a natural yeast, so you shouldn’t need to add extra. (see below). Leave to ferment.

4. If you did not add yeast and fermentation has not started after 3 days, add a packet of Champagne yeast to get it going.

5. After 6 days of fermentation, strain through boiled muslin into a fresh fermenting bucket, leaving the lees behind. Cover the bucket and leave for a few hours for the dust to settle, then siphon into your bottles of choice. This time I used plastic bottles, for damage limitation, and it worked quite well. We were also able to release a little excess pressure by easing the lids off a little (careful!).

Your champagne is ready to drink after a week. Enjoy!

Place in a fridge or cool place to stop the yeast making any more carbon dioxide and drink. It should keep for up to 3 months, but you may not be able to leave it alone that long!

If the whole popping thing is too scary, try this instead! (Also my grandmother’s recipe).

Elderflower Cordial
21/2 il sugar
3 pts water
2oz citric acid
2 lemons chopped
2 oranges chopped
About 20 large elderflower heads
Make syrup by dissolving sugar in water. And simmer for 5 mins.
Pour into deep bowl add citric acid stir.
Putin remaining ingredients. Stir well.
Cover and leave 4 days stir night and morning.
Strain into sterile bottle and keep in cool dark cupboard.

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