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2013 Grateful 41

glassI can bitch and moan with the best of them. Depending on the day that’s in it and the mood I’m in, it’s either glass half-full, glass half-empty, or simply a case of too much glass. So when a steady stream of people started commenting recently on how well I’m looking or how happy I seem or that something about me is different, the self-deprecation default switch kicks on and I find myself wondering exactly how drab and dreary I was before.

Before what, you might well ask. Not that I’m going to answer… and not out of contrariness either, mind you. It could be one of many recent changes in my life or a combination of two or three or indeed of all of them. Or it could simply be a growing understanding of just how lucky I am to be live where I live (despite the insane political situation), to work at what I do (despite the ridiculous hours I sometimes put in), and to have such a fascinating coterie of friends.

Earlier this year, in February, I went to Las Palmas.  Not from any great desire to see the place again but because I sought, paid for, and then had to listen to the advice of an astrologer. Something in my life needed to change. I needed all the help I could get and I wasn’t too particular about from whence it came! I was fortunate in that he told me that were I to present myself in Las Palmas at 8.39 pm on 2 February,  every aspect of my life would improve over the course of the next six months.

Now some I told thought me mad. For others it just confirmed the madness. For me I thought – why not! And since then, whatever the planetary alignment did to change the energy in my life, the balance has shifted and indeed, by all accounts, I’m positively glowing.

I’ve noticed a strange domino effect lately, too, whereby ye olde adage of one good turn begets another has kicked in. I was helping a mate (A) find some work using what contacts I have. And then this mate thought that they might be able to help another mate of mine (B) out in the same vein. And then it turns out that (B) was in a position to do a favour for third mate (C)… such linear synchronicity is just lovely when it happens. Perhaps it’s because I’m in a more positive frame of mind that I’m noticing these things. Or perhaps it’s because, set against the worsening political situation in Hungary (has anyone been reading the testimonies at the US Helsinki Commission’s hearing on Hungary?) these types of simple good deeds are more noticeable.

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In any event, as I sit in my hotel room in Malta, overlooking St Julian’s Bay, after yet another successful, energetic, and inspiring Modern Diplomacy Workshop (which, coincidentally, was the subject of my 2012 Grateful 41, and has forever changed the way I look at brown sugar!), I am grateful for the turn that my life has taken, for those in it (both long-term residents and those new to the world of MMMM), and for having the wherewithal to be able to do what I do and to enjoy doing it.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

The separation of person and passport

passportMy greatest fear, as a traveller, was realised last week. For years, I’ve broken out in a cold sweat when hotel receptionists ask me for my passport and tell me that I can pick it up in the morning. I always insist on waiting. It’s as if I’m joined to it by some invisible umbilical cord and live in dread of postpartum depression.

A few years ago, on the sleeper train from Cologne to Vienna, I had to surrender my precious baby overnight. Intellectually, I knew I was in Europe. I knew there was little trouble I could get into without it. It wasn’t as if I was going to be carted off in the middle of the night and dumped in a ditch, or sold as a white slave to some drooling turnip farmer with one tooth and a vivid imagination. I knew this and yet not having my passport kept me awake – all night.

Passportless in Las Palmas

Last week, somewhere between getting on the plane at Berlin airport and arriving at Hotel Verol in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, my passport disappeared. I recall showing it to the chap as I boarded the plane. But after that … nada.  When I was asked for my passport at check in, I reached for where it should have been to find it wasn’t there. A subsequent search of every pocket grew increasingly frantic each time I came up empty, and soon had me hyperventilating. Through a haze of tears I heard the male receptionist calmly telling me to breathe deeply. This was Wednesday. I was due to leave for Budapest on Sunday with a six-hour layover before heading to Malta bright and early Monday morning. And I had no passport.

My first call was to the unflappable Karin Bryce of Travel Unlimited who suggested I go back to the airport and check with the handling agent. My second call was to my brother in Dublin who knows a thing or two about immigration laws. His worst-case scenario was that he could claim me in Dublin on Sunday.  In the meantime, he directed me to Lost and Found.

Airline staff in control

But wait a minute! I was in the Schengen Zone. I didn’t need a passport. I hadn’t gone through any passport control. All I had to do was satisfy the airline that I was who I said I was. I just needed to get on the plane. But I had no passport. And I had no driver’s license. And I had no proof that I lived in Hungary. I’d helpfully left all other forms of ID at home … in case I lost them.

I’m not stupid. I knew it was simply a matter of getting some passport photos at the bus station kiosk, going to the Irish consulate in the morning, getting a temporary passport, and then applying for a new one, once back in Dublin later this month. A, B, C, D. Simple. Uncomplicated. Yet when I failed to unearth anything at the airport, I did what any self-respecting woman of my age, intellect, and general capability should never admit to doing – I went back to my hotel room and bawled, hysterically, for an hour.  Deep down, on some weird level, I felt as if my identity had been stolen, as if I had been kidnapped, as if I was no longer sure who I was because I couldn’t prove it to anyone. I was irrationally terrified and so completely alone.

Dependency on a piece of paper

How dependent we have become on pieces of paper, on little books with coloured covers in which we track our progress through the world. History is littered with accounts of letters of passage given by a ruler to an envoy asking for safe passage. Somewhere in Britain there’s a passport that was issued on 18 June 1641 signed by Charles I. But it wasn’t until World War I that passports were generally required for international travel.

I still recall when the old Irish hard-backed green passport was discontinued in favour of the soft-backed burgundy EU version. I remember feeling a little less Irish as a result of this convergence of colour and thinning of paper. I didn’t want to be a limp burgundy European; I wanted to be solid, green and Irish (mind you, I’m sure there are those who still think I’m both!).

Having unearthed a new fixation on passports, I can now state with some authority that the Nicaraguan passport has 89 security features and, according to The Guardian is one of the ‘least forgeable documents in the world’. Whereas the poor Israeli document is one of the most useless; it’s not accepted by 25 countries including Cuba and North Korea.

So back to me and my breakdown. The airline found my passport and called the hotel to let me know. Life was restored to near normal. Experiencing that gut-wrenching fear of being stateless on such a tiny, insignificant scale, has engendered in me a whole new empathy for refugees and those who don’t have passports to lose. It’s also taught me about vulnerability and shown me a whole new side of me.

First published in the Budapest Times 8 February 2013

Spanish humour

IMG_2589 (618x800)When I don’t have anyone to talk to, except myself, and having nothing good to read either, I tend to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations.  This is a long-standing habit, not necessarily one I’m particularly proud of – but I figure that as long as I don’t mention names or give descriptions that would land anyone into a police line-up, it’s a free world.

There’s nothing quite like a holiday to bring out the best (or worst) in people and from my lonely vantage point – Zone 7 of Playa de las Canteras – I was quite happy that I didn’t have a sparring partner to hand.

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People say the most idiotic things. And, loathe though I am to admit it, women are the worst culprits. This need to fill the silence and say something just to check to be sure that their man is still alive must drive many a sane man, mad. Mind you, I know a couple or four men who can’t stand the sound of silence, either.

‘Isn’t that a lovely beach, John’.
Where’s poor John to take that opening volley?
‘It is, love.’

‘Should I read my book or my mag, Dave?’
‘Your book – you’ve been wanting to finish it for ages.’
‘You’re right – I’ll just have a flick through the mag first though…’
Deep sigh from Dave masked by rustling of his newspaper…

You see all sorts of couples. Those who are on their first holiday abroad together and on their best behaviour, their conversation is punctuated with lots of ‘I don’t mind… ‘ and ‘Whatever you like….’  Those who know each other inside and out who don’t need to talk but communicate rather with raised eyebrows, shrugs, and nods of the head. Those who are on the brink of breaking up and are using the holiday as a last effort at holding it all together. Conversation here is punctuated by digs in ribs, derisive snorts, and rattling ice cubes.

It’s the couples who laIMG_2548 (723x800)ugh that are the most amusing to watch – and funnily enough, they were mostly Spanish. Subsequent investigation has revealed that the Spanish are quite famous for their sense of humour. And depending on which blogs you read, you’ll find this described as everything from cheesy to genius. And back in 1957, a sense of humour was actually put on trial.

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If you’re in Las Palmas, drop by the Museo Elder de la Ciencia y la Tecnología whose motto is ‘it is forbidden not to touch’ and check out their humour commentary exhibition outside.

Selling body parts on the steps of the Basilica

IMG_2531 (600x800)Saturday in Las Palmas was spent trying to find a pub that was showing the Ireland/Wales match. The first Irish pub I found looked as if it had closed shortly after it opened back in 1996. So I took a bus to the old town where I had vague memories of passing a Guinness sign the other day. I eventually found it. They had one small TV and no rugby. Helpful as ever, one of the locals gave me another address to try – a sports bar where I could have watched everthing from skiing to showjumping, but no rugby. So I went to Tourist Information and as a result of the helpfulness that is so part of the service/tourism culture on the island, I tried three other places. I eventually gave up and treated myself to a cod and asparagus lunch in the shadow of Santa Anna cathedral – trading one religion for another.

IMG_2592 (597x800)I spent the day talking to myself; wondering where to go, what to do next. When it got a little too much, I stopped for coffee and a cava, marvelling at the occasional ‘old and lovely’ amidst the ‘new and not so lovely’. I stumbled across a few tiled masterpieces and some wrought-iron bandstands that were just crying out for a brass band. Away from the beach area, I began to get a feel for how the island used to be; a sense of what living here pre-tourism must have been like: stylish and genteel.

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While Las Palmas has its share of high street shops that have become part and parcel of cityscapes across Europe, it also has its fair share of boutiques – designer stores that proudly display their ‘Made in Spain’ labels. I couldn’t quite get the hang of what appears to be a special shopping day when prices on the labels don’t seem to matter. But as the final bill was a lot less than my math made it, I really didn’t need an explanation.

My second (and only other item) on today’s agenda was to get mass. I’d scoped out the church earlier and arrived in good time to see the oddest thing in progress. A woman, carrying a large crucifix, followed by a priest holding  a lit candle, headed a procession of candle-bearing mass-goers up and down the aisles of the church. This was a first for me. But lo and behold,  2 February in the Eastern Orthodox Church and some Eastern Catholic Churches is one of the twelve Great Feasts aka Candlemas. Apparently, this is also the day on which the Churching of Women happens (another new one on me): a ceremony where new mothers are blessed. The ceremony includes thanksgiving for the woman’s survival of childbirth, and is performed even when the child is stillborn, or has died unbaptized. And it was here, apparently, that Our Lady appeared in a pine tree. Loathe though I am to quote Wikipedia, it does have this to say:

The story of Nuestra Señora del Pino (Our Lady of the Pine) is a fascinating one. At the site of the present-day Basilica, the image of the virgin herself is said to have appeared in a pine tree on 8 September 1492 to the first Bishop of Gran Canaria, Juan Frías. Said to possess healing qualities, Nuestra Señora del Pino has become the patron saint of the island. On the steps outside the Basilica it is possible to buy wax models of every part of the human body that can be offered for healing. The figure itself is extraordinary. It is said that one side of the face is smiling and the other side is sad. The figure is bedecked with jewels, although not as many as there were before the robbery in 1975.  I went in the side door, so missed the body parts!

IMG_2422 (591x800)The Canary islands were originally inhabited by Guanches, an aboriginal Berber people. On Gran Canaria, suicide was regarded as honourable. Whenever a new king was installed, one of his subjects willingly honoured the occasion by throwing himself over a precipice (as depicted by this statue in the grounds of the Santa Catalina hotel. [Spanish royalty apparently stay here when visiting the island and I wonder how many willing subjects they’d find to continue this tradition.] And it’s another first me for me: a monument to suicide.

IMG_2426 (800x598)It’s an odd place. It seems as if it’s not quite sure what it should be. Half urban beach semi-circled by tall hotels; half old world charm and beauty. Perhaps I just don’t ‘get’ Spain; I didn’t take to Madrid much either.

Mindyou, it’s been a lovely few days. The Hotel Verol is perfectly situated and the staff couldn’t be more helpful. That not so remarkable really as everyone (apart from the formidable, stylishly dressed middle-aged dowagers, hair-sprayed to within an inch of their lives) is helpful. They’ve certainly got the hang of this tourism lark.

Saturday, 2nd February, 8.39pm has come and gone. Now let’s wait and see what happens next.

2013 Grateful 48

A while back, taking  a rare full day off when in Malta, I tried my damndest to relax. I went down to the pool and lay on the sunlounger and was all set to alternate reading and sleeping and swimming. I had my shades, my lotion, my book. Not 20 minutes later, I had ants in my pants – not literally – I just couldn’t lie still. I couldn’t relax. Given that there was once a time in my life when lying around in the sun with nothing to do and all day to do it would have been dream come true, I found this a little disturbing.

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Las Palmas might not be my holiday destinati0n of choice, but for the last two days, I’ve rediscovered the joy of doing nothing. Nothing that matters. Yes, I’ve turned on my computer for a couple of hours each morning and did what I needed to do, but then I shut it down. And I switched off my phone. I effectively ‘went dark’ for hours on end. And what’s more important, I didn’t worry once that I had missed something; that there was something else I should have been doing.

IMG_2475 (600x800)Thursday, I took the bus tour – twice. I wandered around, stopped for coffee, bought and wrote some postcards, and generally did what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it. Nothing bothered me. I had no schedule, no meetings (virtual or otherwise), no agenda. My time belonged to me – all of it. The tour bus skipped its last tour and as I sat waiting for 45 minutes for a bus that would never show up, I wasn’t the slightest bit agitated. Had I had a mirror in my bag, I’d have pulled it out just to double-check that I was me. Instead, I sat watching some youngs lads play amidst some unconcerned pidgeons. It’s the first time in a long time that I’ve been away on my own in a place I’ve not been to before  – and not been working. And I’m as unconcerned as those pidgeons.

IMG_2535 (600x800)I ran into Néstor Álamo Hernández (Guía, 27 de febrero de 1906 — Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, 24 de marzo de 1994) – a Spanish composer, author, and lawyer, and was reminded again of the joy to be had from reading a book. So Friday, I took myself to the beach, Playa de las Canteras. It’s one of the top urban beaches in Spain and runs for 3km. It sits literally steps from my hotel. I managed to find a spot in Zone 7 (yes, it’s all zoned – a busy spot). I paid my €3 for the sunlounger, borrowed the only book in English from the book table (how civilised), and with the occasional beer for the vendor walking the beach, I set out, a little nervously, to do nothing. To relax. I read, I got in the water. I read some more. And then back into the sea. I took a break for a lunch of fresh mussels and local beer and then back to the hard work of doing nothing. It dawned on me about 4.45 as I finished my book and replaced it on the communal table that this has been the first day in a long, long time where I’ve done nothing…

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IMG_2577 (600x800)I went back to the hotel, took a shower, had a nap and then out to see what Day 1 of the 17-day-long Carnival de las Palmas had to offer (apparently it’s second only to the Rio Carnival, when it comes to spectacular revelry). As large crowds are not my scene, I beat a leisurely retreat back to the beach to dine on fresh prawns, courgettes and those spectacular Canarian potatoes.

This week started out a little manic: short on sleep, short on patience, and definitely short on humour. But it’s turned itself around. I, for one, am grateful that all is not lost. I still know how to relax. All I need is a little more practice.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Built for the sun

IMG_2427 (591x800)If ever a city was built for the sun, Las Palmas was. The locals will tell you that it only rains 10 days a year on the island of Gran Canaria and whether this is true or not is neither here nor there. Buildings which, to my mind, would be eyesores anywhere else, seem to blend in beautifully – or perhaps are made beautiful – because they reflect the sun. It’s a little like what I imagine a mirage to be – shaky images so real that you think they’re a design feature until you look across the road and see the real thing, alive and well, made of bricks and mortar. There’s no holding back with the colour palette, either.

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Images of the beautiful island of Burano near Venice and holiday cottages in the West of Ireland come to mind. In the former, the colour is quirky; in the latter, it’s plain gaudy. Yet here in Las Palmas, it seems so natural. It has to be the sun.

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I don’t have the jargon to talk sensibly about the architecture but I know enough to realise that the city planners have been on holiday for a long time. Old and new sit side by side and perfect harmony is noticeable by its absence. And yet even that isn’t as upsetting for me as it has been in other cities I’ve been to. Perhaps it’s the audacity of the colours – the statements the bright greens and yellows and purples make. Given that Las Palmas is just a mere 500 years old, it might well be still enjoying its teenage rebellion.

IMG_2527 (578x800)While everyone here seems to smoke and cigarettes are ridiculously priced at €1.20 a pack, I’ve not had a whiff of anything more toxic. Perhaps just as well, really. I can’t imagine being on LSD or some other mind-altering substance when, clean and sober, it takes me  a few minutes to decide if what I’m seeing is real or just a reflection of reality.  And it’s happened more than once or twice. It could well be the caffeine though, as I can’t resist a cafe con leche. Even the drabbest bus terminal’s coffee rates. [As a not so complete aside, the local name for a bus is a guagua – what a great word!]

IMG_2469 (600x800)There’s no shortage of greenery in this, Spain’s seventh-largest city. The most popular trees are laurel and palm and the green is picked up in a lot of building design. Skate parks abound and every flat open square is teeming with young and old on skate boards and roller blades trying to outdo each other or master that one set of steps they keep tripping on. I saw one chap (not all that much younger than I am) take three falls before he managed to leap a set of four steps and stay upright. Each to their own, I say. Whatever blings your blade. That and the myriad exercise machines lined up along the prom must deliver quite an active set of a locals and a fitter set of tourists than your average package resort. I even saw a chap reading the odometer on a city running machine last night. Either the city is doing a usage survey or Las Palmas has taken train spotting one step further.

It’s all about the emphasis

Isn’t it odd how, when for all your reasoning life, you’ve heard a word pronounced in one way, and then you hear it, from a native-speaker, pronounced another? And it sounds better? Since I first visited the Canary Islands back in the mid-1980s, they’ve been the Canary Islands – CaNARY. And yet today, all day, I’ve been hearing CANary.

Las Palmas de Gran Canaria harbour

Las Palmas de Gran Canaria harbour

I’m on Gran Canaria for a few days because a man in the know suggested that it would be good for me to be here at 8.39pm on 2 February. We will see. [It’s a little like a stop-over to something great – just like when the sailors of old would stop here before crossing the Atlantic, a tradition first started over 500 years ago when Christopher Columbus himself inaugurated it.] I say that lest you think it was my holiday destination of choice. It wasn’t and would never feature on my list of top 20 places to go.

Playa de las Canteras

Playa de las Canteras

My first ever sun holiday to Playa del Ingés (another town on the island of Gran Canaria) lasted two weeks; the novelty of being away from home  and in the sun wore off on Day 6 when boredom set in. It was my last sun holiday, too. It’s not the sun I object to (although I’m not a huge fan); it’s the packaging. The whole package tour thing. This time, like last time, the same chap has appeared in my vicinty for dinner two nights in a row. Last time can be explained. This time, it’s a little irritating. If I see him again tomorrow night, I’ll really begin to wonder. But it’s an island so this might be expected – but so odd that we’re on the same culinary cycle, don’t you think?

Sardines by the sea

Sardines by the sea

I’m staying in Las Palmas, in the north-east corner of the island and it’s buzzing. Or it was, last night, when Las Palmas played Roma. Tapas is the food of choice and obviously they know what they’re doing. I need to stop trying to order in Hungarian though as it’s confusing the locals. Should the man in the know not be so knowing after all, at least the food is worth the trip!

View from the dinner table

View from the dinner table

For all its nasty packaging, it’s a great place for self-affirmation. To see women with cellulitic thighs braving the streets in shorter-than-short shorts has me thinking ‘Way to go, sister’. But I draw the line at middle-aged men in thong speedos. That’s the stuff nightmares are made of. At least, tomorrow, when I hit the beach, I’ll be lost amidst the hundreds of others soaking up the 25 degree sun. It promises to be an experience in personal space.