A Travellerspoint blog

The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plains

Nils' Spanish adventure!

overcast 12 °C

I am back in France after having completed an intensive English for Spanish business people course in a place called La Alberca, about a three and a half hour bus ride from Madrid. We were actually about 50 km from Portugal. It was quite beautiful, although we had our share of inclement fall weather.

The format was a little "zany", as we had 22 separate one on one conversation sessions over the course of the 8 days in addition to simulated teleconferences, telephone calls, skits, and assignments. Generally, you were busy from 8:00 a.m. until late at night, with some breaks.
The "master of ceremonies" was an ex-Royal Navy gregarious sort who kept the show running with dry, sometimes off colour humour of which I am sure the Spanish had an at best limited appreciation of.

Spanish group at a monastery near La Alberca

Spanish group at a monastery near La Alberca

All in all it was a great experience, and the Spanish people were very friendly and gracious. I learned a lot about Spanish culture, economy, arts, families, jobs, no jobs, pig farming, high speed trains, bull fighting, religious festivals, bull fighting, box plants, Arthur Anderson etc., etc...
A few tidbits which I found interesting :

1. At the height of the troubles in the Basque region involving ETA, there were 3000 to 4000 full-time bodyguards employed to protect Judges, prosecutors and other public officials. I am not sure whether defence counsel received, or required any protection !? There are now the beginnings of a provisional ceasefire. This is of course a positive development. However, I understand it is a bitter sweet situation vis a vis the bodyguards as these were relatively high paying, full-time jobs which will be essentially impossible to replace. Can you imagine what it cost the government to fund that type of protection ? That is like a mini, full-time army. ;

2. Iberian ham - part art, part science, entirely delicious. The Spanish take their "ham" seriously. And this is "ham" like a Trabant is, I guess, a car.
This ain't no Maple Leaf Foods product, with all due respect. So here we go with what I understand. The best product comes from free range Iberian pigs. They have up to 1 hectare per pig grazing area (!) In their final Fall and early Winter, they graze and cavort on the aforementoined land engaging in their favourite porcine games. During this period they exclusively eat special acorns. I was given one from my new friend Antonio. The combination of this nutty diet and the enviable room to roam which they have creates the best grade product. Our Spanish friends referred to the little guys as athletic pigs.

As far as quality control is concerned, after the pigs are removed from their equivalent of nirvana, the meat receives a type of biopsy in order to determine whether it is the highest grade or if it is something lesser. This is important because the highest grade ham sells for up to 15 Euros per 100 grams in the designer butcher shops of Barcelona and Madrid ! They are presented as cured pig legs held in place by a clamp. The butchers have all manner of fantastic knives in order to perform their craft.

The top grade product is cured for between 24 and 30 months, so I presume there is always product in the pipeline. I was lucky enough to try this
delicacy a few times, and it was really quite amazing ;

3. Public transit - Spain may be suffering its own economic woes along with a chunk of the rest of Europe, but I must say the public transit system in both Barcelona and Madrid is absolutely first class. Modern, quiet, fast trains which appear to run on time. The stations are in good repair
and the system appears to be pretty user friendly. I don't know if the product is economic, but a very impressive infrastructure has been put in place. I was/am impressed. Our big Canadian cities could certainly learn valuable lessons from our European neighbours ;

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4. Hats off to the Spanish participants in the Pueblo Ingles programme - 22 native Spanish speakers participated in this programme. They were instructed not to speak Spanish for 8 days. They largely complied with that edict as they were subjected to accents from Sydney, Australia, New York, Newcastle, Southhampton, Toronto, Trinidad, Long Beach, Sussex, Columbus, Miami and New Jersey to name a few. Their heads must have been pounding with the crazy variety and volume of the "data input" ! I must say that they were all enthusiastic, friendly, gracious and interesting.
It was a fantastic opportunity to learn about modern day and not so modern day Spain. Of course the final conclusion was that I should do this type
of a programme in French....we shall see:)

I was very impressed and touched by the heartfelt and healthy enthusiasm the Spaniards had for their country's
traditions, festivals, cultural events, music, food, sport and families. All expressed so fabulously in their lyrical native tongue, when they were not under the Anglo only law !

As an side, on the topic of public transit, the AVE train from Madrid to Barcelona is pretty great. It tops out at just over 300 km/h and it is smooooth. It is a really pleasant way to travel. A voyage of around 660 km took just under 3 hours, with one stop.

Otherwise, all well here. It's volleyball night, so I am travelling to Sete with Max and Angus is playing in Meze. They are both enjoying "volley" as the French call it. It is neat to see Angus get better, as he hadn't played volleyball before. Max and Angus practice with a foamy soccer ball, either in our apartment, or downstairs in the garage, washing machine area. A few glasses and bowls have been sacrificed in the process....

Because Max is an "etranger", he is not allowed to play in the tournament games. However, he does have 4 hours of practice and internal club games every week. Sete is a fairly serious volleyball community, so it is a great experience for him. The pro games are hilarious with the level of support via air horns, trumpets, drums and megaphones reaching a fevered pitch. It is refreshing to see that level of enthusiasm for a non big money, non-corporate sport. It is just plain local grass roots support.

Posted by clarkesabroad 11:20 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

What we did last weekend...

some pictures from the beach

overcast 16 °C

Nils was off hobnobbing in Spain for 10 days and took the iPad along with him so the blog is in need of being updated. I have uploaded lots of pictures from our weekend trip around the Cathar country and finally labeled them this morning but I haven't yet written about the trip. Coming soon as well will be Nils' impressions of his time in Spain working/playing/eating with 22 Spanish people eager to learn English. I have heard a few funny stories and I know that there are a few more...stay tuned.

In the meantime....here is what we did last weekend. After a week of rain and grey skies, the sun came out and it was quite warm. While the Mèzois were donning their fall and winter gear, the Clarke men put on shorts and flip flops and went to the beach to play baseball. There were many amused glances from the people walking by. The temperature was about 18 degrees celsius...a perfectly acceptable summer day in the Yukon!


I joined them at the beach (not in shorts, but with flip flops) and Angus and I started to practice headstands. This is one of my goals while I am living near the ocean. The sand is a perfect place to fall over which is what we did often that afternoon. I did manage to get up for about two minutes and I have photographic evidence.

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There were quite a few very windy days and the beach is now covered in seaweed, garbage and driftwood. This is quite normal and in the spring, a bulldozer comes and tidies up for the next summer. The wind also lifts up a very unpleasant smell of sewage from the ocean...or algae...or oysters. The locals seem to disagree about the source but it is quite strong. Happily the wind has died down and so has the smell.

In addition to becoming an expert headstander, a second goal of mine on this year off is to become a better soup maker. So far, I have had much success and am getting rave reviews from my family...mostly due to the availability of "lardons" at the local supermarket. Perhaps these are available at home and I just never knew?? They are packages of fatty bacon already cut in perfect sizes to start a soup. I cook up a package with onions, add some veggies and stock, and voilà, "la soupe fait à la maison". I do remember once visiting my sainted aunt Kathleen (who is an amazing cook) and she started soup with something akin to lardons, so perhaps they have been under my nose all this time.

We have a long list of places to see and things to do around here and we realize that time is going quickly. It will be hard to fit it all in! We have started to plan our post-December travels. At this time, they include New Years in London, skiing in Andorra, a half marathon in Marrekech, more European skiing and then home for some North American travels.

Posted by clarkesabroad 05:08 Archived in France Tagged beaches meze headstands Comments (0)

Enjoying some local sites...

wow, everything is so close!!

overcast 14 °C

We rented a car for a month so now we can visit all sorts of interesting sites around Mèze. Last Saturday we stuck close to home in the morning to watch, at last, Casino Royale. Blog readers will remember that we were first interested in this movie back in Kotor when we heard that this movie says that James Bond is gambling in Montenegro when, in fact, they were just borrowing this great name and the movie was filmed in the Czech Republic. Imagine our delight when our landlords came to visit from Geneva (a fantastic Dutch couple) and lent us several DVDs one of which was Casino Royale. Of course, we didn't recognize any of the scenery from Montenegro but the chase scenes are always very impressive.

We rose up out of our laziness to visit Poussan, a village only 10 minutes from Mèze. Here, is the remains of the Via Domitia, the first Roman road built in Gaul. It runs from Spain to Italy. It passed through Mèze as well but there is no evidence of it left here. Poussan is a small circular village (built around the church) and the route was a pleasant 6.5 km. around the village.


Today we drove north to the very lovely village of St. Guilhem Le Dèsert. This medieval village is a real gem. The monastery and church were started in 1079, a few years before, well, lots of things really! The European churches and cathedrals from the 1400's on are certainly more detailed, vast and intricate like Cologne and St.Pauls, but these early churches have this primal, almost druidic feel to them. Lots of fairly rudely cut, heavy stones, piled on top of each other, forming thick, impenetrable walls with equally thick, crude, yet impressive support pillars. The window slits are smaller than the cathedrals which were come, and the interior decoration and idolatory is much less ornate. You can not help but be overwhelmed, for better or for worse, by the significant human endeavour which took place almost 1100 years ago in order to give praise and worship.

The village itself is nestled in a river valley between two steep hillsides. It has the requisite abandoned ruins of a chapel perched precariously on the
top of one of the slopes - we would like to climb up there on a nicer day. The setting looks a little bit like the Elven village in Lord of the Rings, but
the actual architecture is more earthy and ramshackle like Bilbo and Frodo's Shire. When you are fortunate enough to travel around Europe, you do begin to see where Tolkien and J.K. Rowling and others were able to get their inspiration. Sometimes, it is just around the corner...

The boys took advantage of two sports camps this week as they are off school for the All Saints Day break (a one day holiday which equals 9 days off of school). Max attended a three day volleyball camp in Sète. This was a fantastic opportunity to get to know the boys with whom he practices twice per week. The coach, Cyril, is CN Tower tall (210 cm) - obviously some spikes or digs or some other volleyball lingo in his past. He has a huge respect for Canadian volleyball and has mentioned several names of Canadians who have played pro in France...as if I would certainly have heard of them. The only pro volleyball player I know is Jake Cabott but I nodded and accepted his praise on behalf of us all. Max came home exhausted and sore but eager to return for more.

Angus went to a sports day at the Mèze "espace jeunesse", a sort of boys and girls club here. He knew one or two of the other kids from school but jumped right in. He was concerned that the french kids would be better football (soccer) players than him but he wowed them all with his goal-tending dives. The afternoon game was volleyball. He has been going twice a week after school to volleyball practice so he felt comfortable with this as well. He came home from the camp, grabbed a snack, and went back out 5 minutes later to play football with some kids in the main square. We are in a great location for him to walk around on his own. His French is improving with leaps and bounds as he interacts with "ses copains".

In closing, a plug for golden (slightly) oldie that we watched together the other night. When we were in Verona, the boys were watching tv and Field of Dreams was on..in Italian. I remember going to see it but other than knowing that Kevin Costner builds a field, I really wasn't sure what went on...and I wasn't any more enlightened watching the Italoversion. I totally enjoyed it this time. Max talked about it the next morning during the drive to Sète so I know that he had been thinking about it too. It is about father and son relationships but also about dreams, those realized and the ones that aren't but are replaced by new ones. It is also about doing crazy spontaneous things. Maybe we have the luxury of being overly introspective (and it could be the wine), but we encourage everyone to take new another look at this one!

Posted by clarkesabroad 01:47 Archived in France Tagged st. volleyball meze poussan guilhem Comments (0)

Yukoners enjoy life in the south of France!

Me Janet, You Jane...cabling in Languedoc-Roussillon

sunny 20 °C

We have enjoyed some great socializing in the past week...it hasn't advanced our french language skills but we have had some good food and tried out some new activities that I never thought I would ever willingly do. Read on...

Another family from Whitehorse have stayed for a week in Sète, the city across the water from Mèze. Jane Wilson, Mike Prawzdik and kids Mac and Meagan were in Normandy in the rain and were enticed to the south by the sun that we are enjoying. Last weekend we went to Sète and met up with them for another L'Arago Pro Volleyball game. Mac plays on the FH volleyball team with Max. There was the same enthusiastic crowd that we enjoyed so much last week, but unfortunately, the home team lost to Beauvais. The next day, we returned to Sète and found a good beach for body surfing. The rest of us sat in the sun while Max, Mac, and Angus jumped and threw themselves around in the water. Angus especially enjoyed this and continued for an hour and a half. Needless to say, it was difficult to rouse him the next morning for school.

October 15 - body surfing in Sète, France.

October 15 - body surfing in Sète, France.

On Tuesday, Heather Alton and her husband Lindsay from Whitehorse, drove to Mèze for lunch. They have been staying in Olonzac which is close to Carcassone. There are a good number of seafood restaurants circling the port near our apartment in Mèze but we hadn't yet tried one out. With Heather and Lindsay we went to La Maison de Pecheur and it was a good entry into oyster eating. I had the salade au chevre chaud (warm goat cheese salad) and Les huitres gratinées (oysters in cream and cheese). Nils enjoyed a platter of raw oysters and a lovely piece of fish. Everything was delicious! Nils says that he thinks that he will need to eat raw oysters at least once per week while we are here.

The boys go to school for only half the day on Wednesday so this week we met up with the Wilson/Prawzdik's for "L'Accrobranche" or cabling. None of us had ever done it, but Mac and Jane had done some research into places around Mèze. We choose a park in Cap d'Adge which is on the coast south of Mèze. Basically, you follow ziplines and rope bridges way high up between trees to complete various courses in the park. It isn't a race. You have two lines with carabiners which need to be clicked in each time that you move through a passage. As the instructor got us prepared and went over the procedures, I found myself getting more and more petrified. I wondered what possessed me to agree to do this. This feeling intensified when I found myself high up stepping across logs hanging from ropes that would not stop swinging. I was cursing Mac for ever suggesting this. Ever trying to be the "cool" mum, I kept going and tried to not look down. I was never so happy as when I reached the final traverse and could enjoy the zipline down. It actually got easier and I started to enjoy the challenge of making it over each section of the course. In the end, I completed three courses and I felt awesome! Angus, Nils, and Max loved it as well. Mac and Meagan were not content with the simple courses and sought out the black course which looked twice as high as what we were on. One of the challenging routes had you riding a secured mountain bike across a plank 40 feet up in the air....good fun...for someone else, maybe in Cirque de Soleil! As well, the agile like a cat Nils took the wrong approach when crossing a suspended wire, and found his dainty self hanging on very awkwardly while traversing one of the lengthier distances. He discovered lovely purple bruises under one of his arms the next day as evidence of his enhanced dexterity ;) All in all, a very fun afternoon was had by all.

Angus loved this day!

Angus loved this day!

Ready, secure...let's go cabling!

Ready, secure...let's go cabling!

In between these great outings, I have joined a Monday morning yoga class...it is no Yoga in the Alpine but it is a good opportunity to get some stretching in and get to know a whole new bunch of vocabulary. Also on Mondays, there is a french/english language exchange at one of the local cafés. Speakers of both languages meet and speak one language for 30 minutes and then switch. I have only been once on this past Monday but it was good variety to people and levels of language.

The boys have completed three weeks of school as of this afternoon and now there is a 9 day holiday! I wonder if we will be able to get them back there once they have been off. We have promised them lots of sleeping in, movies, and travels to Carcossone and environs to see some Cathar castles. The Canal du Midi is also very close so we are going to do a one day tour of the locks by boat. The sun continues to shine but this morning, there was a chill in the air...10 degrees by the thermometer outside. Happily it is back at 20 degrees as I type.

Posted by clarkesabroad 08:10 Archived in France Tagged meze sete cabling Comments (0)

Mèzed up ramblings

The Clarke family gets to know the place

sunny 26 °C

Two weeks in Mèze and most things are getting easier to do and understand. Some things remain a mystery and in some cases, a battle, but more about that later.

I had my hair cut this morning in a nearby town called Varos. We met a South African family last week who have lived in Mèze for a year and a half. They rented the same place that we are in and liked the place so much that they moved here. We had coffee with them and when I mentioned my hair woes, Christine recommended her stylist. When we walked into the shop, Nicholas looked at me and said "Je pense l'Hermione pour toi". I have 30 years on Emma Watson but the cut seems to work - I will post a picture soon.

We rented a car last weekend and did some touring around Mèze. North of here is Pèzenas which has a large and colourful Saturday market. We sampled local wine and bought a Bob Marley flag which now hangs on our wall. We have been listening to a lot of his music after Max saw a poster in downtown Mèze about a 30th anniversary concert which took place during the summer. I hope that the upstairs neighbours are fans as well because we have several versions of "Jammin", not to mention, "Redemption Song" which get lots of air time.

From the market we travelled along small roads to get to Sète which is a city of about 40 thousand directly across the water from Mèze. They have a professional volleyball team called "L'Arago". We were there for a match with Montpellier. The home crowd was loud and passionate and very enthusiastic as their team won three sets in a row. There is another game this weekend which we are going to. Max has been missing his volleyball team so we have been trying to track down a team for him to play with There ia a league in Mèze which Angus is going to twice a week but there is nothing structured for Max's age. There are drop-in games twice a week that Nils and Max have gone to. What a great dad since he has not played much volleyball in his life! At L'Arago game, I tracked down the Sète coach for Max's age group and he agreed to allow Max to attend their practices. He went to the first one last night and it went well so we are cautiously optimistic that is something that will make this experience more enjoyable for him...short of sending him to an English school and bringing Chris McNeil to teach all his classes.

Angus is embracing the experience of being in a new place and going to a new school...Max, not so much. Angus talks about the kids at school and questions that he has asked and answered in class. I know that he is trying out expressions and has even been trying to learn to swear in french (is anyone surprised by this??). A couple of the boys from his class go to volleyball practice as well so he is having lots of opportunity to talk and get comfortable with the language. Max is much more hesitant to talk and while he did do better than half of the class in his latest dictée, I don't think that he is asking or answering any questions in class.

The school day is longer here - 8:30 am to 5:00 pm, 1.5 hr. for lunch and a half day on Wednesday and with the wonderful weather that we are having, it is very difficult to get Max to see the benefits of this "wonderful experience"...hopefully there will be a delayed appreciation one day. We have been taking it one day at a time, sending him off with a "bon courage" and we make sure that we are at the beach by 5:30 pm each day so that it doesn't seem like such a grind.

The school is just a 5 minute walk from us so the boys come home every day for lunch and we all sit down together. It is not a large school, about 450 students, and the classrooms and offices are in a circle around a large courtyard where the students gather each morning. Every time Nils walks through the courtyard, he hums the theme song from "Summer Heights High" (a great Australian mini-series about a school that you all should check out). There are no lockers so all the students carry heavy backpacks around. Each teacher requires totally different supplies so it is an organizational nightmare keeping track of which "cahier" goes with which textbook. Good thing that I have put them in dewey decimal order. Some teachers like the paper to have big squares and some like small and some go for half and half. Each student has a carnet (small notebook) with their picture and schedule on it that they must show each time they enter or leave the school. Max said "why would I want to come into this place if I didn't have to???" This is also used by parents to make notes to parents and vice versa. I wrote a note asking that the teachers be nice to the new Canadians but I haven't heard anything back.

We feel lucky that our Internet search sweepstakes brought us to Mèze. It is fantastic to be five minutes from the ocean and so many towns and sites are accessible from here. Andorra and the Spanish border are just around the corner. The people we have met in town are very friendly, patient and not at all snobby. My sister asked how the mothers are dressed who pick up their kids school. Happily, it is not Parisienne high fashion...it is casual and pretty basic. In short, I fit right in...although they haven't seen my "Hermione" yet.

Two families from Whitehorse (Jane Wilson and Heather Alton) are close to us here so we are hoping to spend some time with them this weekend. Thanks for all the notes asking us how we are doing. We miss everyone!

Yukon kids enjoy the south of France.

Yukon kids enjoy the south of France.

Posted by clarkesabroad 13:00 Archived in France Tagged swimming meze Comments (0)

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