Belgium – A Delightful Little Country

I started this post a year ago today, and I’ve just notice I missed actually publishing it…so here we go!

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Helene & Pierre

The train from Paris to Brussels is smooth and fast. I was met at the station by Helene, who I’d met when she and Pierre were in Australia and staying at my place. We took the bus to her home, dumped my suitcase before starting on a tour of Brussels.

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Helene & her parents
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Welcome to Belgium meal – home made by Nanette.

Nanette, is the most fabulous cook and had prepared a special dinner to welcome me. It was delicious – especially the dessert tasting plate!

The city centre is compact and very attractive.   2014-09-13 13.44.46 I tried delicious biscuits, visited the Cathedral, the Grand Place, and saw host of other famous landmarks and rubbed the reclining bronze statue (whose name I do not remember!), but the story goes that if I rubbed it I would return to Belgium.

Helene’s family warmly welcomed me to their homes in both Brussels and Wavre which gave me an experience of both the city and countryside. It was just a brief visit, but we managed to jam in heaps!

Belgium might be a tiny little country, but it’s full of history and wonderful scenery. I visited Namur, with its stunning citadel perched high on a craggy hilltop from which you can see for miles. Ideal place to watch out for invaders!

View from Namur Citadel
View from Namur Citadel

We also took a day trip to Bruges which is just delightful. It’s like stepping into a story book with its beautiful old buildings, the river that meanders through the centre of town, pictureques scenes abound around each corner. So many wonderful chocolate shops, delightful lace makers and fabulous little cafe’s. Definitely a place worth a couple of days at least. Sadly, I only had a day.

We even squeezed in a quick visit to Dinant, the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the chap who invented the saxaphone. A big thank you to Christian for driving us all there! It’s another very nice little town to explore on an afternoon.20140913_182813

Delightful Bruges
Delightful Bruges

Belgium is just a tiny little country but full of beauty; I was very impressed and was very lucky to have Helene as a guide.

Michelle

 

A ROUND UP OF MY WEEK

This week I’ve had the pleasure of working on some very interesting and diverse client projects. I love it when everything starts to fall together, and clients start to notice the difference in their businesses as a result of working with Dragon Sisters.

Speaking of business, the new venture of Van Buerle Enterprises is just getting up and running (actually crawling is probably a better word!) Cooking and eating have long been a passion of our family. We’ve talked for years about getting into this sort of business, and now the moment is right. I’m not writing much about it here because we’re starting a separate blog on that, so if you love food, you might like to pop across and join us there.

The uptake for the An Interview With… has been wonderful since I published the first interview last Sunday. It seems to have struck a chord, and it’s beautiful to see the generosity of successful people who are willing to share their experiences and knowledge so openly. I’ll be publishing an interview each Sunday and of course, I’d love your feedback.

On the personal front, I’m slowly getting all my junk sorted out. Stuff that has been in storage for years is yielding all kinds of discoveries, including old photos from days long before Facebook.

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                       Paris 2014

It was interesting to see this week my Facebook feed popped up a reminder that it was a year since I was in Paris visiting Denise.  Quite a contrast to my very first trip to that beautiful city when I was a very young woman.

On that first trip it was freezing cold, we stayed in a tiny little pension with towels not much thicker than paper. Our car got wedged so tight in a parking spot, between two others, in the street that it had to be lifted out by the garbage men – lucky it was a tiny car! It was a fun and memorable trip.

Eiffel Tower,Paris 1978
                      Up the Eiffel Tower,Paris 1978

I’ve been to Paris in between times, but finding this old photo has taken me right down memory lane. My blog from my last visit, staying in Denise’s lovely apartment is here.

Michelle

A Little Me Time – The Camino

I’ve always espoused the value of Me Time and today I had a lovely midday break  in amongst my busy schedule. I took time out to head to the cinema, unfortunately I couldn’t stretch to enough time for lunch too.

I went to see the movie 6 Ways to Santiago. It’s about 6 different people walking the Camino de Santiago and their experiences. Sitting in the darkened cinema with two of my fellow walking companions, we were transported back to our time on the Camino trail. Cows coming down the streetThe images were beautiful, so much so that we could almost smell the cow dung. As the pilgrims travelled their journey, I vividly recalled the aching muscles as I put one foot in front of each other.

Lucky for me, I didn’t suffer from blisters, but some of my fellow walkers did, however, we looked after each other and soothed our worries away together.

Sore feet
Soaking the footsies!

If you’re thinking of doing the Camino, I highly recommend this documentary. You can also read my blog entries about my experience here.

The Camino is a magical experience. I’m planning another walk in 2016. If you’re interested in joining a small organised group of women on the trip of a lifetime, I’d love you to hear from you.

Michelle

GOODBYE ECIJA

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With the Academy Directors

Friday night saw me bidding  a sad farewell to the last group of my lovely students who have been a part of my life since last September. I have to admit I shed a little tear (and so did some of them). My walk home, after handing in the keys to my boss, was filled with mixed feelings. I knew this was the last time that I would be treading the familiar route, one that I had walked four times a day, in all kinds of weather. As I walked I said a mental goodbye to the places I regularly walked past. Sometimes in the freezing cold, other times with sweat pouring down my face.

One of the things I am really going to miss about being there is the lovely long break in the middle of the day for siesta.  My break was usually 3 or 4 hours, depending on the timetable and whilst it was a bit strange at first, and I never used this as a siesta time, I soon developed the habit  of using these times to work on other projects or simply relax with a good book.

I arrived struggling to speak Spanish, and even more, the accent of Andalucia but now I surprise myself with how much I actually understand and am able to communicate. I think I surprised some of my colleagues and students too. Whilst I am by no means fluent I can get by very well. You can read about my early adventures in the Spain tab of my blog, but my most memorable occasion is the gas bottle episode.

I became accustomed to the fact that all the shops close for lunch and on Sundays, including many of those in Seville and Cordoba too. I learnt to organise myself around their opening hours and Sunday was truly a day or rest and recreation.

Whilst I still registered that the church bells peal out every hour, every day of the week, even through the night. I got used to it and it became a familiar part of daily life in a little Spanish town.

I loved sitting in the Salon (the main square that is more correctly named Plaza Espana) especially in the recent months when the daylight lasted until about 10 o’clock, and at the other little bars having a tapa and watching whole families or varying generations all eating together, the children and dogs all playing sociably. I didn’t enjoy the dog poo that I need to keep a sharp eye out for!

It’s been a great learning experience. Learning about the rich culture, both ancient and modern, learning about the people and the local customs. All in all it’s been a wonderful opportunity to learn first hand about life in a small Spanish town away from all the commercialism and tourist hubble-bubble of the larger cities.

All in all, it was a wonderful experience. Thank you Educalia Ecija and all the fabulous people I’ve had the opportunity to be involved with during my time there.

Michelle

 

My European interlude is coming to a close

Whilst I have enjoyed every moment of being in Europe and have loved teaching, mentoring and coaching, it is time to return to Australia – at least for a while.

I have cherished being in my little apartment and not having to worry about anything except myself and meeting a few deadlines. Well, OK, more than a few! I’ll admit that I haven’t entirely squirreled myself away in beautiful Ecija; I have kept up with clients and projects and taken on new ventures further afield thanks to modern communications, but I have made the most of my idyll here and been very present to the charms of a different culture and life experience, including the cold winter! I extend my heartfelt thanks to all those here who have been part of this wonderful sojourn for me. As usual, it is the people who make the experience special.

San Juan, EcijaI’ve needed these months alone to renew. To focus on what is important to me. The past 3 years have passed in a blur where I hardly had a moment to myself so it has been a real luxury to just be able to run my own timetable. I thoroughly enjoyed coming home to a quiet apartment, to spending weekends exploring local sites, or sometimes venturing further afield to Seville, Granada, Cordoba or Malaga. I had no one to worry about except myself. It might sound selfish, but actually it’s been more of a lifesaver than anything else and once again, it has given me an additional opportunity to develop and grow as an individual which provides additional experiential tools that I am able to bring to my work.

Sasha's graduation day - Batchelor of Journalism
Sasha’s graduation day – Batchelor of Journalism from Bond University

During this time in Europe I have been able to consider what it is that I really need in life to feel content. When my husband of 30 years decided to leave, and I bought him out of the house, it was a massive struggle to stay afloat financially, but I’ve managed. I only bought the house so my kids had a home base. I had a 5 year plan, of which the largest part was to see Sasha (who was then 16) successfully finish school and then university. Once Sasha graduated, I was in a position to pursue the next stage of my plan, which was to base myself in Europe for a year.

Whilst here, living a simple Spanish lifestyle, without the trappings that go with having a family home, I’ve come to the conclusion that, on a personal level, I actually need very little to live on. I can be happy in the moment as long as I know that my family is cared for and safe. It’ll be five years this August since Steve and I split up. It’s been tough for me, but at the same time liberating and life affirming as I know we (Wayne, Sasha and I) can manage on our own. Together we look after the house, each other and our dogs. We’ve become a closer family unit even if it meant a bit of a struggle at times. I feel that the kids and I have bonded more closely, and it’s also been a defining moment for both of them as they have stepped up to take more responsibilities. We have jointly made decisions about our future directions and I am extremely proud of the two beautiful people that they are.

It is now time to sit down and decide what the next step will be. What do I really want to do?
Michelle

Exploring the Albayzin – Granada, Spain

The school year is drawing to a close, at least here in Europe, which means so too is my time here in Spain. I’m making the most of the last few weekends and have been to Granada, Cordoba and Seville this month. Distances are not as vast as at home in Australia, so even though I don’t have a car here, it’s fairly easy to get about from one area to the other. I’m using buses, BlaBla Cars and lovely students who kindly give me lifts if they are headed in the direction I want to go.

Although it’s only a month since my very first visit to Granada, there’s a magic about the place that drew me back once again. My first stop was the cake shop where I indulged myself in not one, but two of the most delicious Arab sweets. It was then down to the serious business of leisurely exploring the Albayzin area, the old Arab quarter. Although I’d visited there before, I didn’t really have enough time for a proper exploration on my first visit.

It’s a very ancient area of the city, also UNESCO world heritage listed, built into the hill on the opposite side of the river to the Alhambra. A series of narrow, steep and winding alleyways offer surprise views and scenes tucked around each b20150430_155323end, including glimpses of the Alhambra in all its glory. There are some areas where cars can squeeze (and it’s definitely a squeeze) along, but for the most part it’s all very, very narrow and you can imagine donkeys being more suited for trekking up and down. I certainly wouldn’t like to have to lug my groceries home from the supermarket, although the idea of a small flat in this area has masses of appeal! I also reckon walking up and down the steep slopes would soon cancel out the sugar ladened cakes I’d be consuming each day if I lived here. Flat shoes are a must and it was with great amusement that I watched a few fashionable young tourists teeter around on their platform shoes.

There is a little bus that you can take up and down, and it’s very cheap (E1.20). We took the bus last time as we were pressed for time. This time my explorations were all on foot, both up and down, round and through the various nooks and crannies, including a visit to the mosque whose gardens are open to the public. The view from here of the Alhambra is pretty spectacular but without the crowds at the Mirador S. Nicholas which is right next door. I also took the big camera this time, so have better shots, but these here are straight from my phone.

My attic room
My attic room where I enjoyed a sound sleep.

By the time I got back to my hotel at around 11pm, my poor little footsies were pretty tired. It was a most welcome relief to slip off my shoes, wiggle my toes and settle back with a glass of bubbly in hand before dragging myself into the shower. The hotel was a converted 16 Century mini palace located right on the Darro. My room, which I’d booked at the last moment, was in what was obviously a converted attic space. I slept like a log!

wpid-20150607_110042.jpg wpid-20150607_105538.jpgSunday morning saw Wayne and myself enjoy a leisurely breakfast before doing some serious haggling for leather bags. Our purchases left us thirsty – shopping is hard work – so we headed  into yet another colourwpid-20150607_125119.jpgful square, for refreshments and watched the local townsfolk go about their regular Sunday businewpid-20150607_124841.jpgss.  In the afternoon we headed back to Ecija which is a total contrast to Granada and certainly a whole lot cheaper in terms of eating out. I guess I’ve been spoilt spending all these months in a little local place where I’ve got used to paying local prices. I reckon I’m going to be in for a rude shock when I am back in Australia again. However, I’m really looking forward to a bowl of laksa!

Michelle

Granada Part 2 – The Alhambra

The Alhambra must surely be the jewel in the crown of Andalucia, a province that is rich with monuments, yet there is something that extra bit special about this historic citadel that overlooks the city of Granada.

Majestic Alhambra
Majestic Alhambra

Nestled against the breathtaking backdrop of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada, the Alhambra, rises as a majestic fortress over the city. The UNESCO World Heritage site stands as a beautiful, intriguing and stark reminder of years long since past when the Moors ruled Spain before Queen Isabella, the Catholic,  finally conquered the Moors in 1492.

Having read a myriad of books set in this period with the Alhambra as a backdrop, I wascropped-wpid-20150430_165935.jpg keen to see its marvellous beauty for myself. Imagine my disappointment when I learnt we were unable to get tickets. I was devastated to learn they needed to be booked months in advance! We’d only decided to go there two weeks earlier as it was a bit of a juggle with my teaching timetable to create the time needed for the trip.

Never someone wh20150430_155323o is easily deterred, I started to ask about amongst my tourism contacts, and despite their best efforts no tickets were available. Nevertheless, we arrived in Granada determined to make the best of things. We trotted down to the local tourist bureau, official Alhambra ticket office and also sought out the locals. The consensus was that, if we were to queue early in the morning, well before the ticket office opened, there was a chance we might be able to get a ticket as a certain quota – approximately 300 they thought, were held back for gate sales. No one was sure how many or exactly what time to start to queue, but heck, this is Spain, and there’s always contradictory information. I’ve got used to it and go with the flow.

My cousin Michael has never been an early bird in all the years I have known him, so no way was he planning to leap out of bed, not unless he absolutely had to. I, on the other hand, was determined to give it my best shot. At 6.15 am when it was still pitch dark and with not a soul in the street except me, there I was on my way up the hill to the ticket office. I had planned to walk, but it was so dark, that I decided a taxi would be prudent.

My taxi deposited me at 6.20 outside the ticket office where, to my wpid-20150501_171326.jpgamazement, there was already a queue of about 50 people! I joined the line of Italians, Americans, Japanese and Spaniards of all ages who, like me, were determined to wpid-20150501_154621.jpggain admission. We jiggle from foot to foot trying to keep warm. Some of those in front of me even had blankets on the floor, so goodness knows how long they had been there!

At 8.15, I was the proud holder of 2 tickets for the 2pm admission with a 3.30 timeslot at the Nasrid Palace. As I emerged from the ticket office, I noticed the queue was now some 200 – 300 plus deep. The authorities that manage the Alhambra have restricted the number of entries per day and split them into two sessions. Some may complain, but I think it’s a fabulous idea as it prevents the place becoming too overcrowded while also protecting this unique monument.

Michael and I spent an extremely enjoyable five hours exploring the magnificent gardens, nooks and crannies as well as the various buildings and towers that make up the Alhambra. The history of the place seeps through the walls and speaks to us of decades long past. The walls of the Nasrid Palace, echo with the whisper of a bygone era, a time when the Moors of Granada were a proud and strong race. I loved the Alhambra and would go back in a flash! It was definitely worth standing in a cold line in the pitch black to obtain a ticket.

Michelle

Granada Part 1 – evoking memories of my childhood

My recent weekend  in Granada (1st weekend in May) was a poignant reminder of my Middle Eastern childhood. A lot of things here in Spain remind me of the days in the Middle East – gas stoves, flat roofs where washing gets hung out and kids play, cobbled streets, fresh fruit and vegetable stalls, sunflower seeds, pepitas, strong black coffee served with a glass of water on the side and fragrant teas served in a glass. Actually, it’s not that surprising considering that this area was under Moorish rule for some 700 years and history has a massive impact on how countries and regions evolve.

I’ve always loved history and Granada has been on my bucket list for quite some time now, a place I have wanted to visit since I first read about it, in historical novels way back when I was a teenager. The Alhambra sounded so exotic!

One of my Spanish students did her English exam oral presentation on Granada so I also learnt a lot more from her, in the course of her practice session, about this ancient city.

SO finally, I got the chance to visit Granada when my cousin Michael arrived from Australia. The journey involved a bus ride from Ecija to Cordoba, a train, and then another bus, but it was all most definitely worth it! My earlier blog on getting organised for the journey is here.

With the fall of Granada, the last Moorish stronghold in Spain, the country fell under the strict Catholic regime that resulted in many of the magnificent monuments built by the Moors being replaced with Christian churches. Fortunately, they were not all destroyed and there remains today some wonderful architecture that is testament to the fabulous skills of the artisans of those times.

Street in the Albaycin
Scenes from the Albaycin

Being in Granada is a step back in timewpid-20150430_152739.jpg. Despite the fact that it is a modern city, the history of the place is alive and well.  As I walked wpid-20150430_152707.jpgwpid-20150501_205940.jpgthrough the Albaycin the wonderful sight of Arab sweets, lanterns, fragrant tea shops, and the Arabic chatter of the local merchants transported me back to happy days spent in Jerusalem and Beirut wandering through the souks.

I’m also very happy to report that the Arab cakes I had there were the best ones I have tasted in a very, very long time. Sorry no photos of the cakes, I was too busy eating them!

Michelle

 

 

Granada – here I come!

I’ve dreamt of visiting Granada since I was a young girl reading novels set in the days of Muslim rulers, and then in the period of Isabella of Spain. My dream is finally coming true!

Getting organised to make this trip has been no mean feat!  Student timetables had to be rejiggled so I could have today off to add to the public holiday which is tomorrow. I’ve put in very long hours, cramming  in the extra lessons  as well as maintaining all my freelance deadlines.

I’m very luck to work with great people who’ve helped make this possible through their understanding and flexibility.

We’re travelling through hill country dotted with olive groves and the road climbs higher and higher past fields sprinkled with wild poppies whose vibrant red adds a bold splash of colour to the greenery. Far in the distance the snow capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada loom and I can’t wait to reach our destination.

Michelle

A Week in Yorkshire

My last blog post was from Malaga just before I headed to the UK. To Yorkshire to be precise, which is where my mother’s ancestral roots lie. I spent many a wonderful holiday in my youth with my grandparents in the picturesque village of Green Hammerton which lies midway between York and Harrogate. I also lived and worked in England both in York and London for a few years, but that was a long time ago, it’s been 14 years since my last visit.Spring Tuba The Ship_Aldborough Mailvan_Phoneb GH20150330_112141-1

It was a delightful week, which flew past all too fast, and although the weather was cold, I was in my brother’s flat which is beautifully heated so I was very cosy and warm. Before I hopped into bed each night the electric blanket made it all warm and toasty before I slipped between the sheets each night.

The coming of Spring is certainly a wonderful time of year to visit England, as daffodils gaily line roadsides and tubs filled with spring flowers added a splash of colour, so even though the air is cold, the outlook is bright.

I spent a very happy time catching up with friends and family, eating favourite foods, both at home and out at the little country pubs which are so unique to the UK. They have English pubs all over the world, but they are just not the same. There is a special atmosphere that oozes from the buildings, the stone floors, the wooden beams and furniture that echo with hundreds of years of history, these places existed long before Australia was even colonised.

I know people say that English cooking is terrible, but that’s not true. It depends on who does the cooking. I feasted on steak and kidney pie, chicken and mushroom pie, Whitby fish stuffed with spinach and prawns served with white wine sauce, roast pork with proper, homemade Bramley apple sauce and much more. In between meals I feasted on homemade shortbread, Wensleydale cheese, Jaffa cakes, Pontefract cakes and the odd piece of fruit for good measure. I’m not sure how much weight I stacked on but who cares!

I arrived back in Spain last night and am all set to start work again later today on what is the final term of the school year here.

Michelle