We crossed the border from France to Spain and there was a palpable ripple of change and excitement. I love France – it’s so….French. You do actually see beautiful French girls riding along with baguettes spilling from their bicycle baskets. The cafes do actually spill across the streets and squares, serving great food, wine (and hideous coffee – never, EVER, go to a French café expecting a Melbourne coffee.) The people do actually like it when you stammer in high school level French and somehow manage to order lunch. Much unlike my experience as a 16 year old once in Paris when I proudly asked the metro ticket seller in French for a ticket to the Eiffel Tower – and he stared through me then looked away and kept talking to his colleague until I asked in English. Where in he promptly served me.
I love it – but there is a cultural similarity that feels very close to home, and therefore slightly less exciting. Less foreign and a little safer perhaps. Maybe it was spending 10 days camped in a bustling holiday park with ten thousand other holidaying locals. The days were spent waking with the sun, doing an early surf check, breakfast, baguettes, then the beach, then town, then the beach, then sunset from the beach, then bed. Repeat.
We could have been on the South Coast of NSW except of course for everyone speaking French and the fact that there were literally thousands of people camped a few meters from us on every direction. It has to be experienced, this European beach holiday. In Australia, for us anyway, its how to find the most secluded, tucked away beach with a few other hardy campers and the least amount of noise and hussle.
But here…..sheesh! Hundreds of bungalows tucked tight amongst pine trees that disappear into the distance. Constant movement, bustle and action. And we were three star. The five star one next door was like some weird blend of Club Med, a Kontiki Tour and Surfers Paradise in the middle of summer. Some people don’t actually leave the caravan park at all. Everything they need is on hand – bars, pools, kids water parks, supermarkets, cafes, restaurants. There was even this scary caravan park mascot who got driven around the park on the back of a golf cart every evening yelling out what night time festivities were about to take place. I don’t even know what it was – a giant eagle or chicken? Whatever it was it was like a bad scene from Donnie Darko had come to life. We could hear it waling in the distance from our park next door. Calling the faithful to play.
But there was great French beach break surf, there were sweaty hot days, offshore winds, endless hours swimming and long slow evenings watching the sun sink into the burning Atlantic Ocean.
But we set off for Spain with great anticipation. I have never been to mainland Spain. Mel has always wanted to go. We needed to travel a bit cheaper (still!) and I was secretly looking forward to soaking up a culture that was further from my own. My experience with the Spanish Canary Islands was that it was more laid back, a little more unstructured, flowing and beautifully ramshackle than France. And like some magic wand had been waved, as soon as we crossed the border it started to emerge. It was eerie – the weather shifted somehow, the hills got greener, the Pyrenees loomed and broke up the flat, changeless landscape of the French coast. The campsite was less ordered (“just go and find a spot in this general area…”) and the bars were bustling, spilling affairs, filled with the aroma of roast chicken and fish. People gesticulating and talking loudly at dinners that seemed to stretch late into the night. We had arrived.
We spent a few days at Mundaka hoping to catch one of Europe’s best waves in full flight but were met with the break straining to get to ankle height. Not that it really mattered too much to the girls. There were beaches, water and a campsite nestled deep in the trees that shaded us all day from the 35 degree Spanish sun.
They read books, did craft, swung on swings and by then it was time for lunch. So we ate and then they flowed back into the same routine. The first full day they didn’t make it to the beach until 5pm.
Mel and I have been watching them lately and an amazing realisation has occurred. That their childhood is being extended by this trip. The absence of outside influences and peer pressures has meant that they just evolve a little more slowly than they would back home. We catch glimpses of this beautiful occurrence all the time. Tully doing a sort of flowing, oblivious dance in the shallows as the French sun sets behind her. Ellie talking to her stuffed toys and introducing them to statues in a town square. This childhood innocence that ripples with creativity that doesn’t take a regular form. That isn’t creativity as told to you at school but a sort of freedom to express. Shells are gathered and arranged, bottle tops collected, transformed, stashed under the drivers seat and then taken by someone else and transformed into another thing. I get in trouble all the time. I bustle into the back of the car in cleaning mode – flinging things out the door at pace, until I am stopped by a weeping child exclaiming with passion and exacerbation “BUT THAT IS MY……(house, nest, bed, diorama, craft)!!!!!!!!!”
So I gently try to rebuild it and then place it back in the car. Only to come along a few days later and clean up while ensuring no one is watching. Mel and I have been trying to explain the concept of a Buddhist sand mandala – sort of build and create something then let it blow away as some eternal symbol of non-attachment to material things – but we get met with very very blank stares.
Someone on Facebook posted a photo of their four year old daughter at their own birthday manicure party with a comment about how grown up they were. As if at age four a child is already growing into an adult and there is nothing you can do about it. I looked at my girls and was thankful that they were bleeding childhood dry before the inevitable onset of adolescence and adulthood. One thing you can be sure of is that you will most certainly grow old and become an adult. Another thing you can be sure of is that you are never a child again. The rush to grow up has always baffled me a bit. I don’t know what is wrong with letting it take it’s course. Before we know it they will all be back amongst the pressures and influences of growing and conforming so this time is golden.
We left Mundaka and made for another well known surf spot called Rodiles. Another river mouth beach with sleepy Spanish towns dotting the road, eucalyptus trees everywhere and yawning, empty free campsites – complete with toilets and showers. Australia needs to learn a thing or two about camping infrastructure from the Europeans. Camping in Australia is either fee based, very remote, prohibited or sneaky (finding inaccessible places to set up and camp that are not technically legal). Over here they provide the infrastructure and then just open the doors – like they are encouraging people to move and see the land free of charge.
But like some weird European switch had been flicked the weather turned. The first day of Autumn and the temperature dropped into the teens and the rain swung in. We had a few last ocean swims then realised that moving along the coast with no swell and rain sounded pretty bleak – so the plan changed. We looked at a map, saw that crossing the mountains to our South meant less rain and warmer days so we broke camp and headed to the hills. With loaded bags of wet, soggy washing and towels, wet tents and that unmistakable damp car smell we set off.
The rains chased us over the Spanish mountains. Pouring from impossible, jagged limestone cliffs as we crawled along up an endless winding road towards a seemingly infinite mountain pass. Sheets of water covering the road, recent landslides and stomach turning drops off to the side. Through Spanish mountain towns that hadn’t changed for centuries. Stopping for coffee in an empty bar. Stepping over the sleeping dog to be served by the 80 year old publican lady who didn’t seem too interested in getting our money. Then getting tapas and red wine at the last open establishment, watched by aging, smiling locals who all knew each other and watched this strange Australian family sit quietly on their turf as thunder and lightning rained fiercely down outside.
This really is an insane gig. I don’t know why I sometimes get immune to the wonder and sheer enormity of this all. I suppose that is the marvel of the human mind – the ablility to adapt. The way it takes the new and quickly makes it the new normal so that the novel world isn’t exhausting to process and understand.
But today, after driving slowly through gob smacking limestone mountains with Florence and the Machine, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen blaring to emerge in the warmer, dry plains of Northern Spain I find myself sitting in the backstreets of Leon writing this on my laptop. A city we hadn’t even thought about seeing until the weather drove us here. Now I find myself falling in love with another European city bursting with sand coloured crumbling cathedrals and alleys that seem to be dead ends until you get to the end and realise that they lead onto another world. All the while being immersed in the spirit of this place. This crazy get up late, don’t bother getting anything done between 2 – 5pm, drinking at lunch, start dinner at 8pm, smile and wave kind of place.
It’s brilliant. It’s beautiful.