Alex Hart

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Bad Romance

For once I feel like I need a disclaimer for this post. Suffice it to say that the views expressed here are my own and based on my own observations and research.

The Spanish as a nation are extremely direct. As one Spaniard said recently ¨I am not trying to intimidate you, I just need you to understand what I mean¨.

According to one poll I read, Spain is the second most sexually satisfied country. Certainly, the Spanish are very demonstrative when it comes to romance. On sunny days you will often find young couples entwined in the public parks and even the older generation can be seen strolling hand in hand and are not averse to kissing their loved one in public.
Knowing how open and direct the Spanish are, it still came a s a bit of a surprise to me when I was approached in the university library by a guy who asked me whether I would be interested in us becoming “Amigos especiales”. I naively thought initially that this was a request to meet and exchange language – a common arrangement between students. However after a few minutes  I realised with increasing embarrassment that this was not at all what was on offer. Amigos especiales is certainly not a Spanish term for bff!

As a foreign student on my own I was quite likely seen as a soft target by this particular person. Sadly, (and Spain is not alone in this) the level of sexual harassment and abuse suffered by women students, particularly from people they know, is alarmingly high.

Having realised my error I thought I should google the term “amigos especiales” to see exactly what it meant and I came up with some interesting information.

There are some important rules and rights around this type of relationship – it seems that there’s a lot more to it than just a friendly hook up arrangement. Although the arrangement is sexual, the parties are friends and have an open and frank relationship in which they don’t judge or lay claims on each other and are able to discuss virtually anything.

The parties are free agents and may see whomever they please aside from their amigo. A very firm rule of no jealousy exists as does no trashing the amigo on social media. The parties meet when and where mutually suits and for many who don’t wish to have a serious long term relationship, this type of arrangement may work really well.

However for lots of people I can imagine that what starts out as fun can lead to unhappiness and dissatisfaction for either one of the parties if they start to want a serious relationship, or if one party wants to end the arrangement. It’s also possible that persons with abusive or sociopathic traits of personality would find this type of relationship quite convenient.

One thing for sure is that this would only work out if both parties are emotionally mature and able to cope with the boundaries set. This is perhaps a slightly different facet to the various dating and hook up apps out there. Certainly Tinder is alive and thriving in Madrid and seems to be one of the most common ways to meet people in this cosmopolitan city. With so many people staring at their phones in public places, I can’t help but sneak a peek at people on the metro and wonder if they are swiping left or right!!
For many women in particular coming to Spain from foreign parts, these types of apps can however lead them into potentially difficult situations. For example, it’s still not seen as socially acceptable by many Spaniards for women to drink a lot especially if on their own. Women, particularly young students coming from different cultures (e.g. Britain, NZ, the United States) where drinking is viewed differently can potentially, without realising it, send out a very different message to the very many predators out there and land themselves in difficult situations. This is not helped if there are language issues as well. Whilst the universities do issue general advice on how to stay safe, in my view a lot more could be done to raise awareness of the abuse that goes on and help vulnerable young women stay safe.

With such an open culture it’s a good that things like contraception and the morning after pill are easily accessible here.   It’s also reassuring to see clinics such as Open House, who are able to offer, support, advice, anonymity and prompt results for those worried about STDs.

For dinosaurs like me however it seems that whilst the quick and easy hook ups or amigos especiales may take a lot of the angst and uncertainty out of forming a relationship, they do lack romance, an important precursor to love.  I wonder whether the serial tinder users or amigos especiales will in the future be able to form long term loving relationships at all and if not, where does that leave us?

For now however, I guess most people using these tools are just having fun and who can blame them for that?


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Viva España!

Arriving in Madrid after the southern hemisphere winter, it’s as if someone has literally opened the curtains and let in the sunshine. The light is dazzling and all of the buildings and monuments seem so white. The first thing I notice is all of the green spaces around me and water features everywhere – the city truly is beautiful.

Plaza de España

Plaza de España

Close to Plaza de España is a huge park. The apartment where I am living is in a side street tucked away from the main square and is filled with tables from all the little bars and cafes here. Everything from cinemas, gym, supermarkets and fruit shops are all within a stone’s throw of the apartment. I couldn’t be in a better place. Even a nasty bout of pneumonia hasn’t curbed my excitement at being here.
Finding your way around Madrid is one of the easiest things – the Metro is clean, well air conditioned and not too crowded. Even when its 37 degrees outside I haven’t found myself jammed against a smelly armpit (London take note!!). In fact the Spanish are a particularly fragrant lot and you’re more likely to get a whiff of Chanel or Dior rather than last night’s pavement mess here.
Tourism is Spain’s biggest industry and keeping the city clean and beautiful is top priority. In addition to this, recycling is very important with separate bins for different types of recycling. Every morning workers are busy clearing the McDonalds and other debris from the streets and parks, ready for another beautiful day.

The Royal Palace

The Royal Palace

As you visit places such as the Royal Palace and the art museums you get a real sense of just how magnificent Spain must have been at the height of its empire. I can’t help feeling slightly uncomfortable however as I think of how South America was plundered to provide the opulence for a vain royalty and for that matter the countless indigenous people enslaved and exploited by the Spanish.
Its changed days here now – the Spanish pride themselves on being tolerant of other people. They were the second country to allow gay marriage and today you will see a huge welcome sign to refugees at the Cibeles town hall.

Cibeles ' complete with its welcome refugees banner

Cibeles ‘ complete with its welcome refugees banner

For now however I am going to sit back and revel in the culture. In fact I am not too sure why I have never visited this marvelous city before!

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One hand in my pocket

This trip has planned for so long that it seems like a dream. As I arrive in Buenos Aires I am excited and apprehensive at the same time – but thankfully everything is the same as when I last visited. In Avenida Montevideo, all of the familiar cafes are still there despite the recession that has gripped the country. The fruit shop has moved from one side of the street to the other. When I mention this to the store owner (who looks Bolivian or perhaps he is from Salta) he grins broadly and says yes, that was before.
There seems to be a new sense of enthusiasm in the capital – the new Government cite high inflation and corruption as their biggest challenges, and I did hear grumbles about higher taxes but generally things seem to be a bit better. The relaxation on the USD has certainly helped. Yes there are still protests by Kirchner supporters but there doesen’t seem to be the same sense of resentment as before.

The biggest change however is that I feel like I have surfaced from underwater – suddenly I understand everything and the Spanish comes easily. In fact the only person who has spoken to me in English so far is the typically officious immigration official at the airport.

In Añatuya, I am welcomed with open arms and it is lovely to walk down the street and to be greeted by people I haven’t seen for 3 years. Even the little stray (now adopted) dog almost bowls me over in her excitement to say hello. I am reminded of the time the local padre tried to shoo her away while balancing precariously on his bicycle. Haciendo Camino marches on and the children in the Refugio home are a sheer delight. As ever I am humbled by their positive attitude and their sense of fun. Before the weekend is out I am playing basketball, sharing mate, comparing muscles with a seven year old and rolling around laughing with some of the best people I have met in a very long time.

Back in Buenos Aires I am about to be introduced to a tourist’s view of Argentina with some close friends from NZ but first we need some cash. Thanks to Carlos and Carlos we are introduced to a young lad called Pablo who is happy to change the beloved greenback for pesos. A swift call and he turns up on his bike with a bag stuffed full of wads of notes, As we ‘do the deal’ the concierge is looking on unhappily and probably wondering if the ordinary looking women are in fact dealing drugs. While C starts counting notes, Pablo and I do our best to shield her from the concierge. When Pablo tells me about his Bolivian and Columbian customers I try very hard not to think about the money laundering consequences……

Even after we ate the huge mountain of meat we still wanted more!

Even after we ate the huge mountain of meat we still wanted more!

If you are going to eat steak in Buenos Aires – go to La Cabrera where the well heeled and well groomed of Palermo eat. I have to say that we ate the sweetest and softest steak that I have ever eaten. Despite the enormous portions, I am ashamed to say we polished off the meat in 20 minutes! The waiting staff were at first a little standoffish or even rude as we clearly did not look like their typical clientele. But by the end of the evening my friends’ English charm had completely won them over and when we tried to teach them of the joys of a ‘rusty nail’ they reciprocated with free champagne. As my friends enjoy further demonstrations of Argentinean food and drink, I take some time out which includes reading the paper La Nacion . It is quite sobering and reveals some of Argentina´s other issues. In Rosario the people have been protesting for a return to law and order after 24 murders in the last month. There has been a disturbing clash between neo Nazi and Jewish students and in Córdoba, a group of old men sit, walking sticks in hand looking defiant as they await their sentences for torture and other crimes against humanity under the military Junta.
However the saddest thing for me was the advertisement by a group representing parents looking for their missing children, in which parents begged for news of their little ones.

As I hug my friends goodbye at the airport before heading for the chaos of the other terminal I realise that I am actually quite nervous about the next few months on my own in Madrid.

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No castanets in New Zealand

No castanets in New Zealand

No castanets in New Zealand

I love projects. I think it is the satisfaction you get when the job is done and you can move on to something else. My family tend to be a little wary when I get excited about a new project. After we emigrated from the UK, my husband confessed that he was concerned – what on earth could I possibly come up with to top that?!

Over the last year or so my ‘project’ has been renovating our house and while it is far from being finished, almost all of the big tasks have been done and I am left with the time consuming things like painting woodwork and landscaping. My other project has been my university studies. As I neared the end of my diploma I realised that I desperately wanted to continue learning (spurred on by well marketed notes from Massey telling me that I should be proud of my achievements to date) and have converted to a BA, doing a double major in Spanish and History.

“What’s it all for?” One of my friends repeatedly asks. “How are you going to use your Spanish language when you finish?”

It seems a little self indulgent to say I am doing it “just because I can” and it has always been my intention to use my language skills either working or volunteering for short spells in South America as well as here (assuming such an opportunity arises). The reality however is that here in the far north there is little opportunity to practice my Spanish skills – other than on foreign hitchhikers. The two Argentinean backpackers I picked up recently probably wanted a quiet ride – instead, once I realised where they were from I gleefully spent the entire 45 minute journey practising my vocabulary on them.

As the house project nears its end though I have become increasingly more restless needing another new project to look forward to. The answer came almost immediately through university. Massey has various exchange projects it enters into with other countries. These range from studying at university in a foreign country for 1 or 2 semesters to providing teaching assistant opportunities in conjunction with the Spanish Government. ‘If only I could’ I thought. Then, as I thought about it more – ‘why couldn’t I?’

At first the opportunity to do a paid teaching assistant role somewhere in Spain seemed like a dream opportunity. However the project runs for 9 months and I am not sure my hubby and I could cope with the practicalities of being apart for such a prolonged period.

The other option was to study at a foreign university for 1 or 2 semesters in a variety of countries. This just seemed too good to be true. So after some investigation, I discovered that it really is quite easy to up sticks and study abroad for a while even at my age. So without further ado (and while hubby could still see that it might be manageable for him) I have completed the application and submitted it – to go and study in Madrid next year. A semester of Spanish language history and culture and perhaps even time to learn to play the castañuelas (castanets)

Who wouldn't love to spend time in this beautiful city?

Who wouldn’t love to spend time in this beautiful city?

I still have a selection process and an interview to go through, however the Massey staff seemed confident that my application will be successful so all I have to do now is cross my fingers and wait and see.

The journey is not over yet!

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Living under the rainbow

It has been six months now since we moved here to the peaceful Hokianga. The Hokianga is regarded as a very spiritual place. Perhaps it’s due to the artists and writers who live here or the influence of the many missionaries here last century and the little wooden churches they left behind. It could be to do with the fact that every tide washes the beaches to a pristine white. Personally though I think it is the people here with their kindness and willingness to share what they have that really sums up the reputation.

The beaches of Opononi washed clean by the tide

The beaches of Opononi washed clean by the tide

The house renovation was progressing despite the arrival of the cold and wet weather. Then one badly judged jump resulted in one horribly broken ankle leaving me housebound and unable to drive over the wet wintery weeks. The paramedic who first arrived at the scene kept me laughing all the way to hospital and the same lady gave me tissues, a hug and a cup of tea when 6 weeks later the Dr announced the cast had to stay on for a while longer.
The local shop offered to deliver my groceries and mail. Our landlord’s wife drove me to hospital appointments and took me out for cups of tea. Many of the tradesmen dropped by to chat through what they were doing at the house and people I had barely met sent kind messages and dropped round beautiful fresh fish.
When the big winter storm and floods hit and we lost power, including heat internet and phone, dear L brought me a thermos of hot water and the cats (of course) just sulked and camped out on the bed.
The rain kept on coming, interspersed with the odd days of brilliant sunshine and the most enormous and beautiful rainbows I have ever seen. It felt like there was a rainbow right over our heads every day.
The rainbows keep on coming

The rainbows keep on coming

Finally, as spring approached, the work on the house started coming together and we moved in. It felt very strange at first –particularly when the front doors blew open by themselves a couple of times at night in the middle of the night giving me a huge scare. My first overnight guests blessed the house in the Maori custom “There have been a lot of people living here” offered S wisely when I told her about the doors (by that she meant spirits). “They just needed to leave”.
The same family also offered to send “the boys” from W round if I had any problems or prowlers – I am still not sure which of those things comforted me most.
When we left our last place I was sad to leave the little kingfisher that sat on the telephone wires and chirruped every evening ‘all is well’. Happily though he seems to have found his way here to our new house and power lines. I think that’s a good sign.


Fares Please!

Have you ever fallen in love with a house instantly? I certainly did with my last house and, it seems, with our new house. We didn’t set out to move 3 hours away from all of our friends and our business to take on a major renovation project but when we saw this grand old lady in the bright summer morning sunshine all the sensible bits of our brains went into hiding! We ignored the sloping floors and ancient electrics, not to mention the leaky water pipes snaking all over the garden but marvelled at the kauri walls, French windows and gleaming polished wood floors. We quickly swept away all the practical issues such as the commute for work, where to live while the work is being done and just went for it!

The grand 'old lady'

The grand ‘old lady’

The stars didn’t just align to make the purchase happen – they collided with a bump! From our house sale taking place in a few days between Christmas and New Year to the for sale sign for the Villa ‘mysteriously disappearing’.

So here I am, a few months later, in the beautiful Hokianga juggling university, remote working and a renovation project.

If there is any piece of advice I could give to anyone undertaking a huge project on a historic house (apart from WHAT ARE YOU THINKING!!!!!) it would be:
a) have a realistic budget b) get the right people to help and c) things will always go wrong and when they do – they can be expensive to put right!

So far we have managed to cut our neighbours phone line, ‘broken’ a digger on a water tank that was somewhere the plans said it wasn’t as well as discovered a whole host of other little horrors.

The back of the house after the builder started to demolish all the rotten bits

The back of the house after the builder started to demolish all the rotten bits

While our builder is having sleepless nights, I however am trying not to think about our finances and instead am dreaming of chandeliers and paintwork – its going to be an interesting ride!


The end of the road

It´s almost time for me to leave Añatuya, but before I do I should really say something about the main reason I came here and that is the children.
I have had a lot of fun helping out in the Kindy (jardin as it is referred to here). Everyone has been very welcoming and it’s great to see the kids coming on and blossoming. Some of the older ones remember me from last year and it has been lovely to be greeted by some of the mothers in the street too.

Danny and friend with their 'babies'

Danny and friend with their ‘babies’

At the Santa Catalina children´s home there are some new faces who are still settling in. When I arrived at the house for the first time I was a little unsure as to the children’s reaction to my visit.

One of the boys R was sitting on the step outside and seeing me coming shouted ¨LA CHICA DE NUEVA ZELANDA ESTA ACQUI¨ – ¨the girl from New Zealand is here¨. Immediately a dozen heads appeared at the door to greet me and it was though I had last visited a week ago. They were all full of news of their holiday. The new arrivals since my last visit viewed me warily before introducing themselves and telling me all about their day. I was lucky enough to see a couple of kids who due to their age have been moved on to other homes. It is clear that while they are doing well that the links with Santa Catalina are still so strong. It must be so hard for the children to leave what clearly becomes their home and family to live somewhere else.

Just chatting with girls from the hogar and some of their friends

Just chatting with girls from the hogar and some of their friends

The new children´s home El Refugio is also a happy place thanks to the wonderful people who work there. Marcele is a young woman who lives in the home with the kids and tends to their needs 24-7. Quite frankly I don’t know how she finds the energy, but as she says ¨it´s all for the children¨. A few new faces arrived during my stay. These children, stressed and traumatised from recent events, are immediately accepted by the other children and gathered into Marcele´s arms. I have no doubt that in a year or so from now they too will be wearing big smiles and blossoming.

Añatuya should be very proud of Haciendo Camino and all the good work they do here. I feel honoured that I have been allowed to play a very small part in their day to day work.

Perro de la calle  and her new mum

Perro de la calle and her new mum

And one more happy ending . The little stray dog that lived outside the hotel has too been adopted. Although the little dog thought she belonged to the hotel, to most people she was just a “perro de la calle” – street dog. One of the women who works here in the evenings at the hotel took pity on the little dog and on cold evenings I noticed the dog curled up next to her.

I am not sure if I will make it back here again – there is still so much more of the world to explore. Whether I do or not, it has certainly been a great journey.