The lull in festivities between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve is always broken by the birthday of our lovely Lola on the 28thDecember. This is usually a day of tradition, when we organise an evening meal at a restaurant of Lola’s choosing and then a visit to the Pantomime at the Theatre Royal.
This year we decided to offer Lola a choice of going to Africa or Toys R Us. A choice we thought was remarkable and a novel way to celebrate becoming a teenager!
Africa or Toys R Us?
As you can imagine, Chris and I were obviously mortified when we found ourselves in the carpark of Toys R Us.
With Tangiers being only 14 miles from Tarifa, the chance to take in another continent on our travels would have been wonderful, however, a pocket full of cash and a safari full of toys was too great an opportunity for the birthday girl. Africa shall have to wait.
With the kids fully stocked with new toys, it proved a blessing when the weather took a turn for the worse and we experienced rain for the first time in two months. For the next couple of days, we barely left the van; the dripping condensation being the only sign of life from within.
New Year’s Eve saw a break in the clouds and the return of our new friends from Gibraltar; Rachel and Simon and their two girls. Giving Simon a chance to set up home on his pitch, we offered to take Isabella and Amelia for a walk along the beach with our kids.
Whilst we are always heartened when our kids make new friends, it is usually not long before some element of competition is introduced. This time, our family ritual of collecting shells and pebbles (aimed at breaking the ice) was actually the catalyst for the greatest shell-hunting competition of all time!
Things went from bad to worse when Jonah and Isabella went head to head trying to secure the biggest, brightest and most brilliantly coloured scallop shell. With a rising tide, and the competition reaching a climax, Chris and I became very concerned by the fact that neither Isabella nor Amelia were really dressed for the occasion. At the sight of Isabella wading into a rock pool up to her knees, complete with new Christmas trainers, we shrieked in dismay – only for her to jubilantly raise an award-winning Horse Conch shell the size of her fist above her head; much to Jonah’s chagrin.
Now furious and trying hard to contain his gargantuan strop, Jonah whipped off his shorts and made a break for the deepest and less-explored rock pools. Losing is not his style. Stumbling across a half-eaten fish, much like those seen in cartoons, with its head and eyes intact, no body and a tail, Jonah was keen to restore his place in the hierarchy. Without a moment’s hesitation, the fish was whipped up and flapped across the face of our guests, sending them screaming into the sea. Whilst Jonah smiled smugly in triumph I wondered how the hell I was going to explain this away to their parents.
Girls returned, and apologies made, we agreed to meet Simon and Rachel in the bar at 8pm to welcome in the New Year. With the Spanish choosing not to celebrate the birth of Christ but preferring to celebrate the arrival of the three Kings, we had no great expectations for the Spanish Aňo Nuevo shenanigans…but it was a night out with good company nevertheless.
Even though we weren’t expecting much, we were mildly surprised to find that we were the only ones in the bar at 8pm, and 9pm, and 10pm. By 11pm we had downed Chris’s body weight in vodka due to the lack of any measuring system for spirits. We discovered that the amount of vodka poured was based purely on the generosity of the barman – It just so happened that ours was the generous type.
With 5 minutes to go before the big countdown, the bar filled like Harrods on Black Friday (It seems that the Spanish celebrate from midnight until the morning – whereas the Brits are inebriated and in bed by 12:30pm). As we arranged our drinks ready for the great ‘cheers’ moment, the barman handed us each a bag of 12 grapes. Perplexed, Rachel promptly informed us that the Spanish tradition is to eat one grape on each strike of the gong leading up to midnight. Rather than a raucous countdown to New Year, we would all be silently chewing on grapes. Novel.
Now, it usually takes me half a glass of water and several backward jerks of the head to swallow a tablet, so the thought of having to gulp down 12 pipped grapes (pipped I repeat!) filled me with horror. Chris, however, was up for the challenge, his eyes locked to those of an old local, who was leering at Chris, poised with a grape in each hand. Chris leaned forward and whispered, “Pedro is going down” . Selecting his first grape from the bag, he held it up to the old boy, who smiled, challenge accepted.
The first gong sounded and Chris’s first grape went down whole, second crunched and swallowed, third munched, fourth thrown into the air and caught in his teeth with great aplomb, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten and eleven all eaten in time to the gong, as he and the old boy continued their macho show, grape twelve was plucked from his bag, balanced on his thumb and sent into the air, rising high above his head and then falling, ever so slightly to the left. With a thump to the table and swift neck shuffle to the left, Chris opened his mouth and the 12th grape landed bang on target. Pedro nodded and smiled with an expression that read ‘flash git’.
Whilst this contest of testosterone was taking place, I had managed a feeble four grapes by the time the gong struck twelve. Much head thrashing and teeth gnashing, all washed down with copious amounts of vodka, resulted in pity, repulsion, and sniggers from onlookers. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
Three minutes must have passed before I stopped coughing, and I could see that the posh female presenter on the TV was also struggling not to cough grapes all over the camera lens. The bar was silent, only for the sound of a few fireworks being let off somewhere in the distance.
Strange I thought. Nobody shouts ‘Happy New Year!’ as they do in the UK. I expected raucous shouts of ‘Felice Aňo Nuevo!’ but the entirety of Spain had a gob full of grapes.
An odd tradition I’d say.
I missed the drunken rendition of Auld Lang Syne (even though I don’t know the words) and was just about to say so when the remnants of a previously un-swallowed grape seed dislodged in my throat, causing me to choke again. Chris, eying his chance to perform a Heimlich manoeuvre, moved in, only for survival instincts to kick in. A good cough sprayed bits of seed all over the sleeve of Chris’s jumper – and with that 2015 was over. A year that was more down than up, a year that had pushed us to the limits of resilience, was finally over with a spray of mushy grapes.
We raised our glass (of almost neat vodka) to 2016. With a clink of glasses, we shouted ‘To us!’
‘And your great adventure!’ Rachel added.
Cheers to that.
New Year’s Day started like no other – with bright sunshine blasting through the little gaps in our curtains. It was going to be a winter scorcher! 24◦c by midday.
Simon and Rachel asked if we would join them for a walk along the beach to share a coffee at a hotel they married at some years earlier. We were really flattered to be asked and accepted readily.
With packed lunches tucked into Chris’s backpack and everyone dressed more appropriately, off we stomped on a 7mile hike across the golden sands. Conversations flowed whilst the sun beat down on our shoulders. The kids laughed and weaved in and out of the sea. Taking in the moment, I could not believe the difference a year could make. If someone would have said on the 1st January 2015 I would be spending the next New Year in Spain I would have thought them mad. But as life goes – I think it worked out in our favour.
After an hour or two of walking, we finally arrived at the hotel and restaurant on the beach. It was a fabulous location, popular with locals and surfers alike. We sat high on the veranda looking over a hive of activity on the beach – a moment of quiet reflection as we licked our melting ice-creams.
After a while, our eyes were drawn to a strange contraption floating just near the shore. It looked similar to a metal detector of sorts. Still silent, we all watched on as a sleek black head appeared followed by shoulders and then a rear end. ‘It’s a diver’ Chris confirmed.
With that, the diver stood up, sporting a full body wetsuit and a harpoon gun. With the water around his waist, he held his spear gun above the water, took down his wetsuit hood and started to wade gracefully, and ever-so-slowly out of the water. We stopped licking our ice-creams.
‘Has he caught anything, though? Chris mused, just as the diver revealed a skirt of flapping gold and silver fish adorning his hips. No-one licked their ice-creams. All that was missing was the James Bond theme tune. He walked past the bar as everyone looked on mouth aghast. I regret not being able to realign my tongue in time to have taken a photo. I don’t think I will ever see a scene quite like it again.
‘Love, I think I’d like a spear gun for my birthday this year’ Chris whispered. Even the men were impressed.
A slow amble home completed a brilliant day. Our new friends had inspired us with tales of living in Gibraltar. They broadened our horizons and made us feel that opportunities lay everywhere – as long as we kept an open mind. We parted company with them feeling extremely excited about the opportunities that lay in wait during 2016.
Sometimes people bless our lives for just a fleeting moment – but they have an enduring impact. I think we met Rachel and Simon at precisely the right time in our lives. They helped us see more clearly, and for that, we will always be thankful.
After another few days of rain, we finally packed up and said goodbye to Pepe and Camping Valedvaquaros. We had stayed for 23 wonderful days in total and would always remember Tarifa with great fondness.
We made our way towards Conil in time to see the Three Kings Parade on the 5th January. We had heard many good things about this traditional Spanish festival so the kids were keen to see if the floats really did throw out tons of sweets for the spectators.
As the evening of the 5th arrived, we made our way past Reception hell-bent on walking the 2 miles into town. With a black sky looming threateningly overhead I asked Chris if perhaps we should go back and grab an umbrella before we left – or even a phone number for a local taxi company.
‘Love, you’re just wasting time! Come on, if we go now, we can beat the rain!’ he said more optimistically than his face suggested.
We felt the first splodges of rain after about 800 metres. We were on a straight road with nothing around us. No cover, no umbrella. The splodges turned into pelting hailstones in seconds.
‘RUN!’ shouted Chris. We all ran in different directions.
‘NO, RUN TO DIA, THE SUPERMARKET! He added ‘They have a trolley shelter we can take cover there!’
We stood cold and wet in that trolley shelter for over 45 minutes waiting for the unrelenting rain to stop. With a river of water now soaking our feet, we realised the rain wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. Defeated, we walked back to the campsite heads drooped down, feet squelching, rain pouring from our hoods. We were drenched through to our underpants.
Back at the van, we stripped off, threw our clothes and shoes into a bin liner and watched Chris sorrowfully sulk off to the tumble dryers – the promise of warm jim jams waiting when he returned.
We were disappointed to have missed The Three Kings Parade. It was a touch of Spanish culture we were looking forward to – but hot chocolate and a few episodes of Downton Abbey on DVD put a smile back on everyones faces.
The following day we headed out again. This time we were driving to an aire in the middle of nowhere. It was a midway one-night stopover before Seville.
Just as we reached the final kilometre down a dirt track towards the aire, (which was situated at the bottom), we spotted lots of people walking towards us with plastic bags.
‘It must be a car boot sale’ Chris said.
‘But it’s their Christmas Day, surely they don’t go to a car boot sale on Christmas Day?’
‘I don’t know, but their thousands of them! LOOK! There are people everywhere!
The kids were glued to the windows as Colin became surrounded by people carrying bags of footballs, crisp packets, sweets and monkey nuts.
‘It must be a fair’ Jonah suggested.
‘Oh God, you don’t think they have put up a fair in the field we’re staying at do you love?’
‘I don’t know, but this is not looking good…’ Chris supposed.
We watched as children sitting on the shoulders of Dad’s peered at us through our windows; annoyed Grannies holding the hands of toddlers tutted at us; men started shouting at us through the windows…
‘Christ Chris, I’m getting scared’
‘We’re completely blocked in’ cried Lola.
With nowhere to go, and surrounded by thousands of people, we just sat there, looking terrified and embarrased. We assumed we had stumbled across an annual pilgrimage.
‘OH GOD!’ Chris yelled ‘I can hear drums!’
The drumming sounded louder and louder and then we could hear a brass band – playing jingle bells…
And then it appeared. A huge float with a camel on the front!
‘Oh shit Chris, it’s the bloody Kings Parade!’ I gasped ‘What are we going to do?’
‘Well I can’t go anywhere! It’s just going to have to hit us!’
There was nothing we could do but watch as about eight floats made their way towards us.
‘Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!’ I cried.
I was just about to go and hide in the toilet when there was a knock at my window. It was a policeman, smiling. He seemed completely relaxed, or amused by our predicament. He pointed to a closed gate to our right and gestured that he would unlock it. Never before have we manoeuvred Colin so fast, ever!
So we finally got to see the Three Kings Parade – up close and personal. Once we realised we were not going to bring the entire celebrations to a grinding halt, we actually enjoyed the parade. The kids caught sweets in their hoods and I pocketed a few in a spare poo bag. We had enough sweets to last us a month!
Once the floats and passed and the crowds gradually started to phase away, we learnt that the parade had been cancelled the night before due to torrential rain. It was a very rare event indeed to postpone the parade to Christmas Day. It seems we were luckier than we could ever have imagined. We missed the 5th, but happened to catch another one at a bizarre location just 100ft from our intended aire. If we had tried to plan such an amazing stroke of luck, I think we would have failed miserably.
So all in all, Christmas and New Year has been amazing, different, on occasions odd, but incredible. The kids have experienced a truly Spanish Christmas – not an ex-pat one, but a good old-fashioned Spanish one.
Happy New Year!