(Photo: Yellow Tram, Lisbon)

At the point of leaving Australia and returning to Europe to get home to Ireland in time for Christmas, there were a few important developments happening along our journey that I feel are worth mentioning.

Firstly, at this point we were mid-way through our trip and I found myself thinking more and more about where this journey was taking me in the context of my career and about the prospects of returning to my work back home. In a nutshell, I needed to start thinking about the future and making decisions about where we would end up when this wonderful adventure was over. As I mentioned earlier, I had taken a two year career break from my work and was in the very lucky position that I could go back to that career, back to where we had come from before we embarked on our journey. The second development was that we had both firmly agreed that we wanted to undertake some worthwhile voluntary work before the end of our travels and needed to factor that into our travel plans. And finally, we had both reached a decision that we wanted to find somewhere to live, not necessarily in Ireland, but somewhere that we would have a good quality of life and call home at the end of our trip.

Of course, the luxury of being able to have an outdoor life where the weather was warm and dry was appealing.. We had been spoiled along the way with having little or no daily rainfalls, warm climates in the main, which offered a healthier way of life from our perspective. We had talked about various options, and along with other countries we had visited, Lisbon in Portugal and Barcelona in Catalonia were two that were high up on our list of possibilities, given their proximity to home and easy access in terms of flights etc.

On the job front, I was giving serious thought to the issue of returning to my career that I had pursued for over 30 years as a Civil Servant. I was conflicted in that I wanted to try something new. To give up a great career at home, with a good salary and working conditions that many strive for in their professional life was a decision that I could not make lightly. Travel changes a person, and I was no exception to this. Having taught English in China, I had caught not only the travel bug, but also a passion for teaching that I never realized I possessed. I hadn’t felt that same motivation or passion about my career back home for quite some time. I guess it was like having a 32 year old relationship which had gone a little stale, and embarking on a new one which seemed more exciting and absolutely so rewarding. Albeit, it didn’t have the same stability or income, and my job as an English Language teacher is only in its infancy ; however another new door had opened for me and the path was extremely inviting. It meant I would have flexibility in my life and could continue travelling and educating myself about other countries and cultures around the world. I couldn’t look back. The path in front of me was risky, but so much more enticing. And so, after much discussion between myself and Colm, and with his total support, I went with my gut and contacted my employer back home to advise them that I would not be returning to my position. I believe that my future career prospects will present themselves in other forms; at this point in my life I need to be true to myself. While it was certainly another quantum leap along our journey, it is one leap I truly wanted to take.

Separately, on our desire to do voluntary work, I had been communicating, via Instagram, with a lady from Australia who was also travelling the world with her husband and young children. Social media is amazing for connecting people and so as we travelled, we shared our experiences, pitfalls included. She and her family had reached Greece and were doing voluntary work with an organisation called Lifting Hands International who have volunteers working throughout the world, providing assistance to those most in need. Having reached out to her about her experience, she had nothing but amazingly positive stories about the work that this organisation was doing at their centre in Serres in Greece. The centre focuses on helping refugees from the Yazidi community who were forced to flee their homes in Iraq and Syria following attacks by ISIS. Having done some research, we decided, this was exactly the type of work we wanted to do. We contacted the organisation immediately to make some initial enquiries, applied for voluntary positions, did some interviews and were thrilled to be advised that we had been accepted to join their volunteer team. I would be doing what I loved best, teaching English with a focus on helping those living at the refugee camp to integrate into western society. Colm’s work would be a mixture of teaching and helping to build safe and recreational areas for them . We immediately factored a three month stay in Serres in Greece into our travel plans from January 2019 onwards.

Our flight from Australia landed in Lisbon late on 5th December, and like two newly weds coming back from honeymoon, we excitedly made our way to our Airbnb in the centre of Lisbon on a mission to find out if this was the place where we could eventually settle down and call home. My experience of Portugal was an extremely nostalgic one, and extremely positive. Back in the late 1970’s, when Portugal was just bursting onto the tourism stage, my parents took me and my brother on our first ever family foreign holiday abroad. I have the most vivid and wonderful memories of that holiday; of arriving at a charming resort in the Algarve, (which at that time was totally unspoiled), to the balmy feeling and smells of summer heat hitting my nostrils. As we made our way up the pathway to our accommodation, the vision of a luxurious blue outdoor swimming pool glistening with the effects of the underwater lighting was jaw-dropping. As a young child, I thought, “this is what they mean when they talk about Heaven at Mass!”. We spent glorious sunny days on the beach, by the pool, eating in beautiful restaurants with my father squealing with delight that an otherwise expensive brandy and ginger ale cost only 50p here!😂. On our very first day, we pleaded with my parents to buy us lilo beds for the pool. Having given in to our pleas, they bought the beds and we spent whole days with them in the pool, splashing around with other children from around the world. Growing up in a working class area on the outskirts of Dublin city in the 1970’s didn’t present any real opportunities for meeting with other nationalities and so it was fascinating for me as a child, meeting people who didn’t speak English! Imagine! We got to hang out with kids from Germany, Spain, France…. It was like a whole new world! The words “sunscreen”, “global warming” “ozone layer” and “climate change” were as foreign to us as the English language was to our new friends, and nights in the apartment were spent with me screeching as my Mother applied calamine lotion to my patchy red sunburn after a day spent on the lilos in the pool. I distinctly remember swooning over the accordion player who entertained us in the Portuguese restaurant each night. How sad! 😂 He was at least three times my age! In hindsight, I think it was the whole “he’s a celebrity” delusional view that I had of him that caused my palpitations every time I saw him . It obviously wasn’t that big a crush though, as I can’t even remember the guy’s name now !… and I certainly doubt he would remember mine (if he’s even still alive) 😂😂😂. Oh the innocence! 😂. I do recall however, the warmth and friendliness of the Portuguese people during our time there, and my parents continuously commenting on how “like the Irish” they were. It’s so amusing that, even to this day, when we associate people as “like the Irish”, that what it translates to is that “ya can’t get much better than that” …and I totally agree! 🍀😁

(Photo: The resort where I spent my childhood holiday in Portugal – Club Praia da Oura)

Again, I digress! Colm and I made our way to our accommodation, a tiled, quaint Portuguese style building in the old quarters of Lisbon. The narrow cobbled streets were lit up with gas-lamps. Old yellow trams passed us by and it felt like we were walking through a film set from the early 1900’s . These old trams have been kept in circulation as a public transport option due to the fact the modern transport is totally unsuitable and much too wide to tackle the narrow cobbled streets of Lisbon. The trams are a huge tourist attraction and while travelling on them isn’t the most comfortable experience I’ve ever had as public transport goes, it is an experience to be had! If you still have all your teeth in your head by the end of the journey you’re on the up and up!

(Photo: City centre, Lisbon)

Venturing out the following morning brought smells of freshly baked bread wafting from the many bakeries along the streets. Exquisite visions of colourful macaroons displayed in shop windows, along with the famous custard pastries that Portugal is renowned for and that we ate by the dozen during our stay. We bought a travel ticket at the train station and hopped on and off the old trams, not knowing or caring where they would take us, lapping up the stunning views of Lisbon city. It’s an old city, steeped in history, with more character than any city I had ever seen before. The distinctly unique architecture and vibrant colours of the buildings, with patterned tiled facades, quaint wooden shutters on windows and doors, encircled by wrought iron balconies, gives a wonderful romantic air to the city. Although struggling in the heat (yes, even in December) climbing the hilly streets of the city, I was falling in love with it more and more with every passing day.

(Photo: Macaroons in the shop windows, Lisbon)

We had done our homework on towns near Lisbon that might be potential runners in the context of finding our new home. Our itinerary was to visit those towns during our stay. The route we opted for was slightly west of Lisbon, where a regular train service ran from the city centre along the stunning coastline to a town called Cascais. This particular coastline has so many fabulous beaches, and each town is situated no more than a ten minute walk to a beach. By the end of our stay, and after numerous trips, the picturesque town of Cascais, (less than 40 minutes of a train ride from Lisbon) definitely held the X factor and ticked all of our boxes. We met with an auctioneer to scope out accommodation options and spent days sitting on the beach in the middle of December in the glorious sunshine with temperatures reaching 22 degrees. Adding to the attractiveness of this location for us was the availability of work. With Brexit very much on the European agenda, Lisbon is becoming a rapidly growing IT hub for large international companies seeking an alternative base to the UK. With Colm being in the business of IT, it was a very real option for us. Portugal is also a place where English language teachers are in great demand! The cost of living is so much cheaper than Ireland, and there is the added advantage of having year round sunshine. The stars were aligning! But we had yet to visit Barcelona and so, we kept an open mind until such time as we had this stage of our journey under our belts.

(Photo: Early morning on the beach at Cascais, Portugal)

Travelling onwards to Barcelona we did our best to travel with as enthusiastic an approach to it as we did to Lisbon. We stayed in the city centre and ventured out again each day to get a feel for it as a potential place to live. While it is a beautiful city, we both knew within a couple of days that it was no match for Lisbon. We visited all of the tourist attractions while we were there including a visit to the local theatre to get a taste of the traditional Catalonia dancing. We visited the uniquely designed buildings and museums of the famous Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi and his world renowned, unfinished La Sagrada Familia Gothic Basilica. The building of the famous Basilica began in 1882. Construction is still going on to this day and is not due to be completed until 2026 at the earliest. It stands tall and domineering with an “otherworldly” level of grandeur. With entrance fees averaging around €30 per person, and up to 5 million visitors each year, the income from having this as a tourist attraction is just as “otherworldly”. It costs in the region of €28 million each year for construction work to continue. Who manages the funding for the project and the income from the tourists is unclear. There is a non-profit “La Sagrada Familia Foundation” listed. It is true to say that this Basilica is as important to Barcelona as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, however, I was not impressed at all by it. My initial impression of it? Yes, it is breathtaking (but not in a “beautiful” sense) and a truly amazing piece of architecture. As it comes into view as you round the corner on its approach, the enormity of it smacks you in the chest and it most certainly has the “Wow” factor. However, its exterior is not unlike a gigantic candle with wax melting down it’s sides. The Basilica is designed on the theme of biblical characters. It is highly ornate on its exterior, and less so on its interior. Despite construction beginning over 137 years ago, the Basilica has been under construction illegally, that is, the Catholic Church never received Planning permission to build it! The reason? The papers were lost in the labyrinth of government bureaucracy apparently! Neverrrr! However, as recently as last Friday 7th June 2019, they finally received the building permit along with a hefty fine. Gaudi, who died in 1926 after being struck by a tram in a freak accident, is buried in the church crypt. When it is totally completed it will have 18 towers including a 172.5 meter central spire, making it the tallest religious building on this side of the world. Worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage title for sure!

(Photo: Sagrada Familia Basilica – Gaudi – Barcelona)

Having completed the tour, something just wasn’t sitting right with me. I felt as touched by the experience as going to a circus. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first, but then as the day went on I realized why. I had just recently travelled around Cambodia, witnessed poverty the extent of which I never realized existed in our world. Children living in third world conditions with no running water or electricity, food or clothes, with only corrugated iron shacks for homes. On seeing the absolute grandeur of the Sagrada Familia, I believe it is hypocritical of any religion, aware of such poverty existing to continue investing on the level of investment going into this Basilica. While I acknowledge that these are two separate issues, for me, at that moment in time (and maybe because the Cambodian trip was so recent), I just couldn’t separate them. I was thinking “what would €28m per year buy for the people of Cambodia or Vietnam or for victims of poverty anywhere else in the world for that matter?” Another issue that was foremost in my mind was … “how big and grand a building does one need to worship a God”? My thinking is that whatever “God” exists, he or she certainly would not condone the spending of such huge money on the building of a place of worship rather than helping those most in need in the world??!!! I acknowledge that the same could be said for any overly indulgent spending by anyone and any organisation, but for a religious organisation to do so doesn’t sit easily with me. We can admire and design pieces of art for a lot less than what it’s costing to complete this Basilica, which for me (and this is only my opinion I might add – what do I know about architecture in fairness?) is an absolute “monstrosity”.

(Photo: Casa-Batllo – Gaudi, Barcelona)

Notwithstanding this, Barcelona is a beautiful city with fantastic architecture and a lot to offer, however, it was off our agenda as a place for us to live within a few days of us being there. We enjoyed it, were very happy to have had the opportunity of seeing it in all its glory and left excitedly early one morning to rejoin our family and friends in Ireland for a brief visit for Christmas and New Year before heading off again to Serres in Greece to begin work with Lifting Hands International.

Our decision was made in the context of finding a new home…. Lisbon 10 – Barcelona 2 !

Christmas and New Year in Ireland next …. Oh boy!

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