The Opposite of Retreat

From the Hotel Mariano Cubi in Barcelona

'Every writer needs peace, quiet and space in order to be creative' says the blurb for one organisation offering various admittedly beautiful habitations in which we are going to be inspired: sheds, yurts, cabins. They're all there. 

I don't think I had realised, till I came to post this blog, just how much of a bandwagon writing retreats had become. Look them up and you'll find everything from fully tutored and catered courses to self directed retreats where you just take your current work and go somewhere remote, without distractions. The courses are popular everywhere. Most of them are already booked up for this year and there are waiting lists. 

I've taught on courses like this myself - notably at beautiful Moniack Mhor in the Highlands - and I can see the attraction. They're certainly enjoyable for the tutors involved and I'd like to think that the students find them useful as well. 

Then there are the 'residencies' that also tend to be in rural areas where peace and quiet is a prerequisite. In fact 'peace' is a much repeated word on most of the websites. 

I'm lucky enough to live in an old house in a rather beautiful rural area. I've lived here for many years and I love it. But maybe this is why, whenever I see ads for writing retreats, I feel a sense of despondency creeping over me. Back when I was working and child rearing and looking after ill parents and very, very busy, the notion of a peaceful retreat, just me and the laptop, seemed enticing. 

But not now. 

Now I realise that, from time to time, I want whatever is the opposite. Buzz? People, noise, life? Advance rather than retreat. I want to be inspired, but not by peace and quiet.

Sagrada Familia from a busy Parc Guell

Last week, we finally managed to go to Barcelona. Long story short, this trip was planned pre Covid, and then had to be postponed. Our son worked there for two years, but about a year ago, moved to Stockholm. When he told us that he would again be working from Barcelona for a little while, we booked our flights to cover a weekend so that we could spend some time with him and Catalan friends. This was our first holiday that hadn't involved work of one kind or another for years. It has also been a most inspirational holiday in terms of my own writing.

I got what I wanted: heat, sunshine, noise, people, scooters and bikes, music, chat, good food and drink, activity, life. So much life. In spite of the fact that my husband has serious mobility problems, we managed to get out and about every day, and did plenty of sightseeing. A Catalan friend lent us his granny's wheelchair. Barcelona and its people came up trumps with access and generally being kind and obliging. Son, assuming the parental role, messaged us from time to time to make sure that we were managing. 

We used to be well travelled - both of us have lived and worked extensively outside the UK - but you get out of the habit and Covid has made us afraid, overly cautious. Age, or our focus on it, is inhibiting. Much worse, is the subtle and not-so-subtle psychological pressure applied by all those TV adverts for funeral planning and mobility aids and equity release. How fragile you are, they all seem to say. Better watch out. Better be careful. Better take no risks. 

I switch them off.  You can't stop the process of ageing, but you sure as hell don't have to wallow in it. 

I have also taken to switching myself off mentally whenever people of my age start to go on about health matters. Sometimes now I literally excuse myself and come back when they've finished. At other times, I just mentally go to another place. It isn't that we don't have health concerns, because we certainly do. Significant concerns in my family. We just don't need to talk about them all the time. At so much length and in so much detail. And so constantly. In such doom laden tones. 

Even so, before this trip, I was aware of a persistent knot of anxiety inside me.  On our first day in Barcelona, sitting in the Munoz Ramonet gardens, just along the road from our hotel, I realised that it had disappeared. It simply couldn't compete with the city. No doubt it will come back, but now I know that I can make it go away again. 

Beautiful, brilliant Barcelona was the complete opposite of a retreat. It was full to bursting with life, and colour and movement and people and inspiration. Isn't this what writers need?  

Our hotel was in a narrow street that was quiet by night but loud by day. Wonderfully loud. Scooters buzzed past. Doors slammed. Trolleys trundled. The sun streamed down between buildings. Our room had a tiny balcony with a table and two chairs. I spent hours out there in between all our adventures, with wine or water or coffee, depending on the time of day, watching the life of the street below or gazing at the balconies with their plants and flags and washing, or marvelling at the roof gardens, while overhead, noisy swallows soared high into the blue. Late in the afternoon, an old lady came out onto her balcony, and stood among her plants, watching the activity of the street below. And it struck me that she too probably complains about her health to anyone who will listen. 

It was wonderful. It made me want to look and look and go on looking outside myself, to write and keep writing as nothing over the past few horrible Covid haunted years has. Retreating is the last thing I want to do. And I want to go back to Barcelona as soon as possible.