Our Nit de Foc

s’Arracó, forest fire, Mallorca, Oliver Neilson

The view from our office window
Photo by Oliver Neilson

Friday 26th July 2013

4.30pm I’m in Palma with my daughter when I hear about the fire. It’s burning vigorously in Sa Coma which is a few miles away from s’Arracó where we live. Every hour or so I call my husband, who is at home working, and then I start to see my neighbours posting photos on Facebook and Twitter of big, big bellowing clouds of smoke. A quiet anxiety begins to niggle away at me and I ask my husband to get our cats inside, and put them in a room where he can quickly put them in a travel box if need be. The hours go by. The fire moves closer to our house and our village which only the day before had been the stage for a brilliant Night of Art attended by thousands of people.

7.30pm My husband calls, he has to go out to see a client, so he releases the cats and leaves for Bunyola in the middle of the island.

9.30pm My seven year old daughter and I head for home. In Palma the sky is already dark. I know that the fire fighters in the helicopters can’t fly at night as it is too dangerous, so the fires will continue to burn unchecked. But I don’t truly appreciate what this is going to mean.

As we journey home we talk about the fire. I don’t want to frighten my little girl but I also don’t know what to expect. I ask her what three things she would want to take from the house if we had to leave quickly. She says “The three things I would take are Mummy, Daddy and Toffee” (her favourite toy). I explain that she was already on my list. We reach the crest of the hill: the town of Andratx is laid out before us. The sky is on fire. We both gasp.

I start gabbling, over and over, “oh my god, oh my god”. I drive slower than I usually would  through Andratx towards our village as I am not looking at the road; I am looking at the fire. The hills are glowing red, it is as if there is molten lava running down them and I can see flames. We are in a 4D volcano disaster movie. It’s incredible to look at, is it really okay to even be this close to the fire?

We drive from Andratx towards s’Arracó. The sky darkens and I start to think that our village has got away with it. Up, up on the winding country road to the top of the valley bowl, but as I turn the car into s’Arracó I have to slow down to a crawl. The landscape to the right of the village is alight.

When we get to our house which is on the main road of the village I am not surprised to see that all of my neighbours out. It’s a sharp contrast to the 24 hours before when we were all out celebrating the Night of Art and having a wonderful time at our home grown cultural fiesta. Tonight should have been a night to rest after our big party; we were all feeling a bit bleary already.

My opposite neighbours, Carlos and his family, are all on his first floor balcony window gazing at the flames. He is shirtless and wearing only his underpants: the air temperature is still tropical even though it is now 10.30pm. I hear him talking about his land, which is what he is looking at, it is on fire. He keeps animals up there and he hasn’t been allowed by the police to go up to release them.

As soon as we go into our house the cats appear. I decide not to feed them as I want them to stay close in case we need to evacuate. They lie on the cool tiles in the kitchen, chilling their bellies.

My daughter and I pack her things: a change of clothes, toothbrush, Toffee, and two more things special to her. We put them all in her pink suitcase and leave it by the door. Then she watches some TV and ignores the fire. I don’t. I can’t. Every time I look out of my home office window the flames are getting closer to us and filling the view. It’s compelling.

My friends and neighbours in the village keep in touch with each other through Facebook. We are taking photos and updating each other. The roads behind our village which travel off into the hills towards St Elm are closed and the properties there are evacuated by the Guardia. I hear of one family who are told to get out of their house and not expect it to be there in the morning. I don’t feel fear or panic, I feel numb. I can’t comprehend it.

I pack more things. What would we take if we had to evacuate? Passports, papers, work things, computers, cameras, clean pants, cats. Where would we go? We get offers from a lot of friends; we know we will be okay for somewhere to stay. I look at the contents of my house. We have a piano. What if it was burnt? Would the keys be left behind like the instrument’s teeth?

I speak to my father who lives in the Sa Coma valley and has decided to stay in his house with his wife. He thinks the wind has changed and they aren’t in any danger. I decide to believe him as he understands a lot more about wind directions than I do, given that he is a sailor .

11.30pm. The wind is picking up. I stand in our back garden and watch the hills glowing red with patches of embers. It’s beautiful to look at, but deadly to be in. I wonder about the animals that are in harm’s way. The wind is blowing from behind the fire directly towards our house and the rest of the village. The possibility that we will have to evacuate seems very real.

We watch and we decide that if we can see flames on the hills closest to us we will go.  One of my friends on Facebook tells me that if the smoke stings our eyes that it is time to hit the road. Our community vigil begins.

The flames creep over the hills and continue to travel towards St Elm. My friend who lives there reports that Sa Trapa is on fire as well. She is watching and waiting for her time to move as well.

We are in limbo. It’s as if we are all expecting a birth. We are waiting for nature to take its course. I keep busy and tidy the house; I put out the rubbish to be collected, which seems ironic as who knows what is going to happen? Perhaps by the morning there won’t be a house. I pack and prepare as if we are going on a holiday. It feels the same: putting plants in the bath, and doing a load of washing.

12.30pm We sit, we wait, we drink tea. There are a lot of people on the streets, a lot of cars moving around and doors being slammed. Our neighbours are loading their cars as well. Another of our neighbour’s sons is trying to find a safe place to park their car, it’s a classic Mini Moke and he is under strict instructions to get it away.

1.30am Water trucks drive down our street, one after another after another. The hydraulic brakes all hissing at the same point on the curve of the road.  Standing in our garden I can see the tongues of flames licking the palm trees in the distance.

2.30am I lose count of the number of water trucks, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty trips? The police are on the street again. It is the height of summer but the smoky air in s’Arracó makes it smell like winter and Christmas. The hours pass and the flames rage.

4.30am The wind calms and the fire begins to redirect itself.

5.30am The bin men pass by and I smile to myself as they stop to collect our trash. Hope prevails.

6.30am Daylight comes and with it the wind begins again. We can’t see the extent of the damage to our beautiful valley as everything is wrapped in a thick veil of smoke, but I can still see flames. The helicopters start to fly again.  I hear that our friends’ evacuated houses are okay, and it’s then that the tears come.

7.30am The suitcases are still by the door, but we decide to feed the cats. We pray for the wind to be still. The local cockerels start to crow.

First published on Sunday July 28th in the Majorca Daily Bulletin

Ten golden minutes

The summer holidays are almost at an end. Parents all over the island are looking forward to breathing out and getting back to the old routine. Every year since La Gidg started at school it has been a three month long struggle to juggle work and keep her entertained and even (fancy that) try to enjoy the summer myself. I’ve never managed to achieve all three at the same time. And as the heat increases so my patience decreases exponentially.

This year I promised myself, my husband and my little girl that things were going to be different. My strategy? To plan a lot of activities so there was no chance to get bored, and not to work in August. Has it worked? I would say we have an eighty percent success rate. We have not had too many rows or moments where I thought I was going to explode with frustration and Gidg has actually wanted to go to her different activities. At the moment she is learning to sail at the yacht club in Port Andratx (a bit of a bargain at only 70€ for two weeks of lessons) and is loving it. She went to Kip McGrath in Palma as well and had a great time with the other kids making 3D models of cities. We had a great barbecue at home and had lots of adults and children over for the day to eat, drink and play. And we even went on an actual holiday to visit my mum in France, although my PC went with me.

One of the things I wonder about when Gidg and I do things together is how much of the event will she remember when she is older. I think about it a lot to be honest: will this be the thing that sticks in her mind, or will it be something banal to me that I don’t realise is important to her. If I ask her, what is your first memory she replies telling me she remembers being born! But then her next memory is of turning four and her “Princess Party”, but it’s vague. I can clearly remember holidays and events from the summer when I was six years old, so I hope this summer has been special in more ways than one, I think this will be the first year that she will properly recall when she is grown.

This struck me as I was surrounded by children playing in my back garden at dusk at the end of a beautifully sunny August Sunday. The kids weren’t arguing, they weren’t fighting over a Nintendo, they weren’t fixed to the goggle box, instead they were showing each other magic tricks and playing happily together. Their parents all looked on indulgently, with glasses of this or that in their hands, their bellies full from feasting on a successful barbie, smiling and sighing about how lovely everything was. It was perfect, before it all went wrong: somebody was accused of cheating or copying and half of them stomped off to watch a cartoon and the other half complained about things not being fair and the adults had to leap into action to break up the fight, but for that ten golden minutes in the summer of 2012, everyone was happy.

Time to celebrate

What are you doing next week on Thursday March 8th? It’s a big day all around the world, a national holiday in some places, it’s ‘International Women’s Day’. It’s marked with events and parties, rallies, demonstrations, conferences and all sorts of gatherings in countries as diverse as Argentina, Belgium and China. The event started 101 years ago and was in support of the Suffragettes who campaigned for equal rights for women.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to not have equal rights, and indeed can’t imagine what sort of person I would be if I had to mind my Ps and Qs and not do exactly what I wanted to when I wanted to. I am an equal to other people in the world and my daughter is equal, and I have some very feisty women to thank for securing those rights for me. But there are still millions of women around the world who don’t have this luxury; there are women who don’t have the chance for the same sort of free education as I benefitted from. We take a lot of things for granted don’t we? Well I do anyway. It’s important to remember and to celebrate what we have, and to thank the people who came before us, and make sure that our kids know about where they’ve come from and where they’re going to.

But International Women’s Day (IWD) is not all worthy thoughts and good deeds. Last year I was involved in the organisation of an IWD event at Mood Beach. About one hundred women gathered to spend the day together, learning and talking about subjects which ranged from health to business. It was an amazing, celebratory, revelatory day for many of us.

This year I’m involved in the event again, and this year it is moving to The Lindner Hotel in Bendinat, a bigger venue to cope with the anticipated larger audience. There will be speakers presenting on subjects as diverse as sex, business, personal development and the future of the world! For example, Marga Prohens is one of the youngest members of the Parliament in the Balearic Islands. She is passionate about promoting an entrepreneurial spirit amongst young people. Marga will talk about the systems in place which can help anyone who is in the process of realizing their dreams of setting up a business, as well as about particular aspects in local politics which affect women and their families. Elisabet Shatouris, an internationally acclaimed evolution biologist and futurist, Jamie Catto motivator, speaker, filmmaker but best known for being part of the band ‘Faithless’, will also talk along with other fascinating subjects.

There will be chances to meet new people, to get involved with charities, and to meet up with women’s groups from around the island. The event is being supported by Calvia Council and the Balearic Government, along with local businesses IFA Spectrum, FIX-it Mallorca and ACN. And there will be a market stall area for small businesses to sell their wares. The whole day including a buffet lunch is 49€ per person. (And it is per person, not per woman, as men are invited too of course!).  You can buy online and find out more about the day at

So, bring your mum, bring your daughter, bring your friends. It’s time.


By Vicki McLeod. Published on March 1st 2012 in Euro Weekly News

Look on the bright side

‘Cor blimey guv, it’s brass monkeys out there’. And the rest fella: it was more than just a tad chilly last week when we went back to the UK for our little trip to see the rellies. (I made sure that La Gidg wore a lot of vests, and despite bringing other pairs of shoes, I didn’t take off my beloved Ugg boots for ten days). When moving from one place to another, we didn’t dilly dally. We all wore gloves, hats, scarves: which was a novelty for us Paradise Island dwellers. We secretly hoped for snow, but no dice. Ironically, whilst we were shivering in the wilds of Gloucester, it was actually snowing in Mallorca: we decided not to tell La Gidg, it would have broken her five year old heart as she has yet to experience the pure, silly delight of making a snowman.

But at least the interiors of the houses we visited were warm and toasty: centrally heated, carpeted with snugly fitted double glazing. Oh, it’s lovely: draught-free living.  It’s also a bit like being drugged, it was so warm in my in-laws’ house that I started to slip into an involuntary hibernation. Just add food and I was off to the land of nod. At least in the UK it was the right way around being colder outside of the house than inside. Quite a far cry from our home here in Mallorca, que frio, as they say. We are dependent here on our wood burning stove, electric blankets and extra jumpers. We live in an old, draughty, damp, stone house: terrific in the summer when you’re sweating cobs, not so fantastic in January. How come nobody seems to know that it can be miserably cold even in the Mediterranean in the winter? We’ve been back for 48 hours, and we still can’t get the house to warm up.

It’s been quite a while since I spent any time in the UK; I’d forgotten how grey everything is in the winter. The sky is overcast, there’s no light; everything is dulled and blanketed in street grime. That’s not to say we didn’t have a terrific time visiting the folks and catching up with our friends, and we made a promise to ourselves that we wouldn’t let so much time go past before our next trip. But I’ve got to tell you, that blast of sunshine that hit our pasty faces when we emerged stiff-legged from an economy airplane on Sunday was enough to tip the scales in Mallorca’s balance, central heating or no. Here come the almond blossoms, the beautiful yellow flowers, the bright twinkling daylight shimmering on the too-cold-to-swim-in sea.

Look at me, yakking about the weather. Well, you know what they say, you can take the girl out of England, but you can’t take England out of the girl.


Our favourite free (or nearly free) family fun places in Mallorca

Our favourite free (or nearly free) family fun places in Mallorca

(as suggested by my Facebook friends today, in no particular order)

Cooler weather

  • ‘Walking to the top of the mountain where the Castillo of Alaro and end up in the restaurant munching lamb 🙂 Kids love it, we love it!’  (Benedicte Enbom Crofts)

Alaro Castle, is on top of the mountain of the same name. It is an ancient fort which has been in existence since the Muslim era. Alaro Castle was famously the only place in Mallorca not to fall to the invasion of the Moors when they invaded in the thirteenth century. These days it is a very popular walk. You reach the mountain, drive to Alaro and, towards the town of Orient, take the road leading signposted to Es Verger, where there is a restaurant and a parking area, There is an hostel at the top of the mountain where it is possible to stay the night if you want to have an adventure! More information and bookings on 971 182 112 Alternatively you can descend back to the car park and Es Verger which is famous for its lamb.

  • ‘The fabulous playground by the cemetery in Palma (Puigpunyent exit) – the one which looks like a massive castle. Hours of fun….’ (BEC) (We think it’s called Ses Estaciones, but we might be wrong. See the map).
  • ‘Walking from Caimari to Lluch. Those that don’t want to walk, drive up with the paella pan and contents. Nothing better than arriving at the BBQ spot and finding hot food!’(Kay Newton
  • Roller blading on the many paths we are so lucky to have here (BEC)
  • Giants, fireworks, dimonis – lots associated with fiesta, especially in smaller towns and villages, where families rule. Select according to age of kids. (Mike Goggin,

Warmer weather ideas

  • Es Capdella swimming pool. Free to use, and has a great playground as well. Excellent and cheap menu del dia place as well – check it out at lunchtime during the week for the best deals. (Vicki McLeod)

  • Portals Vells beach – excellent for kids and nice beach restaurant (BEC)
  • Watching the boys surf at Son Serra de Marina from the bar terrace! (KN)
  • Camping at Lluc. (Nicky Tennant Brown)
  • Snorkeling in the dark at St Elm beach with under water torches! Fab! (NTB) (I’m really into this idea! Can’t wait for the summer to do it!)
  • The monastry in Valledemossa (Gaynor Riopedre)
  • Scuba diving at El Toro and the Malgrats (GB)

‘I don’t think I have ever lived in a place that offers so many fun things to do for families – both free and paying. The nature is fabulous and a good thing to get kids to enjoy from an early age and there are some great paying activities because of the tourist industry as well. How lucky we are!’ Benedicte, thanks for that!

Thanks to my Facebook friends for their suggestions! If you have a suggestion please leave a comment for everyone to see.
You can find me on fb at


It’s that time of year when Mallorca residents find themselves extremely popular with people they haven’t heard from all year. The UK school summer holidays are upon us, and so are hordes of visitors.

Even Casa McLeod is preparing for VIPs this week: we’re not all that popular as a holiday destination given the ‘unique fixer upper opportunity’ status of our house, and our inability to stay in contact with our friends in the UK, so this is quite an unusual situation. My friend, Deborah, and her two children are coming to stay for a week and my family is on red alert. We have all been practising washing things up AND putting them away, not walking around in just our pants (well, it is hot now) and putting dirty clothes into the washing basket. It’s all looking good. I just hope we can keep it up for their entire stay.  I haven’t seen her in 17 years you see, and I want to have a wonderful time catching up with a very important girlfriend from way back when without worrying about my family’s lazy housekeeping techniques.  I’m not sure that should overly concern me, as if I remember rightly she was even more of a sloven than I was when we lived together many moons ago.

Benjamin Franklin said ‘Visitors are like fish, they should go off after three days’, and it’s certainly true that extended visits can stretch friendships to the limit. But some of us don’t have that option, I’m thinking about those family visits. You love them, but living cheek by jowl tends to expose tensions and different opinions on lifestyle that aren’t a problem when you are far apart from each other. It’s a delicate subject, and a sensible approach in my opinion is always to plan for some ‘alone time’ during the visit to decompress rather than let a brewing row escalate into something you can’t undo. Easier said than done though, I know well enough.

Cleverly my husband and I have managed to have our rows before our visitors arrive: in our efforts to prepare for them we have been attempting a few DIY activities. The by-products of some new shelving, an outside plug socket and a new garden bench were a contused middle toe, a big hole through the top of the washing machine and an extended grumpy fit on the hottest day so far this summer. It wasn’t pretty, but the shelves look good.

So now all that is left to do is do a ‘big shop’ before one of my oldest friends arrives, fish isn’t on the menu.

(first published 3 August 2010)




‘What’s she saying?’ G’s Grandmother turns to me as if I am going to be able to translate my daughter’s babblings. G fixes her gaze on me and launches into another stream of complete nonsense accompanied by hand gestures and deeply serious facial expressions. ‘I haven’t a clue’ is the only reply I can give, as I truly don’t know what she’s on about.

I’m not exactly a baby expert you know, only having the one. So I don’t really know what to expect in the way of language development. My girl was born in Mallorca, she lives in an English speaking family, with English telly, music and books, and goes to a local municipal nursery where she is taught in Castillano and Catalan, and surrounded by other little Mallorquinas and Mallorquinos who are probably also growing up with at least two languages in their heads. She’s been at the nursery since she was a year old, which is almost two years ago now.

Now don’t get me wrong here, I know my girl is smart and quick – her sense of humour and understanding of what I am saying to her is absolutely on the button. I very proudly explain to anyone who will stand still long enough to listen to me that my daughter will be at the very least trilingual, and I hope she learns many more languages than that along the way. But right now she’s all over the place with what comes out of her own mouth.

Or is she? Perhaps it’s just me not understanding a little girl’s interpretation of the languages that are around her. I don’t know. And that’s what is frustrating me here. She is so desperate to communicate and talk to us, but most of what comes out is gibberish, to us at least. Which leads to the most almighty of tantrums and misunderstandings.

It’s galling when she hangs out with our Mallorquin friends, Tomas and Consul, who quickfire Catalan at her and she nods in assent whilst we gape in incomprehension. And even worse when we’re stopped in the street by a kindly, well-meaning neighbour who kicks off in Catalan again and G again enjoys a better conversation than we ever do.


I understand why Mallorca is so adamant that its schools should teach in Catalan, I do. It’s a cultural identity, one which was denied for so long by Franco. But isn’t it actually going to disable its young as they grow up studying predominantly in a language which isn’t spoken much outside of Catalonia (which, although of course it is the centre of the Universe, is not the centre of the Universe of educational possibilities for a bright, young thing – if they studied outside of the confines of Catalonia where Catalan is the prinicpal language, then how would they manage in Spanish, which would be their second language rather than their first? Does that disadvantage a student? Possibly).

I’m not fluent in Spanish, but I get by. I like to throw in the odd Catalan word here and there, to show willing, but really it’s so different to Castillano, that I don’t know when, if ever, I will truly understand it. Which leads me to my next worry….. what happens when G goes to school? How will I help her with her homework if I can’t understand it either? I’m not the only immigrant parent who suffers this indignity, plenty of my girlfriends with similar aged kids are in the same situation, and we’re going to have to figure out a solution before homework becomes important. Or cross our fingers that Mallorca will relax its stance on teaching mainly in Catalan and move over to the more international Castillano. I know that I am not alone in feeling that the insistence by the Balearic government for Catalan is misguided, you’d be surprised by how many local people also think it’s a foolish thing to be doing.

There’s a private school opening in September which is going to be teaching in English, German and Spanish…… which hits hard against my Socialist principals, and my need for my daughter to grow up in her local community. It’s not an easy decision, but something we won’t need to seriously think about until she’s bigger. For now, she’s going to the local school in the Port from September where she will learn in Catalan and Castillano and we will supplement that learning at home by teaching her to read and write in English.

When I first came to Mallorca, I considered the future which I hoped would have children in it, and it does, but I certainly didn’t consider the details which all currently seem to be in Catalan.