The Green Hills of England

It’s drawing near to December, that time of year when, like as not, English hearts across the world look back to Albion. Say what you like, but Christmas just isn’t the same anywhere else. I’ve been told as much by the Spaniards themselves, some of whom know it only from what they’ve seen in books and on TV.

I’ve never been the kind to get too nostalgic about home, probably because I’ve always lived by the creed that home is where the heart is, and if truth be told, my heart is rather portable. I’ve been none too careful with it. There’s pieces of it everywhere; in Olvera, in El Rocio, in Boroboro and in the Lake District. This year is no different. I’ve been working here in Villafranca for exactly two months now, and I’ve yet to feel any desperate pangs for home home. How can I, when there are so many places I want to be? I’m also a natural loner, by habit and by necessity. Spending long periods in my own company has never bothered me all that much. Sometimes I prefer it that way. It’s a lot less complicated. So it’s got a fair amount to do with my personality, but it could well be because I’m simply too busy to get homesick. Being told I wasn’t needed for one of my classes this morning felt so decidedly wrong that I heard myself asking to make up the time later. I’ve told you before, I can’t deal with not being busy up to my eyes. It’s a state I both love and hate. But it’s a damn sight better than having nothing to do, which is the very worst state of all – just short of despair, which, I suppose, it is, in a way.

Enough musing! I’m not completely immune, and after reading several blog posts on a similar theme, I’ve got to wondering what it is that I miss about England when I’m not there, and I came up with a few:

  1. Milk. You know, regular, cold milk, none of this warm UHT stuff. Yes, I get it, we’re the only species that drinks another animal’s milk and it’s unnatural, but it’s a lot nicer in the morning than UHT.
  2. Music. I’ve already elaborated on this one, so I won’t go into it again.
  3. Footpaths. When you’ve grown up in a country so well-stocked with public footpaths across open country, coming to a land where unsigned farm tracks of dubious public status are the only alternative to roads is a little depressing.
  4. Rain. There’s something magical about rain. It makes me feel elated, especially the real storms, the ones where you simply have to rush outside and get soaked to the skin. That’s more of an African thing than an English thing, but we do get a lot of rain in England, and a lot more than Spain, anyway.
  5. Green. It’s not as much of a problem here as it was in Jordan, as Extremadura is actually rather green itself at this time of year, especially in the north. But it extends beyond that. It’s that cold wind in the night, the dewy scent in the morning, the crunch of frosty ground underfoot. An English autumn green and red and gold. As much as I love hot countries, it’s the one thing I truly miss when I’m gone. And nowhere, NOWHERE does it better than the Lakes.

That’s about as much as I can think of. Family, obviously, would be at the top of the list, but that’s a given. That’s the only reason I’m going home for Christmas this year, because I’m rushing straight back out here for January; for the Reyes Magos, for Olvera and for the Lion King in Madrid (I’ll save that for a later post). What with my younger brother at university now, all four of us left in the Young family are living and working in four different places, so it’ll be nice to be home together again for Christmas. As for the things I thought I’d miss – friends, food and life in general – I’ve got plenty of all three out here, and in a few cases it’s better than back home.

But the important thing is this: Christmas is a time for being with your family. Forget Christmas; the end of the year, when it’s dark and cold, and a new year is on the brink – that’s a better time than any to be with your nearest and dearest. I’d have liked to have stuck it out here, in defiance, or maybe gone to Olvera to spend it with my friends, but at the end of the day, they have their own families, and I wouldn’t want to hijack somebody else’s special day. So for England I’ll be bound, mere hours before Christmas Day, and for once, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I’m not ashamed to be British. And I have Allan Quatermain to thank for that. Allan Quatermain, and John Lockley, and Flashman, and all the other British heroes of literature, who in spite of all of my self-imposed angst at the shame of being British, have shown me that there is in fact a fierce integrity in being from Albion.

For the first time in history, I’m an Englishman abroad – and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. BB x

On Olives…

I have to admit, going olive-harvesting in my best red chinos was not quite the date I had in mind this weekend. Highly entertaining and not a day to forget, but neither did I see it coming.

Whether Ali’s father’s suggestion that I tag along for the day and help out was made in jest or not is beyond me, but then, I’ve never been particularly good at saying no to anything. And that’s how I found myself  armed with two right-hand gloves and a campo hat, scrabbling about in the soil for olive windfall. It’s got to be both the strangest and the most enjoyable morning out here so far.

Like a lot of Olvereñans – it might not be too bold to say most – Ali’s family has their own campo, or plot, where they earn a modest income from their olives. Just like the interior of a Spanish house, Spaniards take great pride in their campo too, and Ali was very apologetic about the state of the place when we rolled up in the car. Of course, compared to the cave-house of mine that’s now sporting its very own jasmine jungle, it might have been a manicured lawn.

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I digress. We kitted up, Ali and her mother sporting rodillas, leather knee-guards which look for all the world like hockey pads, and set off across the grove to the spot where her father and his friend Chico were already hard at work, the one shaking the branches of an olive tree with a motorized contraption of some description whilst the other beat the hardiest olives out of the tree with a heavy stick, or palo. With the tarpaulin stretched out for several metres in all four directions, it was clear they’d not been idle in the first two hours of the working day: the lower end of the tarp was already a sea of shining black, laced with the green leaves and branches that had been dislodged in the vigor of the machine. There was only one palo to hand so they set me to work removing the unwanted debris from the harvest, as the gritty stuff – the hand picking of the olives that fell before the harvest began – is apparently women’s work. The use of machines and the bashing of the trees is a man’s job. How very Spanish.

And how very Benjamín to be relegated to said women’s work later, anyway.

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I didn’t particularly mind. It meant I was doing something a lot more useful, even if I did need my technique corrected every few minutes. Here’s a few staples:

1. Always pick facing uphill, from the bottom up. This is better for your back.

2. Use both hands. This increases speed and efficiency.

3. Keep the bucket in front of you. That way, you don’t have to turn whilst picking.

4. Be selective, but don’t be too selective. Dried out olives don’t yield good oil, but they don’t have to be shiny and new either.

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Ali’s father went off for a beer with Chico leaving me and the women to keep working. Over a few hours my Spanish got more comfortable – there’s always a reload period – and I found myself discussing the positives and negatives of staying bruto (rustic) in the face of Castilian, which would be both easier and more globally understandable. Personally, I can’t help myself: I for one consider the gaditano slur to be one of the sexiest accents in the world, cutting just ahead of Parisian French and Donegal Irish. How much I understand depends largely on the person; I understand most of what Ali and her friends say to me, but much of what Ali’s father said got lost in the ether. I know that at some point he thought me Ali’s boyfriend and joshed me about the appealing sight of his daughter fishing for olives on her hands and knees up in front (specifically, “tío, when I was your age, I certainly had a good look”), but any other teasing/scolding/words of wisdom were lost on me.

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I got another chance for a long conversation with Ali when we had a tree to ourselves, there to practice a different aceitunero technique: ordeñar, or stripping the branches by hand, in much the same way you milk a cow (hence, ordeñar). Nine years is a long time apart and I’ve still plenty of stories to share, but most of them sadly do not fall under the remit of Intermediate Level Spanish, so I fear she had to put up with a lot of jumbled sentences before I was understood. I really must study grammar this Christmas. The conditional has been plaguing me more than I thought it might.

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The temperature plummeted just before lunch and rain threatened, so we raced back to the house with our harvest and took lunch there: tortilla, bread and… olives. Each kilo sells to the local cooperativa for several centimos, which surprised me, but goes some way to explaining why, for all the millions of olive trees and hundreds of olives on each one, Andalucía is still a very poverty-stricken corner of Europe. To be an aceitunero is not a job in itself, certainly. It’s something extra the locals do come harvest time to earn a little more.

Well, I’m no aceitunero. I know a great deal more than I did before, but it’s a different world. It’s very much the earthy heart and soul of the very Andalucía I cherish, and I wonder just how much of an interloper I must be, taking part in such an intrinsically Andalusian rite. There are guiris who’ll pay for the experience: voluntourism. I got it for free, on account of my game-for-anything personality and affection for the campesino‘s daughter. I wonder what that meant on a deeper level…


It’s because of the olives that we can’t see each other again for several weeks. Such are the travails of a ‘pobrecito‘ and his campo. I suppose that gives me time to think, and to write. But it’s always worth the wait, even if it’s only for Olvera herself. Next time I’ll give myself a day to tackle the vulture mountain of Zaframagón. Or that abandoned convent I discovered once upon a time. Andalucía is something special, from the olives to the people who farm them. I hope it never leaves my heart. BB x

Explosions in the Night

When Eyjafjallajökull erupted and grounded flights across Europe, I was one of the last to hear of it. Indeed, my mother and I knew nothing of it until we got to the airport, only to be told there’d be no flights for several days because of the Icelandic volcano – didn’t you see the news? It wasn’t even for want of connectivity to the outside world, though I was spending a couple of days in the marshy outpost of El Rocío at the time, but because Spanish news the night before decided to prioritize a report on whether Spaniards actually react to STOP signs, as they’re written in English, over the eruption. Of all the nights…

Last night, once again, the world was rocked by explosions of a very different, more sinister nature, and I slept through them unawares – until I saw the news this morning. And if I’m being totally truthful, I heard plenty of explosions last night here in Extremadura, but they were all of them of my own making. IS declared its actions to be an act of war this morning, and another great and terrible power made a similar declaration the night before – in my head.

I’m here in Cáceres for the Fiesta de las Tres Culturas, ostensibly to do a bit of sightseeing but primarily in search of inspiration for my novel. Cáceres is a stunningly beautiful medieval city, especially so when the town is kitted out with a giant medieval market and the townsfolk are all dressed up. There are crepe-peddlers from Lisbon, camel farmers from Valladolid and a musical troupe from Tetouan, to name just a few. And of course there’s at least one Englishman wandering about the old city with a sketchbook, snatching the occasional character out of the street with his pencils. All in the name of the novel. As I’m now set on nothing else for a career, I’ve started to take this writing malarkey very seriously.

Last night I was scripting the grand denouement of my saga, involving a terrible siege and the destruction of several beautiful buildings, as is necessary for the eventual outcome. As the bombs went off in Paris and gunfire turned the streets into a second Beirut, I had musket and cannon salvos in my head. That the idea came to me at around the same time as the attacks began is probably pure coincidence. The realization this morning of said coincidence made me feel quite sick. Everybody in the hostel cafe was silent with their eyes fixed on the TV as the ticker tape spelled out Spain’s reportage of the dreadful events of the previous night. The whole of Paris in a state of emergency? Citizens told not to leave their homes and the army deployed onto the streets? It’s like something out of a story in itself. And once again, we’re told the perpetrators were operating under the shadowy veil of IS. A war of a very different nature to the ones going on in my mind. There, in the simplified romanticism of my imagination, there are always two clear sides, figures of questionable authority in leading roles on both fronts, and a battleground on which to resolve any dispute by military force.

Not so in the real world. Twenty-first century warfare is a far more sinister affair. It’s international. A war of proxy, of shady political dealings and old worlds dragged unwillingly into democracy and the present day. Of drone strikes and mobile phones. Skirmishes fought in the East are avenged by agents operating upon the civilian population in the West. A state of total war where nobody is safe, from the soldier out on manoeuvres in Damascus to the man back home who used to deliver him the mail. At least, that’s as much as I remember of the term from my wrangling with A-Level History (before it got tedious and became the study of historians and social policy, not kings).

In short, I don’t have the foggiest as to how to react. I’m just a wannabe author voicing my feelings as they come to me. Ask a history or international relations student for their views if you want a kernel of experience: my foray with Charlie Hebdo showcased my inadequacy for dealing with such weighty matters in a succinct, un-detached manner. That’s only natural; growing up as a writer, I’ve fought hard to hold on to my imagination, and with it the childish way of seeing things as fair and unfair, good and evil, where everything can be tied back to the condition of the human heart. Mine, at the very least, is a gentle one, and it doesn’t take much to make it bleed. Hence the moniker. But it would do us all well to remember that at the heart of this long and terrible nightmare are human beings like you and me.

Personally, I ask for no swift vengeance on IS and its agents. A beast pushed into a corner is capable of unpredictable ferocity, and we’ve been pushing for long enough. The wave of violence will only spiral out of control, and many innocents will be caught up in the whirlwind before it’s over. That being said, I sincerely hope that the surviving perpetrators feel the weight of every casualty in their hearts. Some villains are unshakeable in their resolve – I turn you to fiction once again: Iago, Moriarty, the Joker and all the martyrs and psychopaths of that nature – but under the cloak of a righteous cause, there’s as human a heart, imbalanced and afraid, as everyone else.
At least, that’s my way of looking at it. I’ve probably got the wrong end of the stick as usual, but writing is my trade, and if I must write, it will be from the heart, and mine currently hurts from all I’ve seen and heard. My thoughts and prayers go not just to the people of Paris, but to the beleaguered Syrians themselves, for whom this dark threat is ever at hand, and who, fleeing said terror, have found so many European powers that bow not to the strength of their humanity but to whatever quota they deem acceptable; to a land that, for all its sympathy, continues to look to its own, until its own become the targets. To them, and to all the victims of terror around the world, in whatever form it may take, Eastern or Western.
I never did believe in Utopia, and I never will, but the sooner we can put an end to this shadowy decades-long war of terror, the better. BB x

A Dearth of Music

I have to confess, the absence of YouTube in my life is doing me wonders. But it comes with a cost: the main reason I use it, for browsing music old and new, is sorely missed. Villafranca de los Barros is supposedly the ‘City of Music’. In all honesty, you’ll find more music variety in Lloyds’ Durham on a Wednesday night.

Ever since the sequence of events in February 2015 that saw my iPod disappear and reappear a month later, my laptop give out and the arrival of this highly portable but sadly much-desiring Chromebook – which is too feeble to support either my music library or even an iTunes account in the first place – my iPod’s music selection has been stuck on the stuff I had loaded onto it from January this year. All the music I’ve discovered since, from the Moroccan beach-town hostels to my music-concert escapades in Jordan, has to be consigned to memory instead. Which is fine, but as music is such an important part of my life, it’s a little tragic. I’m not umbilically attached to my iPod by any means, but on Mondays and Wednesdays when I’m faced with an hour of mutinous six-year old Spaniards, it really is an essential piece of my arsenal to go in armed with at least five minutes’ listening to my Africa playlist, or my Super-Hyper-Motivator playlist, or what-have-you. It keeps me smiling. It’s like a more short-range and portable form of meditation.

But I’m limited to what I knew in January 2015 – which is obviously the bulk of my music, that’s a given, but music’s a transitive thing; more often than not, it’s the more recent tunes that I want in my ears, and not the old classics – though they surprise me anew and anon with Shuffle on. The Rite of Spring came up this morning and I listened to the whole thing from start to finish for the first time in a while. I’d quite forgotten how masterful the whole thing is – personal prejudice from growing up with Fantasia aside.

But it’s not just the listening I miss. It’s the performing. Bowing to the occasional whims of my students as a performing monkey isn’t the same. I miss singing and I miss the stage. Teaching is always on a kind of stage with all the spotlights on you, and so’s the dancing I tend to go in for, but it’s not the same. And that’s where my personal vendetta against ukuleles and guitarists comes in. You guys have it far too easy, and open mics are the ultimate test of proof. Unaccompanied singing just doesn’t work. I’m a singer before anything else (we’ll forget that I wandered away from Grade Six violin several years ago for now) but singing alone is more of a shower affair than a stand-up thing. Armed with a uke in hand or a guitar across your lap, you’re good to go. Me, I just feel like a fish out of water without the backing of a band or a chorus.

As such, I’ve only ever done one open mic. Shake Your Tailfeather a cappella. Never again.

There’s a Christmas concert coming up in a couple of weeks (in November… go figure) for which the music teacher and a small group of girls have asked me to help conduct/choreograph All I Want for Christmas Is You… Predictable, much. It’s the best I’m going to get for a while so I’m throwing myself into it, naturally, but just you wait until the bilingual schools’ intercambio here in February, for which we’re supposed to put on a show. I’ll be pulling out all the stops with some classics then, for sure. The only question is, do I go with Northern Lights or do I throw them some easier African numbers? Either way, I win. And either way, I’m going to end up tear-stained, as I dearly miss both my old gang and the feeling I used to get in every African Singing and Drumming performance. Jimminy Christmas, but I miss having music in my life. It’s the only killer of living in Spain. They’re big on their reggaeton, and of course there’s flamenco, but they just don’t get music in the same way. Or maybe that’s just me growing up in a family where both my parents were music teachers, and thus spending almost all twenty-two years of my life involved in one way or another in choirs, bands, musicals and orchestras of all descriptions.

On a positive note I’ve just been paid by one of my two jobs, which is a welcome relief in a time when the rest of the world (myself including) is still waiting on the all-important paycheck from the Ministry of Education, which may or may not be with us in arrears until Christmas, or so the horror stories go. I’m currently dreaming of where to go with both the time and money next August, as I’m not used to having both at the same time. Having the latter at all is a novelty, but together with time is a very new thing for me. The painful memories of the longest gap year with no job, no desire to obtain one and consequently barely a penny to my name are still vivid in my mind.

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Hooked on Africa

I’m currently hooked on the idea of backpacking in South Africa, which I’ve been toying with on-and-off for years. The first girl I ever dated was half-Afrikaner, which I suppose is where the obsession began in earnest, but it’s the music that’s the real draw. My mum and dad are of the opinion that I would be better served waiting for the Soweto Gospel Choir to tour a little closer to home if it’s the music I’m after, but I don’t see it that way. I miss the joy of the open road, the terror of nor knowing where I’m going to end up, the awkward encounters and the divine, and the host of colourful characters you meet along the way. In short, I miss a decent bit of travelling. All I have to do before August 2016 is to find somebody bonkers enough to want to come with. Not that I wouldn’t go alone, but it’d be a lot more fun with a friend. If you’re reading, dear companions, give it some thought!

I’ll leave you with the latest pox upon my heart, which is (of course) a Soweto number. I tell you, if it weren’t for my job, my degree and a certain gaditana, I’d up sticks right away and go straight to South Africa every time I hear this. Yours truly really is a bleeding heart, and if I’m not careful, it’ll be more than just my heart bleeding one day. BB x

Diamond in the Rough

This week started just about the same way as every week begins, with me waking up to the sound of my seven o’clock alarm, with the morning’s first class just an hour and a quarter away, and finding myself struck with the weekly conundrum that is ‘now, what am I going to teach today?’.

For the first three weeks I had some stellar lesson plans, but we’re filing into my fifth working week here now (I told you before, my observation week became my first teaching week) and my tried-and-true classes have come and gone. Four down, twenty-seven to go. Since in school I teach across the age-groups, from six to twenty-two, I have to split my material in half depending on their ability, which requires two new lesson plans each week. Not exactly a challenge, per se, especially when several of those are shared between groups, meaning it’s possible (and highly recommended) to recycle material; but it’s a weekly problem, after a weekend spent traveling, partying or what have you, that on Sunday night the question is always there on the tip of my tongue as I bed down for the night. What am I going to teach them today?

Today I thought I’d brave it and try literature on the kids. Foolhardy, I know, especially after my last attempt at sparking some creativity amongst the would-be dullards, but I’m not about to give up on them yet. To spark their interest – and since I’ve just spent most of the weekend reading the tale – I kicked things off by drawing a blackboard-sized Moby Dick on the board, complete with scars, harpoons and rigging. Most of them had heard of it, but understandably, none of them had actually read it.

Well, not quite. One of them had.

I did a little double-take at this and made him explain the plot to the class. The way he put it, in English, a language that is not his own, told the tale better than Herman Manville (personally, I found the text hard-going, turgid even, though the story itself was impeccable). Better yet, he beat me to it and cited Manville as the author. I thought I’d let him sit on his laurels for a while and ask the others for any books they’d read recently, but they just stared blankly at me, as though I’d asked them if they’d like to spend the rest of the day doing quadratics. Moby – the pseudonym I shall forthwith use for this very literate kid – had his hand up the whole time and went on to tell me about Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. That he had read them in translation is beside the point. This is a boy of fifteen who’s busy working his way through the classics.

As I was struggling to elicit some kind of interest from the rest of the class – who, as you might expect, were getting visibly bothered by Moby’s contributions – my colleague spent the hour taking notes of other writers that he might enjoy, amongst them Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens. One of Moby’s companions lost it and complained loudly that it was unfair that only Moby was talking. My colleague and I soundly brought him down a size by repeating that all I was asking for was a story any of them had read, and that as Moby was the only one who was willing to talk, they only had themselves to blame for their silence. I opened the floodgates a little by allowing them to tell me about a film or television series they might have seen, but on that inch they took a mile and missed the point completely; three accounts down the line I had to remind them that match reports, game shows and reality TV are not stories, and consequently didn’t count.

Pushed into a corner, one kid looked very chuffed to say he thought his favourite TV show, a Spanish version of Match of the Day, was far better entertainment than any book he’d ever read. Granted, he probably hasn’t read very widely – I hadn’t at his age – but for good measure I told him that a show where two obnoxious early retirees discuss what happened, what might have happened, what should have happened and what might happen next time in a football match for an entire hour could hardly be as entertaining as a decent read. I could have done worse, of course, but I held back. Most of it went over his head anyway, as it was supposed to. I’m not foolhardy enough to let my personal prejudices against the tedium that is the world of football discussion ruin my relationship with my students, who already know I’m none too keen on it.

As you might have guessed, I was getting pretty frustrated by this point. I’ve learned to mask it after a month of teaching these kids, but it’s still pretty galling when you ask a simple question and all you get in return is twenty-three gormless expressions. But Moby came back with the goods, stating that he hadn’t read any books in English yet, but that over Christmas he was going to try with Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings. You’ve got to hand it to the kid; starting to read in a foreign language with Tolkein…? That takes guts. My parents are prolific readers and they can’t stand his writing, and sadly they’re not alone (though I, for one, can’t get enough of the stuff).

In the other establishment I work at there are several kids like Moby in every class; students who are well-read, well-cultured and whose English is streets ahead of their companions. It’s the norm in a private school. And teaching in both private and state has its merits. But kids like Moby make the state school experience so much more worthwhile, for all the challenges. Here is a boy who, despite everything, is working his way through the literary greats for the pure pleasure of it, with his mind bent on attending university in Toronto of all places. It’s kids like Moby who remind me just why it is that I love teaching. Because for all the sour looks, disinterest and gossipping that goes on, when there’s at least one kid who’s shining with promise there’s a reason to go on. Obviously you can’t cater to that one child alone – if it were that simple, everyone would want to be a teacher, I think – but as long as you know that what you’re dealing is going towards somebody’s personal development, that’s reward enough for all your travails.

As for me, I’ve got a fair amount of catching up to do. Moby Dick was this weekend’s read; The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Robinson Crusoe await, along with Allan Quatermain (after a two-month hiatus). Maybe I’ll recommend King Solomon’s Mines to Moby when I next get the chance. It’s certainly one of my favourites. BB x