Spoilt Rotten

Today offered up the perfect example of why you should save a weekly summing-up-style post for the end of the week. Because most of what I was talking about in yesterday’s mammoth entry happened again today, if only in miniature. But because it’s probably ranking amongst the best days I’ve had here yet, I’ll throw it in – if just to find an outlet for the photos I took today.

I should warn you; if you read yesterday’s post, today’s might smack more than a little of déjà vu.

So I went into class this morning and tried to do another round of ‘My Secondary School’ presentation. I must have jinxed the system last night, because it froze no less than six times, requiring six reboots and twenty minutes lost. Still, I managed to get most of the presentation done despite everything. Once you’ve been doing the same lesson for four or five hours a week, you hardly need to look at your notes to know what comes next. You find yourself saying the exact same turns of phrase, making the same gestures and cracking the same jokes, whether they worked or not. It’s a little strange, that. I only notice it when I look back.

My second class of the day was spent half on the workbook, and half on John Lennon’s Imagine. Considering the near-total absence of a choral tradition in this country, they did a damn good job for a class of twenty-nine twelve year-olds. They also reminded me that they haven’t forgotten that I promised to bring them some peanut butter. If mine hadn’t been confiscated at the airport, I’d have obliged them earlier, but as it is they’re getting restless… At least it’s on its way! The things I do for these children, honestly…

My third class of the day was (technically) my last class with one of my favourite groups, a lower sixth bachillerato class and one of the very best. I had a Uganda presentation planned for them, but if I expected them to sit and listen in silence, I had another thing coming. Halfway through OMI’s Cheerleader started playing and the ringleader of the group revealed three bags full of crisps, cups and Coke. After apologising for not paying much attention during my presentation, he explained to me that when they heard me announce that today was my last lesson with them, they arranged on the spot to throw a party. That explains why there was a general hum during the presentation (these kids are usually silent) and why Candi left ‘to take an important phone call’. A lot of hugs, a lot of puñados and a lot of love.

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Yeah, I really need an autofocusing lens. Nobody really understands manual focus

I never even got to finish my presentation; we’d only got as far as Kyambura. But I don’t care. I’m touched. And if I can find a way to claw back an hour with them, even if it’s out of my own free time, I will.

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On to today’s main event. Today is Día de la Paz. It’s something I haven’t celebrated since I was last in a Spanish school myself, which was way back in 2007. I’m not entirely sure why, but English schools (or at least, the ones I went to) don’t deem it celebration-worthy. Must be something to do with the general negative attitude towards anything that might detract from that sacrosanct curriculum of ours.

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Now 2007 was a long time ago – almost a decade – and I can’t really remember what it was we did in C.E.I.P. Miguel de Cervantes to celebrate Día de la Paz. Something similar to today’s events – minus the John Lennon, of course. Melendez Valdés’ plan was heavy on the balloons, anyway. Handy, since I’ve been trying to explain the concept of a balloon race all week.

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We all gathered in a square the patio in the final hour of school, and two representatives from each class came up to the front to read a quote about peace, which was written on a small dove-shaped card and attached to one of many white balloons brought forward by the students.

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I’d brought my camera on the off-chance that Día de la Paz would be a good chance to finally grab some photos of the instituto; for my drawing, if not for the sake of it. Madrid with Ali should have been a reminder, but I’d plain forgotten just how willing kids are to have their photographs taken. That’s reassuring – because they make the very best of subjects. Always.

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When everybody had said their piece (no pun intended), I was called out of the square to lead the recorder orchestra (oh, now that takes me back) and the rest of the lower school in singing Imagine. I guess I should have seen it coming, but that basically resulted in the recorders playing a completely different version of the song to the one everybody else had learned – and, consequently, me singing on my own. Well, I can’t say I didn’t see that coming. Because I did. And in the background, the teachers began to release the balloons and their messages of peace, one by one.

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It’s not been particularly windy for a while, so wonder just how far those balloons will go…

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Here’s to hoping that wherever they end up, the messages of peace they’re carrying with them put a smile on somebody’s face – in irony or in truth, it really doesn’t matter. Just as long as they’re smiling. (Exit Sop, stage left) BB x

A Step in the Right Direction

I love blackboards. They’re quirky, they’re the very definition of old-school and, more importantly, they’re reliable. Grab yourself some chalk and you’re good to go. The sad thing is, they’re on the way out.

Wait, what? I thought they were done away with years ago, I hear you say? I remember a grand total of two years of blackboards in primary school before whiteboards and whiteboard markers edged them out, to be replaced almost instantly by the firestorm that was the first wave of interactive whiteboards. Well, blackboards are still the status quo here – or rather, they were, until last week. The twenty-first century has arrived in Extremadura, it seems, and the herald is the interactive whiteboard.

It’s been highly interesting to watch the reactions, as my scope as a teacher covers kids from five to eighteen along with several seniors. Unsurprisingly the youngest are the most in awe, and I’ve had to play the fool and feign ignorance, living through the ‘brand new toy’ atmosphere along with the rest so as not to spoil it for them. How are they to know that I was no older than nine years old when I had my first encounter with an interactive whiteboard, some twelve years ago?

As such, I’m long since past the shock-and-awe stage, and I see them as more of a nuisance. Not only have you got to spend time mucking about with the computer and projector, but you’ve got to keep an extra eye open, because kids just love to touch the damn things (I’ve already banned its use in my two primary classes because they just won’t keep their hands off). On top of that, if you’ve planned a lesson that requires the technology and it decides, for whatever reason, to screw you over by playing up, that’s the entire lesson out of the window.

And that’s without mentioning the calibration nonsense. How does one even draw properly on one of those things? As such, I’m definitely in Camp Blackboard.

All I can say is that if my generation made the same fuss over this new technology, I’m truly sorry. The last two weeks have been comparable to trying to plug a burst water main with one’s hands.

So, apart from lapsing into his old Luddite ways, what else has yours truly been up to?

In a complete turn-around from the way things were at the beginning, my state school kids have been nothing less than complete angels of late. Our school hosted a charity event last Friday in aid of the Syrian Refugee crisis, which I agreed to sing for. When my backing singers bottled out, I ended up having to improvise a new number, which was a mish-mash of several of Tolkein’s walking songs set to music, half from the 1981 BBC Radio adaptation (my childhood, right there) and half from the 2003 Return of the King movie – specifically, Billy Boyd’s The Steward of Gondor. And what do you know, it worked! I’ve had people coming up to me all week telling me how it sent shivers up their spine (or the Spanish equivalent, piel de gallina), which has done my crushed ego a world of good.

Alicia of 4º ESO delivers a brilliant monologo

On top of that, I had a wonderful surprise yesterday when I turned up to a class to find four people missing: three students and, crucially, the teacher. Of course, nobody thought to tell me until that moment that she’d be on a school trip. As it turns out, I’d arrived just in time, as most of the kids were on the verge of following their three classmates’ example and doing an early runner. For reasons I still can’t fathom, instead of making a break for it – unwisely, I did give them the opportunity – they stuck around to see what I’d got in store for them, after giving me a demonstration of the songs they’d prepared for this year’s chirigotas (satirical songs, often covers with the lyrics rewritten to local effect).

It was halfway through the second when a cover teacher showed up and tried to take over. I managed to persuade him that I had the situation under control (Nixon never told a bigger lie) and let him have the afternoon off. From the moment he shut the door behind him I had the unwavering attention of the whole class for the presentation I’d prepared, and that in itself was nothing short of a miracle.

But better yet was when I got to school the following morning to be told by their teacher that not only had they enjoyed the lesson, but that they’d told her that they really learned a lot from it. It’s little moments like that that really make teaching worthwhile. It truly is a vocation and I can’t help but feel I was called a long time ago. And so what if it’s a family tradition? I’m a traditional sort of guy. I can handle that.

Not so nice was what came later, when I voluntarily took an hour out of my free time to pay a visit to the Upper Sixth class, which (for reasons beyond my understanding) is the one year group in the school which has no contact with me at all. Most of them were really keen to see me at last, but I also had the first example of hostility I’ve ever faced in a classroom when one of the students, pressed to ask me ‘a question, any question’ by the teacher, said in perfect English that he ‘quite honestly couldn’t care less about [me]’. He shut up pretty quick when I revealed that I was actually part-Spanish myself, but it did sting a little.

It didn’t hurt for long. I had a primary class right after which took my mind off the whole thing, to put it lightly, and for the rest of the afternoon I had my hands full trying to keep the restless upper tiers of my private school kids under control – which came to a head in one of the funnier instances of the year so far.

We were discussing Netflix, illegal downloads and streaming on the internet and, naturally, the subject of porn came up – what do you expect in a Catholic school? Now, one particularly chatty kid always gets that class’s goat and today one of them decided the kid had simply gone too far and brought him down to size royally, joking that he watched porn, but on his Smart Watch, ‘because it’s a lot more practical that way’.

He didn’t need to demonstrate. I couldn’t keep a straight face for ten minutes.

On the whole, there’s been lot of reasons to smile over the last two weeks; ever since I wrote that post on reasons to smile, in fact. Troublesome though they are, I still cherish the hugs I get from my primary kids on a Wednesday. It makes me feel appreciated. So too do I accept the hero worship I get from my cuarto class every time I pass their classroom, because it makes my heart soar when they scoff at my facts, laugh at my jokes and generally get so involved in my classes.

Oh, and the swallows and the martins are here. Already. In January, for Pete’s sake. I’m practically on tip-toes I’m so happy.

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Couldn’t grab the swallows, but the siskins that stopped by the park were pretty obliging

But perhaps the best thing that’s happened over the last two weeks has been the arrival on YouTube – at last – of last summer’s A Night at the Movies concert in Durham Cathedral. I wrote a blog post about it at the time, which you can read here to refresh your memory if you like, but needless to say it was the single best night of my life, and remains so to this day. To have the chance to watch it all over again has had my head spinning. I’ve put a link to the grand finale below. Listen carefully at 3:10 and you might just hear yours truly belting out the Zulu solo, despite having next to voice left by that stage of the night!

It’s been a love-filled few weeks, and I’ve needed it, all of it, as after what was supposed to be the date of the year became the friend-zoning of the century, I’ve not had the easiest start to 2016. As it is, I’m coming out fighting.

I’ll leave you with that Smart Watch image, I think. It stills gives me the giggles, in the most shameless, puerile fashion. But then, I am shameless. You know that. BB x

Imagine No Long Hours

It’s Día de la Paz next week, which means I’ve had three of my classes this week hijacked by the staff who are keen for me to use my musical knowledge to teach John Lennon’s Imagine, as it has been chosen as the theme for the day. That before this week the only version I knew was Peter Serafinowicz’s uproariously satirical spoof is probably a black cross against my name, but it’s safe to say I now know the original song rather well and rather like it, too (though I can’t help but agree with some of my students who said that a world with no evil, no countries and nothing more to strive for would be a pretty sad place indeed).

After a slightly rocky start, we’re back into a good routine here in Villafranca. Lessons are going as great as ever, that Monday primary class is… still the same as it ever was… and my Spanish is getting closer and closer to the fluency I’ve so longed for all my life. I’m happy, truly. I’m in Spain; I could hardly ask for more.

But routine is routine, and I think it’s just as important to post in equal measure about the day-to-day doings of this particular guiri as my occasional travelogues, if just to prove to you that it’s not all fun and games. A lot of us (myself included) get a little sick and tired of the endless stream of posts that seem to scream  ‘here’s me on a sunny beach in Nice, and here’s me at a Full Moon Party, and here I am with the best friends ever aren’t-I-having-such-a-good-time-go-me’. I’m aware that yours truly is guilty of a few such posts. It’s just as annoying writing them, trust me. That’s why I like to talk about the regular days, too. Because life isn’t really a L’Oréal shoot, with the best bits on display and all the imperfections shaved off, like a Soviet photograph or a Facebook page. Some days good things happen, and some days bad, and whilst both make good writing material, there are also times when nothing happens at all, and that’s just as important to talk about – to add a touch of reality, if nothing else.

 

I spent the first week back clearing my mind by working my way through the Showtime TV series The Tudors, having bought it over the Christmas holidays. They get better than the pure testosterone-pumped medieval sex romp that is the first episode, honest, and besides, it’s the period and the rise and fall of characters such as Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More that interest me above all else. Unfortunately, disc three of season three has gone missing which, in my books, means that I can’t go any further until I’ve found it, as to skip two episodes would be nothing short of criminal. I’m a little autistic like that. It’s not that I don’t know the story… it’s just the principle, dammit.

 

In better news, I’ve joined the lycra hordes and got into a decent fitness regime (at last!). Alright, so I’m not too far gone to have gone and invested in a Lycra suit – I’d rather be seen dead – but at least I’ve got my foot on the ladder, so to speak. And whilst fifty pull-ups may stil be well beyond me (ha ha…), I’ve worked my way up to fifteen, so we’re getting there, bit by bit.

I’ve also got my hands on my first Spanish novel – or rather, one not set by my course, such as La Celestina or Cantar de Mio Cid. It’s called Indalo and it’s a historical epic set in Almería in the final years of the Emirate of Granada, which simply ticks all the boxes. I used to shy away from reading in another language, as I felt it detracts from the full enjoyment of the text. At the same time, a translation often loses much of the original magic of the writer’s own mind, so it’s little better – if not worse – reading one of those, too. But in this case I have no choice. There is no English translation. And the book simply leapt off the shelf at me, both in its cover work and its plot. I’ll get back to you on that once I’m done with White Fang. And maybe I’ll have a go at translating it myself, if just for the linguistic exercise that would offer.

 

This weekend doesn’t bring much. My Carnaval costume is on its way, there’s a charity meal tomorrow at school in aid of the Syrian refugees, so I’ll definitely be helping out at that, and my hairdresser pointed me in the direction of a bazaar down the road where I can finally practice my Arabic with the family of Moroccans who work there, so that’s all good. Before then I’ll simply have to think up a subtle way to bring up the fact that I speak (rusty) Arabic into a conversation. That could be entertaining in its own right.

I also finally got around to Skyping my dear friend and fellow Arabist Brocklesby yesterday, which warmed my heart immensely (catch up with her adventures over at Langlesby Travels). It’s amazing what a good hour and a half with a good friend can do. I’m planning a crazy trip all the way up to Cantabria to meet her as my first travel plan this term. That’ll take place at some point next February, so that should be entertaining. As ever, I’ll keep you posted.

There’s a saying that gets bandied about much too often about the year abroad, and that’s that it is, by many accounts, ‘the very best year of your life’. That may be so, if you make it so. But it doesn’t just fall into your lap like that. At the same time, you should feel you’re failing if it still doesn’t feel like the best year of your life so far. Mine’s going brilliantly, but only because I love this country and its people to pieces; believe me, I’ve had my tearful moments too. So the next time you see somebody posting about their latest wonderfully jealousy-inspiring adventure, just remember some advice that my mother gave me: everybody goes to the toilet. With that in mind, everything’s suddenly a lot easier to deal with, from globetrotters to interviewers to the man on the other end of the bank email. At least, I think so. BB x

Volunteering as Tribute

Landmark today – I wangled my way onto my first school trip with the English department.

Alright, so it’s not as impressive as it sounds… and no, it doesn’t even sound impressive. But as most of the other assistants that I know have already had their fair share of school outings, I consider it an achievement of sorts. Working two jobs as I do, it meant a whole heap of complications with my second school, which will see me making good on that lost hour tomorrow, at the cost of one of the ‘incriminated’ school’s classes. Such is the way that fee-paying schools seem to dominate things. Throw money into the mix and it just makes things unnecessarily complicated. That’s why I could never, and will never, lead the life of an artist. Why would you ever charge for something you love doing?

That’s enough preaching, BB. Back to the story-telling.

I guess you can say what today’s trip consisted of was exactly the kind of thing we get in schools in the UK for free (or at least, I always assumed they were free); that is, a low-key production managed by a small cast with minimal props. You know, the kind that had a message for us all, like don’t feel pressured into sex, don’t smoke, love yourself etc. Things that a hundred-odd zitty, long-haired English teenagers really love to hear. Today’s plays had no moral, but the ambience was more or less the same; the important thing was that they were performed in English, by two English actors.

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Cue yours truly being hustled over by the students as a portable translator. It wasn’t even that the English was complicated – it really wasn’t, and there was plenty of repetition – but I suppose the kids were just feeling lazy. The faltering sound system didn’t help either, which meant that most of what was said was completely and utterly lost on the kids. I got it, but only because as an Englishman abroad, I’ve become very, very good at picking up on English at a distance, even if it’s just a snatch of a conversation. My ears prick up whenever I hear it, and there’s little I can do to help that. I guess it’s just a kick from the nervous system, reminding me that, for all the will of the romantic in me, I’ve spent more years in England to call it home than Spain.

The first play was called Mary Frankenstein, for the kiddies in the first and second years of ESO. Plenty of selfie-sticks, slow-motion chases, inadvertently sexual moans and Jim Carrey-esque movements to keep my lot satisfied. The second play – The Final Answer (a mock-up game show based on Do You Want To Be A Millionaire?) – faced the tougher challenge of the third and fourth of ESO; the fifteen and sixteen-year olds. Some of the same gags, and some of the same laughs, but they were on the whole fairly mutinous throughout, and when it came to asking for a volunteer, I’m ashamed to say my school royally let the side down. I haven’t seen such resistance to going up on stage since… well, I don’t think I ever have. It makes me realise just how showy the Langton ethos really was after all. The poor actress’ exasperated expression very nearly had me crying out in frustration.

Which is why I got up and volunteered, I guess.

It was the perfect opportunity. She’d used an ask-the-audience wild card, and was panning the crowd for the answer to the question ‘Where were Shakespeare’s plays acted out?’. Since nobody here cared diddly-squat about Shakespeare (one thing they share, at least, with English schools), I volunteered as tribute. The expression on the actress’s face when it became apparent – probably as soon as I opened my mouth – that I was English was priceless. I got called up to the front to give the answer whilst my London Underground shirt was remarked on for the umpteenth time; she was keen to point out  Paddington, her home, on the map. With something of a that’s-how-it’s-done gesture to the kids, I left the stage.

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I didn’t volunteer the second time around, and the three students who were called up were from the other school present, themselves taking up less than a quarter of the theatre. The disappointment continues. The lads on my row tired of trying to translate the play for themselves and instead asked me on my return for my opinion on the actress’ breasts, and when I declined to reduce her to that much they spent the rest of the hour sizing up the females in the auditorium. I won’t go into even half of how much needs saying on that matter (it’s a thousand-word post at least), as it felt like I hadn’t even left the bestial world of White Fang, but I will say that it’s really not very difficult to see why Reggaeton is so popular here in Spain.
Y eso. Here’s to a slightly more productive trip next time around, and here’s to there being a next time around. There should be a natural sciences trip to Monfragüe on the cards that I’m already signed up for, but… This is Spain. In the meantime, my ever-wandering mind has been dreaming of Cameroon and the hills of Rhumsiki. Until then, b’salaama. I could really do with some Arabic practice x

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2016 Reasons to Smile

Hello you. Welcome to 2016. Happy new year, feliz año and all the rest. I’ve only really just finished with my first teaching day of the year and I’m already broken, but my Gold Box playlist is on at full blast, currently serving up a fantastically uplifting Son of Man courtesy of Phil Collins and all is as it should be. 2015 is behind us, a brave new year awaits. And it’s you who’ll climb the mountain, it’s you who’ll reach the peak.

What was it I said last year? That 2015 would be my year? In a sense, I suppose it was. It was, in all honesty, the very best of years. I took part in an international a cappella competition in London. I braved the Atlas Mountains. I sang the Circle of Life solo in front of a thousand-strong audience in Durham Cathedral. I recorded a single with the Lights. I saw the sun set over the Holy Land, swam with triggerfish in the Red Sea and watched a meteor shower over the desert in Wadi Rum. I found my old friends in Olvera after so many years and had some of the best nights of my life in my old hometown. I also had a close encounter with a griffon, saw the cranes come down for the winter and learned to harvest olives.

It wasn’t flawless, by any means. My essay ethic got worse and worse and my timetable got busier and busier, Persian was (sadly) a mistake, I had some Judas-level loyalty issues between the Lights and my official post as a musical director for Durham’s gospel choir and Year Abroad admin threatened to break me body and soul for several months. Amman, ever more of an obligation than a decision, practically drained me to the last drop of my will to study Arabic, and if it weren’t for having such good and honest companions about me, I might have tossed in the towel for good. And maybe, just maybe, I came home all the stronger for the ordeal.

But that’s looking back. Here’s to looking ahead. I’ve never been one for living in the past so much as in the future, which is equally problematic. One of my New Year’s resolutions really should be learning to live in the moment, which is a healthier state of mind by far, but… I guess I’d better be realistic. You can lead a horse to water, but if it’s not thirsty, there’s no point in drowning it just to make a point. So here, without further ado, are my reasons to smile in 2016.

  1. I’m alive. That’s as good a reason as any.
  2. I wanna know ’bout these strangers like me.
  3. I’m living in Spain. It’s what I’ve always wanted.
  4. I might be working long hours, but I’m being paid for it.
  5. Winter is upon us, and that means spring is around the corner.
  6. I’m going to be here in Spain when spring arrives.
  7. In three months’ time the bee-eaters will be here.
  8. Jesús and Laura, two of my primaria children, gave me a hug today.
  9. I’ve just seen The Lion King. Twice. Once on stage, once on film. Big smiles.
  10. Femi Kuti’s Truth Don Die has just come on.
  11. I’m going to learn something new this year.
  12. I’m going to go somewhere new this year.
  13. I’m going to live somewhere new this year.
  14. I’m going to meet somebody new this year.
  15. The world is huge, and full of life, and wonderful people, and beautiful moments.
  16. The sunsets here are nothing short of gorgeous.
  17. The novel is coming along better than ever before.
  18. You’re never lost if you’ve still got hope. And there is always hope.
  19. I’ve finally found my feet with serious photography after a few years’ absence.
  20. Get up, get on up; stay on the scene, like a sex machine.
  21. Durham chose me as one of its international bloggers.
  22. My brother and I are more alike than I ever knew.
  23. I know who my dearest friends are and I love them so.
  24. Erin Shore.
  25. I haven’t had to do a maths paper for almost six years.
  26. I haven’t started the TLRP yet, but it’s going to be hella interesting when I do.
  27. My passion for learning new (useless) facts hasn’t dried up.
  28. Nants ingonyama bagithi baba (sithi uhm ingonyama).
  29. Wa sangoma ngi velelwe.
  30. The 2015 negatives paragraph looks longer than the positives, but only because it ends on a positive.
  31. I’m not in Syria. Whoever decides these odds has dealt me a very fair hand.
  32. I’m an Englishman in a country where English is always in high demand.
  33. Consequently, I don’t hate being English anymore. Thank you Allan Quatermain.
  34. Dar baz ast.
  35. There’s plenty more fish in the sea. Oh, and the nearest sea is the Mediterranean.
  36. The Herculean backlog of stories I’ve got to read is still growing.
  37. The new Star Wars film is nowhere near as bad as the prequels.
  38. Zulu chant never ceases to lift my spirits, and it never will.
  39. I’m going back to Morocco in June.
  40. I’m not going back to Amman in June.
  41. Thriller.
  42. I might well be fluent in Spanish by the end of the year.
  43. Two of my Big Five life ambitions have already been accomplished.
  44. I’ll never stop chasing my dreams.
  45. I’ve still got two new pairs of socks to wear.
  46. Incidentally, the laundry is almost dry, too.
  47. Philip and Stephanie live happily ever after in the end.
  48. My childhood obsession with video games is over. Sméagol is free.
  49. I actually have three weeks’ worth of lessons already planned for once.
  50. I’ve got somewhere to live next year.
  51. I’ve got a roof over my head at the moment, which is more than can be said for many.
  52. Everyone is where they need to be, doing what they need to do.
  53. Everything that happens, happens for a reason.
  54. It’s raining, but I love the rain.
  55. All the setbacks in the world will never kill the romantic in me.
  56. I’d originally planned on twenty-six reasons. We’re now approaching sixty.
  57. There are only four of us left, but I love my family to pieces.
  58. It’s the little moments, not the major ones, which make life worth living.
  59. I’ll never give up on myself.
  60. My last class ends at half seven tomorrow, so I’ll have time to go grocery shopping.
  61. Chipicao might be gone, but Spain still deals a roaring trade in its twin, Bolycao.
  62. The last song on shuffle just happens to be my all-time favourite: Back in Stride, by Maze and Frankie Beverley. The ultimate in cure-all, feel-good songs.
  63. Don’t worry. Be happy.

If all else fails, put on a smile yourself. It’s not a failsafe, but it sure looks nice, and it makes everybody else feel nicer. And maybe they’ll smile too. And that will come around and make you smile, too. And that, in itself, is a reason to smile. BB x

Winter in Madrid

I’m spent. Completely and utterly spent, in heart and body and mind. Ready to drop to my knees and sleep for a thousand years like some twenty-first century Rip van Winkle. I’m back in Spain, I’m back home, and I’m back in bed, and if it weren’t for the sake of this blog, I’d be fast asleep by now. But that can wait.

I’ve dropped enough hints over the last few months for you to guess what I’ve been up to. I’m back from three days in Madrid with my dear friend Ali, who has stuck with me through thick and thin over the last few months and been a most valiant and enduring friend, putting up with more of my less-than-perfect Spanish than she deserves. As a way of saying thank you, and as a birthday present, I took her to the capital (a long-term dream of hers) to see El Rey León, or The Lion King (a long-term dream of mine). And since Madrid’s a long way from both of us, we decided to make a weekend of it.

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First things first, The Lion King. Oh. My. God. Words fail me. I’m normally fairly speechless when I leave a theatre or cinema, but Friday night’s performance had me tongue-tied for a record half an hour. It being almost entirely in Spanish – but for the Zulu and Xhosa lyrics – had absolutely no effect on the impact whatsoever. Shadowland and He Lives in You had me welling up like a new father and it’s nothing short of a miracle that I didn’t lose all control and burst into tears completely. There’s even a few fitting modifications to the Spanish version that make it – dare I say it – even better than the original in places. Timon in especial, and he’s not normally one of my favourites, was pure gold in Spanish, and a lot of the puns translate brilliantly. I know, I know, I’m late to the party as ever, but I’ll recklessly advertise it to you as its been advertised to me. You’ll simply have to see it for yourself if you haven’t already. It’s a once in a lifetime experience, and with seats on the first row of the platform, it could hardly have been better.

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There’s so much to see and do in Madrid – too much for a single day’s sightseeing – but we made good of the following day, taking in the Palacio Real, the Egyptian Temple of Dagón, the gorgeous Parque del Retiro with its street musicians and its Crystal Palace and, last of all, the Prado, home to some of my all-time favourite works of art, like Velazquez’s study of the Conde-Duque de Olivares and Goya’s Maja Vestida and Maja Desnuda, as well as the über-famous Las Meninas. If photos were allowed in the Prado, I’d have gone berserk. Naturally, they’re not. So you’ll have to look them up. We were herded out with the rest by the guards before we had the chance to find the equally famous Dos de Mayo, which is a shame, but that’s what you get for being thrifty and waiting until the 6pm free entry, giving you, and everyone else who’s in on the secret – which seems to be most of Madrid – just under two hours to appreciate it all. Fear not, Goya. I’ll be back.

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This weekend has also done one system a world of good, and that’s the thrifty-gifty BlaBlaCar operation that so screwed me over in December (or maybe it was me that screwed up…?). Getting to and from Madrid from our respective backwater neck-o’-the-woods could hardly have been easier, faster and more enjoyable. This year I will try to use it much more often, if not all the time. It requires a little bravery and certainly more social skills than simply hopping on a bus, of course, but I do believe I’m getting there. Consider me, then, a willing convert. And if you’re reading this, Mr Oulad Berhil taxi driver, you could learn a lot from BlaBlaCar. It’s all about the conversation, at the end of the day, and these can be worth their weight in gold, though it’s mere pennies you’re paying. Truly.

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Post script. Madrid is a capital city. By all rights, it should have scared the living day lights out of me. But with Ali by my side, it didn’t occur to me even for a second. I’d even go so far as to say that it was one of the best adventures yet. A lot of auxiliares living and working here use Spain as a launch-pad to other European destinations, but I maintain that there’s enough to do here to last you not just a year, but a lifetime. Oh Spain, how cruelly you play with my heart…

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Well, I guess it’s finally time to pack up the festivities, dust off the schoolbooks and get back to work. I’m none too keen to do so, but at the same time I really need to. The wind is howling outside and winter, it seems, has finally arrived. And long has it been in coming. BB x