Paradise Lost and Found

I wish I could tell you I’d read Milton’s poems, from which I’ve shamelessly adopted the title of this post. I haven’t. But even if I had, I doubt a throwaway quote here or there would be necessary. I’m in a place that fills me right up to the top with pure and simple happiness, gives an edge to my writing hand and recharges my well-worn batteries. Paradise has a name and though this one may sound like a cross between a stud and an aviary and smell like a sweet mixture of manure and marshwater, it’s perfection for a country boy like me.

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El Rocío. More correctly known as Aldea del Rocío, as that is exactly what it is: a village. It may be the size of a small town, but looks can be deceiving: over half of the townhouses are empty for the larger part of the year. Once a year in May, El Rocío plays host to one of the largest, loudest and more colourful celebrations of the Iberian peninsula, the Romería deal Rocío. As many as a million Spaniards, dressed to the nines in rustic splendour, descend upon the village from all over the country to pay homage to the Madre de las Marismas, El Rocío’s very own Virgin Mary.

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This is a very big deal. Accommodation in that week is normally booked out months in advance, if not years. To give you some kind of idea, have a look at the price hike in this particular hostel below:


My mental maths isn’t brilliant, but I’d say that’s at least ten times the price I’m paying per night, if not twenty. That gives you an idea as to just how popular the festival is.

Semana Santa, on the other hand, is a minimal affair. A couple of special Masses and a single daytime procession on Holy Friday. So what on earth am I doing here now?

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The answer is all around me. El Rocío is drop-dead gorgeous, but better still is the countryside that surrounds it: the skirts of Doñana National Park, one of Europe’s most beautiful remaining wildernesses. Sandy forests of stone-pines stretching into the infinite. Scrubby heaths awash with colourful spring flowers of yellow and white and powder blue. Shimmering lakes and marshes teeming with flocks of noisy flamingoes and an eternally blue sky that almost always has at least one kite whirling about in the distance, whistling a beautiful trill into the mix of carriage bells, chattering swallows, whirrupping bee-eaters and the incessant oop-oop-oop of a hoopoe. This place is as close to paradise as this world allows. It’s also a place where absolutely everyone wears a cap or riding boots or both, so it suits me down to a T. Especially now, when my hair is a triple-crown disaster of a birds’ nest and in bad need of a cut – and therefore hidden under my very own flat ‘at.

I won’t bore you to death with five hundred words about my birdwatching adventures. It’s not a passion that everybody understands. What I will say about it is that it is deeply rewarding, endlessly unpredictable and that Doñana National Park is the very embodiment of that unpredictability. I swear that it’s different every single year, and I’ve been coming here for the best part of a decade now. In some years it’s half-drowned in rainwater, in others mild after a dry winter. I’ve seen boar, deer and mongooses in one year and never again since. The same goes for the gallinules, herons, pratincoles, harriers and marsh terns; each of them in one good year apiece, but never together. This year’s treasure is the glossy ibis, a Doñana regular that I’ve never been able to get that close to… until now.

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Doñana is one of those places where I can sit and do nothing and watch the world go by without feeling in the least bit guilty. Time just seems to stand still here. That the entire populace of El Rocío seems to prefer the saddle to the driving seat goes a long way to entrenching that romanticism, naturally, but there’s a similarly timeless feeling to be found in sitting in the shade of a stone-pine on the Raya Real and listening to the wind. Every once in a while the blue-winged magpies cease their chattering, the hoopoe calls it a day and all that you can hear is the dry whisper of the wind. It’s spellbinding. Like Merlin to Morgana, I’m ensnared. But it is a very beautiful enchantment.

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At some point I’m going to have to turn my feet back in the direction of town and head for the bus stop (this town’s not big enough for a bus station, especially since they diverted the main road). This morning I was almost keen to move on, in that snug-in-bed-with-a-good-book way – this one’s Shadow of the Moon by my favourite author, M.M. Kaye – but three steps outside and I was entranced once again. Oh, to live here and to spend my days in the saddle! I get romantic notions of owning an Andalusian stallion called Suleiman and riding about the stone-pine woods with the One, whoever and wherever she may be.

That’s quite enough of that. I’ll see you in Seville. BB x

Pilgrim

That’s the first time I’ve ever walked twenty kilometres to get home after a night out. Suffice to say, I also sincerely hope it’s the last. Talk about a walk of shame…

Why did I do it? Because I could? Very possibly. I think it was more the thought of sitting shivering in the dark until the nine thirty bus that made me decide to walk the distance. It certainly wasn’t stinginess on my part; the Almendralejo bus fare is a paltry 1,31€. Perhaps I thought I could beat the earliest bus back to Villafranca on foot. That’s vaguely logical… in a very roundabout-Ben-way-of-thinking. But then, it was five forty-five in the morning. I don’t think I had any real sense of what I was doing. I just remember saying to myself “Alright, let’s do this” before marching off into the darkness like a low-budget Leeroy Jenkins.

As the crow flies, it’s just under twenty kilometres from Almendralejo to Villafranca. I had to take a detour to cross the motorway, so I reckon I clocked just over that. At night the distance looks deceptively close; the twinkling orange lights of the polígono merge with those of the hospital in the middle of the two towns, presumably so situated for industrial accidents in the field. Most of it is traced by the Via de la Plata, the pilgrim road to Santiago from Seville, so it wasn’t exactly a challenging hike. It’s also probably the first time I’ve been sincerely grateful for the vast, empty flat of the Tierra de Barros: navigation is as easy as pie when the nearest hills are a good forty kilometres behind your destination. 

The whole walking-at-night bit didn’t bother me in the slightest. I’d put that down to a six a.m. lack of awareness too, but then, it never has. Of all the things that frighten and frighten horribly in this world, I’ve never been afraid of the night. I learned a long time ago to consider night as just another shade of the day. It’s the same world, only somebody turned off the lights. No deep-seated fears of a shadowy assault or mugging either: I do believe that even the dullest criminal mind would have more sense than to be lying in wait in the countryside in the small hours. The countryside is safety. It always has been, in my eyes. In fact the only mildly unsettling thing in the whole walk was the occasional startled growls of the caged dogs in the farmsteads that dotted the early stages of the route. Alsatians, most of them. It’s a popular breed here. I remember saying to myself “Why can’t you people just keep cats?” and not for the first time. 

Besides the dogs, the soundscape of the early morning Tierra de Barros was really quite magical: roosters crowing, ravens croaking, the tinkle of a pipit overhead and, from somewhere far across the plains, the lonely cry of a stone-curlew. All of this as the sun rose dim and yellow into the clouds on the horizon. My feet might be punishing me two days later, but I don’t regret that walk for an instant. I just don’t think I’ll be repeating it all that soon. It’s a bit like that Spain north-to-south adventure of mine a few years back: it was there, it had to be done, and I did it. Now I can move on.

I don’t think I even stopped for one second to consider what I’d do if it started to rain. The forecast for the weekend was set to bucket it down. I guess I forgot all about that. That I will blame on my fatigue. If it had rained, I’d have been well and truly drenched, and in my best clothes, no less. Why is it that I’m always wearing my best clothes when I set out on these ridiculous adventures? At any rate, it did; a royal thunderstorm hit on the following night, sheet rain, lightning and all the works. Luckily by then I was holed up in my apartment with a cola cao and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor on TV. Someone up there likes me.

I’d like to think that it’s due to foolish misadventures like this that I get to see a side of Spain that most modern travelers simply pass over. You could be forgiven for thinking that Spain, like much of Europe, was fully humanised a long time ago: the sweep of olive plantations and vineyards in the Tierra de Barros certainly gives that impression. But all you have to is close your eyes and listen: the world survives on the fringes. The stone-curlews of these tilled fields and the mournful plovers that ply the once-pristine sands of the raped Costa del Sol hark back to an older Spain, one more ancient than even the oldest of the moorish forts that dot the distant hills. It puts me back in touch with that world to hear them again, just as though I were playing a record from a forgotten world.

It’s not a purely avian nostalgia. As I arrived on the fringes of Villafranca I saw another scene from a bygone age: a muddle of tents positioned about a small campfire where a couple of ragged-looking men stood cooking a light breakfast. Spain’s native gypsies (if such a term is not a misnomer) are a heavily romanticized lot and were mostly squeezed out if their old ways by government programs decades ago, but this new generation of travelers – Romanians, mostly – have taken their place. When I say tents I don’t mean the bright canvas of a modern traveler, nor the UNICEF-stamped donations you might encounter in a war-torn country. These ones might have been cut out of a picture book from the 1930s. Situated on the very fringes of the town, hidden from sight by the town’s waterworks, it’s the very definition of a gypsy encampment. And I thought such echoes had long since faded into history.

You don’t see them in Villafranca proper. The only encounters I’ve had with them so far have all been in Dia supermarket, where they are instantly recognizable by their clothes, by their language and by their complexion; a rich, ochre-brown, marbled like the soil. I’d like to get to know them, to know why they’re here, where they came from and what other stories they might have brought with them, but the townsfolk only have dirt to say on their account. And in my propensity for romanticising the underdog, am I really any better?

Seeing the Romanian encampment made me think of home for some reason, but I was really too tired by then to dwell on it for long. It was purely because I was still moving that I didn’t collapse from fatigue; on the two occasions I paused to get my bearings my head began to spin and I very nearly dozed off. It was only later that night, when sorting through my music collection and The Land Before Time‘s Whispering Winds came on, that my thoughts took me home again. I cried. Profusely. I always do when I hear that one. Damn you, Don Bluth, for producing a film that still brings tears to my eyes some twenty years later. Damn your genius.

Many auxiliares use the holidays to go home to be with their families. Some of my closest friends out here have done just that. It’s a very sensible move, but it’s only when I stumble over such memories that I remember how vulnerable and human I really am. Whispering Winds is on my iPod for exactly that reason; 1608 times around I can put my weaknesses aside and soldier on alone, but there’s that 1609th song that’s there to remind me that neither home nor family is ever truly put aside.

I won’t be seeing home until August. I won’t have time to do so until then, since the third and final leg of my year abroad across the Strait begins almost as soon as I’m done here. Fortunately my parents are coming out to visit me in a couple of weeks, so I don’t have to. I won’t deny that I’m looking forward to having a car at my disposal – being in Europe’s bird capital and relying on public transport is nothing less than tortuous – but more than that, I miss my parents. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Sometimes I need to remind myself of that. There’s only four of us left; my family is precious to me, no matter what impression my aloofness might give.

A lot of things have happened over the past year. Some good, some not so good. Now that I’ve got the time, I’m retreating for a couple of days to the one place in the whole world that makes me truly happy. It’s a place that has answers… of a sort. My rock, my cradle, my very own Shangri-La. BB x

Touch Base

Another Wednesday morning, another fortuitous free hour. The perfect excuse to whip up another blog post. To think I’ve been at this game for almost a year now…! It’s probably the best I’ve ever been at diary-keeping. Trust me on that, there’s at least five or six one-third-completed journals lying about my room back home to back me up on that count. It’s been an awful lot of fun and I expect I’ll keep this going well into my fourth year at Durham and beyond, since this Spanish year is just the first of what promises to be a very rewarding early career!

Since we’ve come such a long way from waiting on tenterhooks for the slightest of information from the British Council last year, I thought I’d blow the dust off the covers, so to speak, and give you all an insight into the writer behind the pretence, the misadventures and the endless musing. It’s something of an experiment to see how much I’ve changed on this year abroad, so I find myself wishing I’d done something similar the start – those reading with the year abroad ahead, take note! Feel free to copy the questions to your own page if you’re so inclined, that’s what I did. Shamelessly.

Info

Name: Benjamin Barnabas

Age: 21 (though most guesses average around 18)

Gender: Male.

A Selfie

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There are better selfies out there, but none more suitable

Favourites

Food: Croquetas. I quite literally go for nothing else when I’m eating out.

Drink: Water. I also go for Fanta when I’m out and about, because I’m fed up of tripping over all of those C’s in Coca Cola.

Book: Either King Solomon’s Mines or The Far Pavilions.

Song: Vicious question. I have different songs for different moods, but the title is probably a struggle between three: The Corrs’ Forgiven Not Forgotten, The Circle of Life and Back in Stride by Maze and Frankie Beverley.

Movie: The Lion King. Probably one of the first movies I ever saw and still my favourite.

Band: The Corrs. Nostalgia once again; Forgiven Not Forgotten was my first ever cassette.

Solo Artist: James Brown. Though Michael Jackson and Beyoncé take a close second and third.

Place: El Rocio. Especially in the shade of the stone pines on the Raya Real.

Subject: literature, nature, languages, art, music and history. The latter was never my strongest subject, but probably one of my greater loves at school.

Sport: Pull the other one. Gym chat and team sports send me to sleep.

(…Alright, alright, I like to swim when I can. But on my own terms. Not of this lengths and widths and personal best nonsense.)

Male actor: I want to say Derek Jacobi? Seeing him play Malvolio in Twelfth Night was pretty special.

Female actor: Penelope Cruz. Because…  Penelope Cruz.

Life:

Schooling: I went to one of Kent’s several grammar schools after a few years in a private that didn’t really suit me very well. I’m not sure how I feel about the fairness of the grammar school system, having very nearly failed to get in myself, but I would say it was the very best place for a kid like me and I’m extremely grateful for everything it did for me.

Best Friend: Biff holds that title; we’ve known each other since the start of secondary school some ten years ago now. I’m a blabbermouth on this blog but in real life I don’t really do small talk. A conversation with Biff picks up right where it left off the last time and that’s the very best I could ask.

Political ideology: I confess I’ve a romantic streak of anarchism within me, but I’m probably just one more wayward middle-class liberal at the end of the day.

Religion: Still a mystery. It’s out there somewhere and until I find it, I refuse to deny it.

Tattoos: None.

Piercings: Ditto.

Languages: English, Spanish, French, Arabic and snatches of Persian, Luo and isiZulu.

Reason behind your blog’s name: The number of B’s is aesthetically pleasing.

Why you blog: To lecture myself, for one. To keep my friends and family informed of my wanderings, for another. It’s also great writing practice. But probably the most important reason is to make some kind of sense of all of the thoughts buzzing about my head on a daily basis.

Do we share anything in common?  Even if I didn’t tag you, please feel free to fill out the questions – and do please link to your answers in the comments!

The Line Must Be Drawn Here

Yes, that’s a Picard line. No, I’ve never watched even a single episode of Star Trek. However, it’s famous enough to transcend that particular level of pop culture, and it suits this past weekend just perfectly.

What with flight week drawing closer (I’m giving myself until the end of this week to buy my flights for good), I’m getting money-savvy and making fewer travel plans. And me being me, that’s resulted in a knee-jerk spontaneous Moroccan adventure with a few Spanish friends and a Semana Santa celebration in Córdoba. The former is largely reliant on my two friends actually getting back to me, so in a way I’m none too bothered whether I end up crossing the Strait or not – I’ll still be heading to Tarifa for the weekend anyway – but it’s there on the table and I’ve budgeted accordingly.

This term has been no less sparing on the adventure front, but I have been a lot more sensible money-wise, forking out on only one big adventure per month: Madrid in January, Cantabria in February and Tarifa in March. Accepting that I’m coming back for at least two years more after Durham has removed me of my desperate need to see all Spain whilst I can and that’s been a very healthy decision on all counts. It means that (with the exception of rent) I rarely need to draw anything out of my account: my weekly private lessons cover groceries and all other expenses, as well as buying the majority of my travel expenses. To fill the time, I’ve allocated at least one or two weekends a month to being sociable in Almendralejo, something I didn’t do nearly enough last term and am currently making up for lost time.

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It’s been a big weekend for swallows – there’s a few here to stay now!

Almendralejo is a bigger town than Villafranca and as a result there’s a lot more to do, especially on the nightlife front. This weekend was the twenty-second anniversary of one of my usual haunts, the Concha Velasco, a kitschy bar decorated with Gothic props (most of them from a film set) and plenty of Goya paintings. It’s usually playing a selection of 80’s rock and it’s a nice place to chill before or after a dance. To celebrate, they were holding a concert for a few local bands, beginning with a free paella and caldereta lunch in the street.

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How long do you think a concert lasts? Four or five hours, perhaps? I’ve been playing in concerts for most of my life and the longest was about five. Not this one. There were about four acts and each one had a two-hour set, there or thereabouts. Due to start at half five, things finally got moving at around ten to six. That’s normal.

First up was the band we had come to support, with our friend Miguel on electric guitar. I’m told it was their best gig yet. I’ve only seen them perform this once and I’m sold. Rock is one of the last frontiers of music that I haven’t really reached into and I’m sold on a few of them. Beginning with the theme tune from Back to the Future sold me and I enjoyed the set immensely – and still found time to take some snaps. Consider me now a fan of Spanish 80’s rock (ed. BB, will you ever learn to be normal?)

I felt pretty voiceless and worn out when the set was over so Fran and I set off to De Blanco, a quieter local, for a change of mood and a few early birthday drinks. Having gorged on all the freebies on offer at lunch, I forgot dinner completely, which was a mistake for several reasons. The most obvious was the effect of a single rum and coke (ron barceló). Having been teetotal until this year, my alcohol tolerance still isn’t brilliant, and I felt rather dizzy for about half an hour. Motoring through a bowl of fizzy sweets the bartender brought didn’t help in the slightest. Fortunately, we weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere and I regained my senses after a time. Still, I know what I’m not doing in future.

One of the strangest things about being English abroad is the simple novelty of being English. Apparently it’s motivation enough to strike up a conversation, and this was just another example. A trio of Spaniards sitting next to us joined us after a few minutes out of curiosity and ended up inviting us out to go dancing with them at another nightclub, Almen’s Whisky A Go-Go. Apparently there was supposed to be a star from Spain’s Gran Hermano turning up, but whether she did or not, I have no idea. At any rate, there was no sign of her by ten to four in the morning, at which point Tasha and I returned to Concha to see if we could catch the end of the last set for the night.

Remember what I said about concerts? Well, here’s the thing. The fourth set hadn’t even started when we got there. At four in the morning. A DJ and saxophone duo (who knew?). This is probably the first time I’d heard a full set without even a single reggaeton number – all dance, from start to finish – and I went into a creative overdrive of at least half an hour before I ran out of ideas and returned to simple jives. The result was that several of the crowd were egging me on for the rest of the night every time I began to run out of steam. At about half five the five hours of almost non-stop dancing, ten hours of music, general fatigue and more pressing hunger began to wear me down. Tasha insisted that I could keep going and kept me fuelled on glasses of water, and I’d like to say that on any other night I’d have willingly stuck it out until the end… but we had been going for almost ten hours, and I hadn’t eaten since three o’clock the previous day. In the end we retreated at the ‘early’ hour of six o’clock for a quick bite to eat at the kebab shop opposite and then, gratefully, I crashed on Tasha’s sofa and slept.

Until the Breast Cancer fun run woke me up at nine o’clock the following morning, that is. I’ve been recovering sleep ever since.

Here’s to a more relaxed weekend to kick off the Easter holiday this weekend. I could do with it. BB x

Splash: Fear in a Hoodie and a Baseball Cap

I was sitting in the park sketching when one of the local malotes loitering around the bridge lobbed a brick at me. It fell short by a few feet and landed with a heavy splash in the water, but the message hit home. I took my blonde hair and foreign appearance out of firing range and returned to the safety of my room to listen to a podcast on South African townships in peace.

It’s a sad fact of the world that one of the things that scares me most is my own generation. It always has, far more than all the villainies of our world. The romantic in me would like to point out that I’m currently living in the land that birthed both Cortés and Pizarro, those butchers of the New World, as well as the most ferocious wing of the Spanish Inquisition… but I’d like to think I’ve got more than enough common sense to eliminate any racial motivations behind this morning’s unfortunate brick incident. The simple fact of the matter is that it’s a world I just don’t understand. And, to quote a Batman villain (for want of a better source), ‘you always fear what you don’t understand’.

Why? What’s the point? What would lead anyone to revel in a deliberate act of aggression? If it’s a misplaced act of pumped-up testosterone, I disown my sex here and now. I just don’t get it. Maybe it’s because I’m British and I’d rather die than tread on somebody else’s toes. Or perhaps it’s because I’m the kind of person that bursts into tears over King Kong or The Green Mile. I guess I’ll just have to content myself with the simple fact that everyone is different, for good or ill. Without fear and violence, how would we define that which is good?

As a kid I remember being chased by thugs from down the road when I was out with my camera watching buzzards. The same suspects called “carol-singing” a few weeks later – a six-second, tuneless rush of We Wish You a Merry Christmas for which they expected payment – and pointed me out as ‘that kid with the sick camera’. At the time I had no idea what he was on about; ‘sick’ as an adjective meaning ‘impressive’ had developed in the nine months I’d been out of the country and it caught me unawares. I still find it substandard as a slang term. France’s verlan is simply streets ahead, no pun intended.

It’s this bastardization of words, of filling the English language with redundant dual-meanings, that bothers me. Standard has come to mean excellent. Lad has come to mean exemplary individual and gay has been a blanket, one-size-fits-all insult for as long as I can remember. Especially the latter, since it’s been used on me since I was at primary school. It shouldn’t have offended me in the slightest, since it was neither true nor (I hope) intended as such, but the ignorance of it all has frustrated me for years.

Who am I to comment? I’m a relatively privileged white middle class English boy with two jobs in a country where most of my generation struggle to find one. Is it any wonder they’re angry? A small part of me occasionally resurfaces at moments like these, telling me to mind my own business and go home. But then, it’s a hateful phrase and one that’s no match for my own curiosity. Honestly, if it weren’t for my aforementioned issues with causing trouble, I’d have all the fittings for a journalist.

Nevertheless, here I am, holed up in my room. It’s less shock than the warmth of my bed that’s keeping me from going back to the park now, but it’s had me thinking; doubly so over my South Africa plans. What right have I to fork out on a self-styled adventure to a country where my own brick-dodging incident pales in comparison to the terror of the townships? A younger me would have cited white-guilt all day. These days I simply wonder whether or not the problem is seeing us and them in the first place.

And strangely enough, it’s only left me keener than ever to go there.

In that sense, it’s not the hooded youth I’m afraid of. It’s the potential for violence in all of us. We are, by record if not by roots, a violent race. It’s our imperative as a species to overcome that and nurture our caring side, which is certainly not unique to us in the animal kingdom. A line in one of my favourite books says ‘there’s so much human suffering that the whole world should be wailing’. She’s right. But if we all become so afraid of ourselves by drawing lines in the sand that we have to live in compounds like today’s South Africa, what kind of a world are we leaving for those who come after us?

The drone buzzing about overhead just crashed to earth with a loud smack right at the feet of the malotes. The kids to whom it belonged ran to collect it none the wiser to their jeers. A lesson in bravery from two seven year-olds.

I’m keener than ever for South Africa. Fears must be faced, not avoided. It won’t rid me of all of my fears, but it might just put my troubles into perspective. BB x

Veils and Cartwheels

Another weekend, another adventure gone by. My weekend travel budget is capped at 90€ wherever I go, for which I’ve managed Cantabria, Lisbon and now Granada. Not bad from Extremadura. I’d like to say I’m entering economy-mode after this, for the end-of-year adventure’s sake, but that’s unlikely what with Semana Santa around the corner. So let’s just say I’m going to be even more budget-savvy than usual from now on. But that’s hardly going to stop me from going searching for more adventures.

I made a promise to a few friends from Durham to pay a visit whilst they were lodged in the gorgeous Moorish stronghold of Granada. That promise was, however, dependent on the arrival of the first snows in the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada. That little proviso caught me out, as it only began snowing in earnest around Carnaval weekend, by which point most of the Durham crew had long since left Granada for their next destination. Still, a promise is a promise and I’m a man of my word, so off I went. It just so happens that I have a couple of Spanish friends based there anyway, so I wasn’t heading for another solo weekend.

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I’m now a total convert to BlaBlaCar; if not for the drastically lower price tag and journey time (16€ for a four-hour ride from Zafra to Granada is pretty fantastic) then for the conversation practice. In a funny, roundabout kind of way, I remember complaining that it was exactly this kind of taxi-practice that bothered me in Jordan. I suppose that was because it felt like the only window of opportunity at the time. Here, it’s just one of many, and I’ve made some really interesting acquaintances through the system. One day, if just for the ease of going wherever I want, I really should learn to drive.

The real boon of BlaBla’ing it to Granada was getting there in time for sunset. It was gone half past six o’clock when we got there and the sky was already a gorgeous yellowy-pink, so I had a bit of a run to the Mirador de San Nicolas to get what I – and the rest of Granada – was after: that unforgettable view of the Alhambra, surely one of the world’s most beautiful buildings, set against the backdrop of the salmon-pink snows of the Sierra Nevada. I’ve never seen the Mirador so busy, and the views explain it all.

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To the outsider, the presence of a gypsy troupe breaking into song and the chatter of Arabic in the crowd might seem too good to be true. There’s often flamenco up here, according to my local sources, but the Arabic is new to me – perhaps because this is the first time I’ve been in Granada since I started learning Arabic, and therefore I’m tuned to listen out for it.

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The trouble with working a British Council assistantship on your year abroad is that it royally screws over your second language. Had I more brain than heart, I would have prioritised Arabic over Spanish, being nearly fluent in the latter before I set out anyway. But it’s never that simple with yours truly, and the prospect of spending eight months and more in my grandfather’s country was just too good to turn down. That I could have gone for a similar placement in Chile, in Argentina or Ecuador but didn’t is testament to just how much I adore this country.

As a result, I’m none too confident with my Arabic right now. Oh, it’s probably still all up there, buried deep beneath my Amman angst, but I haven’t really given it much thought since I packed my bags and left Jordan last summer. Seeing the Alhambra reminded me why I chose to study it in the first place. The sad truth of the matter is that it’s not the Middle East that interests me (at least, not the contemporary one), but North Africa. The Moors. Al-Andalus. This is what drove me to study Arabic; so that I might understand this ancient world a little better. That’s why I have so much love for Morocco and why I was in such high dudgeon about being sent to Jordan last year. My heart is here, in this part of the world, and I always follow my heart.

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Take one look at that view and tell me I’m a fool for falling in love.

It was quite a fiddly weekend on the outset. The group gathering I’d planned on fell through straight away because one of the girls went to Seville for her best friend’s birthday, after which the others pulled out, leaving me high and dry with my hostel and ride already booked. It only dawned on me then that most of the other Durham students had already left Granada, and when my only remaining card said she’d probably be busy all weekend with a project anyway, I thought I’d have a rather lonely city break on my hands. Because, Granada being Granada, you can’t just stroll up to the Alhambra. It’s usually fully booked at least two months in advance at the weekends and on public holidays, so by the time the girls let me know they weren’t going to be there, it was far too late for a flying visit.

Understandably, I was feeling pretty let down.

Nevertheless, Fate is a most unpredictable woman, and as it turned out she dealt me a very fair hand indeed. The weather was impeccable, and I spent a gorgeous sunny morning with the albayzin – Granada’s labyrinthine Moorish quarter – pretty much to myself. I was mainly in town for inspiration and I found buckets of it. My sketchbook came back at least five or six pages more full than before, so I call that a success.

I must have spent at least two hours just sitting and sketching at Washington Irving’s feet on the garden walk up to the Alhambra, where six or seven costumed students asked me to photograph them beside the Son of the Alhambra. I think there was a treasure hunt or competition of some kind going on. I’m still not entirely sure. Saturday, I’m told, is when all the bachelor nights and hen nights take place, and these usually start in sunlight hours – visible, and often audible, at quite a distance. It could have been one of those… minus the phallic straws, of course.

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My luck turned whilst I was people-watching atop the Alcazaba and a message came pinging through, telling me that the one Durham student left in Granada had not gone to Cordoba as planned due to a heavy night on her flatmate’s account and was game for some exploration. Hallelujah for you, Violet! It was getting infuriating sitting by the Alhambra and watching the hundreds pouring in and out in the knowledge that I couldn’t get in if I tried, so it did me a world of good to be called down from the heights and back into town.

There was a loud, booming sound as I wandered back down the path which I put down to construction work, but the closer I got, the more rhythmic it sounded, until it sounded much too upbeat to be a pneumatic drill. The Plaza Nueva was packed and, at the centre, I was met with something I really hadn’t expected to find: a samba band.

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Accompanying the band was a veil-dancer, not unlike the one I saw in Caceres back in November, only this one had more of a gypsy’s flair to her style than the lithe Arabic movements of her predecessor.

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The veils this dancer wielded streamed off the blades of the twin red fans in her hands. Needless to say it was something beautiful to watch and I was mesmerized, for how long I don’t know. When you see a thing of beauty, you really have to look.

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That wasn’t the only attraction in town. Barely five minutes after the samba band had packed their things and left, another street artist took their place.

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What looked quite commonplace to begin with quickly turned out to be anything but.

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Was it acrobatics? Was it dance? Was it mime? Something of a mixture of all three, I think. The girl turned wheel after wheel about the square, casually stepping out of the hoop every so often to wiggle about for a bit before stepping in for another spin.

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Violet’s still new to the place, but she did a fine job showing me about the place nonetheless. All I ask is good conversation and she delivered, and how. She even led us straight into a free-for-all tango, which may or may not have consisted of no staff or professionals whatsoever. It’s so hard to tell in this country, where almost everybody can dance when it comes to the crunch.

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It’s really quite something to see the oldies really going for it, and practically flooring the youngsters whilst they’re at it.

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If the technique is all in the feet, then the passion is all in the face. Oh, to be able to dance with the passionate restraint of these deities!

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We found a decent place to tapear outside the touristic district where I made a beeline for my Achilles’ heel – croquetas – which were of a very high quality, I must say, and further story-swapping, which was of an even higher quality. I could hardly ask for more. Thanks Violet!

Now, somebody up there must have been smiling on me, because Ana, my Olvereñan friend, managed to wrap up her project for the afternoon and turned up to pick me up from lunch. Ana’s a gaditana through and through but she’s been in Granada for some time now, so she knows the place better than I ever could. She took me to a gorgeous café under the Mirador de San Nicolas with a killer view of the Alhambra. They didn’t have Arabic tea, but they did have Pakistani tea, which was a damned good substitute. And what better could I ask for: two fascinating, challenging conversations in two languages with such good company all afternoon! I’m truly spoilt.

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There was better to come. This is where knowing a local really comes in handy. Ana found her cousin up at the mirador and after we’d been chatting with them for a while, they left and we got their space on the wall. It’s a fiercely contested wall, for obvious reasons, and Ana and I got all of an hour with that unbeaten view as the sun set and the lights were turned on. The Alhambra looks spectacular at any time of day, but by night the snows on the mountaintop are a deep blue and the castle walls seem to glow golden in the torchlight. It’s overdone, it’s clichéd and some might say it’s even cringe-worthy, but for me, it’s nothing more and nothing less than the most beautiful building in the world.

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I’ll finish off the tale in another post tomorrow. Y’all need breathing space, I think. As do I – I’ve a private class in twenty minutes and I can’t be dilly-dallying around! BB x