A Waiting Game

Teaching’s going fine. It’s been a misty last few days here in Tierra de Barros. After a hearty Thanksgiving Party in Almendralejo and a decent slog at the karaoke for afters (via Tom Jones and Lionel Richie under my karaoke alter ego, Bem), it’s back to business as usual for the last three weeks of term (the fourth is always anybody’s guess). My old rule – never repeat a game – is holding fast. Amongst the games I’ve played with my classes are:

  • Psychiatrist
  • The Triangle Game
  • I’m Going on a Trip
  • Chain Word Advance (Noun, Adjective and Verb)
  • Never Have I Ever
  • Kim’s Game
  • Mafia
  • Twenty-One

I’ve still got a few more in the bag before I run out of my set, but when I do, it’s only a matter of invention and re-invention. This teaching assistant malarkey is simply a case of giving the kids an incentive to speak in English, and what better way is there than giving them games they can enjoy in their own language once we’re done? Psychiatrist went down a storm – the kids play it at break-times, they tell me – and this week’s Twenty-One (courtesy of Tasha, an old hand at this game) has proven itself to be more popular yet. The Triangle Game left a good many of them boggled and more than a little frustrated, but my older classes found it immensely entertaining.

The key, I suppose, is not to think of these games as ESL activities in their own right, but as the kind of games you’d have enjoyed playing with your friends at school, or at university, or in any other setting. Parlour games are prime material, such as Psychiatrist (for which I am indebted to the French animateurs at my first summer job who rendered it Pussycat, after the French psychiatre). Campfire games are also a wonder here, and I find myself wishing that the younger me had been more sociable; an upbringing in the Scouts or Guides might have armed me with a good deal more material in this field. Last, but not least, drinking games are an unexpectedly rewarding resource, if modified correctly – especially as many of them are already corrupted games in their own right. Remove the element of drink and place a greater emphasis on speech and you have plenty of ideas at your disposal.

Of course, I have to keep this up for a full academic year. That’s thirty-one weeks of games; twenty-one, if we’re counting down (that’s as many days of games as Emperor Commodus declared in Gladiator…). As a point of pride, I will never resort to Hangman. Thus, the search continues. So help me God.

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Meanwhile, I’m finding myself drawn to the attractions of home more keenly than usual. Perhaps it’s because my old friend Biff is bound for South Africa in the new year (KwaZulu-Natal no less, the lucky so-and-so), or perhaps because it’s Christmas and – being in Spain – you’d never know it, or perhaps it’s the simple fact that, unlike the last time I was working here, I haven’t got the surety of returning home at the end of the year. The fact that this will also be my first Christmas away from home does factor into it, too.

Skyscanner went from a casual browsing affair to my most visited webpage overnight. By the end of the night I’d searched for flights to Gatwick and to Newcastle; to Stansted, Luton and even Durham Tees; and then to Durban and Cape Town; Paris, Toulouse and Berlin… With the Northern Lights’ annual Christmas Concert next week and several old friends due to return to watch, I found myself tempted to wing my way over if I could. But between an 8am flight from Málaga, a midnight bus ride from Durham to London and the knowledge that I’d have to take two days off work for it to be even possible, I decided to save the 180€ it would have cost me towards more worthwhile ventures (I could buy a decent bike for that kind of money – or even pay for two return trips to Gatwick in low season).

I still miss music, and I’ve been pouring my heart and soul into my a cappella arrangement of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, as well as tinkering with arrangements of Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love, The Sugababes’ Red Dress and an Afrobeat mashup of Thriller and Fela Kuti’s Zombie and Opposite People. The musical energy within me still needs siphoning off somehow, and even if the Lights have enough material for years already, all these arrangements are, at least, a temporary solution for my own frustration.

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To keep my writing muscles flexed, I’ve been building my vocabulary daily on the sly. Whether I’ll use my learning as part of a Pasapalabra-style test for the kids remains to be seen, as some of the words are downright impossible to divine without the right knowledge, but as a writer I’m hoping it’ll do me some good. Here’s a few of my recent findings:

umbrageous (adjective): (of a person) inclined to take offense easily

nonbook (noun): a book without literary or artistic merit

earthshine (noun): the dim light on the unlit surface of the Moon caused by the Earth

A good many of them are much too specific to wend their way into everyday conversation (see bombinate), but I’m hoping it’ll increase my vocabulary in the long run. Polygon and Scrabble would be a lot easier, for one thing. And, of course, Bananagrams. Until the next time. BB x

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Frost vs Nixon

That was, without a doubt, the smoothest flight I’ve ever taken. No more complicated than getting on and off a bus. The plane was on time, there was no security check at the other end and I was on the bus to the city centre within five minutes of leaving the plane. To top it off, my entire row was empty, so I got the window seat for free. It isn’t often that you get such a slick service with a budget airline, but after my previous experience (I haven’t forgiven you for that 20€ croque monsieur, EasyJet) I consider it my just reward.

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STOP PRESS: The automated American translation in Plaza de Armas just mangled Matalascañas beyond belief (Matter-lass-cun-arse). Help.

Toulouse was covered in a thick fog when I left this morning. Bella said it didn’t feel much like France, but it sure as heck didn’t feel like Spain. With all the yellow and brown trees, misty rivers and starling swarms overhead, it felt a lot more like England than anywhere else. The cold has set in down in Extremadura, but it’s not a true wintry chill like there is here in the lower foothills of the Pyrenees. Oddly enough, on our way through the city streets with salted caramel-drizzled Belgian waffles in hand, I found myself missing home.

That is, I wound up missing England whilst on holiday in France from working in Spain.

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In the past it was a lot easier to say where I wanted to be. Spain had purple gallinules, bee-eaters and griffon vultures, England had woodpigeons. It was an easy decision to make. Now that I’m older and avifauna is no longer priority number one, it’s not quite so clear cut (though the vultures are still a major factor). I don’t begrudge my mixed-up ancestry in the slightest – I couldn’t be more proud of it – but if I did, it would be over the confusion it’s left me with regards to where I want to be.

England is cold and England is damp, and my lungs suffer for over half the year for it. The English are, in my experience, prickly when it comes to difference, nervy when it comes to work and uncomfortable in just about any given situation, without mentioning their appalling inability to talk about their feelings. Living is expensive, work is hard and life is lived for the weekend.

It is, however, the land where I was born. And, for all their faults, the English understand a great many subtleties that pass the Spanish by: public footpaths, music for its own sake, quality satire and coffee shops, amongst others. It’s also a land of gorgeous crispy winter mornings with frosted grass, thick mist and a promise of rain, and indoor afternoons spent reading with a mug of hot chocolate on carpeted floors. In short, England does autumn and winter properly.

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Spain has everything else. Spain is hot – at least until November, when a harsh, dry cold sweeps in across the plains – and damp is a thing of the imagination, especially in drought years such as this. It doesn’t have a fantastic music scene, but it does have endless rolling hills of wild olive trees and cork oaks, overflown by kites, vultures, harriers and eagles, not to mention cranes, storks and a whole host of other impressive creatures. It has tostadas and decent olive oil. It has good food for good prices, skies so blue you couldn’t paint them properly if you tried, and a crippling addiction to ham that goes back centuries.

In addition, the Spanish are only too happy to tell you how they feel, at the expense of small-talk topics such as the weather (which most of them couldn’t give a fig about) and sport (where a lot will tell you how failed their exercise regime is/was/will be). And, for better of for worse, family is everything to them. Many Spaniards are completely hamstrung by their devotion to their families, and a good many more don’t begrudge them for it one bit.

Spain also has Spanish. The happiness machine. That’s the biggest win of them all.

Through my own strength of will (and a fair degree of my mother’s), Spain has become a far bigger part of my life than it otherwise might have been. And if I never shut up about it, it’s because Spain is not just the longest love affair of my life, it’s a family affair. It fills the enormous hole that most of my generation fill with Snapchat and social media. Just being here makes me happy.

You can’t spend your life chasing happiness, and it’s unhealthy to try. But it’s a rare kind of joy when happiness and work combine like they do out here. And when I find myself missing those autumn mornings, frost on the car bonnet and even the beautifully reassuring sound of the woodpigeons, I look around me and remind myself where I am. Azure-winged magpies bouncing out of the trees, shepherds leading their merino sheep across the fields and impressive stone castles sitting atop lonely hills. No Christmas feeling, no carols and definitely no a cappella, but no wheezing either. I can’t do everything I’d like, but at the very least I can be me. I can live with that. BB x

That Smell

I don’t make a habit of leaving my beloved Spain during a placement. Some misplaced sense of pride tends to keep me tied to this marbled rock whilst most of the American auxiliares catch every cheap flight to Yurp they can lay their hands on. And when they’ve traveled across the Atlantic to get here, who can blame them? But duty calls, and I find myself sitting in row five of an EasyJet plane bound for Toulouse. Pride is one thing, holding out in spite of your heart is another. And let’s face it, I won’t have the chance or excuse to stay in Toulouse for free again very soon, and as I rarely visit France anyway, I might as well carpe the diem.

As a gift for Bella’s host family for putting me up (not once but twice) I’m bringing some Torta del Casar, a delicious if seriously pungent cheese from Casar de Cáceres to the north. I’d have got my hands on the more local Torta de Barros if I could find it, but as the Casar is also denominación de origen and equally delicious, I do believe it’s a fine alternative. It’s a sloppy, spreading cheese, and has a spectacular tang like the pimentón that is grown in the north, or – come to that – a good deal of the dry foods that hail from the Iberian interior. The trouble with the cheese is that its smell is seriously strong. It must be, or else I wouldn’t be able to smell it so well. My sense of smell is terrible, and always has been (which must, I wonder, have a fairly major impact on my sense of taste as well), so as a rule of thumb if something smells strong to me, it could probably knock a dog out.

As sense loss goes, having a fault in the olfactory department is, at least to me, one of the easiest deficiencies to deal with in the sensory department. I’d far rather no smell than, say, no sight or hearing. It does, however, occasionally give me cause to wonder whether I’m missing out on the minutiae, like the smell of the Romanian family who were at the Leda kiosk before me on my return journey home last night. No sooner had they taken their leave, the tired-looking woman at the desk gave me a long, troubled look and said, grimly, ‘Qué olor… Qué olor’.

I wasn’t aware Romanians smelled differently. I wasn’t aware they smelled at all, to be honest. I for one didn’t smell anything (though I’ll grant you, for the reasons I’ve already given, I’m not the best judge).

It is, however, a small marker of the resentment some locals harbour towards the not-unremarkable Romanian immigrant population. Whether that’s because it’s harvest season, or because their population has grown in size since my last visit, their presence is particularly notable at the moment. Romanian is the second most commonly heard language in the streets after Spanish, doubly so in certain locations. There are now at least two shops in Villafranca that stock Romanian goods and foodstuffs. I run into the same families in Día on a regular basis (though not as often as I used to since it went upmarket). My weekly route to and from a private class in Almendralejo takes me through what can only be the Romanian quarter. As a local entity, their presence can no longer be ignored.

I’d love to learn Romanian. It’s apparently not such a great leap from the other Latin languages, being a Latinate language itself. But learning the language would be only the first hurdle; breaking the silence would be the next. There’s as much a cultural barrier in place as a language barrier. For a point of comparison, one need only look at the Chinese or the Moroccans, both of whom are now long-established here. There’s even a halal butcher’s in Almendralejo, with Arabic signage as plain as though al-Andalus had survived to the present. Commerce, at least, thrives between the three.

It’s different in the schools. This year I have at least five Muslim students in my classes, the children of Moroccans who live and work in town. It says a lot that that’s worth pointing out, but it says even more that their presence in my classes far outsizes the Romanian presence. There are Romanian kids in the school; that much I know from a glance over the register. But they’re in the non-bilingual classes, along with the gypsies, Moroccans and Algerians. I don’t see them at all.

After a week of hosting the Polish exchange, my mind’s caught up in the whole interculturalism thing, like it hasn’t been since that frustratingly theoretical text on interculturalism vs multiculturalism in university last year. If the Polish presence in the U.K. were as notable as the Romanian presence in Tierra de Barros, the usual intolerant factions of my homeland would have a great deal to say about it. It surprises me – and pleases me – that I’ve yet to see such a bubbling-up here. However, it’s little encounters like the lady at the bus station that make me wonder how deep the suspicion festers. I can only hope it was simply a case of an overly sensitive nose.

There are lots of babies on this flight. I deal with noisy children on a very regular basis on account of my private lessons, so I’m getting better at tuning them out. We’re passing Pamplona and preparing to cross the Pyrenees at their Western end, into French airspace. One can almost smell the strike fever. I hope it doesn’t give me too much trouble this time. I’ve got be back at work on Monday morning. But until then, let the music play. BB x

P.S. Students of Arabic Literature, yes, the title is a deliberate reference to Sonallah Ibrahim.

Copper, Copper, Everywhere

I love history, but I’m no historian. It was always one of my favourite subjects at school, despite the fact that I wasn’t especially good at it (particularly when it became Historiography). Were it not for History, I might have achieved a string of straight As at A Level. I didn’t. The temptation to study a subject I loved but wasn’t brilliant at was too strong. It’s a lesson I didn’t learn when I went on to study Arabic at university. There, too, I paid for my interest. But I can’t help myself. I love a challenge, and I love history even more. Ever since getting my first Horrible Histories book as a kid I’ve been hooked.

Please don’t ask me about the Chalcolithic Age, though.

Yesterday I went to Almendralejo’s EOI (Escuela Oficial de Idiomas) to take part in an excursion to Huerta Montero, a Copper Age tholos or communal passage grave on the outskirts of town. The visit was primarily for the benefit of the B1 level students of the school, so that they could learn some of their history of their town at the same time as practising their English. We don’t get many tourists coming out here for the history (we don’t get many tourists out here at all, come to that), so rather than hiring the local guide, the EOI decided to use one of the auxiliares to give the tour. Tasha knew me for a history boffin and suggested me. Yours truly then had to clue up on this obscure Chalcolithic (please don’t make me pronounce that again) sepulchre, gleaning facts and titbits about Copper Age Spain to produce a reasonably interesting (and, crucially, intelligible) presentation for the students. I did say I like a challenge…

I learned a lot, I must say. I’ve never really looked into the Copper Age, or the Bronze Age, or even the Stone Age for that matter. Did you know, for example, that the average life expectancy in the third and fourth millennia BCE was around 23 years old? It was pretty humbling to be giving out that little factoid with twenty-three years to my own name. Also new to me, and perhaps more interesting still, was the knowledge that Almería, once home to El Argar, Spain’s dominant Bronze Age culture, is in part the product of Bronze Age environmental meddling. The El Argar civilisation, Spain’s most advanced in its day, developed at such a voracious speed that, together with a shift in climate, it resulted in the creation of Almeria’s vast semi-desert, such as the Sierra de Baza and the Tabernas wastes. A message for our time if ever there was one.

I’m not sure how much information the students gleaned from my presentation alone. I did my best. The ensuing hour or two over a pint in Almendralejo’s Hotel Acosta Centro was a great deal more informative, and it re-affirmed my faith in humanity in finding more than one avid naturalist amongst the Extremeño community. The fires of Catalonia are still smouldering, but on an environmental front, I do believe Spain is changing for the better. Whether it is too little too late remains to be seen, but a little awareness can do so much good.

Here’s to that. Chin chin! BB x

The Best Margherita in the World

It must be time for the second half of Biff and Ben’s Andalusian Adventures. Apologies for the delay; work is picking up speed fast, just like it always does. Private lessons are adding up now. I look after a group of kids for an hour twice a week and suddenly the whole town is in on the game. It won’t be long before my previously timetable is fully booked, perhaps even more so than the last time I was here. The way things are going, I might even earn more than that year, too: private lessons pay a lot more in the long run than a regular assistant’s hourly salary.

So, after spending an enjoyable sunset watching bats skimming low over the water in the town park, I thought it was high time I got this post out of the way so I can justify giving you weekly musings and updates – which, I maintain, always make for much more entertaining reading than another ‘wish-you-were-here’ travelogue.

That said, here’s one such adventure.


 

 

After a day wandering about Seville and discussing the pros and cons of Salvation, I thought we could do with a trip further afield. Through our AirBnB host Emma we managed to rent a car at less than twenty-four hours’ notice. It took some doing, but we did it. All we had to do was decide upon a destination. It took some convincing, but I managed to dissuade Biff and Rosie from visiting El Rocío. Why they alighted on that one in particular is beyond me. I suppose the fact that I’d name-dropped the place for years and years had something to do with it. At any other time I’d have loved to show off my favourite Spanish lady, but after a year of bad droughts and worse forest fires, she’s hiding her skirts in shame at the way she’s been treated. I can only hope she finds her smile again.

Emma looked horrified when they mentioned their plans to her, pulling the same pained expression most Spaniards seem to pull whenever you mention you’re headed for Huelva (“but… why?”). I spent most of the night and a good twenty minutes of the morning making other plans and, over breakfast, I posited a route through the Serranía de Ronda an alternative. They took the bait. Thank the Lord.

With Biff at the wheel, we reached the intersection and headed east, instead of west. Towards the mountains. Always a good direction to be going in. There was a strange black fog over the town of Dos Hermanas as we left Seville behind. Not sure what that was all about. Time to head up into the mountains where the air is clear.

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Ronda. It’s been ten years. It’s been more than ten years. And still I remembered my way about that most beautiful town, truly the jewel of the Andalusian sierras. Little wonder the famous bandoleros made the sierras around here their home. A guitarist and his accompanying dancer plied their trade before the balcony on the park promenade. A horde of Spanish tourists marched down the walk towards us, the noisiest of all the world’s sightseers. And now they’re armed with selfie sticks. They seem to be one of the few things the older generation has learned how to use – and discovered to be much to their liking. God help us all.

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We had plenty of time and a lot of shadows to kill. So we meandered along the cliff wall in the direction of the famous bridge, whilst I explained how GHOTI was fish and Biff threw me for a loop with the seven pronunciations of -OUGH. Trust me, when you’re in the English teaching trade, nuggets like these are fun. I’m serious.

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Or at least, they are for me. Biff may have other ideas

Rivalling the Spanish tourists in town were the Asians, who had come in great numbers. And upon the battlefield of the bridge, where Spanish and Asian met, selfie-sticks held aloft, it looked as though two armies wielding pikes were set to clash. It was rather difficult to find a good spot without crossing somebody’s line of fire, I can tell you.
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What’s wrong with a good landscape?

We passed the homage to the Romantic Travellers of Ronda where, despite the relatively sparse decoration, the selfie stick brigade was back in force. A little further on, past a curio shop and the Museo de Lara, we stumbled upon another blast from the past: the bandit museum. Had I had half a brain I would have made it priority number one to visit this little establishment whilst writing my TLRP on bandits two years back. I didn’t, and I still nabbed a decent 85% (thank you, Google Books), but boy, do I still wish I had! The place was a gold mine and – to my surprise – it didn’t drive Biff and Rosie out of their minds. On the contrary, they even seemed to enjoy the visit! Which made me happy. Though perhaps not as happy as having the chance to see an entire collection of bandit knives…
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Lunch – at Gastrobar Déjà Vu, directly opposite the museum – was spectacular. I haven’t eaten so well for so little since Amman’s Bab el-Yemen. Twelve euros for ten tapas. And that’s ten home-made, local produce tapas. Insane. England, please look and learn. Tapas shouldn’t cost more than three to four euros a head, if that. Not seven. Please remember that.

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Ronda’s streets look stunning under the azure sky, but it was the gorge we came to see. And this is where my ten-year-old memory failed me a little – because the last time I came here, I’m almost certain the path beneath the cliff wall went no further than a few metres or so.

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Not anymore. I guess Ronda must have hit the bigtime on the tourist circuit, because the track down to the gorge is in a brilliant state, complete with Via Ferrata routes, ropes and little cairns left by daytrippers here and there.

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I could have sworn the Tejo river itself was polluted and closed off the last time I was here. Not so anymore! You can wind your way down the gorge and walk along the river valley, looking up at the bridge high above. It’s quite a surreal experience, and very humbling. The bridge looks enormous from on high, but it’s nothing compared to how it looks from below. And when you’ve got the sierras beyond framed by the archway…

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…I could hardly ask for more.

The only anomaly of the excursion was the well-hut a short way out on the other side of the gorge. Because, if memory serves, I remember getting as far as a small building like that when I was twelve years old… though this one lies so close to the waterfall at the bottom that one might as well be there already. I wonder just how far I got?

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From Ronda we took a meandering north route home via Setenil de las Bodegas, another gorge town where the denizens decided to build under and over rather than just over. It’s well off the beaten track, and well worth the visit. The sun was quite low in the sky by the time we got there and much of it was in shadow, but as Biff pointed out, you could definitely feel the difference between the warmer, sunlit side of the street, and the cooler, forever-shaded side. Enterprising people, these Andalusians.

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The road home to Seville took us on a beeline towards a sight which is now very, very familiar to me: the silhouette of my old home, Olvera. The road from Setenil offers perhaps the best view of the town for miles around. So despite my better judgement, Biff and Rosie convinced me that we needed to pay it a visit.

So we did.

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It was decidedly weird to see Biff – my oldest and closest friend – walking down the streets of a town which, until now, has stood like an island in my life, a year away and apart. Worlds collided. And I said as much several times. So, to recover from the weirdness of it all, I suggested dinner at Bar-Restaurante Lirios. And there’s a decision I had no second thoughts or qualms about. Because Lirios, in my humble opinion, serves up the best margherita pizzas in the whole world. And that’s worth travelling all the way over the hills and across the sierras for. I usually order margherita whenever I’m out at a pizzeria to see if anywhere can do it better. Having not been to Italy, my options have been limited, but thus far, I’ve yet to meet Lirios’ match. When last I came to this town, it was in search of an old flame of mine. Frankly, I missed a trick. What was really calling to me over the distance of years was not a brown-eyed beauty, but a well-seasoned pizza. As with most things in Spain, and in life, I suppose, it’s the simplest pleasures that speak the loudest.

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I’ve no travels on the books as of yet. The bike hunt is still in progress (I put a busy WhatsApp conversation on silent at just the wrong time), and I’m still waiting for a day when I have the time and the lack of errands to allow me to find a bike to take me to Hornachos and beyond, that prince of towns.

It’s winter, now. This morning was bloody cold. I almost got my scarf out of the drawer. It won’t be long until I’ll be less hesitant. Autumn lasted for a grand total of one week and three days. Fran’s complaining about the absence of an enagua for the table, and I have a cold. Summer’s finally taken her leave. Winter has arrived. BB x