Hesperornis

At around eight o’clock in the morning, the sun isn’t quite all the way up yet and the beaches around Arenal d’en Castell are, for the most part, empty of swimmers. A few Speedo-wearing junkies hug the shoreline, and the running girl is back on the boardwalk as she was yesterday, same time, same place. Other than that, the beach is empty – except for one unexpected bather out for a morning swim.

The Mediterranean Shag – perhaps more appropriately dubbed in Spanish as the tufted cormorant – is a diving bird that one normally associates with the rugged cliffs and seabird colonies of the north. The last time I saw these odd-looking snake-necked seabirds I was standing atop the windswept cliffs of Inner Farne, where the birds had built their messy nests mere inches from the footpath. The Farne Islands are magical in their own right with their denizens so fearless and so close at hand, so I suppose I assumed the Farne birds to be a braver sort. In most other parts of the world, birds (and other animals for that matter) know well enough to steer clear of the capricious hand of man. The Great Auk didn’t – and is consequently no longer with us.

Before the tourism industry boomed in the Mediterranean, sea turtles and monk seals swam into the sandy coves to give birth and plovers nested on the shorelines. The human demand for a place in the sun has pushed many of these creatures to local extinction – the Mediterranean monk seal is now one of the rarest mammals on the planet – but some species have decided the only way to cope with the summer surge of noisy humanity is to simply go about their business as though nothing had changed. The shags of Arenal d’en Castell do not appear to mind the presence of their human neighbours in the slightest. The waters of the bay are still teeming with fish, and for this master fisherman, the presence of a few hardy toe-dippers is no obstacle to a morning’s hunting.

There are at least three shags in the bay, not counting those that haunt the rocky cliffs of the headland to the northeast. Like many “urban” animals, they lack the lustre of their wild counterparts. The shining bottle-green feathers of the Farne birds are absent here: Phalacrocorax aristotelis desmarestii dons a more humble suit, with a touch of the sandy-grey “pardel” colour that flecks the coats of all Spain’s beasts, from its mice and rabbits to its bears and wolves.

Or at least, this bunch of townies do.

They really are masterful swimmers. This youngster did an entire length of the bay in a matter of minutes, displaying incredible agility as it darted through the shallows, oftentimes passing within a few feet of the day’s first paddlers, and avoiding what obstacles it encountered with incredible dexterity – with one exception. Perhaps age will bring wisdom.

Every once in a while, nature, that ancient mechanic, finds a form it likes and seems to say to itself ‘yes, that’ll do – no need for further adjustments’. Sharks and sponges and jellyfish have filled an ecological niche since time immemorial, and there is much in the shag that harks back to some of the earliest birds, not least of all the fearsome Hesperornis, a seagoing avian dinosaur with sharp teeth on its beak. There are no teeth on its descendant, but as it floats along the surface of the water, snorkelling often and propelling itself along by its back legs, it seems an ancient creature; and when it finds what it was looking for, it kicks with its powerful legs and dives. And if it looked a capable swimmer on the surface, that is nothing compared to what it can achieve below the waves.

Would that I had an underwater camera and could show you just what I mean! Swimming around the headland this afternoon, I ran into the bird again, paddling only a few metres away without a care in the world. When it dived, I went under and followed it on its underwater hunt. Such speed! The bird moves like a torpedo through the water, powering ahead with powerful kicks of its bright yellow feet. I could only keep up for as long as it allowed; when it had enough of the lumbering tag-along, it kicked harder and took off through the depths. Were the sea calmer I might have watched it go, but the high winds stirred up the sand on the seabed and within seconds it disappeared into the gloom.

It’s moments like this that I wake up for. The flycatchers hawking around the climbing frame in the garden. The hummingbird hawkmoth that visits the hedge every day, the turtle doves that purr from the Aleppo pines, and the blue rock thrushes that warble from the cliffs of every rocky cove – and all of this within five minutes of the flat. Menorca is wild and, for the nature lover for whom a casual swim is simply not enough, it is a truly beautiful place to explore.

The high winds of the last few days are finally on the wane; the waves are not crashing upon the headland as they were this morning. Tomorrow I make for Fornells to explore the reefs on the northernmost cape of the island. I hear there are moray eels to be seen, though I should consider myself more fortunate if I should have the chance to swim with the shags once again. It was a real RSPB moment, up there with the vultures in the mist and the saltpan harrier, and I shall treasure it for years to come. BB x

Stormchasing

It only rained for three minutes this evening – four, at a push – but it was enough. The muggy, sweat-laundering heat that swallowed me body and soul from the moment I stepped out of the plane this morning is over, and with a night breeze blowing and the temperature pleasantly cool, the last three hours of the day are for writing. I’ve not had the time or mental energy to put pen to paper for several months, and I doubt I will at all next year. So tonight, and maybe for the next few nights, the sun is shining and a haymaker am I.

Sweet Caroline is playing on a loudspeaker in the hotel bar down the road. The only other sounds, besides the ever more distant rumblings of thunder, are the chirring of crickets, the metallic ring of a flagpole in the wind and snatches of conversation from the holidaymakers in the surrounding block. I thought tonight might be a night for geckos, but I can’t see or hear any tonight. Not on my balcony, anyway. The rain might have driven them off.

Beach holidays have been late in coming to me. As with so much in my life, I suppose I have been contrary: what appealed to everybody else must therefore be uninspired and dull. I’d love to say I’m still game to throw myself gung-ho into another madcap adventure, but after a year in a boarding school, I’m quite spent, and for once the idea of spending more than a couple of days on the beach isn’t quite as dreary as it once sounded.

Ok, scratch that. The storm that rolled in over the cliffs today lit a fire in my soul and I was up and out the door in a heartbeat.

Standing alone atop the wind-scarred wastes of the Cap des Redoble, I looked out to the west and watched the thunderstorm come rolling in. I have seen displays of grater majesty and covered my ears before more deafening drumrolls, but it felt truly sensational to stand alone, high atop a cliff, as thunderbolts great and small rained down all around me.

Some forked across the sky, skirting beneath the clouds like bubbles under ice, whilst others weaved in and out of the haze as though there were a holes in the clouds. Others still hurtled straight into the sea offshore, some thin and wispy, others monstrous and so bright they lit up the sea in their wake and pulsed in stasis upon the grey canvas of the sky behind before disappearing into the ether – invariably just before I’d pressed down the shutter on my camera.

I love a good thunderstorm. Who doesn’t? It is truly one of nature’s most awesome performances, and who can blame the ancients for believing gods great and wicked were behind such electric devilry. Only weeks ago I wandered out into the grounds at night to watch a silent storm from the hilltop, and stood in equally silent awe for almost half an hour as lightning danced across the sky in flashes of silver and violet, twelve strikes to a minute. And six years before that, in the garden of the bishop’s residence in Boroboro, I watched a similar storm paint the sky shades of purple I had never seen before.

I had planned this first post to be about swimming with tetras and breams and mullets and wrasse, but the thunderstorm that followed somewhat stole its… well. You get the idea.

Nature has always been my elixir. A reliable restorative that works every time, if only I allow myself the time to go out in search of it. That’s part of the draw of working in a rural boarding school, I guess – that at any given moment, if I have an hour or two to spare, I can strap on my walking shoes and be in the heart of an English forest within minutes. My fears are gone, the world is put to rights and my soul is singing. Amman simply couldn’t offer that and I suffered.

In The Power of One, one of Bryce Courtenay’s best and one of my favourite books of all time, the wise and humble Doc tells Peekay that, whatever the question, ‘the answer you shall find in nature‘. Wise words and I swear by ’em. I just wish I were wise enough to act on them more often. Next year is likely to be my greatest hurdle yet, and I will need every trick in my arsenal to pull through.

Four more days in Menorca are just what the doctor ordered. And when Menorca is but a distant memory, a thunderstorm or two like the one I saw today wouldn’t be so bad. BB x

God in the High Places

“You can’t help but wonder what compelled anybody to build a monastery way up there on the mountain.”

For just a moment in their hour-long conversation about real estate, American sitcoms and friends who had near scrapes with cancer, a Californian woman on the train remarks to her companion on the mystery of the world heritage site they have been visiting, as it speedily slides out of sight as the train turns a corner. It lasts but a moment; within seconds they’re discussing Ellen DeGeneres’ Instagram and Oprah’s twitter feed.

I’ve always been amazed by karst ever since my first visit to El Torcal when I was a kid. It affected me so much that it became the setting for one of the main episodes in my book, and I have spent much of my adult life dreaming of finding similar geological wonders around the world. But if El Torcal was beautiful, the jagged mountains of Montserrat were impressive on a whole other level. The name itself – serrated mountain – tells of its stark, toothlike appearance, standing high above the lowlands around Barcelona. That on a clear day you can see them from the city itself only adds to their majesty.

Small wonder, then, that the monks of eleventh century Catalonia saw fit to build a monastery there, ad maiorem Dei gloriam.

There was a rush for the first train at 8.35am, but on arrival in Monistrol, the town at the foot of the mountain, they all herded straight onto the cable car and rack railway services without a second’s thought. Alone, carrying my lunch under one arm and my sketchbook under the other, I began the two hour climb up the mountainside.

It was quiet on the way up. The kind of quiet I haven’t heard since the last time I climbed a mountain, now almost two years ago. Cirl buntings and greenfinches chattered in the bushes, treecreepers and blue tits sang from the woods, and every so often the croak of a raven came in on the wind. Only the intermittent rattle of the train in the valley below broke the spell. It was an old place, and it felt that way for much of the climb.

The mid morning bells were ringing as I rounded the last bend in the track and began the final ascent towards the monastery. It was, of course, like most scenic places of worship, completely crawling with tourists. Three coach-loads of French schoolkids arrived just as I did, and a huge Chinese group of over a hundred-strong with their pike square of selfie sticks made getting up the narrow walkway to the monastery grounds a slow and uneasy business. Never mind the obnoxiously loud Americans, the even louder Italians, and the ridiculously dressed young Briton, almost as red-faced as his bright red shorts as he wandered around with his sketchbook. That is, of course, me.

Not for the first time I found myself wishing I could step back in time, to a time before mass tourism, when you could stay in the monastery for around the cost of a single euro (or equivalent). When, looking out across the hills of Barcelona towards the sea, you wouldn’t see motorways and industrial sites, but green hills and church towers lining the Llobregat river. In my very British way, I pined for the pastoral glory of days long gone.

I could not find God in the monastery itself, so I gathered my things and set off up into the mountains instead. Only twenty minutes out, with the monastery still in sight, it was calm again, and I was back in the silence. Which, I suppose, is precisely why the Benedictine monks of Montserrat chose to build such a wonder so far removed from society. To retreat is to escape from the world. Perhaps that’s why it struck me as so strange that a place of reflective retreat had become such a magnet for mass tourism. But mankind is all alike, in some respects; what occurs to one wandering mind must also occur to a dozen others. And who is to say any one person has more of a right to go?

Nowadays there’s this widespread notion that God is everywhere. He loves you, so naturally he is everywhere. He resides in every man and woman, every street corner, every kiosk, every artificial tree. Is it because he’s become so much a part of the everyday that so many people have forgotten him? When was the last time you really took stock of a kiosk?

The ancients believed that God could be found in the holy places: a high mountain, a desert oasis or a tree said to be older than time itself. I wonder whether if we stopped imagining that he is everywhere for a moment and instead went to seek him in the wilderness, as the ancients did, we might at least find that small measure of peace that resides in the high places of the world. For if he is the God of love, so too is he the God of peace. The Monastery of Montserrat might have sold its peace in part to the tourism industry, but wander a little higher up into the mountains beyond and you might begin to get a sense for why it is that God of old chose the wilderness. BB x

Broken Glass

I took a gamble, booking a flight to Barcelona on the day after Brexit was due to happen. Some people said I was mad, that I’d have lost my money, and that I might end up grounded. Some people said there was nothing to worry about. I chose to believe in the latter and did nothing, trusting that Project Fear would only cause a few minor disruptions at best.

And I got lucky. In over ten years of flying to and from Gatwick Airport, I swear I’ve never seen it so empty. Security took all of three minutes, queues, baggage check and the whole taking off and refastening one’s belt charade. In short, no queues at all. Well, none besides the giant queue for the cancelled Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong. I suppose you can’t blame Project Fear for that.

I managed to lose one of my lenses sometime between boarding and takeoff. Fortunately it wasn’t one of my camera lenses, but one of the eyeglasses from my shades. So now I have to spend the holidays looking like a low budget Terminator. Alternatively I could buy some new ones, but that would spoil the magic a little. Stories aren’t so interesting when everything gets mended all the time.

Well, here I am in Barcelona. This hostel doesn’t appear to hand out padlocks for its lockers like some of the ones I’ve stayed in over in western Spain, but no matter. I’m going on a nighttime stroll to take in the city a bit. Catch you later. BB x

Commuter Vignettes

A collection of observations from London and Madrid.


14.38The Lonely One

A girl gets on the Metro before me. She has that listless look of a twenty-first century child, of a face torn away from the blue glare of her mobile phone. The phone is there, of course – it always is – sitting dormant in her hand but very much alive. Maybe she’s sad because nobody’s messaging her right this instant. There’s something Latin about her look: behind the white Adidas shirt and the pale blue jeans, there’s an arch to her nose that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Montezuma, and she wears bold red lipstick on her thick-lipped pout. It looks a little out of place on her frown. She looks about eighteen, but with that tricksy Latin blood in her veins, she could be anywhere between that and thirty.

The tannoy goes off for Nuevos Ministerios and she leaves.


10.40The Spider

A London micro-manager discusses his six-month leave and coffee with Tom this morning, at a volume just loud enough for the carriage to hear. If the asking price rises into the millions, he suggests waiting for the results to deteriorate, like a bald and very well-dressed spider. Business is the meal of the day. His latest victim, a Gucci exec, writhes in his binds down the line, whilst the shadow on the receiver worries about growth. All of this is, yep, yeh, very good, cheers. The flies will just have to resign themselves to another day of good business.

The tannoy goes off for East Croydon and he leaves.


10.46The Ghost

Could the onboard supervisor contact the driver please.
Could the onboard supervisor contact the driver please.
Could the onboard supervisor contact the driver please.

‘Perhaps he’s not onboard,’ says an old timer. He gets a lot of laughs.
‘Gone AWOL,’ says a glamorous matriarch. She gets a few more.
‘Gone home,’ says a jumper-round-the-neck. The laughing streak dies out. ‘I mean, I haven’t noticed anybody check our tickets, so perhaps there isn’t one.’

Three minutes later, the train pulls out anyway. It doesn’t sound as though the onboard supervisor made contact.
‘Gonna be late now,’ says the matriarch, looking at her phone. ‘Ten minutes delayed.’

The tannoy goes off for Clapham Junction and she leaves.


11.23The Sardine Run

The 10.09 Southern Services train to Redhill is delayed. Apparently this is still newsworthy. Downstairs, the Underground splits at the seams. Giants with sports shorts and mop-tops jostle for standing room with Catalan sightseers, Russian students and a Rastafarian flyerman, dozing silently over his stack of pamphlets. The driver on the tannoy is profusely apologetic about the frozen train, citing an earlier faulty train as the reason for the blown lines ahead. The three-minute delay becomes a five-minute delay, which in turn becomes a ten-minute delay. Five was enough to oust the man in the navy pinstripe suit and the other big fish. I’m only going one stop so I really could have walked, but people-watching isn’t so easy on the move.

The tannoy goes off for Green Park and I leave.


22.52The Platoon

Small talk sweeps Cabin Six. Three late-twenties girls types discuss renting flats, grown-up men and which was the most distressing Harry Potter death, Dobby or Hedwig. One of the three isn’t contributing so much. Another keeps the flow going. Their ringleader dominates the conversation with perfectly formed silences and sentences. Corporal, Captain and Commander. They each tell a tale: the tale of the bright orange Maine Coon and a cactus, the tale of the old lady who fell asleep watching the BBC news and the tale of the silent nurse. The underlying moral of this urban saga? If you live in a flat, you can hear someone go to the toilet. A twenty-first century aphorism if ever there was one.

The tannoy goes off for Redhill, the Corporal gets off, but the Commander’s tales go on.


10.43The Herd

Three stag parties board the plane. Two of them are your standard bunch of square-jawed gym jocks, joking loudly about how muntered Gavin is going to get, how he’ll be flat on his face, gatted, smashed, trolleyed. The other herd follows their oddly-dressed leader down the aisle like a pagan procession, their Chosen One wrapped up in a pink and purple sari with all the bells and whistles – except, of course, the kameez that usually covers a Hindu bride’s modesty. Nip slips are clearly less of an issue for six-foot tall white men. When your average Joe has umpteen problems getting through airport security, it’s frankly ridiculous that he walked through untouched. He’s obviously done his homework if he’s going as an untouchable, though somehow I don’t think that’s the idea his cronies had in mind. The Arabic music crawling out of the speaker in his back pocket would seem to suggest that. At least in Madrid he won’t look out of place. In Gatwick Airport on a Friday morning he just looks like a prat.


15.16The Slaves

Jenny Seville might have painted the scene in front of me. A perfect tableau. Three commuters stand over me with their hands on the rail, facing out across my head, with their eyes glued to their mobile phones. A smart, short-haired man in a blue suit with his earphones in, a disgruntled middle-aged lady in a pink blouse and a professional women with a sharp nose and dark eyes. They stand before me like some grotesque Swiftian pantheon, their smallest features blown up and illuminated in the backlight. To their left and right, lesser gods scroll soundlessly in the blue glare. I feel tiny, sat pressed into the chair at their feet. All along the train, heads are down, faces are blue and conversation is fleeting. There are islands of humanity in the slave ship: a huddle of Latino men talking jovially with no electronic assistance, and a couple of old women discussing train delays in central Madrid. Every time I look around me, I catch the eye of the Green Woman, the only other person in the slave ship who isn’t glued to her phone. She looks like a slightly larger and slightly less airbrushed Anne Hathaway.

The tannoy goes off for Atocha and she pulls her phone from her pocket. I have no binds, so why do I feel so shackled? BB x

Family Reunion: Part Two

When all is said and done, there is surely nothing more important in life than family. I always knew that. A hundred books and films tell you explicitly what your parents don’t have to. But my mother did, in one way or another, and one way or another I set my heart on finding my lost Spanish family years ago. It makes me proud, prouder than I’ve ever been, to say that I’ve done it. It was nerve-wracking and emotional, but I did it. My world just got five sizes larger over the space of a single night. I’m happier than I’ve been in years and not even a third repeat of Charlie Puth’s How Long over the bus radio can dampen my spirits. Not today.

DSC_0252

“How did you know where to find us?” they asked.
“You’re Spanish,” I said. “I knew you wouldn’t have gone anywhere.”

Twenty-four years on and none of my relatives had moved so much as a mile from where they were before. God bless the Spanish and their strong family ties.

DSC_0122

I had so many questions when I pulled into Villarrobledo on Thursday afternoon. I got so many answers that I almost ran out of questions by the end of it all. Now it all makes sense! The great-grandmother from Albacete, the school in Teruel, the letters from Cataluña, the ties to Murcia and the car accident in Alicante. I had all the pieces, but I needed somebody who knew how to assemble them. Luckily for me, my grandfather’s cousin Encarna was just that person. Born in Alicante, raised in La Mancha, educated in Murcia and displaced to Cataluña for a short time, my grandfather Pepe covered in twenty-nine years just about every corner of Spain that I haven’t in twenty-four. Between the two of us we have the whole peninsula in our hands. I still have so much of his world to see, but I’ve made a great start, and that’s always the hardest part.

DSC_0151

It’s hard to know what was the very best moment of the last three days. Rafaelín’s insatiable curiosity. Encarna’s spectacular cooking. Natalia’s “en Semana Santa no se pega”. Hanging out with a generation of cousins I never knew I had. Jokes about vegans, vegetarians and hapless Brits abroad, three spine-tingling saetas, and Jesús brought back to the church in what looked like a body-bag by the Guardia Civil to protect him from the rain. I’ve never felt closer to the spirituality of Semana Santa and the family were only too happy to introduce me. I’ve only ever seen it through the eyes of a curious outsider before, hooked – like so many guiris before me – on the magic of the spectacle. But now it’s closer. It’s not just wishful thinking on my part. Finally, I belong.

DSC_0183

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all came out of my notebook. In all cases but this, I’d have loved to have my family with me for the reunion, but in this instant, I’m glad I came out on my own. Were my mother or father about, they’d have told me not to bring the notebook. They’d have said it was “showing off” or being “unsociable”, perhaps. That was what they always used to say. But if I hadn’t had it on me, I would never have found out that my passion for carrying a notebook everywhere I go is not just a strange quirk of my own – it’s a family affair. You see, my great-grandmother Lucía María Cruz de la Concepción Mercedes – Mercedes for short – was also a prolific notebook keeper, who liked to sit on her balcony on a sunny day with a cigarette, a glass of brandy and the radio on, jotting down whatever she found interesting and penning her thoughts between her doodles. Quite by accident, I’ve been channelling my great-grandmother’s spirit all this time, and I never knew.

DSC_0143

Well… I’m home now. There’s always something a little sad about the end of a great quest. The journey there is filled with hope, excitement and a host of well-wishers who spur you on like a good wind in your sails. Every step is a climb and the end of the road, as short and sweet as it may be, is the most beautiful of rewards by far. But there comes a time when home calls, and every adventurer must gather their things and return to reality, and the road home is quieter. My quest is my family, and it will go on forever.

DSC_0259

It isn’t all too often that you get to be your own wishmaker. But every once in a while you just have to get over your fears and go for it, whatever it is. And if the last week has taught me anything, it’s that whilst something as simple as making a phone call still has the power to cripple me, nothing and nobody will stand in the way of me and my family. Fate tore us apart years ago. My mother gave me the tools, Don Rafael gave me the opportunity, and I have put us back together again. Whatever happens in the remaining nine months, 2018 will go down as one of the greatest years of my life.

DSC_0117

P.S. As if today couldn’t get any better, when I got off the bus I was met with the screams of Villafranca’s swifts, back from the winter in Africa, and when I got home, I found a letter from nothing other than the wonderful Kate Brocklesby waiting in my letterbox. Today has been a very good day!

Family Reunion: Part One

10:52

It begins in Salamanca. It’s not exactly where I thought it was going to begin, but it’s a more auspicious starting point than Villafranca, I guess. The other passengers around me are reshuffling their seats on the bus. The lady on the seat next to me scrolls blindly through her Instagram feed. Flighty pigeons patrol the bus station roof and a few fluffy clouds pepper the sky. Suitcases roll in, buses roll out and people chat about what they’ll be having for lunch. It’s just another day in Salamanca – but not for me. Today’s the day I find my family.

It’s hard to say exactly how I’m feeling right now. Three days ago, when Rafael called, I was nervous. So nervous I waited until the call went through to my answerphone so I could deal with the matter calmly and indirectly. I’d already gone through the business of psyching myself up a couple of weeks ago, when I first made plans to visit. Spurred on by Coco, and some of Bella’s heartbreaking family stories, I decided I could wait no longer. Then Rafael’s sudden hospitalisation put our reunion on hold and I had to wait.

Now I’m racing across the sunny fields of old Castile with the cathedral of Salamanca shrinking into the distance, and my new quest – perhaps the greatest quest of my life so far – has begun.

12:58

The snows on the highest peaks of the Guadarrama seem as smooth as flour. San Rafael, the quiet town that harboured me once when I came down tired and hungry from a sixty kilometre trek across the mountains, looked warm and unfamiliar in the sunlight. I only remember it in the dark of the night. I have left the granite boulders and high sierras of old Castile behind me. Madrid stretches out across the plain with queer mountains of tower blocks and skyscrapers. The Buddenbrooks film they have playing on the monitor is drawing to its sad and depressing finale, a world away from the hopeful sunshine outside. Nineteenth-century Germany and sunlit Madrid could hardly be further apart.

I see a magpie. I count to ten. A second appears. I breathe again.

14:43

Every quest has a dragon to be slain, and today’s is Atocha Station. On the bus I briefly entertained the idea of a small paseo in the Retiro, should I find my way through the station easily. It’s as well that I didn’t. It took me several bewildered attempts to navigate the terminus. Atocha makes London King’s Cross seem like the Dunkeld and Birnam railway station. Stairs criss-crossing each other in all directions. Media distancia here, larga distancia there, high-speed AVE lines elsewhere. The icing on the cake: the platform is not revealed until minutes before the train arrives, or, in this case, withheld until the thing is just pulling in. I was a bag of nerves back there and I’m not proud of it. I love travel, but I don’t like cities. I never have. And it’ll only be harder on the way back when I have half the time to get from Atocha to Estación Sur. But the dragon is slain, and I’m headed south into New Castile and the immense emptiness of La Mancha.

15:08

Where do I begin? What questions do I ask the only man on Earth who knew my grandfather when he was still alive? It’s hard to know where to start. Rafael may be my first cousin twice removed, and his descendants more distant still, but they’re all that’s left of my family and I have to find them. I have to know. It’s what’s been driving this whole Spanish adventure from the very beginning. My grandfather José… When was he born? What was he like? Is there anything left of him in his hometown, or has he passed, like the Moorish kings, into memory? I can only hope for some small detail, a shred of the faintest of proofs. In truth I do not really know what awaits me in Villarrobledo, but I can wait no longer.

15:40

Some etymologists believe the Roman word “Hispania”, from which we derive the modern name of Spain, came via an old Punic-Hebrew cognate “i-shfania”, meaning “Island of Rabbits”. The rabbits are dying out by degrees – I haven’t seen one in months – so perhaps “Island of Magpies” might be a better term today. The kites and the swallows come and go, but I see magpies wherever I go in this country. I used to associate them with the oak tree that grew on the verge by my house when I was growing up. Nowadays I think of Spain when I see them. I’m not sure where we get the word “magpie” from, but the Spanish urraca is supposedly onomatopoeic, like the Arabic ‘āqāq. There was even a Spanish queen called Urraca once. I wonder why they called her that?

The earth is red. We’re rolling into Alcázar de San Juan. Three stops remain. Just to spite me, a pair of rabbits watched our train pass by from the sleepers on the opposite line. Hispania lives on.

17:29

The first words I heard on entering Villarrobledo were not in Spanish at all, but in American English. I’m not sure whether that marred my first experience or not. Villarrobledo looks like a lot like Villafranca, picked up and dropped in the middle of La Mancha. And I thought Extremadura was flat… I’ve never seen such horizons.

The hotel Rafael arranged for me has everything I need, except the little zing of extra courage I could do with right now. To be fair, there’s probably plenty of courage in the couple of Dueros I brought as presents for my family, but if I can soldier through twenty-two years of teetotal trials, I can manage this one sober. I’ve had a shower, freshened up and put today’s date in my journal. There’s nothing left to do but to step out of the hotel room and finish my quest. Some food wouldn’t go amiss, but as it’s Jueves Santo, I doubt anywhere will be open. Besides, needs must: there’s a greater cause at stake. Grandfather, this is for you. It always has been.

Ps. I’ve forward-dated this post, so by the time you read this, I’ll have met my family already. I’ll keep you posted.