Afterglow

Walking home from work this evening I found myself unnaturally aware of the night sky. Normally in the corner of West Sussex where I live, the skies at night are impressive, and you can see all the constellations of the season with a clarity you wouldn’t expect to find so close to London. Last summer I even saw a comet shining a brilliant blue as it shot across the sky overhead. But tonight the clouds were low, and a strange, eerie light hovered along the horizon on either side of me: a greenish-yellow to the north, hanging over the distant lights of London, and a more unholy bluish-green patch of cloud to the south, indicating a floodlit pitch somewhere below. Elsewhere along the skyline, similar patches of tarnished gold and green light made the night a rather sinister shade of grey. Somewhere in among the phosphorescence, the glow of an almost-full moon went unnoticed.

When I lived in Spain as a child, I remember a night when several towns in the area decided to take part in a five-minute power-cut. I believe it was in protest about climate change, or energy wastage, or something along those lines. Our town sat atop a lonely hill in the middle of a great valley ringed by mountains. Villages were few and far between, and the nights were dark enough even with the interference of the thousands of twinkling yellow streetlamps. But one night, for five minutes, it was even darker still. My mother took me up to the square at the top of the hill to look out upon a world blanketed in a darkness it had not known for decades, perhaps even centuries. I was only twelve years old, but it made a deep impression on me. I have never forgotten the quality of the darkness, the stars that shone so brightly that in memory they seemed almost like suns – which is perhaps not so very far from the truth.

We spend a lot of time discussing the irreversible damage we have done to our oceans, how we have choked the earth and its rivers with our plastics and detritus, but it is far deeper and more sinister than that. Man’s quest to vanquish his fear of the dark is well on the way to robbing us of our natural light. In some parts of the world, it already has.

It is not so much our desire to ape that concerns me – our fierce instinct to twist the natural into the artificial – because I know that story. It is the fable of the Emperor and the nightingale. Tragically, as is often the case with stories meant for children, it seems the moral was lost on us a long time ago – a modern-day version would no doubt have the Emperor plug simply his iNightingale in to recharge. No, it is our desire to outdo. The go one step beyond. To beat nature at her own game, like a petulant child insisting they are old enough to look after themselves. I am reminded of another children’s story concerning a devil’s mirror, that sought to make a mockery of all that it looked upon…

When you spend weeks going over the pollution topic of the iGCSE and IB exams with your foreign language students, it’s easy to forget the creeping damage of light pollution, if only because we choose not to see it. Light is good. It shows us the way, it helps us see where to go. It makes us comfortable and it keeps us safe. So perhaps it is a loss we must bear. What is, is what must be. But I do wish, on nights like these, when the clouds are low and heavy and stained with the unholy afterglow of the city, that I could go back to the night of the power-cut, when the night was clearer and more beautiful than any light show I have ever seen. BB x

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Stargazing in La Siberia, May 2016

 

Reaching Out

Dear World,

I remember a time when Brexit didn’t mean an awful lot to us. When it was just the latest in a string of buzzwords bandied about by the press. Before the year when the experts were all wrong. Before the referendum, President Trump and the sudden violence of world politics, like a particularly large and menacing dog woken from slumber by the rumble of a passing car.

I have tried to keep my mouth shut on Brexit since the beginning, suspecting that we could only have come to such a junction because of one failing or another in the system. Mutiny might breed in idleness, but anger, hatred and intolerance do not come from nowhere. The spark must have been glowing within the ashes, even if so few of us saw it smouldering there. And how could we, in the echo chamber of our comfortable social media bubbles, where everything hurtful and unorthodox is slammed before it is questioned, and the angry back down in silence to nurse their wounded pride and their encircling fear in the darkness. Certainly, we are not the architects of our own destruction, but we are not entirely blameless in bringing about the situation that so many are now quick to decry.

I was in Morocco when it all kicked off, now almost three years ago, when the referendum was as out of sight and mind as the essay I was supposed to be working on for my university. I was informed of the outcome by an American, who came rushing into the classroom to tell me, holding nothing back, that ‘your folks voted out’. Of course I was shocked, though perhaps not as much as I should have been – I confess to having forgotten entirely about the referendum that morning. Last night’s Arabic homework seemed more important at the time.

It was certainly not the result any of us had been expecting. But then, I did study languages at a British university, so almost all of my contemporaries were naturally predisposed to take an immediately dismissive view of anything akin to Brexit out of hand. I don’t think I ever saw anything other than rage against Brexit on my Facebook feed, and that in and of itself made me concerned from the start.

The eldest son of my Moroccan host family saw in it a cause for celebration, and he wasn’t the only one. I remember seeing fireworks from the balcony, set off from somewhere within the city outskirts. “It’s the best thing England could have done,” said the son. “Anything that weakens the EU is good for us.” I suppose being in a country that felt ostracised by the EU opened my eyes early on to the other side of the argument, in spite of my obvious leanings towards the remain camp, not entirely unconnected to being of Spanish blood myself. Without my grandfather to voice his European view on the matter, I had to find the answers myself. And as much as it hurt me to imagine where it all might lead, I had to listen. I had to know. Because there’s no use in complaining about the situation if you aren’t prepared to listen to the other side.

It seems strange to me that, in an age when even Disney’s recent heroes and villains have become various shades of grey, today’s politics should provide the black and white.

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It’s been a few years since then. The strange, almost unbelievable scenario I discussed at length with an American in the shade of a Tetouani hotel roof on a hot July afternoon has now shimmered into reality. In a matter of weeks it will be B-Day – unless something radical happens. The last few months have been nothing short of chaotic. Defeat after defeat in the House of Commons. An increasingly beleaguered Prime Minister who soldiers on, determined to defend the decision of the referendum in spite of those who call for a second referendum, claiming the British public was lied to by the Leave camp – as if the concept of politicians spreading lies were something revolutionary.

Would a second referendum help? I can only hope that it would do more good than harm. We have walked right into a bear trap. To say the first referendum was wrong would be to call into question the referendum process, nay, democracy itself. And though it would not be the first time the United Kingdom has changed its mind over its core values – see attitudes towards homosexuality in the former African colonies – it does us no favours, having sold, extolled and foisted democracy upon the world to then tamper with it. In the words of the Spanish philosopher Baltasar Gracian, “never open the door to a lesser evil, for other and greater ones invariably slink in after it”.

Tonight the MPs voted against a “No Deal” Brexit. Tomorrow there will be a vote on whether or not to delay Brexit altogether – if the EU will even allow such a thing. I have given up predicting politics, preferring instead to take after my namesake in Animal Farm and hold to the adage that things will go on as they have before, that is, badly.

It is, of course, entirely plausible that Brexit was all one big power play – a high risk, high return move in a long and complicated game of chess. Perhaps Farage, Johnson and the rest of the Brexiteers are simply riding the storm, and have done very well out of it, to the detriment of millions. It is also entirely plausible that I have spent too long looking into the abyss, trying to empathise with a point of view that is so alien to my heart. The Spaniard in me cries out and beats his chest, with true melodramatic flourish, for all the harm that will be and has already been done to our sense of European unity. The Englishman I am, contrite to a fault, pleads for patience and searches desperately for answers.

Time, the master of all things, will tell on the matter of Brexit. And if there is indeed a special place in Hell for those who led us to this junction, we may yet all see a window into the inferno on the night of the 29th. Or we may simply wake up to another unpredictably disappointing morning, where everything stands on its head. The era of topsy-turvy politics continues.

World of the future, when you look back on all of this… Be kind with your judgements. Remember those who fought tooth and nail for unity, remember those who fought for what they thought was right, and remember those caught in the middle who tried to listen.

BB x

British street artist Banksy takes on Brexit in Dover ...

PS. I confess to not having read enough on the subject before writing, and being informed only by my European family, the odd snippet on the BBC and my almost entirely Remain camp circle of friends. But I have tried to be honest about my stance on the subject.

Instant Friendship

I’m sure I’m bringing nothing new to the table when I make the claim that instant communication has changed what friendship is all about. It might not have altered the definition of the word, but it has radically changed how we go about expressing it. You only have to take both the mobile telephone and the internet away for a moment to consider the implications.

I was at a party last night when this particular dilemma crossed my mind, and it occupied my brain for the greater part of the journey home across central London. I heard in passing a friend mention how he’d been on the phone to another friend of mine just that morning. In and of itself it shouldn’t have unsettled me, but it did, because in the entire time I’ve known that friend, I couldn’t remember a single occasion I’d called him on the phone. In fact, in the last fifteen years or so I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of friends I have spoken to over the phone, two of which one can write off instantly for being girlfriends (on the popular assumption that a relationship necessarily requires such amenities). For some reason, I’ve never been the type to ring up my friends. It’s not for want of things to say – I’m an infamous chatterbox in good company – but I’ve simply never known what to say over the phone.

Should this trouble me? On a purely superficial level, no. Friendship isn’t calculated on a basis of words per minute. And yet in today’s hyper-connected world, it’s very easy to feel that if you’re not the kind of person who enjoys texting, WhatsApp groups or catchups over the phone, you’re failing in your task as an attentive friend. Why wait months for your next personal encounter when you could fire off a quick Facebook message? People often say it’s the little things that count, and it’s the “little things” like this that social media and it’s various offspring facilitate. You can, of course, turn up your nose and say you’ll hold out for the next time you meet in person, but that is easier said than done when we must necessarily part ways to pursue our various careers, which may well be far away – another hurdle of modernity. The fickle hand of progress draws us together with one hand whilst the other does its level best to drive us apart.

I must endeavour to write more letters. We all must. Far too much emphasis is placed on speed and frequency of communication these days. One should consider that, if we lived in a time without social media, data or the telephone, insecurities such as these simply wouldn’t exist. But because we can now be reached at the touch of a button, we should be reached. There’s no excuse for sloth. You can apply the scenario to work; it’s the same problem there. There’s simply no escaping it now. We’ve made ourselves slaves to our own desire for immediacy.

Working in a boarding school has left me with little time or energy to write as of late, be that my books, my blog or even my letters. At the party last night I found myself speaking to “close friends” I had not spoken to in all of a year, two in some cases, to my shame. My workload is set to increase twofold next year, but despite the obvious hurdles I have yet to face, I mean to turn that trend around. I have to do what I can. Snail mail may not provide the instant satisfaction that WhatsApp delivers, but there is a genuine sense of joy to be found in patience. And patience is surely what friendship is all about, when it comes down to it.

I can only hope my friends have been patient with me. 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

Screamers

April isn’t normally a mad month. This one has been, though. Since getting back from La Mancha, I’ve been here, there and everywhere. Performing in the school play. Working at a Language Immersion weekend in Burguillos del Cerro with the local EOI. Attending extra Gospel Choir rehearsals in Zafra. Taking additional classes at school, cancelling my private classes (at last) and doing intensive research in the library. For what is supposed to be a twelve-hour working week, I’ve been rather busy. It’s never anything that I can’t handle, though, and with the end in sight now, lesson planning is becoming easier rather than harder. That’s some small relief.

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Parroquia de Santa Maria de la Encina y San Juan Bautista, Burguillos del Cerro

The weather, though… What is with the weather this year? Ignoring the fact that I’m English and that my first blog post in almost a month should naturally be to talk about the weather, it’s been one of the weirdest years for weather I’ve ever seen. First the cold, then the rain – three and a half weeks of it – then a week of glorious sunshine, then hard rain again, and now summer, with high humidity and thunderstorms forecast over the Puente de Mayo. It’s as though Spain just forgot to do Spring this year.

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I’m wondering whether that Star of David tucked away in there was intentional…

Winter was long, dry and freezing cold here in Tierra de Barros. Spanish houses are designed with the long, sweltering summers in mind, and though they’re well-adapted to shutting out the light and heat in August, they’re lamentably bad at keeping it in during the winter months. You basically need the brasero (a flat heater, often kept beneath a covered table) on every night. It’s a long battle between cold hands, feet and everything, and the bimonthly electricity bill, and the latest invoice that’s been lying on the kitchen table for the last fortnight serves as a reminder of the cost of the season’s war crimes. It’s a pity one can’t live in Spain for half the year and England for the other. You could make a killing on the savings.

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Booted Eagle (aguila calzada) from the castle at Burguillos

On a minor note, it’s impossible to get into a comfortable position on this sofa. There. I’ve acknowledged the elephant in the room. We can move on.

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Painted Lady taking a break on the castle top

I’ve been wondering what to write the next blog post about for a while. A couple of weeks ago the bee-eaters arrived, on the very day I’d commented on their absence, and that brought joy to my heart. Later, I had the Language Immersion, which raised some rather disconcerting news concerning my beloved Extremadura, but that wasn’t strictly blog-worthy. I also dug out the local library’s regional encyclopedias, which were filled to the brim with local information I could only dream about before… but at the risk of boring you all senseless, I’ll wait until I’ve properly processed the information before regurgitating it here and now. No, the answer, my friend, was blowing in the wind.

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Or should I say, screaming.

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The swifts have been here for over a month now, hawking overhead on their way north alongside the hundreds of swallows, martins, kites and storks also bound for northern Europe, but the Villafranca contingent only arrived a few weeks ago. How do I know this? Well, it’s quite simple, really. I know this because the screaming only began a few weeks ago. The collective noun for a flock of swifts varies, with some opting for a box of swifts, or the more alliterative swoop of swifts, though in perfect honesty I’m going to tip my hat to the chappie who coined the phrase a ‘screaming frenzy’ of swifts – because anybody who’s familiar with these peculiar creatures will know that they’re not exactly the most inconspicuous of birds, to put it lightly.

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Swifts are odd-looking birds, to say the least. In flight, they’re right out of a kid’s drawing: long, tapering wings with no trailing fingers, a stubby, featureless face and a cigar-shaped body which makes them look more like a fish that grew feathers and took to the sky. At the same time, their large brown eyes and tiny mouths lend something mousy to their appearance, too. They’re not even that closely related to swallows and martins, with which they share the skies. But whatever they are, they’re endlessly fun to watch, as they duck and weave and scream and perform some of nature’s most endearing acrobatics on a summer evening, seemingly for the sheer thrill of it.

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The saying “one swallow does not a summer make” holds more and more weight here in Spain, especially now that in recent years many swallows never leave at all, opting instead to take their chances with the Spanish winter rather than brave the journey across the Sahara and back. Swifts, on the other hand, are die-hard migrants, spending almost their entire lives on the wing. They eat, sleep, mate and collect all the material they need to build their nests in the air. The ancients believed they never came down at all: their scientific name – apus – derives from the Greek for ‘without feet’. Needless to say they do, like all birds, though they’re small and underdeveloped in comparison to their powerful wings. I’ve only ever seen a swift’s feet once, and that was because I found a dead fledgling beneath the eaves of the village church when I was thirteen. I remember Adisham being a haven for rare birds then: spotted flycatchers, yellow wagtails, corn buntings, grey partridges and even local rumours of a lonely corncrake. I wonder how it’s faring now.

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There are five species of swift in Spain: the common swift (above), the larger brown-and-white Alpine swift and the chunkier pallid swift, and the two newcomers from Africa, the white-rumped and little swifts (you’ll see the latter a lot more readily if you take a wander through the streets of Marrakesh, where they make a habit of weaving between the heads of the shoppers on their way to their nests). It’s the common swifts we get here in Villafranca, the same kind we see back home in England, even though theirs is a sound I have come to associate more and more with Spain than England. Like the cuckoo and the turtle dove, the early summer screams of the swift faded into memory as I grew up and they began to disappear. It can’t be easy, sharing our little island with Man.

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Look close and you’ll see the fly that once was

The older I get, the more I appreciate the simpler things. When I was younger, it was all about the bells and whistles: hoopoes with their punk-rocker crests, rollers with their shiny blue jackets and gallinules in their resplendent purple glory. I’m still mad about the gallinules, but a long detox from the serious bird-watching of my teen years has done me wonders. Swifts and starlings are just as worth watching these days as kites and eagles, with the added bonus being that they can be counted on to be outside my window at any given moment… Although, that being said, it’s a rare moment when I look out the window and don’t find myself picking out a kite, stork or eagle in the blue sky. Yesterday I’d popped my head out for just a minute when a raven flew over. My flat seems to be on the flight path, because most everything I see passes right overhead.

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Time for bed, I think. Well, another chapter of Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One and then bed, anyway. There are some authors I just keep coming back to. Bryce Courtenay is one of them. 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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.