Old vs New

It’s been a mad week. Over the last week I’ve had to fret over dwindling career prospects, squeeze answers out of a class that don’t appear to have improved at all in two years, hurdle a new wave of needlessly ambiguous admin, wrangle with pushy internet dealers and, to top it all off, deal with a flatmate and a friend who could still disappear at any given moment should a better offer arise. It’s not been easy. The first few weeks of term are always an uphill struggle but I’ve never known one week quite this bad.

Five days of mental block were torture. None of my attempts at writing came to fruition. I needed a break. I had to get away from it all. And Fate, as she often does in such situations, came up with the goods. At the end of an afternoon spent filling in forms for Student Finace and the local Junta – and venting my hysteria through last week’s Have I Got News For You – an offer to join the other auxies for a Halloween Party came through. I ummed and ahhed and was on the verge of turning it down when I had one of my spontaneous urges and decided to go for it. I had no time to prepare an outfit, so I came as an un-ironed shirt. Perhaps that’s the least of the small-world horrors I’ve had to deal with this week, but it was easier to explain.

It was an enjoyable if tame night, for which I was truly grateful. I had the chance to discuss my music withdrawal issues with a kindred spirit, and to gather opinions from the new auxies on their new home. I also got to put my dancing shoes on at Concha when Billie Jean came on. I needed that. But most importantly of all, I got to spend some quality time with two of the brightest stars of the Tierra de Barros, Tasha and Miguel.

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If I needed a reaffirmation that I had made the right choice in coming back to Villafranca and not striking out somewhere new, this was it. These two are perhaps the greatest of all reasons for my return. Vultures, Hornachos and migas were waiting, but these two goofballs were a greater lure yet. And it isn’t often you can so easily allow yourself the luxury of moving your workplace to be near to your friends.

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We spent the day in Mérida, where Fate once again showed me a kind hand for my spur-of-the-moment decision. Because I spent time with Tasha, I learned that the Junta needs a stamp from the bank and a paper copy of our ICPC, which have to be mailed, not emailed. Even though I went to the Orientation days this year, that detail wasn’t spelled out, nor was it included in the emails. It’s a good thing I spent Friday morning hunting for envelopes and stamps, albeit for a different purpose. If the man at the estanco hasn’t been so dishearteningly begrudging at surrendering two rows of stamps rather than the twenty I was asking for, I might have used them all. Forewarned is forearmed.

She also demonstrated a knack for knowing my desires by meddling with Miguel’s car’s CD player. The Red Hot Chilli Peppers CD kept pausing, so he put on a Galician band who played the unmistakeable lullaby-dream of Erin Shore, albeit to the name of Romance de Novembro with Galician lyrics – this, after gallego has been so on my mind after my parents’ visit this week. Fate, or whatever it is that organises these things, sure knows what she’s doing. At twenty-three years old, I still cling to the storybook belief that everything that happens happens for a reason. It’s hard not to see the lines when you want to.

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 We had a couple of beers in a Bremen-themed bar on the curiously named John Lennon Street, complete with memorabilia of the former Beatle plastered on the wall beside buxom stein-bearing belles and German insignia, whilst the bartender bemoaned the loss of jobs in the wake of Catalonia’s defiant pursuit of independence. Spanish flags still hang from balconies across the region a week and more after the Día de España celebrations, in solidarity with a nation that’s being pulled apart by old wounds. My beer tasted like strawberries and wasn’t unpalatable. I guess beer is like tea, coffee and sitcoms: unappealing at first, but you learn to appreciate it over time. Effort leads to endurance, eventually, enjoyment.

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Lunch was superb. We visited La Taberna del Sole on the recommendation of a student of Tasha’s and we were not disappointed. Four courses (including a green asparagus and almond pâté and the ever-reliable croquetas de jamón) left us fit to bust, and at under twenty euros a head, it was a steal for a fancy lunch. The city is finally opening up to me.

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Despite having already lived here for a year, I never visited Mérida’s famous Roman theatre. Tasha and Miguel thought it was high time that was remedied. I guess I’m spoiled from having wandered the ancient beauty of Jerash and Petra, but Mérida’s reconstructed theatre complex is nothing to be scoffed at. It’s hard to believe it was all but underground a few decades ago, back when the city was confined to the north bank of the Guadiana and the Los Milagros aqueduct still marked the northern edge of town. Stradivarius and Burger King now adorn the old streets, rubbing shoulders with the Temple of Diana and Saint Eulalia’s basilica. Times are changing quickly here.

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The amphitheatre is equally impressive. Complete with a sunken arena that wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of Pokémon, the building is in remarkably good nick for its age. It’s always a little hard to tie the two together, the sophistication of the Roman Empire and the bloodlust of its citizens who paid to watch men and beasts kill each other. Man, the noblest of all beings, and the one who delights most in killing his own kind. In Rome we see man for what he truly is, perhaps. A vainglorious hypocrite.

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I entered via the dens where the wild beasts were kept for venato fights, ducking low so as not to bang my head on the way out like I had on the way in. I wonder what unwilling denizens of the Empire were caged here for the sport of a Roman carnival: boar from the surrounding hills, bears from the Cantabrian hills, lions from across the Strait… Maybe they even had aurochs here, mighty shadows of the toros bravos that still fight on in the Roman games of a land that saw fit to preserve them. I wonder how many beasts in all lost their lives in this arena.

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We crossed the Roman bridge on the way home. I looked, I listened and I spotted the swamphen that often haunts the reeds on the island, gnawing away at a reedstem clutched between its gangly toes. I wonder if it’s the same bird that I so often saw here two years ago? It always brings a smile to my face to see it, and it was a pleasure doubled to share it was my friends. Durham had its goosanders. Mérida has her curious calamón. Overhead, the impressive silhouette of a black vulture glided noiselessly to the west. For all the fury and doubt that the modern world brings in its wake, there is such beauty left in the old world.

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The storm has passed. The last of the rain fell during the night. I woke up this morning and opened the window to a cold breeze that had not been there before. I smiled. Everything seems better in the cold light of day. I can do this. Autumn has come at last. The long, dry Extremeño summer is over. BB x

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NB. It’s a pain when you have to write a blog post twice. This time it was because I wanted to italicise Have I Got News for You, erased it by accident, and, when Undo didn’t return them, rebooted to save the effort of writing those six words again. This will all be so much easier when WiFi finally comes to the flat in just under two weeks’ time…

Sloth Break

My time at university finished almost a week ago, now. In light of the rather hectic run-up to graduation, and the even more hectic month yet to come, I unashamedly spent the last three days in total idleness. After a year of trying (and mostly failing) to squeeze productivity out of every spare minute, I squandered the first few days of summer and am now fully recharged. It’s that time of year again when I rediscover my inflexibility, when I yearn for a bike and reconsider another shortlived exercise regime whilst the sun still shines, before I accept my fate and return to the world I know best: reading, writing and procrastinating, none of which require the ability to touch one’s toes or do a one-leg squat.

It’s a beautiful summer’s day here in Sussex. There’s a pastel dusting of white cloud in the blue, but otherwise it’s a rare blue sky overhead. I lay down in the garden and almost immediately I spotted the far-off shape of a buzzard circling lazily towards the south. I might have missed it if I hadn’t chosen to look up at that moment. Life is full of instances like that. I wonder how many such creatures simply go by unnoticed every day? It must be in the millions.

I’m currently absorbed in the annoying process of filling out the usual admin tide for next year’s job. Frustrating, but more tedious than rage-inducing like it was the first time. If anything ever puts me off teaching, it just might be all the paperwork involved – though I appreciate that, as professions go, it’s probably a generous one.

Whilst I have the time to be idle, I’m finally making a dent in the large pile of books I’ve accrued over the year, starting with Aimee Liu’s Cloud Mountain, a fantastic find in a tiny old bookshop in Edinburgh that had me hooked from the comparison on the jacket to M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions, to this date still my favourite book of all time. If I can learn to write a novel of such brilliance, I’ll know I’ve made it as an author.

Work begins in a week’s time. If it’s anything like it was three years ago, I’ll be up to my ears for a full fortnight. Busy, however, is the best thing to be. It should be said, five days down the line,  that I certainly prefer the idea of free time than the reality of free time itself. BB x

Lose Some, Winsome

I’ll pick up from right where we left off two posts ago with the dissertation.

I didn’t get it.

I should have seen it coming, I suppose. 2016 has been a bit like my last Maths exam: full of wrong answers. It’s been an odd year. A very odd year. A year where Donald Trump actually became first a viable and then the only Republican candidate for the US presidency. A year that saw 51% of Britain actually give in to race hate and fear-mongering and leave the EU. A year that brought us a Pokémon-inspired traffic jam, Boris Johnson elected as Foreign Minister, and the deaths of Prince, David Bowie and Alan Rickman. And now, just to top it all off, I’ve been thrown back onto my second choice dissertation.

In perspective, mine is a very minor problem. It still smarts, though.

Granted, radically changing my modules at the last minute may not have helped matters. But after all of the hard work I put into chiseling out a wholly original dissertation topic (not so easy, when Google contains the abstracts of almost every dissertation imaginable), I’ve been thrown back on my second. Small mercies, then, that I put just as much time and effort into making my fallback as enjoyable and challenging as the first.

Oh wait, hold the phone. I’ve done a real Benjamín here. It turns out I played an old hand this time around, one that’s never failed me before: that is, I deliberately made my second module broader, a little less original and closely linked to my TLRP, so that my university would be forced into giving me my first choice. The old ‘Second-best’ maneuver.

It’s a good trick, and it’s worked before. Only, this time I was outmaneuvered. And now I’ve been put into such a position that, if I stick to my original title, it would be almost impossible not to plagiarize myself. That’s without mentioning that the dissertation I intended to write (my first choice: memories of al-Andalus in Spanish literature) was the one I’d been planning on writing since I was in Year 10 in secondary school (I was an odd kid). It’s essentially research for my novel, the best there could have been. Gone. So that’s a six-year dream squashed underfoot. And no room for maneuver either, since they’re fixed now, and also as somebody else got the al-Andalus dissertation this year. Not so winsome now.

What a diss-aster. Thanks a lot Durham. Thanks.

On the bright side, my dissertation supervisor is possibly my favourite lecturer, so I can’t really complain. I’ll just have to swallow my six-year pride and do the best with what I’ve got. And what I’ve got is still good. Very good. Only, it looks to be a little bit harder to spin twelve thousand words of this one. Without plagiarizing myself, preferably. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

To commiserate, we went to the Med this afternoon to soak it all off in the sun. Katie has plenty to say about her equally unfair diss-missal, but the sun and the sea saw to our anger, and a couple of rounds of Psychiatrist killed any bad feeling remaining. I’ve come to love my Dar Loughat droogs as much as I did my Ali Baba babes if not more, which is a tough task. Balancing the time between them and the host family remains a tightrope walk, and one of these days I’ll have a bad fall if I’m not careful, but for now, the peace lasts.

But that’s it for today. I’m back in bed, I’m recharged on data (5€ for 5GB is a stupidly good deal) and I’m ready and waiting for the rest of the misadventures 2016 has in store for me. Global financial meltdown? World War Three? Another friend-zoning-of-the-century? All equally possible.

Here’s to another hike this weekend. The way things are going, hiking is probably the most hassle-free activity left to me.

But then again, this is me we’re talking about. Who knows what madness I’ll get up to next? BB x

Don Quijote soup – when the rim is larger than the meal itself

And the Manacles are Off

It’s over, at last! After almost a month of to-and-froing between school, the ayuntamiento and the Almendralejo police station, I have a Spanish bank account and the admin period is finally at an end. Alright, so there’s still some confusion over whether I really need a Spanish social security number and I’m not entirely sure how to top up my phone since it isn’t compatible with its own network app, but the most important stage (and one that, by the sounds of things, the other assistants accomplished weeks ago) is done and dusted.

So what better way to celebrate than with a little travel?

You see, I adore traveling. I’m sure I didn’t need to tell you that, but I feel like in the three weeks I’ve been here I’ve never had the chance to get out. Not for want of opportunity, of course, but I told myself right at the beginning that I wasn’t to go traveling until I’d finished all the paperwork. That was supposed to be before my (abortive) training course in Cáceres on 1st October. Well, now it’s the 16th. But that’s ok. Villafranca feels like home now, I’ve christened it with my first stupidly long walk, and I have to say I’m quite enjoying being ‘El Inglés’. But I’ve waited long enough, and now here I am in the Plaza Alta in Badajoz, enjoying a ración of some seriously high-quality croquetas as the city wakes up for the night.

A paltry three and a half euros took me all the way to Mérida, the regional capital of Extremadura. It’s also minuscule compared to Badajoz and Cáceres, for which the two provinces of Extremadura are named, which means you can get around the place in a couple of hours. I didn’t plan on staying long, since I only intended to use the city as a launch-pad for getting to Badajoz – there’s only one bus direct from Villafranca and it leaves at nine in the morning – but, as is so often the way of things, Mérida turned out to be a whole lot more than a collection of pristine Roman ruins.

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At first glance it looks a lot like Córdoba, with the Roman bridge and the great big river splitting the old town from the new. But then, so does Badajoz. It’s missing the beauty of the mosque, of course, but then, Córdoba is and always will be in a league of its own. What it does have is a spectacular aqueduct on the north side of town. If you see any photos of Mérida, it’s bound to feature in more than one of them. Unlike the one in Segovia the city gave it breathing space and there’s a park around it now, but that hasn’t stopped the storks from taking advantage of all those convenient flat-topped towers.

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Ah, but I can do better than that. It took me almost half an hour to cross the Roman bridge over the Guadiana this morning, not because of its length – you can span it in five minutes or less at a stride – but because I was held up by two of my favourite little riverside friends, both of them easy to spot because of all the noise they were making.

I haven’t been to Doñana National Park almost every year for the last seven years for nothing, and when I heard a distinctly disgruntled grunting cutting over the babble of an approaching horde of school kids, I was hanging over the side of the bridge and scanning the reeds in a flash; and sure enough, there he was. Old Longshanks himself.

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What can I say? Gallinules. Love ’em. Loved the ridiculous things since I first saw a picture of one in a book. The name’s daft enough – Purple Swamp-Hen, in full – but the feet are something else.

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I don’t know why I make such a big deal about gallinules over anything else, but they’ve always been the ultimate Doñana bird for me. Perhaps it’s because it’s basically a giant purple chicken. Mm, close enough.

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Feathered friend number two should be a lot more familiar to most of you. He’s also rather colourful, but a heck of a lot smaller and shinier to boot. And once you know what they sound like, you’ll see a lot more of them. It’s a kingfisher, of course!

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At least, I hope you know what a kingfisher is. Nobody here does. Not even if I give them the equally impressive Spanish name of martin pescador.

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I’m still waiting on that perfect kingfisher photo. The one everyone wants: wings spread wide, water droplets falling from a dive, fish in beak etc. but until that moment, they’re always a pleasure to watch.

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Everybody else was walking on by and doubtless wondering who that young loony was in the maroon hoodie-and-chinos combo with the ridiculous lens, hanging half over the bridge, but hey, I was having a good time. That’s my idea of a morning well spent, anyway.

Sheesh, long post. My travelogues usually are. Badajoz is rather beautiful, and if my right thigh weren’t still punishing me for that 45km cross-country hike last weekend, I’d probably be enjoying it more. I could do with a rest. It’s a lot bigger than Mérida and I had to double the distance when it turned out that the albergue I had in mind was a school groups affair. I was accosted outside by three young girls who asked me if I wanted a blowjob and called out ‘oyé, feo’ and ‘mochila verde’ after me when I ignored them. Then I tried taking a shortcut through the park into the Alcazaba, but shortcuts do tend to make long delays, and in this case the road came to a sudden and unexpected end. The door was there alright, but the road… wasn’t.

The adventures never end! Left the restaurant to soak up the night in the square and a wandering troupe of musicians asked me for directions to the ayuntamiento. I pointed them in the right direction, but their leader deduced that I clearly wasn’t from Badajoz. Back atcha, tío; ‘I’m from Villafranca de los Barros’. ‘Villafranca?! Hombre, somos de Ribera!’ (the next town along from VdB). It’s a small world. And I’ve just noticed that I missed a major performance from the best gypsy musicians of Badajoz at the theatre tonight. Only two doors down from the hostel, as well. Rats. I’ll be back.

I’d better call it a night there and head on back to the hostel. I might try for sunrise over the Guadiana after this evening’s gorgeous Portuguese sunset. On a final note, I had the happiest moment of the month on the road to Badajoz when I saw, in the distance, a giant V-flock of some one hundred and twenty cranes on their way south. It’s only the very moment I’ve been waiting for, the first true sign of winter in Extremadura. I was practically jumping out of my seat, I was so happy.

The photo hardly does it justice, so I’ll go hunting for them some other time when I’m not stuck on a bus. But that’s an adventure for another day. BB, which may or may not stand for Bird-Brain amongst other things, signing out x

Return of the Paperwork Fiend

I’ve been riding on an unfairly long streak of good luck for the last week, as you might have guessed by the cheery tone of the articles. As is to be expected, the honeymoon-period had to come to an abrupt end at some point as the stresses of making one’s own way in the world came to a head, and as usual, it’s the little things that take you by surprise. I managed to dodge the iceberg that was the NIE without even a scratch, only to plough straight into the reef that is trying to open a Spanish bank account.

What have the Romans ever done for us? Administration. You’ll hear a lot of horror stories about foreign administration, especially in France and Spain, where the foul creature was spawned long ago. The Spanish love their paperwork, arming themselves with signed forms, photocopies, rubber stamps and enough identity cards to start a national trading-card game. Obtaining an NIE – a numero de identidad de extranjero – is one of the most important parts of enrolling as an auxiliar de conversacion, as without it you cannot open a bank account or be a legal resident in Spain. Normally it’s this that gives most people a bellyache, when pencil-pushing fiends in the foreign affairs office at the local police station decide to liven up the tedium of their day’s work by sending you on a merry wild goose chase after that form that looks just like the one you brought in, but with one number’s difference, which of course changes everything. And of course, you’re not the only one after one of these precious little commodities.

Right now it’s coming up to harvest season and Extremadura is awash with migrant workers here to reap the benefit of a temporary boom in the job market. This year, the officials in Almendralejo have their hands full with a large group of Romanians, also requiring an NIE to validate their existence in this country. If it hadn’t been for the Director and my mentor in the English department, I honestly think I’d have turned back when they told us to return at nine o’clock the following morning. But the sad fact of the matter is that ‘big old whitie’ always prevails, and I was shunted to the front of the queue so that I could leave that very morning with my NIE stamped, cleared and ready to go. There’s something very sick about that system. Guilt aside, it wasn’t as clear-cut as I’d have liked. My landlord hadn’t thought to give me a contract, so I couldn’t apply for my tarjeta de residencia on the spot. That wasn’t too difficult to achieve, but it would have been handy to know in advance, before attempting to tackle the bank this morning – which, of course, needed that precious tarjeta also. Passport, NIE, proof of address and proof of stable financial employment are all well and good, but if you don’t have that little red card – if you’ll forgive the expression – it don’t mean jack.

Did you know that the United States has a Paperwork Reduction Act, dated from 1980? Spain could sure do with something like that.

Following on from this trend, today’s been a bit of a bad luck day all around. My timetable’s still in flux because of the absence of any bachillerato classes, which the authorities decree needs changing. And until that’s done, I can’t clarify the timetable of my second job with the Order of the Carmelites. And since both of those are paid affairs, this bank situation needs clearing up fast, or I’m going to end up high and dry soon enough, Erasmus grant or no Erasmus grant. Don’t even get me started on that.

As a final hurdle, I stumbled just short of the fence over the Jornadas de Formacion in Caceres this morning. My BlaBlaCar driver didn’t show up, the only bus that passes through this town leaves at half four, which is when the training day begins, and I haven’t received a smidgen of confirmation as to whether I’ve actually got anywhere to stay there tonight. So all in all, despite not having fully prepared any classes, I’ve decided to toss that in the towel and start work today. It’s not a major loss, as I’ve had two teaching jobs before and I’ve done half of the paperwork already, the main focus of these meetings. They’re also non-compulsory, so it’s no big deal, but I was hoping to go if just to formalise the whole shebang, though perhaps more so to meet some other auxiliares. I may be a blood traitor to my kin, choosing to eschew any and all English speakers by living with Spaniards way out here in the sticks, but that doesn’t mean I don’t miss my mother tongue. At the moment writing is proving my only channel for it, and Hell, is that benefiting from an absence of conversation…! I must have written a chapter a day for the last four days. That’s ten A4 pages a day. I have far too much time on my hands – for now.

How’s that for a healthy antidote to the ‘I’m having the best year of my life on my year abroad’ drawl I’ve been riding on for the last week? Alright, alright, I’ll quit putting myself down so. On the plus side (finally!) teaching’s been really fun, and that’s what I’m here for. My Spanish is improving daily, in vocabulary, grammar (I never did learn the simple past tense at school and I’ve been winging it for the last ten years) and stumble-rate. The latter is, of course, a problem in every language I speak – even English – and has more to do with my machine-gun rate of speech than anything else. Teachers have been telling me to slow down for years. ‘You never will learn, Benjamin’, as my father would say. He’s right on that count.

The shining light in my experience though, above and beyond school, is the couple of hours I spend a week with the husband of one of the staff here, who’s requested extra English lessons. Not only is his English at a much higher level than any of my students, but he’s also one of the most interesting men I’ve ever met: a genuine intellectual if there ever was one, his bookcases lined with legal tomes and a collection of certificates and photographs on his desk, featuring such leading lights as Umberto Eco, King Felipe VI and Mikhail Gorbachev. We had to cut our lesson short yesterday when, mid-meeting, he received an important call from a government official promoting him to high office, a decision which he had been labouring over for some time since it would require a drastic change in his life. He took the job and poured out his heart to me, and I felt more than honoured to be the first person to hear about it; before his wife, children and even his own secretary. ‘I feel like a child at EuroDisney… like a little boy on Christmas Day’. That was how he put it to me. I left him to open his Christmas presents and set off to treasure that warm fuzzy for an hour in the park. It may only be for a couple of hours, but it’s already the highlight of my week.

And there I am, fussing over kids, when the real gem out here is a man older than most of my teaching colleagues. Life has a funny way of playing around with you, sometimes. BB x

Outsider

I think I’m contracting hayfever, which is frankly ridiculous in a place that’s almost as dry as Jordan. Or maybe that’s just my sinuses reacting to an overdose of chorizo in last night’s risotto. Whatever it is, it’s spoiling the atmosphere.

It’s two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon here in the Parque de la Paz in Villafranca de los Barros, which means the town’s finally awake and everybody and their five children are out to enjoy the sunshine for a few minutes and then spend a good three hours in the shade, chatting noisily over a pint or a cafelito, more often than not the other way around to what you might expect. Where the students of the town are is anybody’s guess (I suspect they lead a more nocturnal existence at the weekends), but all the families converge on the park come Sunday morning. Scores of children on roller-skates climbing up and down the ramps by the Bar Atalaya whilst mami and abuela witter away with babi in a pushchair, getting ogled at every other minute or so with cries of ‘ay que linda, ay que linda’ or such like. One or two of the children who aren’t too fond of roller-blading are tottering around in oversized shirts, hands stuffed into crisp-packets and gaping in wonder at everything that moves. Especially the strange individual sitting on the bench on his own. Who even does that?

It’s both the easiest and the hardest thing about village life in Spain. Or village life just about anywhere, come to think of it, but especially in Spain. It’s a big family world, and if you’re not part of the family… well, you get the idea. Little Sunday idylls like this remind me just how much I’ve always wanted little dark-eyed curly-haired toddlers of my own, and whereas in England that kind of remark would probably earn you a wary look if not a second opinion from most people, here in Spain it’s a totally natural thing to be baby-centric. It must be – these Spaniards have giant families. One of the students I’m to be teaching put me in a tight corner when, during an introductory class, she asked ‘why is your family so small?’. My colleague apologised on her behalf and told me I didn’t have to answer that one, but the point had been made. I come from a family of four, including myself. Naturally, then, I’ve always loved the idea of a large family. It was one of the things I treasured most about my first relationship. We all want what we can’t have.

I suppose I ought to tell you that I’ve found somewhere to live for the next eight months. It was almost too easy. The new mechanics teacher from Plasencia made good on his offer and I’m now conveniently based just five minutes’ walk from the centro, and one minute’s walk from the park – which, ironically, is to be my internet hotspot for the rest of the year. I’m not going to complain about that. It’s a wonderful place to be. With any luck, in a couple of weeks I’ll have found the younger generation of this town and this may prove to be their hangout too – albeit at a different time of day, of course. That’s the only thing I envy the Erasmus students for; a ready-made social circle of people their own age. But at least I get the golden kernel in that I am, quite obviously, the only Englishman in town. And I mean that quite literally. There are two other auxiliares to be working here when October rolls around, but they’ll be living in Almendralejo, leaving me as the English-speaking bastion here. That couldn’t suit me any better. Because that means that, apart from when I’m teaching, or when I’m reading or writing my novel, the only language of communication I’ll be using out here will be Spanish. And unlike Andalucia, where (beautiful though it is) I might well miss half of what is said in the slur, I understand everything here. It’s an enchantingly countrified strain of Castilian, and that suits me down to a T.

When the time is right and I’m fully settled in and documented (the latter awaits in the Oficina de Extranjeria in Badajoz tomorrow, or as long as it takes) I’ll head for Olvera, where I’m lucky enough to have a host of old friends waiting to meet me, after I had to leave them behind to return to life in England, now almost nine years ago. I should thank my stars for that much. It may feel like I’m an outsider, watching all these families going about their Sunday paseo, but I’ve got my toe in the door already and I’m working the rest of my foot in as we speak. BB x

Flicking V’s

The first thing you should know about Villafranca: life may seem slow here, but the underground current moves lightning quick.

And here we go! The longest stretch of the year abroad has begun, and boy does it look it. It certainly felt it as I tried to bed down after packing everything I’ll need for the next nine months into a single suitcase. I got a bad case of cold feet in the last five minutes before I fell asleep, wondering when the next time I’d have a bed of my own would be. I’m hosteling it for the first three nights whilst I find my feet here, which takes me up to Friday night. It’s looking like it won’t all be resuelto by then, but, it’s still early days. If nothing’s been arranged by then, I’ll use the weekend to sort out a few vital affairs in Badajoz, namely acquiring an essential NIE, or número de identidad de extranjero, a turgid, long-winded process that looks to be quite the bureaucratic nightmare, worse by far than a flotilla of ICPCs. But we’ll just have to wait and see. If the Facebook page is anything to go by, some manage it with minimal hassle, others don’t. Luck of the draw. You just keep your head screwed on and tackle it sin compromiso, niño. This is no time to be shy.

Taking a breather under Alicia’s Bridge

Getting to Villafranca from Seville was not the simplest voyage I’ve ever undertaken. What really didn’t smooth things out was the singularly unhelpful bus driver, who told me that the 14:15 to Valladolid would not pass through Villafranca de los Barros; even if I wanted Mérida, I’d need a different bus. Fortunately this is Spain, and one of the passengers told me otherwise. So I took a chance on the Valladolid bus and, what do you know, it does pass through Villafranca. El Conductor was none too gracious with letting me take my suitcase from the bowels of his bus either, but he let it go in the end, and I took my first steps into Villafranca de los Barros fighting the temptation to flick several triumphant V’s in his direction.

This place is a lot drier than I’m used to (discounting Amman)

At four in the afternoon, the place really is nothing short of a ghost town. I took a walk through the centre to have a little look-around, and for the most part the place was deserted. On the edge of town, where the comparatively large park meets the open countryside, you can see all the way to the Montes de Toledo to the north. A cold wind was blowing across the steppe, which only added to the frontier town vibe. I was entirely alone in my circuit of the northern part of town, but for a handful of chatty students leaving the walled confines of the Colegio San José, essentially a Spanish remodeling of Worth Abbey. Mum thinks I should put in some extra hours there if I can and I have to say I’m pretty tempted, but it looks like I might be kept quite busy here after all.

As arranged, I’ve come into school right away, and thanks to all eight of the Meléndez Valdés English staff, I feel like I know the place already. Must be that charming will to help out that most Spaniards have preprogrammed into their systems (I’m looking at you, Mr Bus Driver). It’s dead similar to IES Sierra de Lijar as far as memory serves, but then, I suppose all Spanish secondary schools follow a similar mold. A major confidence boost is the music teacher, who was particularly keen to see me – she already has her sights on a Christmas concert with a potential choir in mind. I’ll keep you posted on that one.

At any rate, it’s such a relief to be speaking Spanish again, even if I do keep tripping over invading Arabic words – especially ‘na3m’ and ‘qariib’. It’s like 711 in my brain. But if I can keep this up, I’ll be fluent in a matter of months. Which is no bad thing.

Back to the staffroom life!

I’ve been charged with assisting with a few ESO classes primarily, which in this case is the bilingual branch of the school, along with a couple of classes of bachillerato. I’m still not entirely sure what that entails, as it seems a lot of my lessons will be open-book. It’s less a case of ‘here’s what we want you to teach’ and more a case of ‘there’s your office, and here are some materials you may wish to use’. That said, the age-old rule where ‘assistant’ is a byword for ‘another teacher’ still stands, as it did in Dr Obote College and with my summer job last year; I might end up taking a full class once or twice a week. Or more. My horario still isn’t finalised so it’s still all up in the air, but we’ll see. What I do know is that I get a day off a week, on either Monday or Friday, and I’m free in the afternoons – ‘para viajar’. They seem keen that I do, and I’m not about to disappoint on that count. I’ll probably need that extra day anyway; getting to and from VdB isn’t the easiest of operations. Given the spread of Saint’s Days and national festivals (a poor year for puentes, I’m afraid) I should probably try for having my day off on Friday, but I’m not about to get shirking just yet. Besides, I think I’m going to like it here.

I’ve still got to sort out somewhere to live for the next nine months, but that might not be the Herculean task it first seemed. I was game for roving the town in search of se alquila signs, but the staff have been lightning-quick in the hour since I arrived here. I already have two apartments and two flat-shares on the table to choose from. One of the newer members from staff is very keen to help out on that front, sweeping all the other offers off the board in typically bombastic Spanish style with an offer from his primo for a very competitively-priced flat-share. He’s showing me the place after the meeting this afternoon, and since I can have the place until June, it seems the best offer yet. The dueño is a real gitano and I’m going to have to negotiate to get as good a deal as it is by the sounds of things, but if it means I can share with a Spaniard, so much the better, purely so that I don’t have to worry about company. As it turns out, Wikipedia’s estimate as to the population count of Villafranca de los Barros, currently at 13,000, was wildly off the charts – by about ten thousand. So in a curious twist of fate I’ve got exactly what I asked for. And since everybody seems to know everybody here, I’m hoping it won’t take too long to get comfortable.

As before, it’s going to be a mask-wearing game. In the staff room, it’s Spanish for everything, and they’ve been very complimentary already as to the strength of my castellano – but the children cannot know that. To them I’m just a native/naïve English speaker, here to improve their English. Here’s to hiding that fabulous Andalou drawl for as long as I can.

I guess that if chinks start to appear in my armour, I could always claim it’s the Arabic coming through instead. It’s not like it hasn’t tried several times already. BB x