Where to next…?

It’s getting mighty cold here in Tierra de Barros. I went to sleep clutching at my knees and somehow managed a decent night’s rest, only to wake up and find I’d left the window slightly ajar. I think I need to invest in a winter duvet more than a bike. I’m still not used to this system of alternating between summer and winter duvets. I almost miss the English climate. Almost…

We’re now three weeks away from the end of term. Yes, term ends on the 22nd December, and this year that falls on a Friday. Late, but not too late. Today’s a regular Monday. I’m sitting in the living room, easily the warmest room in the flat, having just turned the heating off after a generous couple of hours’ life-giving warmth. I have a private class with the kiddos at six (hopefully they’ll behave better this week – but then, they are only three years old), and I need to go shopping, as when I went this afternoon it took picking up the first item in the fruit and veg aisle for me to realise I’d left both my cash and my card at home.

So what’s to do? Well, it’s the time of year when I need to start thinking about where I’d like to be next year. Amongst other cards I have on the table – up to and including the JET programme in a few years’ time – the original plan still stands, which is to carry on with the British Council assistant jig for another year, albeit this time not in IES Meléndez Valdés, 06220 Villafranca de los Barros, Badajoz. The school has been wonderful to me and I could hardly have asked for a better host for two years, but I ought to spread my wings and discover somewhere new whilst I can. After all, Spain is a kingdom of many worlds: Extremadura may be one of her most beautiful, but there are other jewels in the crown!

So, for my own benefit – and for those who are interested in applying for the programme – I’ve decided to go through each region, in alphabetical order, to assess the strengths and drawbacks of working in each. Coming back to Villafranca was easy… it’s time to step back into the unknown!

(Ed.: I’ve used my own photos where possible – Andalucía, Cantabria, Extremadura and Madrid – but the rest are various stock images!)


Andalucía

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Where: South
Weather: Hot
Dialects: No (though Andalú, the regional accent, might as well be)
Visited?: Yes (far too often)

Ah, Andalucía. My old homeland! And, until recently, the region of Spain I knew best. In many ways the ‘classic’ Spain that comes to mind, Andalucía is – understandably – very oversubscribed as a destination. The Americans tend to have their eyes on it, and thanks to their system, which allows preferential treatment to consecutive-year assistants, they tend to end up there eventually, too (after doing time in equally beautiful backwater regions). Andalucía isn’t necessarily more spectacular than any of the other regions, but it offers a lot more bang-for-your-buck over the distance it spans: cities like Granada, Córdoba, Cádiz, Ronda and Sevilla ooze Romantic charm, and then there’s the natural beauty of the Alpujarras, Doñana National Park, the Sierra Morena and the all-too-often-overlooked beaches of the Costa de la Luz. It’s a fantastic region in which to fall in love with Spain, but because it’s so well known, it can be difficult to escape… unless, of course, you end up in somewhere like Olvera.

Probability: 7/10

Aragón

Where: Northeast
Weather: Cold
Dialect: Aragonese, Catalan (only in the high north and west)
Visited?: Yes

Alright, so a service station and a brief visit to Calatayud don’t exactly count as visiting Aragón per se… Aragón is a lot like Extremadura. Lots of people pass through it on their way to somewhere else. Zaragoza is probably its most famous city, but what of the rest of the region? Huesca in the north plays host to some of the most beautiful Pyrenean landscapes out there, and Teruel would kindly like to remind you that it does exist, despite what the rest of Spain will tell you. Aragonese, a local dialect, survives to the present, but as Spanish is the only ‘official’ language, there’s no cause for concern. High on the Spanish plateau, it gets mighty chilly in winter, but it is also the home of the Comarca de Monegros, a vast expense of semi-desert. And, like Extremadura, its comparatively unknown status makes it a very good place to go native.

Probability: 8/10

Asturias

Where: North
Weather: Cold
Dialects: No
Visited: Yes

A popular choice amongst second-years, Asturias is where modern Spain was born. With pretty seaside towns, Alpine comforts and forested hills that actually go brown in autumn, in some ways it’s the perfect antidote to the Spanish south. For those used to endless heat, readily available paella and Moorish castles, it can seem like a very different world… which it is. The Spanish is very clear here, and it has some of the most beautiful beaches on the peninsula, even if they aren’t exactly the warmest. It’s a little harder to get to, but Santander’s airport offers cheap flights and is only just across the border. It is, however, a little on the expensive side.

Probability: 8/10

Cantabria

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Where: North
Weather: Cold
Dialects: No
Visited: Yes

Cantabria, after Andalucía and Extremadura, is the region of Spain I’ve visited the most. No, scratch that. Technically speaking, Santillana del Mar is the third region of Spain I’ve visited the most, as for some reason I ended up there on all three occasions. A marginally less mountainous version of Asturias, Cantabria is a good choice for the British auxiliar who doesn’t want to leave behind too many creature comforts. Quesada pasiega, a local speciality, is unheavenly good (like most of the Iberian peninsula’s takes on the custard tart), and the stereotype is true: I’ve seen more cows and tractors here than in any other part of Spain. It doesn’t have the quasi-African feel of the south, but what it does have is a cheap and reliable train network, which is a huge plus in any world.

Probability: 5/10

Castilla La Mancha

Where: South-central
Weather: Hot/cold
Dialects: No
Visited: Yes

Like Aragón, Castilla La Mancha is a region I can hardly claim to have visited, having spent just a few days in Toledo a few years back. If Andalucía is the Spain sold to tourists, Castilla La Mancha is the one you find in picture books. It’s Don Quijote country, and any bus ride from Madrid to the south will show you that: seemingly endless fields stretch as far as the eye can see, dotted in various locations with mountain ranges and the iconic windmills (see Consuegra, above). It’s also, coincidentally, the land of my ancestors; my grandfather was from Villarrobledo, a town near Albacete. An immense region where it is very easy to go native, but perhaps not the most awe-inspiring on offer. Toledo, however, is easily one of the world’s most beautiful cities…

Probability: 4/10

Castilla y León

Where: Northwest
Weather: Cold
Dialects: Leonese (in León province)
Visited: Yes

Make no bones about it. Castilla y León is gorgeous. It has its less interesting parts (the Camino de Santiago goes through them), and is in part a mirror of sister-province Castilla La Mancha to the south, but drawn across the meseta are some of Spain’s most striking landscapes. The Duero river gorge is breath-taking, as are the old Roman gold mines of Las Medulas (see above), and the granite-strewn scenery to the north of Burgos looks like something out of a Lord of the Rings film (but then, this was where El Cid was born). Here they speak the ‘purest’ Spanish, so you’ll have absolutely no problems with the language here. It’s clear, crisp and, whilst no slower than the usual Spanish machine-gun delivery, easier to understand than, say, any of the southern accents. The cuisine is also spectacular; in my humble opinion, most of Spain’s best food is its earthy, country food, and you’ll find a lot of it here. The cities of León, Burgos and especially Salamanca are wonders in their own right. Just watch out for the slow-burning Leonese separatist movement.

Probability: 8/10

Cataluña

Where: Northwest
Weather: Warm
Dialects: Catalan (official language)
Visited: Yes

This year would have been a very interesting year to be working in Spain’s black-sheep region. Even after the failure of Puigdemont’s half-hearted rebellion, I suspect it’d be worth a punt for the next few years. I’ve been to Barcelona a couple of times; school trips on both occasions, so I’ve barely begun to scratch to the surface of the place. The Costa Brava is undeniably beautiful, with stunning Mediterranean coves and sparkling white beaches. The Catalonian interior, however, is what grabs me: like neighbouring Aragón, Cataluña has some spectacular mountains. This is Serrallonga’s country, and I’d sure like to find out some more about the gang warfare between the Nyerros and the Cadells of old… if it weren’t for the language barrier. Now more than ever do I regret taking a Persian module over Catalan at university! You should bear in mind that Cataluña’s relative affluence makes it a little more expensive than the other comunidades, especially so in Barcelona itself. But if you’re after a more cosmopolitan experience, this is the place for you!

Probability: 6/10

Ceuta and Melilla

Where: North coast of Morocco
Weather: Hot
Dialect: No (though strong Arabic presence)
Visited: No

Despite the fact that I lived in Tetouan for an entire summer last year, I never did visit Ceuta. For one reason or another, something always came up to stop me going. Which is a shame, really: as the Spanish territories go, they’re pretty unique. Expect a very Moroccan vibe, with the North African kingdom literally within a stone’s throw at any given moment. If it weren’t for their size and the general cost and difficulty in getting to and from them if I ever wanted to travel, I’d probably sign up right away. It would, at the very least, give me an excuse to keep my Arabic polished. Most of the placements are in the two cities, though, which is a bit of a turn-off for me.

Probability: 4/10

Extremadura

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Where: West
Weather: Hot/cold
Dialects: No
Visited: Yes

Of course, I could always stay put, but ask for a more northerly location: specifically, the green hills of Cáceres. There’s no denying Extremadura is by far my favourite region, and with good reason: it’s wild, it’s still relatively undiscovered, it’s lacking in other guiris and the people are some of the friendliest I’ve ever met. Plus, La Vera. Plus, Hornachos. Plus, the book. Heck, I’d stay just to be closer to Tasha and Miguel, who were pivotal in my return to Villafranca this year. With its welcoming vibe and its off-the-wall auxiliares, it’d be my top recommendation to anybody, though I’d concede you have to be prepared to be out in the sticks to be here. For me, however, it’s something of a safe option, and I’d much rather use this chance whilst I have it to explore some more of my grandfather’s beautiful country. Even if Extremadura is the best. Period. I’ll be coming back to this place for the rest of my life.

Probability: 7/10

Galicia

Where: Northwest
Weather: Cold
Dialects: Gallego (official language)
Visited: No

It rains a lot. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at Galicia. Galicia is the Ireland of Spain, where the country’s Celtic roots are strongest. I mean, when their folk bands deliberately cover songs made famous by The Corrs, the ties are hard to miss. Galicia is about as far from the Spanish south as you can get on the mainland, in both distance and culture. Gallego is a thing, but I’m not above learning a new language. The word on the street is that the auxiliar programme there is one of the best in the country, if not the best. That, combined with the cheapness of living and otherworldliness that this region offers, make it the standout competitor for my attention this time around. And I never thought I’d consider it, which makes it all the more appealing. After all, I had no idea what or where Extremadura was, once upon a time. I’d very much like Galicia to be my next miraculous discovery.

Probability: 9/10

Islas Baleares

Where: Mediterranean Sea
Weather: Hot
Dialects: Catalan
Visited: No

Mallorca, Menorca and Ibiza. Party destinations in summer… and for the rest of the year? Well, EasyJet and Ryanair are always offering such cheap flights that there must be something to do there in January… right? If it weren’t for the fact that they’re islands, I might seriously consider the Baleares. But I like having room to manoeuvre, and I don’t know whether I’d feel trapped on an island. Plus, they speak a lot of Catalan there. Once again, I wish I’d not gone chasing Persian down the rabbit hole.

Probability: 2/10

Islas Canarias

Where: Off the west coast of Morocco
Weather: Hot
Dialects: No
Visited: No

First things first: it’s quite a long way from Spain. The Canary Islands, like the Baleares, can seem a very remote posting. Cheap flights are readily available to the UK and elsewhere, thanks to a steady flow of tourists, but I’m not sure I’d be thrilled if I were posted there – not least of all because it’s quite difficult to distance yourself from the touristic side, upon which the Canary Islands depend. I wouldn’t mind going in search of the islands’ Houbara bustards though, or taking a stroll in the misty laurel forests of the Garajonay National Park.

Probability: 3/10

La Rioja

Where: North
Weather: Warm
Dialects: No
Visited: No

I’m going to be perfectly honest. I know next to nothing about La Rioja, except for the fact that it’s a small region with a justifiable fame for its wine. Given its positioning, I expect it’s a little more pricey than what I’m used to, but don’t hold me to that. I’ll leave you to discover La Rioja in my stead.

Probability: 2/10

Madrid

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Where: Central
Weather: Hot
Dialects: No
Visited: Yes

One word. No. The surrounding countryside of Madrid is unquestionably beautiful, no doubt about that, but I would rather leave the country than work in Madrid itself. As cities go, Madrid’s not so bad, but I’m a country boy; cities are for visiting, not for living in. Auxiliares posted in Madrid earn 1000€ instead of the usual 700€ to compensate for the higher living costs and also work 16 hours per week instead of 12, though after calculating the going rate for private lessons and such, I don’t half wonder whether that’s entirely fair – or even financially viable. No; for me, Madrid is just too big a move. I’d recommend the Sierra de Guadarrama, El Rey León and the Parque del Retiro, though (pictured).

Probability: 1/10

Murcia

Where: Southeast
Weather: Hot
Dialects: No
Visited: No

This year’s auxiliares are complaining about the fact we haven’t been paid for October and November yet. If what I’ve heard about Murcia is true, the auxiliares posted there are never paid on time. Murcia is one of Spain’s hidden gems: like Aragón and Extremadura, it often gets overlooked because it has more glamorous neighbours that have more of what it has and better. In Murcia’s case, that’s Valencia and Andalucía. I know a few lovely people from Murcia and I’d love to visit one day, but as year on year it becomes a larger wing of Almeria’s enormous European greenhouse, I find myself drawn to the greener, wilder parts of Spain.

Probability: 4/10

Navarra

Where: North
Weather: Cold
Dialects: No
Visited: No

A former kingdom in its own right (which, you could argue, is an accolade held by most of the Spanish realms), Navarra sits at the feet of the Pyrenees as a less extreme though equally wondrous region in the Spanish north. A friend of mine was based in Tudela last year and had a great time there, so it seems to be to be a good place to work. Like the Canary Islands, it’s also more popular with Brits than Americans, so expect less encounters with scotch tape, candies and Fall. It’s also rather well situated, allowing easy access to several of Spain’s more attractive destinations.

Probability: 6/10

País Vasco

Where: North
Weather: Cold
Dialects: Basque
Visited: Yes

The Basque Country got a positive makeover recently in the film Ocho Apellidos Vascos and its sequel, not doing away with but helping to redirect attention from the ETA bombings of the past to the more attractive aspects of Basque culture. If the Catalans are independent, it’s nothing compared to the Basques, whose regional language – Euskera – is so far removed from Spanish that it feels as though you’ve skipped five countries rather than one region. Situated in the industrial north, the Basque Country plays host to much of Spain’s industry (just look at all the Basque banks), and is therefore afforded a more affluent lifestyle. That makes it more expensive, which is a drawback, but many would argue it’s worth it. The Basques are, after all, the stuff of legend…

Probability: 5/10

Valencia

Where: East
Weather: Hot
Dialects: Valencian
Visited: No

There’s a good deal more to Valencia than the corruption and the coast, even if that is the image most people have. I’ve never made it to El Cid’s triumphal city, it never having been quite on my radar, and though I have many friends who have been up and down the coast, I’ve never quite felt the pull to go. Another more costly region, Valencian – a variant of Catalan – is widely spoken here, though Spanish is also used in its capacity as the kingdom’s official language. It played a large role in the expulsion of the Moriscos though, and that’s something I’d like to look into, albeit over a short period of time. Maybe for holidays, but for me, not for work.

Probability: 3/10


I’m more or less decided on the northwest, but I’m still open to ideas. Now that Senegal is an option for language assistant placements, it’s that little bit harder to say no to the world beyond Spain (that would have turned my world upside down if it had been an option in my second year. I would very probably have dropped Arabic, studied French and continued to wing it with Spanish). However, a promise is a promise, and I’m determined to do what I can to become truly fluent in Spanish, however long it takes, wherever it leads me.

The deadline for next year is 12th February 2018. I have a couple of months to decide. BB x

Speaking like an Indian

I’m completely out of it. I just cleared half of Seville at a sprint. The Sunday evening bus from Olvera pulled in five minutes earlier than usual and I figured I could just about make the eight o’clock bus to Villafranca at a run. As you might expect in such situations, all the traffic lights went red as I reached them, but despite everything (and aided by a significantly less-crowded city centre than usual) I made it to Plaza de Armas with five minutes to spare… only to be mortified to find it operating on a pre-paid tickets service. I’d already resigned myself to a two hour wait and a miserably sloppy 2.30€ egg salad sandwich that almost fell apart in the vending machine (one of the world’s most villainous rip-offs) when the bus driver hailed me over. There was room for one more after all. Just once, just this once, I got lucky.

And now it’s your turn to be out of it, because this one’s a real titan. Get comfortable.

I’ll be perfectly honest with you, I was umming and ahhing about going ahead with this weekend’s plan right up until I went to sleep the night before. I had my reasons. The torrential rain forecast across the south was one of them.

To cut a long story short, am I glad I didn’t! It’s been quite a weekend.

I didn’t really do it summative justice in my last post, but last weekend was Carnaval weekend across most of Spain, and Villafranca de los Barros (in some ways for once, and in others as always) was no exception. The reason for that is because I wasn’t really happy with the quality of the two write-ups I drafted, both of them being a little too dry and/or morose for my liking. I’ll put that down to spending all of my creative energy on the novel.

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More problematic by far, there’s simply no escaping the Lilliputian environment of Villafranca. It’s very hard to go anywhere or do anything without the whole school getting wise of it in twenty-four hours. It’s like my every step is watched. As I’m often guilty of doing, it’s possible that there’s more conjecture in that statement on my part than fact, but in any case, Carnaval weekend was a poor time to test that theory. All of my students were out on the town – every last one of them, in various states of dress – and that old pariah state of feeling like an intermediary between teacher and fellow human being was buzzing about my head all night like so many brown flies. Even underneath a salwar kameez, a red felt cap and thick sunglasses, they still smelt me out. In the end I got tired of being asked the same question – ‘Who did you come with? What? You came alone…?’ – and went home. It’s the fourth most common question I get out here, after ‘What’s your football team?’, ‘How do you know so much about stuff?’ and ‘Are you gay?’.

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Well, the forecasted rain came, and it came down hard. I was fortunate enough that most of it fell during my commute to Seville, giving me an hour’s reprieve to test out my new auto-focusing wide-angle lens on Triana and the Giralda (as if I didn’t have enough photos of them both already). It’s a doozy and we’re going to work some serious magic together.

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I have to say, I do feel bloody lucky to have to go through Seville every time I feel like heading south. Like Canterbury Cathedral before it, I’ve become very blasé about the gorgeous streets of Seville, knowing the place like the back of my hand as I do now. But as cities go, it’s every bit as enchanting as its reputation. It’s a thought that struck me as I sat in the parakeet-infested park by the Alcazar sketching a girl who was sketching some Japanese tourists. I thought it was worth sharing, because sometimes the best things in the world are already at your feet.

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I mentioned that last weekend was Carnaval weekend across most of Spain. Not all of it. Thanks to the immensely popular celebrations in Cadiz, some of the province’s neighboring towns follow the practice of delaying their own festivities until the following weekend, giving their denizens the chance to support Spain’s Carnaval capital both home and away, as it were. Olvera is no exception.

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As Hindu-ified as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, snub-nosed Englishman can manage, I found myself outclassed a thousand times over by my hosts, some of whom might well have passed for bona fide Pathans, if not Indians.

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Durham, please look upon this little corner of the world and learn. This is how fancy dress is done.

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Whatever Moorish blood remains in the heritage of the Andalusian is brought straight to the fore when he dresses in Eastern garb. The curling black hair, dark complexion, regal profile and sparkling brown eyes of these people evoke both an ancestry hailing from across the Strait, not more than a few hundred miles away, and the mystical infusion of a more ancient, more haunting legacy chased from the Punjab so many centuries ago.

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I could sing the praises of the beauty of the Andalusian all day. Fortunately, I won’t.

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After arming themselves with all the rings, chains, hoops and bangles in their parents’ possession (most of this lot wear nose-rings habitually anyway), we set off to dine together. Adrián, very much the leader of the group – if not for his age or spectacularly authentic costume, then because of his experiences in India – led the way, beating a tambourine and striking up a ready chorus of sevillanas (in both senses of the word). I found more than one willing future traveling companion amongst Alicia’s friends over lunch, which is quite an achievement in this poverty-stricken part of the world; although, as Ali put it, ‘esá chicá tiené dinero, eh’. I also snagged an invite to Granada, which I intend to make good on now that the first snows have finally arrived.

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The rain returned with a howling vengeance during lunch and there was much talk of the street parade being called off. In the end the locals seized on a five-minute reprieve as the excuse they had been waiting for and it went ahead despite the return of the driving rain. For the sake of our outfits – and my camera – we left after only twenty minutes to seek shelter in the familiar settings of Bar Manhattan, but not before I’d ticked off all of the usual Spanish politically incorrect faux-pas: blackface, falangistas and an Arab with an ISIS flag getting mock-assaulted by a troupe of minions. This is my country – half of it – and everyone and everything is fair game for a laugh. Is it any wonder I’m so anti-PC?

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After a cubata or two we raised the roof at Manhattan in a manner that you could only hope to find in Andalucia. Once again led by the tireless Adrián, the lot of us laid down sevillana after sevillana, with much clapping, dancing, wailing voices and the full support of the neighboring tables. This is the South. This is Andalucia. And I adore her. And to think I was tempted to even compare you to Extremadura…!

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At length we set out for the carpa (the local barn-cum-sports hall) where the real party was just getting started. The three black men I’d noticed at our restaurant earlier – always an oddity in the Spanish countryside – turned out to be the drummers of the Brazilian dance troupe leading the festivities, backed by a true slice of Rio in the form of four feathered dancers decked out in the most sparkly lingerie.

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There were prizes going for best costume, which was necessarily split into nine categories: essential, when you have the likes of a centaur herd, the seated judges of La Voz and Pedro Sanchez (complete with PSOE podium) to choose from. The top prize went to the most obvious gathering of the night: the Amish. Who’d have thought they were such party animals?

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For once – FOR ONCE – Reggaeton did not dominate proceedings, and my shameless footwork landed me in the centre of several dance circles. Fortunately, I was the only one with a camera by this point, and therefore there’s no evidence of this. Of my cohorts, however, there’s plenty of material.

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Simply put, Spaniards have far less qualms about having their photo taken than other nations.

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Things wound down after a while and we retreated in search of dinner at the ungodly hour of ten o’clock; too early for dinner, and far too early to call it a night. That meant another sit-down meal, which in turn meant more sevillanas. Then it turned into a bilingual Disney face-off between Adrián and I as we sang Disney classics at each other across the table in our respective languages until either one guessed which it was and joined in. Wizard. Ali was getting pretty tired of it all by now and told us to shut up more than once. The victorious Amish on the other table didn’t seem to mind in the slightest. They were too busy getting mortal.

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We ended up in Frena, the usual disco spot, for a dance and a couple of drinks, and I talked travel with the endlessly charismatic Adrian. By half one, though, everyone was worn out. Dreadfully early, even by English standards; but then, we had been partying since five in the afternoon.

I spent the following morning at a friend’s house watching Bride Wars whilst they downloaded all of the photos I’d taken. In all fairness, I’ve had worse Valentine’s Days than munching popcorn over a chick flick with the one-that-could-have-been and her best friend. At least, I think I have.

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As a final note, I’ve been considering climbing down off the fence and choosing a football team to support. It must be said, family bias aside, I’m drawn to Barça, but the insufferably indefatigable commentator on the radio and his full-throated adoration of Messi may make a Real Madrid fan of me yet. BB x

El Guiri y La Andaluza

What. A. Night. No, seriously, what a night. It really does look beautiful from the abandoned hillside of the Via Verde at five o’clock in the morning. The night sky is terrific. You could save yourself several hundred quid and skip Wadi Rum for this, if getting locked out of a hostel doesn’t bother you.

Oh, to own a camera good enough to capture all the night skies I've seen!

Oh, to own a camera good enough to capture all the night skies I’ve seen!

Yes, he’s done it again. Yours truly has managed to spend another night locked out and consigned to wandering in the twilight. But that’s ok. Any other night might really bother me, but my bus home isn’t until five o’clock in the afternoon, and frankly, for everything that happened tonight, I’d be locked out all over again just to live it through once more.

Hallelujah, it's almost dawn...

Hallelujah, it’s almost dawn…

The reunion of the decade was everything I wanted it to be and more (and I just saw a shooting star racing overhead as I looked up for inspiration. This was meant to be). That my former classmates hadn’t forgotten me is a given; though Olvera has a tenaciously stalwart expat scene, I was the English kid there too, the guiri, one of only three in the primary school (the other two being my younger brother and a tot in the infantil group, both desperately shy when it came to mingling). So that doesn’t surprise me all that much. That they should be so happy to see me after so many years, however, is something I can hardly believe. This is a town where friendships are cast for life. Within ten minutes I was nattering away in Spanish as I never knew I could, as though I’d never left at all. Jorge was quick to point out that I’d improved a great deal since the last time we met, which leads me to wonder when exactly that happened, as I recall acing my Spanish GCSE two years early. Perhaps it has something to do with actually knuckling under and learning the preterite. Otherwise, I’ll take it on trust.

Where to begin? How does one even embark upon nine lost years? I’d spent most of the morning narrowing down the years into the most worthy tales, and the rest of the time looking up any key words that might have escaped me, from the lesbian ex-girlfriend to the misunderstanding with the Guardia Civil and my successive failed attempts at tracking them down before. It was quite entertaining to play the Storyteller, but it was better still to hear all the things they’d been up to. Foolishly I’d expected them all to be in the same big group from primary school – a technical oversight anyone with half a brain could have known in advance – and it came as a fair surprise to see how everyone had splintered off. That’s growing up, though. I have to admit their voices alone sent my head spinning. When last I knew this lot, we were primary school kids with unbroken voices. Oddly enough I got the same start on being addressed by Jorge in his low Olvereñan bass that my entire generation got when Ron wound down the window and said ‘Hiya Harry’ at the opening of The Chamber of Secrets.

Jorge had to spark off to Málaga to another party – they’re all driving now – and we called it a night. I’d only just taken off my jumper when Alicia, another old friend of mine, gave me a buzz to let me know she’d arrived. Cue Catch-Up Round Two over tapas with Little Miss Popular before she invited me out to a night out on the town with her girls. What could I say? A night out with five Spanish girls, and andaluzas at that? That’s not the kind of invitation you turn aside.

Breaking the habit of a decade to celebrate the quest of a decade!

Breaking the habit of a decade to celebrate the quest of a decade!

I hadn’t exactly planned on sampling Olvereñan nightlife, but it found me nonetheless. All I need say is that it was everything I’ve ever wanted from a club – and this in nothing more than a bar, no less: great atmosphere, a broad clientele, impeccable music (zero Taylor Swift – sorry) and a crowd quite happy to get up and dance. Alicia taught me to dance the bachata and I taught her a few moves of my own. I haven’t ever had such an obliging dance partner – mostly because in the UK, any guy really going for it in a club is almost instantly written off as gay and given a wide berth by all but the most determined non-closet cases (speaking from experience). When Alicia left to grab another Barcecola to share, I was hailed over by a group of girls sitting at a table across the floor who asked the inevitable question. But instead of surprise when I said I wasn’t gay, they gave me an encore. ‘Hombre, tienes dos cojones y bailas muy bien,’ said one, ‘podrías salir con cualquier chica que te apetece.’ That’s probably not strictly true, but it’s a damned sight better than the usual British reaction. England, you could learn a lot from this world.

Having way too much fun to bother about blur

Having way too much fun to bother about blur

The bar gradually began to empty and eventually it was just the guiri and the andaluza left on the floor. We clocked out just before four o’clock, closing time, and left the night there. Four hours of dancing. Think about that for a second. That’s more than brilliant. It’s bloody phenomenal. 2015’s been the best year yet, but that night trumps the lot: Saad Lamjarred, June Ball and the Music Durham inaugural concert in Durham Cathedral, they don’t even come close. And Alicia tells me that’s just a regular night; next week is a puente, and the parties will be better, busier and longer. And so I find myself on the bus back to Seville, happy in the knowledge that I’ll be back in Olvera in five days’ time. If that’s how the rest of my year abroad is set to pan out, I’m one happy guy.

It’s going to be a year spent living a double-life: one as a teacher in Villafranca under one name, the other as a party animal in Olvera under the other. English in one location, Spanish in another. So we’re juggling again. But I’ve been juggling for several years now and I’m getting the hang of it.

Seriously, though. There are only a few times in my life I’d willingly relive. I don’t look back. Last night, however, was definitely one of them. BB x

Homecoming

How do I begin to describe it? The feeling of being home again, some nine years after I left? It’s like your first ever Christmas morning. Like getting into a hot bath at the end of a hard working day. Like falling in love for the second time. All these things at once. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen it, every time I see that silhouette on the horizon, there are tears in my eyes and my heart starts racing.

I’ve lived in several places during my twenty-one years of existence, from Dover to Durham to Boroboro and beyond, but no one hometown has ever had the same effect on me as Olvera. Not even El Rocío stirs up quite the same initial rush, like a starstorm in my heart, and El Rocío is far and away my favourite place on the planet. Maybe that’s Olvera’s own magic at work. I wasn’t born here and I didn’t even live here for all that long – all of ten months and more – but if anybody asks, I always tell them that this is where I grew up. Pretentious, yes, but there’s more than vague half-blood pride behind that statement. I was twelve when I moved here, and turned thirteen just over a week after I returned to England, so I was here at a critical time for growing up. I had my first crush out here. I developed a serious passion for languages, I had my musical awakening – and consequently began to toy with the idea of abandoning my violin – and, perhaps most importantly of all, I became the avid naturalist that I am today. Oh, I’ve always been stark-raving mad about animals, but it was only here when it got to the stage where I started going out on my own and putting names to things furry and feathered (mostly feathered) without the aid of a book. My own book came into its own here – I even went on local TV to advertise it when the chance arose. Essentially, the four pillars of my life, music, writing, travel and nature, were cast here, from the same marble that mottles the rolling hills that cradle the lonely peak of Olvera.

Oh, and of course, Andalucía, like a shard from the Devil’s mirror, lodged itself in my heart and I’ve not been able to remove it since.  
I’ve used the word ‘heart’ three times now. I’m aware of that. I’ll try to keep a level head. It’s not an easy thing to do right now.

But simply being here isn’t the best part. In truth I’ve made three return trips since 2007, once with my family, once with mum when we were grounded by the Eyjafjallajökll eruption and the third, the last, towards the end of my crazy pan-Iberian adventure back in 2013 when, my endurance failing me, I turned from my road towards the homely peaks of the Sierra de Grazalema. On all three occasions I tried to find my old school companions, without success. This time, armed with WhatsApp, I’ve finally managed to track them down, and a reunion of almost a decade in the making is on the cards. Excited? You bet I am. Ecstatic? That doesn’t even cover it. I’ve been planning this day in my head for the last nine years, adding new stories every year. I’m still going to walk into it and freelance it anyway, but that doesn’t kill the hype. These are people I haven’t seen since we were primary school children with brightly-coloured rucksacks and unbroken voices. I’ll bet I’m still the one who sands out a mile with the blonde hair and the blue eyes – and now, of course, the shirts – but I wonder how much will be refreshingly familiar?

  
I get the feeling they’re planning something behind my back as well. All I have is a time and a place, the rest is Cristina’s doing. I have twenty-four hours. That’s perfect. It means that I can spend tonight rediscovering the delights of my old Friday night haunt, the pizzeria Lirios. Better still, the red murder that’s scarred my face since Jordan is fading away thanks to a visit to the doctor yesterday, and only just in time. With a little luck, I’ll be as good as new by tomorrow.

  
It’s coming up to nine o’clock. I think I’ll wander on up to Lirios. I wonder if the ginger-haired porter from the Hotel Sierra y Cal who used to frequent the place is still there? If anyone in this town would recognise me, it’d be him. He was the first Olvereñan I ever met. It would be so very fateful if he were. There’s an air of fate hanging about this whole weekend. That’s what I’m feeling. 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