Waldmusik

Monday night. Five weeks in. The first load of reports are due soon. I close my inbox, tired of leafing through the daily barrage of emails in my windowless office, and open my eyes. Packs of SureSan wipes on every shelf. Seven empty bottles of water from last week’s packed lunches, amassed in quiet protest. The number for the IT department scrawled in pink highlighter on a piece of paper folded and blue-tacked to the wall. A wall planner that hasn’t been updated since lockdown began. A chewed-up biro, an oak leaf and a buzzard feather. Karl Jenkins on Spotify. The ventilator roars overhead.

Tomorrow will be seven months to the day since the music died. Seven months since a final lucky fling at a friend’s wedding, which might as well have been a paean to the love of music itself. In retrospect I suppose “elegy” might be the better word. Rome burning and all that. COVID robbed the world of so much, and in the panic over its impact on work, health and the daily grind, music slipped quietly over the edge into silence.

I can’t think of a point in my life when music hasn’t been a constant. Having two music teachers for parents afforded me an incredibly privileged upbringing with regards to my musical education. I wanted for nothing, except perhaps an escape from Classic FM. Scarlatti and the Spice Girls. Klezmer, Raga and Jazz. The Stranglers, The Bee Gees and The Corrs. By the age of ten I had amassed a real symphony of diversity from all the CDs in the house, with an early preference for folk music and anything from the 1970s.Primary school, secondary school and university were a seamless pageant of choirs, bands and orchestras, with the occasional assignment as a reminder that education was happening somewhere within. Whether in a church or a school hall or a smoking stage, I was always singing.

The ventilator continues to growl. It’s about as close as I get to music without Spotify in here. The government directive against singing felled the school choir, the chamber choir and my gospel choir in a single axe stroke. Christmas waits at the end of the tunnel that is the Michaelmas term, but without the usual musical beacons to light the way, it simply doesn’t feel like it.

The last time I felt like this was half a lifetime ago, during my family’s earnest but ultimately unsuccessful attempt at a move to Spain. Then, too, the years of emerging into the frosty night after choir practice with carols ringing in your head melted away like snow in the sunshine. Spain has many beautiful musical traditions, but the buzz of advent – or, at least, the advent I had always known – isn’t one of them.

“Vosotros los ingleses, os flipáis con la música. No hay ese mismo afán por la música aquí, ¿sabes?”

Do I agree with her? The girl who told me that once? I do not know if I do. Years on, I’m still mulling it over.

Without the music, the days are long. They blur, one into the next. Web players and Bluetooth speakers are a poor imitation, like listening to the sound of the ocean in a seashell. There is nothing – nothing – like the exhilaration that comes from making music. It’s the difference between seeing and doing. Watching a cyclist and feeling the wind in your hair. The gulf is immeasurable. It’s the third half of my brain, the fifth chamber of my heart.

COVID cases continue to rise. Whole areas of the country are retreating back into lockdown. People stagger out of pubs at closing time and complain blindly at the loss of their freedom – or so the pictures in the Press seem to scream. Schools remain defiantly open as children come and go into and out of isolation. How long can it last, the question on everybody’s lips. In the music hall, silence hangs like mist.

I put on my hat and coat and set out into the evening. Music was always my tonic of choice, but if one elixir is out of stock, the other at least is deathless. It waits out there in the dying light, eternal. Autumn chill is in the air and the martins are long gone. Soon the hedges will be alive with the cackle and chatter of fieldfares, and the liquid sound of redwings traveling by night will follow me home from duty. For now, the old guard plays the same music it has always played in the forest beyond the fields. Blackbirds chatter down in the gully. The staccato of a wren breaking through the hedgerow. And, perched on the exposed branch of a dead tree, cock robin sings his heart out.

The song of the robin is, I think, the most beautiful music that England has ever known. Gentle, melodic, like water – it cannot be put into words. Not by an unqualified amateur such as myself, anyway. The robin for me is a symbol of hope. Maybe it’s his boldness, his charming friendly nature; his defiance of the cold on a January morning, as if to let the world know the darkness cannot last forever. He pays no heed to government directives or social distancing measures. He sings as his ancestors have sung for generations, since the world was cold and dark and unforgiving. Hearing his voice now, at a low ebb, it lifts my spirits again.

Half past nine. Directionless text books. Vocab tests, marked and unmarked. Me and the tuneless ventilator, and the memory of the robin’s song. I think I’ll call it a night.

Hesperornis

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

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

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

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

Or at least, this bunch of townies do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slow Clocks and White Socks

Good morning from the staff room. My second 1°ESO class are busy preparing posters on British food for next week’s Semana Cultural this morning, so I’m off the hook for an hour. It’s a shame, really; they’re probably the one class that could have really benefited from a presentation on the UK, seeing as it’s what they’re working on right now. My other 1°ESO class loved it, and I dare say the addition of a Honchkrow to explain ‘honcho’ helped a lot in the ‘foreign words in English’ section. Not that honcho – a Japanese term for ‘big boss’ – is a word you expect to come across all that often, but it makes the language learning process a lot more colourful. Going over the same ‘how much is a ticket’ dialogue every week gets a bit dry, eventually.

I went for a walk in the park yesterday. It’s been so warm and sunny recently, I simply couldn’t justify going straight home from work. Tired as I was, I slapped a small lunch together, downloaded a few In Our Time podcasts and crossed the road into the park. It was a little windier than I’d have liked, so I didn’t stay all that long in the end. Without it, it might have been as warm as 18°C. In February. But here in the plains of Extremadura, we’re ruled by the terrain. The wind that blows across the flats is cold and loud, like something out of the Old West. You half expect a tumbleweed to pass you by. It’s a shame that we think immediately of America when we hear that name: with its wide open plains, rocky cliffs and canyons teeming with bandits, and its historic code of honour and justice, I’d like to think Spain was the real Old West; the Ancient West, if you will.

The swallows are here. I watched a few of them twittering noisily as they careered about the pond, whilst one of the town’s storks soared lazily overhead. The trees were alive with goldfinches, and I saw a huge bat on its way to the park from my flat the other night. It was a lot easier to consider a job in England a month ago, I’m telling you, before Spain started thinking about her Spring clothes. Now that it’s feasible to go to bed without having the heater on for a full hour, and the blue skies are no longer laden with a biting cold air, I find myself in love once again. The saying goes: ‘nueve meses de invierno y tres de infierno’ – nine months of winter and three of Hell – but Spain can be equally unforgiving in the grip of winter.

I spent a little while watching a robin – always one of my favourite birds – and a couple of hoopoes flapping about like oversized butterflies. Symbols of England and Spain, in my head. I should go to the park more often.

It’s hard to see the change in the seasons here in Tierra de Barros, with the park full of evergreens and the surrounding eternity of vineyards and olive trees, but the animals tell you. And where they fail, the town drummers do a pretty good job. Carnaval is over, and I thought that might be the end of their incessant weekly drumming, but I was wrong: last night as I lay dozing in the living room, I heard the unmistakeable march of the Holy Week procession. It’s a good month away, but preparations have begun in earnest. But I’m not complaining: Semana Santa is far and away one of my favourite things in Spain and I never want to be anywhere else when it’s on. Like countless Brits before me, I’m shamelessly enthralled by the primal magic of it.

And, like countless Brits before me, I’m steadily coming to understand that our humour and theirs – or anybody else’s, perhaps – simply don’t mix. My jape about my countrified accent got cut from the play this morning. I guess they didn’t see the funny side. One of my students did point out to me recently that imitating their accent is one of the few things guaranteed to rile an extremeño. As a guiri, perhaps I’m allowed a certain amount of leverage – it’s always funny to see a foreigner having a go, I guess – but patience, in the end, wears thin. Especially when I have to make that same joke at twenty-five minutes past eight every Thursday morning.

A few weeks ago there was an article in The Times titled ‘How to be Spanish‘ that caused uproar on Spanish social media. The Spanish, it seems, don’t like being told how to be Spanish by an Englishman (a puto guiri, to quote various Twitter users). Surprise of the century. Spaniards came out with war flags, claiming the author had no idea what country he was talking about. Whoever these folks were who eat tapas at the bar and never at the tables, swear so liberally and have a slightly more relaxed attitude to time than the hyper-punctual English, they certainly weren’t Spanish.

Shortly afterwards, the Spanish retaliated with an article of their own on how to be British, citing such customs as queuing for everything, wearing white socks, wall-to-wall carpeting and, of course, our penchant for exaggeration. It was a childish exchange, but you have to admit, there were a few cultural nuances both sides got spot-on.

It was a lot of fun to discuss in class, I’ll give you that, but whilst I agree that the original author could have been a little less damning in his exaggerations – a flaw I’m often party to (see the war flags remark) – it seems to me that the problem lies not in the content itself, but in how it was received. Of course not all Spaniards act the way the author describes, but then, he doesn’t go out of his way to make that clear. And, of course, it wouldn’t be so funny if every observation in the article carried a disclaimer. Remember those jokes that your friends make that you didn’t get, and they then had to explain? Yeah… They weren’t funny at all.

As Brits, we read such things with a smile, seeing the irony and the humorous comparisons, because as a nation that’s what we do best: ridicule. We love to laugh, to laugh at others, and (sometimes) to be laughed at in turn. It’s not a universal attitude, but trying to be funny on a regular basis is, I think, an inherently British custom. Most everybody else has a life to be getting on with. Great Britain is cold, rainy and – according to some – has potentially the worst cuisine in the world (the very un-English chicken tikka massala was our most popular dish for years), but we are fantastic at making light of this and everything else, from our politicians and our history to our friends and neighbours, even if the rest of the world looks on in confusion. I gave up trying to introduce my kids to Blackadder and Monty Python a long time ago. It requires too much explanation. By contrast, Mr Bean works like a dream… because there’s no dialogue whatsoever. Which, given that he’s portrayed by easily one of our wisest and wittiest comedians, is a crying shame.

So that’s all it is. The British like being funny. And when our jokes involve people beyond our remit, we get confused when they take offence. Why can’t they see the funny side? The answer is simple: they don’t have to. That’s not to say we shouldn’t make jokes anymore. British humour is, in the humble opinion of this author, king. But we could be try to be a little more aware of what cultural difference means. If the Spanish come across as having a lax approach to time, it’s only because we’re unreasonably pernickety about it. The whole and ungeneralised truth lies somewhere in between.

Jokes are fine. Our problem is that we expect others to take a joke, to know when we’re being funny and when we’re not… and it’s not always easy. Especially in print. BB x

Morito

Little Moor. That’s one translation for one of Spain’s most beautiful natural treasures, a gaudy creature of swamps and marshes that we know as the glossy ibis. Dressed as it is in chocolate brown with feathers that flash green and purple in the sunlight, it’s easy to see how this characterful bird got its name: its very being evokes another world, one that lies across the Mediterranean sea, of men of small stature dressed in jewels and shimmering silks. The Moors and their Spanish kingdom are long gone, but there are hints of that world all around to this day – if you know where to look.

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You can spot a flock of ibises from a long way off by their colour alone. The wetlands in which they live, such as the Doñana National Park, teem with white herons, egrets, spoonbills and flamingos, all of which stand out a mile against the Spanish skies. Down on the ground, however, the ibis is a good deal more conspicuous, rummaging around in the water in groups that can number as much as a hundred strong. Like their wading cousins, ibises fly in a loose V-formation. It’s quite a sight to watch them going to and from their roosts as the sun sets at the end of the day, with flocks departing in waves for the security of the trees. I’ve lost count of the number of times I used to stand on the rusty fences that border the village of El Rocío to watch hundreds of ibises, egrets, herons and ducks all making their way into the park interior.

You might think a bird as beautiful as the ibis would have a beautiful voice to match. You’d be wrong. As is so often the case in the world of birds, the best feathers do not necessarily mean the best voice. Ibises, like flamingoes, have a very inelegant call, low and grunting, not too dissimilar to a cow on helium. They make a whole host of other sounds at their roost sites, but I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself. It’s quite the experience. And, I might add, quite the smell, too.

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These are the ibises that the Egyptians worshipped. Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom, was often portrayed with an ibis’ head. According to one legend, a plague of winged serpents descended upon Egypt every spring, only to be stopped at a mountain pass by scores of ‘ibis birds’ which devoured them all. Herodotus claimed that the birds of this particular legend were jet-black, which points towards the morito. This leaves their close cousins, the stately sacred ibises, in a bit of a fix; and if you have ever seen their kind rummaging around in refuse dumps as they are wont to do, their smaller, darker morito appears far more worthy of worship.

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Morito surely is a fitting name for such a princely creature. Spain has a long love-hate relationship with its African past, which centuries of church doctrine and cultural genocide have failed to quell. Al-Andalus faded into the fabric of history centuries ago, but it left behind the ibis, and it soothes my heart a little to think that maybe, just maybe, I am watching the spirits of that most beautiful and industrious past when I see a flock of moritos flying by.

BB x

A New Christmas

I’m back in Villafranca after a five-day sojourn in Córdoba. It was sunny when I left. The skies are grey and heavy with cloud now. There’s a strong wind in the air, and it’s blowing against the blinds, which are rattling all through the house. Olivia Ong’s bossa nova vocals fill the room, and keys click and thump intermittently as I type. Cars pass by. My family are so close and so far away. I find myself wishing I was back in Córdoba.

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There’s something truly special about Córdoba at any time of year. Granada is undeniably beautiful, Málaga has plenty of charm and Seville needs no introduction, but Córdoba is, surely, the jewel in the southern crown. After all, few other cities in Andalusia – or Spain, for that matter – can claim to have been one of the world’s greatest in their heyday. Like Granada, it’s been raped and meddled with over the centuries, but what remains is shadowy and beautiful in its fusion. I still get the shivers when I wander along the winding streets of the Jewish quarter, and if you stand on the Roman bridge after sunset and look towards the city from the south bank, the mosque shines like liquid gold in the river.

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(No weddings this year, I took that one six years ago on a research trip here)

Normally on Christmas Eve I’d go to Midnight Mass with my mother. I could have done so here, but for me, the Great Mosque of Córdoba (or so-called Mosque-Cathedral) is like setting foot in the Holy Land. It’s an intensely emotional experience every time and I could not bring myself to open my heart in a place denied to those for whom it was far more important (have a read of this article to dig a little deeper). So I stayed at home instead, surrounded by a thousand babies on red carpets.

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Christmas Day in Spain came with the ringing of the bells across the city. Clouds drifted in from across the Sierra Morena, but as the day went by, sunlight came streaming down through the odd pocket here and there. I’ve never had a Christmas quite like it, but it was wonderful in a new way, seeing Christmas Day celebrated from start to finish in a very different family. We get glimpses into Christmastime when we visit friends and family, but it isn’t often you get treated to the whole twenty-four hour affair.

Doubly so, perhaps, when the food is also very different, too.

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Roast chicken with fios de ovos –

Córdoba is one of those cities that is well worth a prolonged stay. That’s where AirBnB comes up trumps. For a short time, it’s as though I was living in the former capital of al-Andalus. Like most Spanish flats, the building looked unimpressive and samey on the outside – many of them are so identical as to fool you into thinking they’re carbon copies – but on the inside it was dreamily homey. Just what you need at Christmastime!

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A short distance to the west of Córdoba, perched atop a formidable hill overlooking the Guadalquivir valley, is the castle of Almodóvar del Río. At a half-hour’s drive from town, and just ten minutes beyond the ruins of Medina Azahara, it’s well worth the trip for the day. Lovingly restored at the savvy hands of Adolfo Fernánez Casanova, it makes a welcome change from the rubble of the surrounding ruins. There’s also a fantastic asador at its feet that provides the perfect opportunity to wait out the hours until the sunset. I recommend the brocheta. It’s nothing short of divine.

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And that, of course, is precisely what we did. And we timed it just right to catch the winter sun as it was on its way down over the hills to the west.

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The fields around Almodóvar made Tierra de Barros feel like a barren wasteland. Crag martins zoomed about the castle walls, soaking in the last of the sun’s heat on the buttresses. Egrets and herons stalked the river, a single vulture flapped lazily overhead and I swear I heard the piping trill of a kingfisher. Best of all, within the space of five minutes I saw three black-shouldered kites on the road to the castle, a delicate, stunning little hawk I’ve never laid eyes upon with certainty before. I might just have to come back in search of them one day. In my books, vultures will always be king, but kites are the princes of my feathery kingdom. And what princes they are!

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A couple of trains shuttled back and forth as we waited for the sun to go down. I haven’t travelled much on Spain’s train network. Besides the short trip I took with Kate in Cantabria last time I was here, the only train ride I’ve ever taken here was the one from Ávila to Madrid. I’m told the railroad passes through some truly stunning scenery. Perhaps I should give it a go someday. It’s something that yet to come our way (see the Tren Digno Ya cause for more) but in other parts of Spain, it’s a doozy.

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Winter sunsets. Moorish castles. Mosque-cathedrals. Rolling hills. Night herons, kingfishers and cranes in the cornfields in their hundreds. The entire province of Córdoba is a jewel. If I could say for certain that I’d have a shot at being placed here, I’d be sorely tempted to put Andalucía higher up on my list for next year. But I stand by my beliefs: comfort is dangerous. It’s time I thought about moving on, before I take for granted what I have here. Spain is more than one city. She is more than one province. And, if the last few months have taught us anything, she is, quite clearly, more than one country. The city of Córdoba alone is proof enough of that. Vamos, kid. It’s time to see the rest of this land. BB x

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Withdrawal

My school has a band, now. Secondary school or not, I have to admit I was a little excited when I found out. It consists of a piano, a guitar, a trombone, two saxophones, a drummer and a singer. Three guesses who that last one is. Better still, the music they thrust into my hands upon my return was by none other than Stevie Wonder. It’s For Once in my Life – in my opinion, not one of his best (I WishSuperstition and Uptight are in a godly league of their own), but better than a poke in the eye.

The first rehearsal was a bit touch-and-go. The drummer had an egg-shaker and I had to explain the concept of counting in.

The withdrawal is real. I’ve written two and a half arrangements for my old a cappella group in three days. I’ve had Marvin Gaye’s greatest hits on repeat and I threw myself at the Concha Velasco Band as their most avid supporter at their gig in Villafranca last night. I lost my voice from shouting the lyrics so much. That’s probably a good thing. My Romanian neighbours are spared another day of me wandering in and out of the house keeping my unused tenor voice exercised. Saturday morning means gym for a lot of folks here, time to work on their bodies. My voice isn’t getting the workout it used to. I have to keep practising.

This week, perhaps more than ever before, the blow of severing ties with the musical world has come down hard. Perhaps doubly so because almost all of my old Lights buddies will be back in Durham this weekend for a reunion gig of sorts. I made the decision not to go, even though it’s the Puente del Pilar this week and I haven’t been at work since two o’clock on Wednesday afternoon. It didn’t break my heart as it might once have done, but the aftermath hurts. We all have to make tough decisions, sometimes. It’s got a lot to do with growing up and moving on. The collegiate music scene, brimming with talented musicians from near and far, is behind me. I’m here now, in a country which a friend of mind once described as simply having no ‘afán’ (desire) for music for its own sake. Even my holdfast, the Concha Velasco Band, are set to disband soon. Real life, work and responsibilities have risen like the tide, and as is so often the case, it’s only the lead singer who’s pushing blindly for unity in the wake of disarray. It’s as much a reflection of how things could have been had I not let go of the group I loved the most. I needed that.

If I haven’t said it before, I’m saying it again now. Spain is not ideal for the musician. I laughed at the notion that it would get to me like it did to my parents, thinking that with twenty-odd years’ less immersion than them, I’d be alright. I was wrong. The lack of a music scene hurts. It hurts a lot. I think I’ve done more listening to music here in the last week than I did in an entire term at Durham, discounting the obligatory use of my essay-writing playlist. Granted, I’ve compounded my situation by living not just in Spain but in the sticks. But even so, music isn’t as much a part of this world as it is in England. In a class the other day we were discussing activities you might do at a youth club, and I genuinely had to spell it out that music was or could be an option. One of the brightest girls gave me a nonplussed look and said, very matter-of-factually, ‘music is only extracurricular’. Make of that what you will.

Flamenco is more than music. Flamenco is an art form which, like so many, has its masters and its endless amateurs. And so much of it is tied up with dance. The joy of making music for its own sake is lost here. As the son of two music teachers, it hurts. Having been in choirs, groups and bands my whole life, it cuts deep. I feel lost, and more than a little distant recently.

On the way back from the library, I saw something in the sky and I looked up. It was a vulture. I’d just been writing about them in my book, so I felt pretty fortunate to see my own material brought to life before my eyes. Riding the thermals on wings spread wide, with tapering fingers splayed in the current, it circled the park for a few minutes. Within a minute there was another one, closer. They rode higher and higher until, finally, they tucked their wings into that upside-down W shape and, like spinning disks, soared motionlessly from the top of their spiral to the west.

I could have cried. I love this country. I love it so much. I love the language, the people and the food, and I especially love the animals that live here. Especially the vultures. Music lifts me high, but nothing lifts me higher than being where I want to be, in a land where such magnificent creatures still roam the skies on your way to and from the supermarket. My heart bleeds a little. I had to give a queen to take the king. I may yet regret my decision. Or, I may find some new wellspring of energy in this country. I may not have my music, but I still have hope. That’s all I can ask for. BB x

Song of Autumn

I usually walk home across the Bailey after lectures, but today I turned left at the end of Kingsgate Bridge and took the path along the river Weir. It was the goosanders that did it, I suppose. The one constant of my three years at Durham University has been that, come winter, there’s a family of three goosanders on the Weir (don’t know what a goosander is? Look it up, they’re beautiful). I was done for the day and everybody else had gone their separate ways to study, so I thought I’d treat myself to a half-hour’s isolation.

I don’t think I ever forgot how beautiful England is in the autumn. In fact, I think I grew to appreciate all the more for being so far away from it last year. There’s nothing like thirteen consecutive months of almost total sunshine to give you a real heartache for a cold, crisp autumn morning. Well, it’s certainly been cold recently, even if the frost hasn’t settled in yet, but now that our boiler’s fully functional, I’m not complaining. Even so, after the madcap nature of the last two months – I really have had something to do every day, come to think of it – something I really had forgotten to do was to make time for myself. And I’m not talking the lying-in-bed-watching-Youtube kind of me-time. Everybody has something that fills them up again when they’re feeling low. Maybe it’s good food, maybe it’s a hearty jog, or that song that never fails to put a smile on your face. For me, it’s nature. Between DELE revision, rehearsals with the Lights and this many other commitments, I’ve scarcely had the time to think straight. I’ve waxed lyrical about the importance of being busy and having people around you that radiate good energy, but for me, there’s no substitute for a good hour or so in nature’s arms.

Mrs Goosander wasn’t about this afternoon. She sometimes goes fishing further downstream. Mr Goosander and his rather shabby-looking youngster (still moulting, but more impressively, still here) were going about their business in their usual spot. The father looks especially impressive at the moment, with his feathers flushed that special shade of salmon-pink that is so particular to his kind. I think I saw him catch about three or four fish whilst I was there. Sit long enough in a sheltered spot and the little world accustoms itself to you…

An inquisitive little coal tit came to have a look-in on one of the trees overhanging the river. A couple of blackbirds were making a lot of noise rummaging around in the undergrowth as is their fashion. The soundscape was so autumnal, I only wish I could have recorded it for you. Words will have to do: the cooing of a woodpigeon in the trees; the machine-gun twittering of a roving party of nuthatches; the high-pitched seee of redwings overhead; the cawing of crows coming in to roost. The pitch-pitch, pitch-pitch-pitch of a chaffinch, tea-cher tea-cher of a great tit, and, once or twice, the distant shriek of a jay.

I don’t tend to talk about my favourite pastime all that often. Sometimes you don’t have to: the things that matter most are plain to see. Besides, who’d want to listen? I learned a long time ago that there are precious few who care about the distinction between wrens and robins, crows and jackdaws, mallards and goosanders. And, I suppose, the names are not important. What matters is that people know that they’re there. Planet Earth II seems to be extremely popular up here, and I hope it’s encouraging people to look around more when they’re out and about. 

So that’s my advice. The next time you’re out for a walk, whether you’re on your way to or from work, or just to kill some time, unplug yourself from the noise, find a quiet spot to sit down, shut your eyes and just let the world let you in. You won’t regret it. There’s no better music (and believe me, I’ve looked – my whole family are musicians).

Blackbirds, crows and redwings. The wind in the trees and the splash of diving ducks in the silent river. These are the sounds of my childhood. Of all the things life has taught me, I am no happier than in my knowledge of the world around me. I have my mother to thank for that, I think. That and my obsessive habit of chasing the details. I should probably have given journalism a little more thought. Then again… BB x

An old photo of mine from 2008, when I had nothing on my mind but birds!

Two Men Skilled in Climbing Mountains

We did it. We conquered Ghorghez. It’s been staring us in the face for all of six weeks but now I can put my hand on my heart and say with all honesty that the beast has been vanquished. Call it the human desire to tame the wild in me, but I could never have left Tetouan with my head held high if I’d never managed to tackle that mountain.

Fortunately, Alex was of a similar opinion, so at nine o’clock this morning we hailed a cab and off we went.

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King of Tetouan (or that obligatory tourist photo)

We didn’t have the best of starts. My host father very kindly gave me the use of his topographic map and took me up to the roof to explain the route we could take; he would have come with us, if his wife was not still hospitalized from the accident. But when he asked how many of us were going, I had to lie and say five. If I’d told him the truth – that Alex and I alone were going – he’d probably have tried to stop us. The last time he went on a fossil-hunting excursion up in the mountains, he was attacked by a group of thugs and severely injured.

In that knowledge, Alex and I arrived at Ain Bou Anane and set off on our journey.

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Don’t be fooled… It wasn’t anywhere near as easy it looks

For the first ascent we had it easy, as there was a reliable, well-trodden path to begin with. Emphasis on ‘begin with’; after a hundred metres or so it vanished into the sea of thorns and scrub that covers most of Ghorghez and we were forced to resort to free-navigating the mountainside, cutting from goat track to goat track with the occasional wayward boulder as a bridge between the paths. And just as well: the tracks often vanished into thin air like fireflies in the night, leaving us stranded in the scrub.

The mountain wasn’t entirely wild. What I took at first for bird calls turned out to be the Ghorghez shepherds out on the slopes with their flocks. I’d quite forgotten how far sound travels in the mountains. More than once I thought we’d been followed, only to see the source of the noise sitting atop a boulder watching over his goats on the far side of the valley. I must admit, due to my host father’s tales, I was more wary than usual around these hill-folk. Seeing their silhoettes appearing and disappearing between the rocks set my teeth on edge. More than once I let slip that we might have to make a break for it if they ‘came back with reinforcements’.

But they didn’t, and Alex smiled and waved at them, and some of them waved back. I think we could all do with a reminder from time to time that, at the end of the day, everybody’s human. A smile and a wave could change everything.

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Now that’s what I call a hike!

As for their fences… Seriously. Fuck fences. The amount of backtracking we had to do to find a way around the vast sections of the mountainside that had been cordoned off was unfair, unhelpful and unnecessary. Who even builds fences on a mountain anyway? I guess they’re for the few cows we saw munching through the scrub, but what kind of a sadistic individual drives their cattle up into the mountains and then fences them in with barbed wire and brambles? Fuck those fences.

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You’ve got to hand it to Maroc Telecom. Fully functional 3G up in the mountains is impressive

Delaying our hike by one day was one of my better decisions. Not only was Alex fully recovered from his late late Friday night, but the weather couldn’t have been better. The sun shone out from behind the clouds all morning, and the wind, though strong, was cool and refreshing. Compared to the Azla trek, it was a much easier ascent. Which is jammy, for double the height.

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Ghorghez’ summit in the clouds

Alex had a run-in with a rather large snake on the way down. I know because one minute I was powering ahead with my trusty bamboo cane, and the next he was racing past, raving about snakes and putting about as much distance as he could between the cliff and himself. ‘I don’t like snakes. No one likes snakes. There isn’t a culture in the works that likes snakes. There’s just some things that nobody likes. Donald Trump, snakes… Oh, it was more than a metre long, easily.’ Ladies and gentlemen, Indiana Jones. ‘We don’t even have any antidote’. True, when I was packing this morning, I didn’t really think about preparing for a snake attack. I was too busy filling up five water bottles.

Five. I’d like to emphasize that five. Ben’s clearly learned his lesson from last year’s Dana disaster (you can read about that here).

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The coolest overhang in geology (or possibly the Wall from Game of Thrones)

Not sure about the snakes, but the cicadas were absolutely massive. Blood-dripping-from-their-fangs massive, as my parents would put it.

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Who needs Pokémon Go? I found a Ninjask without my mobile, thank-you-very-much

Besides the creepy crawlies, the mountain was spectacular for wildlife. That’s probably my favourite thing about mountains: the wonderful creatures it brings you into contact with. Mountains are some of the last truly wild bastions on the earth. Especially for birds, and birds of prey in particular. For a city, Tetouan’s got its fair share of wildlife, namely the local kestrels and cattle egret colonies, as well as the flyover storks and kites, but if you want a really wild experience, you have to go out into the sticks. I watched a pair of booted eagles wheeling and diving and whistling overhead from the summit, as well as clocking a flyby peregrine, a couple of kestrels, a few buzzards, five or six kites, ten ravens and an Isengard-level swarm of choughs. Saruman the White couldn’t summon such a flock.

The scenery up at the top might have been taken from that very scene from The Fellowship of the Ring, strewn with jagged rocks and sparse bushes. But if Saruman was indeed watching our passage south, he must have tired of his vigil before long and gone for a coffee break because, as is the way with mountaineering, coming down was three times harder than going up.

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‘Let’s not throw ourselves to our deaths just yet.’

Finding our way up the mountain had been easy enough, since the next crest was always in sight. You’d think that the same might be said for the descent, but mountains are fickle. Not only do they play with sound, they also throw your perspective off frequently. More than once we followed the latest road/path/goat-track/dry river to its end only to find ourselves staring into abyss as it plunged fifty feet down over the edge of a cliff we’d never seen coming.

The resulting backtracking led us back into bramble country, which didn’t bother me and my long sleeves too much, but it ripped Alex’s exposed limbs to shreds. By the time we made it to open country again he looked as though he’d been mauled by a particularly savage beast. We couldn’t even use the wild boar we’d seen as an excuse, as it took off into the scrub as soon as it heard us coming. Nope, that’s just the bush at work.

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Ain Zarqa at the feet of the Great Pyramid and Saddle Mountain

Seven hours since setting out from Ain Bou Anane we found our way back down the mountain to the village of Wargane, completing the arc that had taken us around most of the Ghorghez ridge. I left my trusty bamboo cane at the side of the road (again) and Alex flagged down a cab to take us back to Tetouan. Three mountains in one. All in a day’s work.

Ghorghez is down. Mission accomplished. BB x

Griffonheart

Sometimes, when a bird flies low over your head, you can hear the rush of wind through its wings. Swifts do that, from time to time. Swifts and pigeons. It’s a quiet, singing sound like a sudden release of breath, over and gone by the time you’ve worked out where it came from. Now try to picture the same scenario with a nine-foot wingspan. The result sounds something like a gale, a genuine roar of wind, every bit as impressive as those giant wings. This is Monfragüe and this is a griffon, truly one of the most spectacular creatures on the planet.

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I don’t really know what it is that attracts me to vultures so much. They’re not the most attractive creatures on the planet. Their heads are snake-like and feather-bare, their eyes are cold and sinister and they spend their entire lives feeding on dead things. If birds are supposed to sing, vultures sound like they have a bellyful of iron filings when they make a sound – and that isn’t often. But for some reason, I’m obsessed with the damned things, and always have been.

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Extremadura is a very special part of the world, but doubly so if you’re as much of a bird nut as I am. The immense blue skies are almost always dotted somewhere in the middle with a black speck wheeling round and round on the thermals: kite, eagle or vulture. I grew up in the south of England where the largest soaring bird you’re likely to see is a rook, and I still remember the sheer thrill of seeing my very first vulture when I was about nine years old. For me they represented Valmik Thapir’s India, of cliff-forts and desert kingdoms. To see them wheeling lazily about the Spanish sky was like something out of a dream. And so the love affair with the griffons began.

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Since then, they’ve got me stranded in the mountains, terrified my little brother, warned me of thunderstorms and – in quite possibly my favourite travel anecdote to date – they even got me arrested by the Spanish military police. I kid you not. Apparently photographing vultures isn’t a believable excuse for wandering about the countryside alone at fifteen without one’s passport…

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(Not even for results like this…?)

If I’d had any idea what kind of scrapes my passion for vultures would get me into, I wonder whether I’d have had second thoughts. Somehow I doubt it. Something tells me I’d have found my way to the same spot sooner or later.

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There are four kinds of vultures in Europe, and all four of them can be found in Spain – if you know where to look. The griffons are the most obvious and by far the most numerous, nesting in colonies that can number as many as a thousand strong. The other resident is the far rarer black vulture, recognisable by its sheer size alone; fully-grown adults measure three metres from wingtip to wingtip, making them one of the largest birds in the world. The Egyptian vulture is a smaller summer visitor from Africa, where they eat ostrich eggs by smashing them open with stones. But it is the fourth and final that is the most famous: the lammergeyer, a golden-bodied, diamond-tailed king of the skies that feeds almost entirely on bones. I’ve only ever seen one once, at an incredible distance, whilst in the French Pyrenees some seven years ago. It remains one of my greatest dreams to go chasing after the legendary quebrantahuesos, ‘the one that breaks bones’.

Like I said, I’m hooked on the creatures.

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I have to admit, they do have some seriously menacing eyes…

Dad was in a grouchy mood and didn’t let us stay very long. Must be something to do with the distance from Villafranca to Monfragüe (which, I should point out, is as beautifully in the middle of absolutely nowhere as are all of my favourite destinations). I could happily have spent five hours and more just stood atop the castle with the vultures wheeling about all around me, or sitting under the cliff and watching them plummeting out of the sky and onto the rock in a fierce rush of thunder.

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Needless to say I will be back. Everyone has their vice. Some like their drink, some like their fast cars, others have difficulty sitting still. I have this peculiar fascination with vultures and I’m not even close to understanding them. Yet. BB x