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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Don’t Mention the Catalans

It’s 21.14 on a Sunday night, I’m still a little sleep-deprived and mulling over how I can make my lessons on Illness and Disease interesting the third time around for my 2° class tomorrow morning. As for news, I more or less wrote this Puente off as far as traveling is concerned. After briefly toying with the idea of a flying visit to Galicia to investigate its potential for next year, I decided instead to stick around and stick to my writing.

At least, that was the plan. But if life’s taught me anything, it’s that planning to take the emptier road usually leads to getting involved in more than you bargained for.

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And then Archie and Viresh showed up in Seville.

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It’s been far too long since I last saw these two fantastic comrades of mine, so it was a wonderful surprise to hear that they were on their way to Spain at the very time I had off! After the singular honour of being here to welcome Biff and Rosie, little could have made me happier than to be here to welcome more old friends. Leaving England and my friends behind has not been easy, so it’s magical moments like this that make the decision all the easier.

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The Belén market is in full swing, and the city air is thick with the smell of turrón and roast chestnuts. It’s Christmas in another country. The city was packed to its limits this weekend with the rush of Christmas shoppers and holidaymakers taking advantage of the Puente de Diciembre to get their money’s worth. Rather than spending two nights in the city – impossible at such short notice – I took the equally-crowded bus home and returned early the following morning, which worked out cheaper than even the cheapest hostel on offer, had there been any on offer at all. That’s LEDA for you. Thank heavens for the bus network.

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Between the catching-up, the memory-sharing and the tapas, we decided to hit the town at night, something I’ve never done before. From careful inspection I can report that Alfalfa is a fantastic place to start when looking for both decent restaurants and music bars. We found a nice spot where two groups of partygoers had broken out into song. I’m not sure whether your average Englishman takes a guitar on a night out, nor whether he can expect not just his friends but half of the bar to sing along with his songs, but it was entertaining to watch. If I knew any sevillanas, I’d probably have joined in, too.

I learned a lot about India that I didn’t have entirely clear from Viresh this weekend. My knowledge of the Indian subcontinent is bitty at best, gleaned in pieces from a DK Guide to World Mythology, Age of Empires III, The Far Pavilions and Valmik Thapar’s Land of the Tiger series, amongst other chance encounters. So to have both the traditional Indian wedding ritual and the Ramayana summarised – the latter in a mere ten minutes, the former stretched (rightfully so) over the best of an hour – was a real privilege. My love for India is sufficiently rekindled. I think it’s time I re-read Pavilions, too.

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In one of the bars, we got talking to a chatty Sevillano and his friends, who were quick to out us as guiris… Apparently only an Englishman would wear a Valecuatro jacket (I’m not sure how that works, since Valecuatro is a brand we can’t get hold of in Albion, but that’s beside the point). Archie decided to joke with him that he was actually Catalan, which made the guy unnecessarily angry. Before my eyes, it got out of hand very quickly, with the Sevillano hurling abuse at Archie and, by default, the Catalans at large, calling him a ‘puto guiri’ for ‘defending something he knew nothing about’. Hardly fair, when the guy studied Catalan for three years and lived with a Catalan family for several months last year. It’s not the kind of timeframe which makes one an expert on Catalan affairs, but it is a great deal more than knowing ‘nothing’.

It’s a telling response, though. That the very mention of Cataluña should provoke such a hostile reaction from a young Andalusian tells you a lot about the underlying anger resulting from the events of October. Not that Andalusians have a particularly sturdy leg to stand on – they, too, have their fair share of separatist stories, such as the Green Banner Revolts of 1642 – but the Cataluña question still has the power to raise hackles here. I wonder where my grandfather stood on the matter, having relinquished his family home in La Mancha to make a living on the young Costa Brava…

Christmas is coming. I felt naughty and opened a couple of Advent calendar chocolates two days in advance when my energy was running low. I’ll make amends for that in one way or the other over the next few days.

I do hope you Brits are enjoying the snow. BB x

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P.S. I have a bike! After months of half-hearted searching, I finally have a sturdy little mountain bike at my disposal! Hornachos, I’m coming for you!

Back in Action

It’s been a while!

I kept my word, it seems. It’s been about two weeks since my last post. Probably more. In that time I’ve not honestly been up to much at all, hence the dearth of posts, though that probably has more to do with a real need to take some serious time-out; last term was pretty hectic, especially towards the finishing line.

Coming home for Christmas was never part of the original plan, but I’m glad I did. England at this time of year is pretty magical, with the mist, the frost and the rain in the pine woods about the house. Doubly so this year, as it’s been all of three months since the last time I saw rain in Spain. Apparently global warming is to blame. Whoever the culprit may be, it’s impressed upon me just how much I like rain. I don’t know whether that’s ineffably English or the reverse. I don’t really mind either way. I wasn’t really complaining about the gorgeous blue skies and twenty-two degree heat right up until my last day in the country (the twenty-second of December, in fact). All I hope is that it keeps for one week longer at least, so that it doesn’t put a damper on my stay in Madrid next week… more on that later.

That said, I haven’t sung a single Christmas carol this year, and that makes me feel more than a little wierd. Not even Silent Night. That must be the first time in my life where I haven’t. Next year had better make up for that.

I haven’t made anywhere near as much progress on the grand drawing as I’d have liked. Nor have I finished my series of 2015 doodles. What I have achieved over the last two weeks, however, is a new camera. The trusty old Nikon D70 has done me wonders over the last ten years, but… ten years is a long time. Especially in the fast-moving world of digital photography. I got my comeuppance for my loyalty when I went into Extremadura’s biggest camera store and was roundly told by the head clerk that nowhere stocked the ‘gigantic’ CompactFlash memory cards that the D70 runs off anymore. Time, perhaps, to move on.

Fortunately, I’ve been working two jobs and several private lessons over the last three months, so I’ve enough set aside for such adventures.

Introducing the Nikon D3200. In all its 24 megapixel glory.

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Tech that can crack out magazine quality prints on AUTO mode is worth the investment. Sadly, most of my lenses are a little out of date too, and the autofocus doesn’t work, so it’s been an ordeal learning to use manual (finally). A necessary one, but an ordeal nonetheless. Manual and nuthatches simply don’t mix.

To put it through its paces, I took it to Deal for a final coffee with the family before I jet off back to Spain for the unforeseeable future. Even on manual mode alone, it did a fine job.

The phrase ‘a kid at Christmas’ springs to mind; but then, I am a kid at heart, and this is technically still the Christmas season, so there you have it. I’m waiting on baited breath for my kit lens and the ol’ telephoto to have a functional autofocus (I haven’t been able to check thus far as I left them in Spain), but in the meantime, I’ll just keep practising with manual.

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A gannet far out to sea (Sigma 500mm, where are you when I need you?)

Apart from getting back into some serious camera hijinks, it was worth coming home for a reunion with two very special friends, and a whole panoply of others close to my heart. That’s what Christmas time is for; being with your nearest and dearest. A phrase I heard bandied about a lot this Christmas was that people had learned to distance themselves from those they ‘simply no longer really had time for’. I guess that’s a good ethos, and a strong marker of that over-the-hill feeling that is turning twenty-two. The first winnowing of friendships that were once so strong, and at the same time the moment when you see clearly, perhaps for the first time, who the people are that you will fight to keep in touch with. Having always had it in mind to leave these rainy shores to chase my dreams in Spain, I’ve never allowed myself to grow too attached to anybody here in England, but for two shining lights I would return home anytime and oft, and you know I would. You know who you are. Thank you.

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Things you’d be hard-pressed to find in Spain: a tankard of whipped-cream-topped hot chocolate

Well, Kent is behind me now, I’m back in West Sussex – where the rain and the darkness has not ceased for several days – and counting down the hours until my plane whisks me back to Seville and home. But for the wind, the place is as silent as the grave. That hasn’t stopped the birds from letting me know that they have not appreciated my absence, so I made sure to throw out some New Years’ seed for them. They’ve got to be so tame now that I hardly need to freeze when the camera’s out.

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Such is the power of that camera that neither of those have been zoomed in or edited whatsoever. Oh, but we’re going to have some serious fun with this thing.

Well, I’ll keep you posted. My next insert will probably be from Spain, but whether that will be pre- or post-Madrid depends entirely on whether the Bar Atalaya WiFi is in operation. In any case, hasta pronto, amigos. The rain in Spain falls mainly on England x

Wrapped Up for Christmas

The end is nigh. I woke up nice and early this morning for one final lukewarm Spanish shower, shaved and set out in perfect time to make my 9am class… Only to find it empty. It must be Christmas.

I’m not really complaining. I’ve only had a few dud lessons like this over the course of the first term and they’ve all been in the last few weeks, when you can see them coming a mile off. I’ve heard plenty more horror stories from other assistants finding themselves with nothing to do all too often. That doesn’t stop the professional in me going in to school regardless. Hey, there’s free internet there – that’s as good a reason as any.

I should point out that today is my last full day in Spain… for a fortnight. In fourteen days exactly I’ll be back for Reyes Magos and the Cabalgata parade in Olvera, but primarily for Ali’s birthday and our weekend together in Madrid to see El Rey León. Before all that, I’ve a grace period I hadn’t planned on to see my brother, my parents and a cavalcade of old friends, most of whom were under the impression (as I was) that they wouldn’t be seeing me until September 2016. And, of course, to work on the drawing.

I’m sticking to my guns, though. Next year I’m in it for the long haul, in every sense. In truth, Christmas in Spain was never a certainty, but Easter most certainly is. Ain’t no way I’m spending even a second away from this country when it’s at its most beautiful.

I promised you all a summary, didn’t I? I’ll doubtless have a grand old 2015 review penned as the year draws to a close, but for now, I’ll stick to summing up the ups and downs of my first year-long stint as a teacher:

  • Improvised lessons are the best

Fail to plan, plan to fail, right? Wrong. Expect, and expect to be disappointed, as me mam would say. Some of my best lessons so far have been the ones where I’ve gone in with an idea on the day and simply improvised. By the end of the week, it’s usually matured into a fully-fledged lesson in its own right. By contrast, lessons where I’ve gone in with every minute blocked out with various exercises tend to fall dead in the water when one little aspect derails the entire flow, be it because the students were too quick – or, as is more often the case, too chatty.

  • Spanish seven to eight year olds are (mostly) demons

I didn’t sign up for primary teaching. I nearly did, but I didn’t. When my colegio scheduled me for two hours of primary a week and my instituto stepped in to reshuffle my timetable to their favour, I thought I’d dodged a bullet. A second reshuffle landed me back in the hot seat. I mostly look at teaching as something fun that I’d happily do for free, but at least one of those two hours a week is definitely a test of endurance that I only submit to for the cash. It’s not as bad as that one time I tried looking after those Iraqi children, but… I’ll put it this way. Given that Monday, a three hour day (less than a third of my usual workload), is nonetheless my least favourite day of the week is testament to the raw power of those kids. Without them, I dare say there’d be almost no catch at all to this post.

  • Speak up

If you aren’t comfortable with something, say it. That’s something I’ve never been very good at. I’d never describe myself as proud – if I once was, that side of me was mauled seven years ago – but I’d still rather soldier on on my own. That’s not the way to do it. Regular feedback is a good thing, especially as far as teaching is concerned, as you’re there for the kids’ benefit and not your own.

  • More money, more problems

I budgeted on maybe two hours of private lessons a week on top of my earnings from my instituto posting; a reasonably paid, casual fourteen-hour week. Instead, I’m burning the candle at both ends on a thirty-hour week, working two schools, two bi-weekly private groups and three one-to-ones, also bi-weekly. It takes in the dollar, no doubt, but it doesn’t half make for an intense four-day week. And to think that I’d originally planned on working evening shifts at a third school.. Coming back alive from this year abroad could well be a priority.

  •  You’re an assistant, not a teacher…

So says my instituto. Sure, most of them are happy to take a back seat and let me have the run of the place for an hour every time, but rarely on my own. That they’ve never bolstered me with the assistance of a guardia (supply teacher) means I must be doing a good job, which is reassuring, but the support network is very real. I never have to worry about discipline, grammar or marking, for one, which means all I have to do is the teaching itself; all the pros and none of the cons.

  •  …unless you’ve been told otherwise

That’s all well and good at the instituto. Elsewhere, I’m expected to take classes alone, and to cover everything besides: full explanation of grammar, discipline and the occasional bit of homework. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great practice, but as I’ve mentioned before, there’s at least one class where I could really do with a little help. There’s a reason people train as teachers.

  • Keep your personal and professional life separate

When you work in a town as small as Villafranca – especially if it’s as fond of gossip as this lot are – it’s easy to feel like the eyes of the world are on your every move. And they are. As my colleagues put it, I’m “controlado”. You won’t have to think too hard about that one. I’ve split mine down the middle, going out in Cadiz and working in Badajoz, with all of Sevilla as a buffer zone. It works. It doesn’t stop my kids hunting me down on Instagram, though. How they found me in the first place is quite beyond me.

  • Knowing their names is the key

Alright, so when you’re dealing with ten classes averaging twenty-five to thirty in number, putting names to faces is a Herculean task. I think I know the three or four best and worst kids in each one, and the others tend to blur into one. But at my second school, thanks partly to the register and mainly to the smaller classes (six to fifteen a throw), I’ve memorized almost all of them by name – and boy, does it pay dividends. It may only be a small move, but it means the world to them when they realize you’ve taken the trouble to remember. That, and it beats pointing and saying ‘uh… You’ twenty odd times an hour.

  • Sacrifice is only worth it if you’re prepared to bargain

I had to give up my day off on Friday to rehearse a Christmas number with two of my younger groups and then to see it carried out in the concert that night, scuppering any plans I’d had to explore Plasencia with my mum, who’d come to visit. It’s a testament to how much I’ve improved in this profession that I didn’t simply take it lying down as I might have done before; I had the sense to negotiate, as it were, for a day off of my choosing at some point next year. I’ve been collecting favors by working overtime at my other school with the aim of visiting Olvera a day early to make good on an invitation to spend a day working at my former primary school. It should be obvious, but don’t make sacrifices unless there’s something to be gained.

  • Spanish living is ridiculously cheap

Seriously. 150€ a month on rent. 25€ a fortnight on food (and that’s splashing out). Eating out well for 10€ a throw. And all that for the luxury of living out in the sticks. I don’t know how I’m ever going to readjust to English pricing…

Who knows what the new year will bring? With any luck, a new camera… it’s time I got back into my SLR game. Until then, I’ll be taking a well-earned break from teaching for a good three weeks. Hasta enero, España. You’ve been good to me. I mean that x

Ariana Who?

I’ve been a bit idle on the blogging front over the last two weeks. About as idle as being “far too busy with end of term exams, final year housing admin, Christmas concert preparations and affairs of the heart” can be – if you want my honest answer.

Looking about me now, it’s rather hard to believe that I’ve been working here for almost three months exactly. But for the sporadic Christmas decorations, the staff room looks much the same as it did back in September. It was about 18°C back then, too. I tell you, it’s been an unseasonably warm winter. Perfect for the Romanians who came to Extremadura for the harvest, but mystifying for the rest of us. It’s almost Christmas Day, and the leaves still haven’t fallen from the trees yet. Stranger still, some have started to flower anew in the warm weather we’ve been having, so there’s a mix of browns, reds and vibrant greens. And at the same time I’m seeing photographs taken by colleagues of mine who remained in Durham, showing the place beset by magical, snow-dusted scenes that seem to have leapt from postcards or travel brochures. It’s so very hard to imagine when I’m having to go into school in a light shirt every day, because I’m still overheating if I take more than one layer. Bonkers, I tell you.

The Christmas concert is tomorrow, and it’s scuppered any plans I had on exploring Plasencia with Madre, who came to visit yesterday, as it falls bang in the middle of her stay. Technically it’s on my day off, so I could be an absolute Scrooge and demand my rights, but I’m not that much of a heartless bastard, so I’m chained into conducting two potential disasters tomorrow night. My two 2° ESO classes wanted to do Shakin’ Stevens Merry Christmas Everyone and Ariana Grande’s Santa Tell Me (I’d never even heard of that one), but democracy being the troublesome beastie it is, everybody has to have something to do: singing, dancing and…. <sigh>…. percussion. Cue twenty two boys volunteering for percussion, six girls for dancing and two for singing. Bang, bang, bang.

Fat chance. De eso nada.

 In two weeks’ practice (or rather, three hours apiece), we’ve just about got them down… Just. But it’s going to be more trouble than it’s worth, frankly, and it’s bringing back bad memories of thinking myself capable of being a Musical Director last year. Ha! I’m not a leader. At best I reckon I could make a good Ulysses, scheming from the sidelines, but the responsibility of leading everything – the percussion, the choreography and the notation, not to mention the discipline – is a severe (if deserved) punishment for my unstoppable enthusiasm. That’s what an exec is for; dividing responsibilities. Still, I’m learning at a ridiculous rate; and as I’ve said before, I’ll come out of this year with all the makings of a bloody good parent. All I need is a Spanish girl, the One, and she’s eluding me still.

Ill throw down a summary of the year in a bit, but before that, I’ve another six hours of class to get through today. England’s calling, but my phone’s on silent until the madness that is the Christmas term is finally over. Then, and only then, will I have true cause for the Hallelujah. BB x

No Going Back

Saying goodbye is never an easy thing to do. I’m certainly not particularly good at it. In fact, there are quite a few goodbyes I’d like the chance to go over again, given the opportunity. You know the kind: the ones where it was all too fleeting, or maybe you didn’t quite say everything you wanted to say, or maybe the real goodbye never came around and you were left with a last meeting that wasn’t really a send-off at all. Most likely you’ve encountered that oh-so-very British awkward goodbye at least once in your lifetime: the one where you say goodbye to somebody, only to bump into them a few minutes later. Don’t you find that situation crops up a lot? It certainly does in Durham, anyway…

For a chatty gossip like me (you’ll just have to imagine the deep sarcasm there), I don’t suppose there’s much point in an elaborate farewell. It’s only really an issue if you’re going to be out of contact for an extended period of time, like stepping off the plane into the abyss and severing all connections with the outside world. Which is essentially what I do every time I step off the train at Three Bridges. I have a phone, true, but I rarely use it. I think I sent a grand total of three texts over the last three months, and all three of them last Sunday. Radio silence on my part doesn’t necessarily mean I’m traveling – I’m probably a lot more talkative when I’m on the road – but it doesn’t mean I’m inactive, either. I simply enjoy going for long periods of radio silence. Anything that needs saying can surely be said best face-to-face, and anything that’s worth saying is always worth waiting for. That makes me quite a distant person, I guess – and not the easiest to track down. For somebody who spent almost all of two years on teenage texting tenterhooks, it’s a policy I’ve guarded jealously for some time now. So in that sense, setting off on another long adventure isn’t really all that different from any other end of term break, as far as contact is concerned.

I’m going off topic. I suppose I’d better come out with it. I’m heading off to Spain in two days’ time – less – to spend nine months working in a secondary school… and I’m not coming back in between.

The idea first came to me when I had a look at the Spanish school calendar for the coming year. That projected end of term date on the twenty-second of December shocked me at first, despite having been schooled in Spain at Christmastime before. It’s all about the reyes magos out there, and that’s not until January. I must have got it into my head early on, but it wasn’t until saying farewell (successfully, mind!) to Andrew at Gatwick Airport that it hit me: I want to be out there for the long haul. Taking a year abroad isn’t just about honing your language skills to fluency, it’s about growing up – and Lord knows I’ve still so much more of that to do. What better way than to strike out on your own for an entire year? Because that’s what it’s set to be, with my second Arabic stint in Morocco striking up almost as soon as I’m done in Extremadura at the end of May, meaning I won’t see the green hills of England again until August 2016, at the very earliest. That doesn’t trouble me as much as it should.

I'm going to miss autumn in England. No, I'm really, really, really going to miss it

I’m going to miss autumn in England. No, I’m really, really, really going to miss it

The last few days have been wonderful for a last taste of England. I consider myself extremely lucky to live in one of the most charming spots in West Sussex, overlooking a dream-sequence of rolling hills as far as the eye can see, right up to the point when they tumble into the sea to the south. Autumn’s in the air, the forest is full of mushrooms and the buzzards that nest deep in the woods are cartwheeling noisily through the skies as usual. Morpurgo described them ‘mewing’ in one of his books and I can’t think of a better way of putting it. This is England, and I’m going to miss it. But there’s something in the air, telling me it’s time I should be moving on. Maybe that’s autumn. The signs are everywhere. The leaves on the oak trees are going a gorgeous golden colour. Out on the school rugby pitches the odd wheatear sits taking a breather, whilst flycatchers and warblers hurry on through the hedgerows snatching a quick meal on their way home. But most telling of all are the great flocks of swallows and the martins streaming on southwards overhead, and in a couple of days I’ll be following them. Maybe I’ll even see some of the same individuals swooping by from Villafranca. Who knows?

Ten points if you can see the buzzard in this one

Ten points if you can see the buzzard in this one

The hardest thing for me to leave behind – besides the monstrous tapestry, which is never going to be finished anytime soon – will be the growing mountain of books in my bedroom.

A year and a half, five metres in and still slaving away

A year and a half and still slaving away…

It’s pretty daft, but for an aspiring writer, I’m late into the fold as regards actually reading. I got it into my head once that if I never read any books that contained ideas similar to my own, I couldn’t get done for plagiarism, because I’d never have noticed the similarity. How very typically overcomplicated of me. The end result is that I haven’t read a decent book – besides Pavilions – in nigh on ten years. At least, one that hasn’t been prescribed by my course. Now I’m motoring through them at lightning speed, assisted by all the iBooks freebies, an immense library at home (courtesy of my equally bookish mother) that I never truly appreciated, and an all-too brief visit to a real bookshop over the weekend.

So many books, so little time...

So many books, so little time…

I say real to distinguish it from your average WHSmith or Waterstones. Seriously, this place had everything. All the historical fiction you could shake a stick at. The entire Hornblower saga. Flashman in abundance. Sharpe, Iggulden and even the master of the art herself, M.M. Kaye. All beautifully spined, deliciously musty and lovingly second-hand. A new gadget may be a good thing, but there’s nothing better than an old book. Mum found a particularly beautiful pair of illustrated Arabic dictionaries – formerly the property of a military attaché, as stamped. Oh, I could have died and gone to heaven. I was in kid-at-Christmas mode. If I’d had this newfound book obsession just two years earlier, I might have given languages the boot and applied for an English degree. The only thing holding me back at the time was a general reading apathy…

Today’s been the downer of the month for no other reason than that every so often I have a lonely spell where it takes a lot to lift me up. Fortunately I’m in the best place for it: start of term or not, the grounds of Worth Abbey are no less than the finest place I’ve ever encountered for soul-healing. Alright, so the stone-pine copse along the Raya Real with its attendant black kites just comes up trumps, but that’s not on my doorstep every morning. Not yet, anyway. Besides, when the loneliness birds come flying in, the open world is always there. Nature’s an unpredictable lady at the best of times, but she’s never let me down. I’ve said that before, and I’ll say it as often as it takes to drive this funk of mine away. Everything will look better in the light of a new morning. It always does.

Waldeinsamkeit - the feeling of being alone in the woods!

Waldeinsamkeit – the feeling of being alone in the woods!

These are curious things to dwell on when home will be so very far away for the next eleven months. But home is where the heart is, and mine has been in Spain for as long as I can remember, and that’s got to count for something. Maybe she’s out there, and maybe she’s not. That’s not for me to decide. If fate decides to cut me a break and give me a good turn, I’m ready to run with it. But one thing’s certain: I will leave Spain fluent. If I can leave the country at the end of the year as bilingual as the grandfather I never knew, I’ll have accomplished a dream two generations in the making. Being a quarter Spanish will mean so much more.

I will be fluent. And that’s a promise. BB x