Marmite Man (A London Story)

Marmite Man

Marmite Man arrives in his chariot. He walks into a library, hiding from the autumn sun. He climbs up to the second floor, carrying a weatherworn traveling rucksack on his back, and finds a table hidden away on the west side. It’s eleven o’clock on a Tuesday morning, there are only a few other people in the building: a couple of students, a woman in her mid-twenties looking for jobs on one of the desktop computers, a middle-aged gentleman or two. Anybody who can afford not to be working at eleven a.m. on a Tuesday.

Marmite Man takes off his windbreaker, lays it over his chair and slouches into the seat. His face is red and pockmarked, his beard more of a tired, uniform grey than cultivated salt-and-pepper. He looks about. Once. Twice. Pauses. Then he empties the contents of his rucksack noisily onto the desk.

First, a multipack bag of McCoys ridge-cut crisps. Then two bottles of water and a plastic Pret a Manger cup. A can of spray-on deodorant – no, two cans. A pack of Johnson’s baby wipes. A hairbrush and a bath scrubber. And, finally, four pots of Marmite.

He inspects three of the Marmite pots in turn, looks around, and after some rumination, opens the multipack bag and breaks into a bag of crisps. In the silence of the library, his feasting sounds like the construction work beyond the Bunhill Cemetery: an unhappy ruckus in a place of quiet. He munches and crunches his way through a second bag, then a third, and another, and another. It’s as though he is issuing a deliberate challenge to the librarian downstairs: come up and stop me, if you dare. But the librarian does not hear, or perhaps he does not choose to hear, and still Marmite Man goes on munching, crunching, sniffing, snuffling, belching and clearing his throat. He wipes his fingers, stuffing the empty packets into a plastic Tescos bag, and smacks his lips, looking around. There it is again: the challenge, who’s going to stop me? There are signs everywhere that say that eating is forbidden, and yet here he is, Marmite Man, rattling the sabre with his portable orchestra of sound: percussive plastic bags, guttural brass belches, woodwind grunts and groans. The anteroom stinks of synthetic flavour, a fabrication of burnt and powdered meat. He rubs his hands, his breathing loud and laboured, and applies a baby wipe tissue to his fingers and thighs. He rolls up his trousers and scrubs vigorously at his shins, scraping off a night’s worth of grime – or perhaps more. He stops – smarts – curses under his breath as he hits a sore.

Who are you, Marmite Man? Where have you come from? What brought you into the library today? The world has been unkind to you, I think. You swore at the man who left the anteroom a while ago, repulsed by the stench and the noise. “You got something to say? Fucking pig.” That’s what you said, through a mouth full of crisps. But maybe it was he who threw the first stone, the stone of silent judgment, as he turned his head, lifted his bag over his shoulder and promptly left the room. Perhaps what hurts the most is the silence, the everyday judgment of those who do not wish to see you. A vagabond is a part of the world gone wrong; a cog out of place, a dust blur on a family photograph; a purple brushstroke across the Mona Lisa’s coquettish face. We can choose not to see it if we so desire. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

I notice you have not picked up a book since you arrived. To you, perhaps, escapism is dangerous – or maybe you have enough unhappiness in your life without imagining it through the eyes of somebody else. What is fiction, if not an experience of somebody’s else’s misfortunes? It is armchair entertainment for the comfortable, who sympathise enough with the poor to read about them, and would happily become them for a quiet hour or two in the afternoon, with a cup of tea on hand and the day’s work put behind them, only to return to reality as Mr Smith of Fulham, associate, papers due by close of play tomorrow. True misery is intangible to Mr Smith: it is merely something to be considered from behind a glass, and frosted glass if at all possible; the bubbling mire at the bottom of the ladder.

Marmite Man knows the mire. He has been cleaning it from his shins for the last twenty minutes.

Marmite Man counts his coins onto the desk. He is frustrated. He does not have enough. He pockets them again and sighs heavily. He plugs a charger into the socket under the table and wires in his phone, and sits. Looks about. Once. Twice. Then gets up and shuffles off in search of the toilets.

I am no longer hemmed in to my corner of the anteroom. I take my leave, packing my things away quickly and quietly. As I leave, I see Marmite Man again. He is standing in the history aisle, leafing through a book on the First World War. He does not see me go.


 

The Ladybird Tree

Regent’s Park is wide-open and cold. I have never been here before, except perhaps once when I was a little boy, and London Zoo was the destination. I hear they are closing down the aquarium today. I overheard a man in the London Review of Books talking about it, about how he’d taken his time coming to work because he wanted to see it, before it disappeared. What will they do with the fish, asked his associate. Feeding time for the penguins, he joked. It’ll be another ten years before the new aquarium comes along, so frankly I wouldn’t be surprised.

The benches are taken. It’s early afternoon, but we’re into the half-term holiday and the park is alive with kids on the swings, the climbing frame, running up and down the knolls, whilst mum and dad – but invariably mum – sits beyond the fence. And why not – the weather is gorgeous. The ground isn’t wet, and there are no ants about – none that I can see, anyway – so I sit down beneath a tree to eat my lunch.

I can see a ladybird on the bark. It’s not the kind you grew up with in kids’ picture books, post-box red with big black spots. It’s beetle-black with two red eyes, giving its wing-cases the impression of a cartoonish snake’s head viewed from above.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ladybird like that before. Point of fact, I don’t think I’ve seen any of the ladybirds on this tree before either. There are yellow ladybirds with twenty spots or more. Red or orange ladybirds with no spots at all. I believe these might be the so-called harlequins, invading ladybirds from distant Asia. Up and down the trunk they go, in that apparently directionless march that beetles seem to adopt, racing in and out of the grooves in the bark. One stops. Its wings click open in a single motion, like the safety-catch on a gun, and then it takes off from the tree into the sunlight. As it goes, another arrives, jet black with those two red eyes like the first one.

There are no deer in Regent’s Park. I rather hoped there might be, but that just goes to show how little I know London. I think that’s Richmond Park – anyway, there are deer enough in my neck of the woods. I walked right past one the other day; a roe buck, fearless, much like the muntjac I’ve become rather used to encountering there. I did not move so much as a muscle as I walked past, which is doubly impressive as I believe I was singing George Michael’s Freedom ’90 at the top of my voice at the time. It just watched as I walked past, eyes unmoving but always facing me, like that illusion of Mickey Mouse’s ears. Teaching bottom set classes is both physically and mentally draining, but I do get the payoff of working in the countryside, and that’s a major payoff by any standards – but especially by mine.

The ladybirds seem to be increasing in number. I just had to brush one off my shirt. I think it’s time I took my leave. I’m not getting any reading done. It’s hard to read when it’s cold outside, no matter how bright the sun is shining. I remember reading somewhere that you’re supposed to kill harlequin ladybirds, as they’re an invasive species. The trouble is, how can you be sure you’re not killing the native ones? Spain had the same problem with red-eared terrapins, if I remember correctly. I found one as a kid in the national park. It’s not so easy to stomp on a baby terrapin, just because it shouldn’t be there. Easier with ladybirds, I guess. Perhaps size does count. Though that is, was, and always has been a rather unpalatable idea.

 

Afterglow

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

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

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

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

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

YearAbroad (430)

Stargazing in La Siberia, May 2016

 

Commuter Vignettes

A collection of observations from London and Madrid.


14.38The Lonely One

A girl gets on the Metro before me. She has that listless look of a twenty-first century child, of a face torn away from the blue glare of her mobile phone. The phone is there, of course – it always is – sitting dormant in her hand but very much alive. Maybe she’s sad because nobody’s messaging her right this instant. There’s something Latin about her look: behind the white Adidas shirt and the pale blue jeans, there’s an arch to her nose that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Montezuma, and she wears bold red lipstick on her thick-lipped pout. It looks a little out of place on her frown. She looks about eighteen, but with that tricksy Latin blood in her veins, she could be anywhere between that and thirty.

The tannoy goes off for Nuevos Ministerios and she leaves.


10.40The Spider

A London micro-manager discusses his six-month leave and coffee with Tom this morning, at a volume just loud enough for the carriage to hear. If the asking price rises into the millions, he suggests waiting for the results to deteriorate, like a bald and very well-dressed spider. Business is the meal of the day. His latest victim, a Gucci exec, writhes in his binds down the line, whilst the shadow on the receiver worries about growth. All of this is, yep, yeh, very good, cheers. The flies will just have to resign themselves to another day of good business.

The tannoy goes off for East Croydon and he leaves.


10.46The Ghost

Could the onboard supervisor contact the driver please.
Could the onboard supervisor contact the driver please.
Could the onboard supervisor contact the driver please.

‘Perhaps he’s not onboard,’ says an old timer. He gets a lot of laughs.
‘Gone AWOL,’ says a glamorous matriarch. She gets a few more.
‘Gone home,’ says a jumper-round-the-neck. The laughing streak dies out. ‘I mean, I haven’t noticed anybody check our tickets, so perhaps there isn’t one.’

Three minutes later, the train pulls out anyway. It doesn’t sound as though the onboard supervisor made contact.
‘Gonna be late now,’ says the matriarch, looking at her phone. ‘Ten minutes delayed.’

The tannoy goes off for Clapham Junction and she leaves.


11.23The Sardine Run

The 10.09 Southern Services train to Redhill is delayed. Apparently this is still newsworthy. Downstairs, the Underground splits at the seams. Giants with sports shorts and mop-tops jostle for standing room with Catalan sightseers, Russian students and a Rastafarian flyerman, dozing silently over his stack of pamphlets. The driver on the tannoy is profusely apologetic about the frozen train, citing an earlier faulty train as the reason for the blown lines ahead. The three-minute delay becomes a five-minute delay, which in turn becomes a ten-minute delay. Five was enough to oust the man in the navy pinstripe suit and the other big fish. I’m only going one stop so I really could have walked, but people-watching isn’t so easy on the move.

The tannoy goes off for Green Park and I leave.


22.52The Platoon

Small talk sweeps Cabin Six. Three late-twenties girls types discuss renting flats, grown-up men and which was the most distressing Harry Potter death, Dobby or Hedwig. One of the three isn’t contributing so much. Another keeps the flow going. Their ringleader dominates the conversation with perfectly formed silences and sentences. Corporal, Captain and Commander. They each tell a tale: the tale of the bright orange Maine Coon and a cactus, the tale of the old lady who fell asleep watching the BBC news and the tale of the silent nurse. The underlying moral of this urban saga? If you live in a flat, you can hear someone go to the toilet. A twenty-first century aphorism if ever there was one.

The tannoy goes off for Redhill, the Corporal gets off, but the Commander’s tales go on.


10.43The Herd

Three stag parties board the plane. Two of them are your standard bunch of square-jawed gym jocks, joking loudly about how muntered Gavin is going to get, how he’ll be flat on his face, gatted, smashed, trolleyed. The other herd follows their oddly-dressed leader down the aisle like a pagan procession, their Chosen One wrapped up in a pink and purple sari with all the bells and whistles – except, of course, the kameez that usually covers a Hindu bride’s modesty. Nip slips are clearly less of an issue for six-foot tall white men. When your average Joe has umpteen problems getting through airport security, it’s frankly ridiculous that he walked through untouched. He’s obviously done his homework if he’s going as an untouchable, though somehow I don’t think that’s the idea his cronies had in mind. The Arabic music crawling out of the speaker in his back pocket would seem to suggest that. At least in Madrid he won’t look out of place. In Gatwick Airport on a Friday morning he just looks like a prat.


15.16The Slaves

Jenny Seville might have painted the scene in front of me. A perfect tableau. Three commuters stand over me with their hands on the rail, facing out across my head, with their eyes glued to their mobile phones. A smart, short-haired man in a blue suit with his earphones in, a disgruntled middle-aged lady in a pink blouse and a professional women with a sharp nose and dark eyes. They stand before me like some grotesque Swiftian pantheon, their smallest features blown up and illuminated in the backlight. To their left and right, lesser gods scroll soundlessly in the blue glare. I feel tiny, sat pressed into the chair at their feet. All along the train, heads are down, faces are blue and conversation is fleeting. There are islands of humanity in the slave ship: a huddle of Latino men talking jovially with no electronic assistance, and a couple of old women discussing train delays in central Madrid. Every time I look around me, I catch the eye of the Green Woman, the only other person in the slave ship who isn’t glued to her phone. She looks like a slightly larger and slightly less airbrushed Anne Hathaway.

The tannoy goes off for Atocha and she pulls her phone from her pocket. I have no binds, so why do I feel so shackled? BB x

Four Days without Reggaeton

‘You want taxi, my friend? No? What, you no want talk to me? Why you travel if you no want talk to people? You all the same, you think you are better than us, but you are wrong. We are better than you.’

Welcome back to Morocco, I suppose.

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Goodbye Tarifa!

There’s something endlessly enchanting about waking up in a new country. It breaks up the monotony of the everyday. It sends gears spinning that had until recently been lying dormant. It also comes with a change in breakfast too, which is never a bad thing.

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Bang in the centre of the medina and all you can eat for 10 euros a night…

On one of those fantastically last-minute whim decisions which I have been known to make , I decided to take up the offer of two of my English department colleagues to spend the puente de Mayo in Morocco. Four days isn’t nearly enough to enjoy Morocco – each town deserves a full day and night’s exploration to even begin to get a taste of the area – but when it’s so close that you can see the cars from the other side of the sea, it’s impossible not to feel the tug of the south. I’m not very good at saying no to anything, but when it comes to adventure, I find it exceedingly difficult to say no. So here I am, on the 12 o’clock bus to Chefchouen, saying yes – and loving every second of it.

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Getting Bourne Ultimatum vibes…

The last time I was in an Arab country was Jordan. Let’s not go over that again. Jordan’s going to be a bug-bear of mine for a very long time. It’s a name which carries greater fear for me than Syria, Korea and the Democratic Republic of Congo ever could. It wasn’t so much the country as it was the fact that I simply didn’t want to be there. Backed into a corner as I was with my commitments to the British Council, I wasn’t given a choice. And in that frame of mind, as always, I was defeated before ever I got on the plane. It wasn’t in my interest… And as my parents will know only too well, if something is not in my interest, the chance of me doing well is next to zero.

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The Rif: b-e-a-utiful

Not so Morocco. Maybe it’s the green hills and the icy rivers flowing down from the mountains and into the sea. Maybe it’s the jaw-dropping kasbahs of the desert south or the quiet, homely feel of the melting-pot medinas of the north. Maybe it’s even the simple fact that this is Africa. But I think that the real reason I have so much love for this country is because I want to be here. It’s a minor difference, but it changes everything.

Waking up with the dawn chorus in the middle of a city sounds ridiculous, especially when there’s a complimentary alarm service courtesy of the mosques at four in the morning, but in Tangier it’s easily done, and the soundscape is just as fantastic a mix as the city itself. There’s the warbling calls of flocks of roving bulbuls, that ever-present feature of Arab towns; on top of that you’ve got a chorus of roosters crowing at the dawn, interspersed with the occasional bubbling note of a laughing dove, two quintessentially African sounds; and then there’s the aggressive cackle of the gulls, which smacks more of Europe than anywhere else. Even the repetitive wi-tu wii-twii-tu wii-twii-tu of the house buntings echoes the sales pitch of the taxi driver, yelling the name of his destination over and over as though it were an object to be bought or sold.

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Spot the six species of bird in this picture (better still, imagine them)

And that’s just the naturalist in me. The linguist side of me is in his element: this is a place where I could be using all four of my languages – English, French, Spanish and Arabic – at any given moment. Across Morocco, but especially in Tangier. It’s like something out of a dream, and we haven’t even got to Chefchaouen yet.

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Tangier’s Kasbah is actually a lot more impressive than it is made out to be

But for a less-than-welcoming start thanks to a jilted taxi tout lying in wait at the dock entrance, it’s been so good to be back. And as I’m the only Arabist in tow, this time it’s up to me alone to do the talking – and that’s a huge plus right off the bat. I hope there may soon come a time when it’s safe enough to study Arabic anywhere, from Western Sahara to the Sudan, from Yemen to Iraq; to excel, I need to be on my own. And that’s what this year has been all about. I’ve learned from my mistakes in Jordan. Moroccan Arabic won’t be any easier than Jordanian, if not harder, but I’m going to tackle it head-on and alone – and better still, in a willing state of mind. I can’t wait. BB x

Holy Gridlock, Batman!

I remember saying a couple of days ago that I was going to take it easy and travel less this year, beginning with Semana Santa. Predictably, that failed almost as soon as the words left my mouth. I’m now sitting at ease on the balcony of a cute little hostel in Córdoba, having spent the last four days traveling in a large triangle around Andalucía, from Matalascañas to the Great Mosque. It’s the Easter equivalent of last term’s ‘square puente’ to Lisbon, Aveiro and Salamanca. Only this time, I’m not alone, and it’s been a barrel of laughs from start to finish.

I’ve told you about El Rocío. Let’s start with Seville. Seville is one of those cities that I’ve always thought rather overrated. It’s the Spanish equivalent of Frozen; people come back from it raving about what they’ve seen to such an extent that by the time you get around to going to see it yourself, it’s difficult not to be disappointed. Unlike Frozen, however, it’s worth digging in and opening your eyes a little.

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No, I’m not the biggest fan of Frozen. Something to do with Elsa’s dumbstruck ‘of course, love!’ remark, as though love were entirely alien to a Disney film and its target audience… and let’s not forget that ubiquitous Let it Go.

I’m sidetracking. As usual. I’ve been very blasé about Seville all year, using it largely as a transit between Villafranca and other southern destinations – mainly Olvera – and never visiting the city for its own sake. Mistake. If you can find a place to stay for the night in Seville, do. Especially in Semana Santa. Having the freedom to see the city by night as well as by day is a treat not to be overlooked.

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In my current adventures I’m joined once again by fellow traveler/blogger Brocklesby, spending half of her Easter holidays down south. Traveling with a companion can be infinitely more entertaining than going solo, especially when you’re both new to the place, but it’s been super-helpful acting as a kind of lemming-guide. I’m something of an old hand with Sevilla and Córdoba, having spent about a month apiece in each of them when you add up the days, so – with the fifty-fifty assistance of the Arch Deceiver aka HERE Maps – I’ve been acting as a guide. It’s a lot of fun to introduce somebody to all of your favourite spots, as well as the main sights, but best of all you get to try things out that you never quite found the gumption to do alone, like this museum or that ice cream parlour. It’s a blast and I should travel in twos or threes more often.

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Travelers to Seville in Semana Santa should be warned: bring a compass, a map and/or plenty of patience. Navigation is made almost impossible by the processions. In most of the smaller towns, these are usually nocturnal affairs of some eighty metres in length that take five or six minutes to pass, and good seats can be had by simply racing ahead by several streets and waiting by the side of the street.

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Not in Seville. Not only is everyone in town in on the secret, so is the tourist population, both of which are immense. On top that, the processions themselves are enormous, trailing as many as three streets at a time and taking all of an hour and more to pass – and there can be as many as six happening simultaneously across town.

Understandably, this turns something as simple as crossing a street into a labour of Heracles. It’s a circumstance where shortcuts really do make long delays, and itinerant penitants and busy streets make the heart sink. I distinctly remember saying that ‘if you see Jesus, you’re screwed’; blasphemous, perhaps, but in accurate reference to the fact that the float bearing Jesus is almost always followed by the Virgin Mary some thirty minutes later, meaning that Jesus marks the very epicentre of the gridlock. Thanks Jesus.

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That being said, it’s something you have to watch at least once. And whilst it may not be all that much fun to watch the tips of the penitents’ colored hoods sailing by over the heads of a pushy multitude, if you can get yourself to the front, it’s surely one of the human wonders of the world to behold.

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I’m not a pushy person. I think I’m too English. So it would take a miracle to get me to the front of the queue. But God, or Fate – or an unusually benevolent Murphy – had other plans tonight. Having said that it would be ironic if we ended up walking down a street and coming face to face with a procession headed in our direction, that is exactly what happened, and with the grand finale, no less. We tried to duck out of the way through a gap in the multitude, but the Guardia closed it off and shoved us unceremoniously back into the crowd – which put us, quite by accident, right at the front. It suited us just fine, but it must have bothered those who’d been there long before us something awful.

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It might not have been as soul-stirring as the Olvera madrugada procession – which goes on all through the night and involves no small amount of mountain-climbing – but it was a genuine privilege to behold from such a premier position.

I’ll be back next year. Most certainly. A lot of Spaniards claim to be rather impassive on the subject of Semana Santa, but their dogged adherence to an age-old tradition far more authentic than any search for chocolate eggs says otherwise. I, like Hemingway and Irving before me, am yet another foreigner hopelessly entranced by the magic of it all; only, I’ve at least a quarter of Spanish blood in me, so I’m not a total stranger. I’d like to think that counts for something. BB x

Winter in Madrid

I’m spent. Completely and utterly spent, in heart and body and mind. Ready to drop to my knees and sleep for a thousand years like some twenty-first century Rip van Winkle. I’m back in Spain, I’m back home, and I’m back in bed, and if it weren’t for the sake of this blog, I’d be fast asleep by now. But that can wait.

I’ve dropped enough hints over the last few months for you to guess what I’ve been up to. I’m back from three days in Madrid with my dear friend Ali, who has stuck with me through thick and thin over the last few months and been a most valiant and enduring friend, putting up with more of my less-than-perfect Spanish than she deserves. As a way of saying thank you, and as a birthday present, I took her to the capital (a long-term dream of hers) to see El Rey León, or The Lion King (a long-term dream of mine). And since Madrid’s a long way from both of us, we decided to make a weekend of it.

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First things first, The Lion King. Oh. My. God. Words fail me. I’m normally fairly speechless when I leave a theatre or cinema, but Friday night’s performance had me tongue-tied for a record half an hour. It being almost entirely in Spanish – but for the Zulu and Xhosa lyrics – had absolutely no effect on the impact whatsoever. Shadowland and He Lives in You had me welling up like a new father and it’s nothing short of a miracle that I didn’t lose all control and burst into tears completely. There’s even a few fitting modifications to the Spanish version that make it – dare I say it – even better than the original in places. Timon in especial, and he’s not normally one of my favourites, was pure gold in Spanish, and a lot of the puns translate brilliantly. I know, I know, I’m late to the party as ever, but I’ll recklessly advertise it to you as its been advertised to me. You’ll simply have to see it for yourself if you haven’t already. It’s a once in a lifetime experience, and with seats on the first row of the platform, it could hardly have been better.

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There’s so much to see and do in Madrid – too much for a single day’s sightseeing – but we made good of the following day, taking in the Palacio Real, the Egyptian Temple of Dagón, the gorgeous Parque del Retiro with its street musicians and its Crystal Palace and, last of all, the Prado, home to some of my all-time favourite works of art, like Velazquez’s study of the Conde-Duque de Olivares and Goya’s Maja Vestida and Maja Desnuda, as well as the über-famous Las Meninas. If photos were allowed in the Prado, I’d have gone berserk. Naturally, they’re not. So you’ll have to look them up. We were herded out with the rest by the guards before we had the chance to find the equally famous Dos de Mayo, which is a shame, but that’s what you get for being thrifty and waiting until the 6pm free entry, giving you, and everyone else who’s in on the secret – which seems to be most of Madrid – just under two hours to appreciate it all. Fear not, Goya. I’ll be back.

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This weekend has also done one system a world of good, and that’s the thrifty-gifty BlaBlaCar operation that so screwed me over in December (or maybe it was me that screwed up…?). Getting to and from Madrid from our respective backwater neck-o’-the-woods could hardly have been easier, faster and more enjoyable. This year I will try to use it much more often, if not all the time. It requires a little bravery and certainly more social skills than simply hopping on a bus, of course, but I do believe I’m getting there. Consider me, then, a willing convert. And if you’re reading this, Mr Oulad Berhil taxi driver, you could learn a lot from BlaBlaCar. It’s all about the conversation, at the end of the day, and these can be worth their weight in gold, though it’s mere pennies you’re paying. Truly.

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Post script. Madrid is a capital city. By all rights, it should have scared the living day lights out of me. But with Ali by my side, it didn’t occur to me even for a second. I’d even go so far as to say that it was one of the best adventures yet. A lot of auxiliares living and working here use Spain as a launch-pad to other European destinations, but I maintain that there’s enough to do here to last you not just a year, but a lifetime. Oh Spain, how cruelly you play with my heart…

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Well, I guess it’s finally time to pack up the festivities, dust off the schoolbooks and get back to work. I’m none too keen to do so, but at the same time I really need to. The wind is howling outside and winter, it seems, has finally arrived. And long has it been in coming. BB x

The Many Faces of Lisbon

For a city that’s only a few hundred miles from the Spanish border, Lisbon and its environs could hardly be less Spanish. I guess I naively went in expecting Portugal to be no more different from Spain than, say, Germany is to Austria, or England to Ireland. Once again, yours truly demonstrates his supreme capacity for some Langton-style bullshitting.

This is a very last-minute holiday, even by my standards. Bus tickets bought, hostels booked and maps drawn less than twenty four hours before departure. And this time I don’t even speak the language. Either I’m getting more confident or more careless. So far, so good, so I’ll assume the former.

Lisbon is really quite something. As capital cities go, it’s a treasure. It’s not too big or crowded so as to set a country bumpkin like me off, and it’s not too small so as to be lacking in life or things to do either. On the contrary, for its size, it’s positively crammed with interesting sights to see. And with the Lisbon Card on hand – a natty little device that gives you free access to all forms of public transport for one, two or three days – getting around the place couldn’t be easier. Heck, it’s even entertaining to ride the Metro just for the sake of it, with that kind of freedom.

It’s also a tantalizingly great location for one of my favourite hobbies: people-watching. Capital cities tend to have a wider racial mix than country backwaters, so this is something that never fails to amaze me, but Lisbon’s got a damned beautiful pot-pourris of ethnicities going on. West African immigrants, in all their multicoloured splendour, rub shoulders with Berbers from the Rif and the Portuguese themselves, who are surprisingly different from their Hispanic neighbours. Beetle-black eyes, lemon-gold skin and blonde hair are a lot more common here than the dusky Moorish beauty of the Spanish south. As in Extremadura, I find myself trying to imagine these people dressed in seventeenth century clothes, wandering the streets of a pre-earthquake Lisbon or setting foot on the shores of the New World and beyond in the Age of Discoveries.

Forgive me that splurge into racial obsession. I’ve always been hooked on the beauty of the various peoples of our world. For every shade except my own, in fact. A reverse racism in the truest sense of the word. Fortunately, I’ve since learned to love my own nation for all its flaws, recognizing my angst for what it was: angst, some dim leftover from when my ego was torn to shreds in the wake of my first relationship. The healing process sure has been long enough in the completion.

Lisbon, Benjamin. You’re supposed to be talking about Lisbon.

I took a train out of town to the former royal retreat of Sintra, up in the mountains above the city. Once again you’ll find yourself in a world away from picture-book Iberia: with all the pine forest-covered granite slopes and the pink and yellow spires of the Neuschwanstein-esque follies poking out of the trees like decorated Turkish delights,  you might as well be in Austria. That, and Portuguese sounds decidedly Eastern European with all those zh and sh sounds. The gigantic überfolly that is the Palacio de Pena, the last word in Romantic architectural orgasm, looked just too ridiculous to be true on arrival, so I settled instead for the Castelo dos Mouros, the old Moorish lookout sat astride the Boulder-strewn hill opposite. Sometimes it’s simply easier to stick to what you know.

Best moment of the day goes to my main reason for coming this far west: not for Lisbon per se, but the windswept cliffs of the Cabo da Roca, Europe’s most westerly point. The headland itself was crowded – it being a gloriously sunny Saturday afternoon – so I wandered off in search of one of the cliff top trails. But for a couple of abandoned motorbikes, a young couple braving the steep, winding track down to the beach and a man piloting his camera-drone over the cape, I had the coast more or less to myself. It’s funny how most people rarely stray beyond the main sights, especially when the outskirts are almost always far more rewarding. See below if you don’t believe me.

  

Stunning. The sunset itself, salmon-pink and ablaze, was twice as beautiful again. The trouble is, it’s one thing to look on such beauty alone and quite another to have somebody to share it with. Here at the Cabo da Roca, as in Sintra, and on the train, and the Metro, and the banks of the Tagus, and every row but mine on the bus from Spain, I find myself looking out on a world of couples from my island. A decent half-hour’s meditation on the clifftop helped to doctor my heart a little, but it’s an unavoidable fact that humans are sociable creatures. We’re not supposed to be alone. Traveling is my primary means of fighting back against a world that rejects or friend-zones me at every turn, but it’s not supposed to be that way. So there, high on the cliffs, I contented myself with writing an imaginary letter from my princess to her lover. One day, if I should be so lucky, I’ll find the One who’ll hit the road with me. One day

Lisbon, Benjamin!

Shaking off the loneliness birds, I decided to investigate the famed brilliance of Lisbon nightlife. It’s definitely worth sampling, if you’re ever in the area. I suppose it’s no different than what you might find in London or Paris, but it blew me away. And let me tell you, after two and a half months of Reggaeton, it was a dream come true to have some Justin Timberlake, Uptown Funk and Notorious B.I.G blasting through the speakers. I ended up in a dance-off with a group of Guineans and it was insane. You know you’ve made it in dance when a black guy commends you on your moves. Box ticked.

Oh! But here’s a funny story for you. This ought to lighten the mood. You see, in a town the size of the one I live and work in, everybody knows everyone else, and the general atmosphere is overall more familial than friendly. And since I’m a rookie to city-hopping, I’m guilty of several major faux-pas, like putting my shoes on the bed and ignoring traffic lights. But tonight’s really takes the biscuit. I decided to take a side-alley detour back to my hostel and, in doing so, wound up in a rather seedy part of town; the outskirts of the clubbing district, in retrospect. I found myself alone in the street and thought it odd enough until two women came about the street corner (yes, you can kind of see where this is going.  I, funnily enough, couldn’t). They looked a little lost, and when one of them waved me over, I took my earphones out and asked what I could do to help. The answer I got was a husky ‘babe, you’re so beautiful’.

I don’t think I’ve ever run faster in my life.

The bus is pulling into Coimbra. Aveiro can’t be too far away now; another hour and a half, tops. I’ll close this report for now so that I have something to say in my next post. Até logo, morangos. BB x