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

 

Walk Before You Run

Today was just one of those days when I got to the last five minutes of my last class of the day and found myself disappointed it was already over. It’s the last week of term, and whereas in England that would mean an entire week (or two) of ‘Sir, can we have a fun lesson?’ and other such pleas, there’s none of that here. It’s not that the kids aren’t vocal – they’ve been clamouring for their exam marks for weeks – it’s just that they’re less whiny. Maybe that’s a good thing that comes out of the absence of Christmas fever.

We’ve been playing Jeopardy today. I forgot how long the game can take, leaving it – as usual – to the last twenty-five minutes of the lesson. ESL Jeopardy can take as long as forty minutes, if not an hour, if the questions are stimulating enough. And it is immensely entertaining to see them show off both what they’ve learned and what they know. Though I’ve yet to have a class crack the $500 Cities question (namely: Game of Thrones’ House Lannister is based on the English House of Lancaster. House Stark is based on what northern English city?). It’s a toughie, but there’s an imaginary $500 riding on it. And it’s fun to be the game-master for a week… or even a year.

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Reinette did me proud on her first spin. I wish I could say the same about me! Suffice to say that after two months of reading and writing (and let’s not even count the university years), I was probably getting ahead of myself to expect to do 45km over rough terrain on my first attempt. Not for want of trying, though! I had three alarms set within ten minutes of each other around six thirty in the morning, wolfed down a breakfast, geared up and rode out into the frozen morning.

I got as far as Ribera del Fresno, the next town, in time to watch the rising sun shine golden upon the mist. It’s easy to think that we’re in a total flatzone here in Tierra de Barros, but once you’re out in the sticks on a bike, you learn very quickly that looks are deceiving: the terrain is as marbled in elevation as it is in colour. There and back again was a good 21km, which isn’t a bad first attempt for a guy who hasn’t done any decent exercise in the best part of a year or two (give or take the odd run).

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The Lycra is real, though. I think I encountered five or six other cyclists that morning, and only one wasn’t clad from head to foot in skin-tight branding. And he happened to be an old-timer in grubby blue overalls and a thick campo coat. I must have looked a little odd, riding off into the countryside in a worn Valecuatro jacket and denims. I suppose I was committing a major cycling faux-pas. Ever keen to fit in, I guess I’ll have to invest in one of those nightmarish sports-suits at some point in the near future. When I’m good enough at cycling to justify the expense, that is.

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It’s been a frosty last couple of weeks. Not frost as I know it back in England – the crystalline, sparkling frost that brings out the kettles and car-scrapers – but a hard, dry frost that you only find out in the shadows of the countryside.

I stopped outside of Ribera to take a breather. I’ve become less dependent on my camera of late to record my memories, and also of my journal. I’m trying to train my memory instead. It’s such an easy thing to lose, especially when everything is at the touch of a button these days. So let me show you what I saw. Mist in the valley. A tatty sign with the word veneno daubed in big red letters. A couple of plastic bottles frozen stiff above the ground, and the white lid of a chemical tub, half filled with ice. Ravens calling somewhere far away. A kite on the wind. Cars racing down the road. A campesino stood by his van, looking out across the valley with thoughts probably not too dissimilar to my own.

This is why I cycle. Not to get fit. Not to get from A to B. It’s to get out there and see the little things. And long may it be that way. BB x

Adventures in Cow Country

Good morning Cantabria!

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Cabezón de la Sal is a simply gorgeous mountain village sat in a cleft between the hills of Santillana and the Escudo de Cabuérniga, a mighty ridge stretching in a straight line all the way to the Asturian border. What makes it so immediately different from the south is the layout of the town: if anything, it’s more English than Spanish. Where small two-story flats hold the monopoly in the town centre, semidetached houses dominate almost everywhere else. Long gone are the snake-like rows of white houses with barred windows and marble porches; the Cantabrian norm is stone-brick dwellings with wooden roofs and quaint, upper-storey balconies. It’s charming, if a little alien to a habituated southerner like me.

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There are buses – apparently – but it’s the local train service that holds sway here. Quiet, comfortable and cheap at the price, Cantabria’s FEVE provides a reliable alternative to Extremadura’s LEDA – provided you arrive in town before ten to nine at night, that is.

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‘Let’s go to Potes,’ says Kate, ‘for a little walk.’ So off we went to Torrelavega, that city of burgeoning factories and towering flat-blocks that I passed through twice four years ago in the early days of my trans-Iberian adventure. In the sunlight, Torrelavega looks…

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…well, I’ll not beat about the bush. Torrelavega is not exactly Paris. If Cabezón is a more rustic version of Villafranca, Torre is the Almendralejo equivalent in Kate’s neck-o’-the-woods. But like Almendralejo, it’s got its own charms. One of them goes by the name of red velvet sponge-cake.

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We arrived in Torrelavega looking for the bus to Potes, but the bus station proved singularly unhelpful, and a quick browse of the internet told us that the bus we were looking for left not from the bus station, but from the Palomera office by the train station we’d just left behind. In a scene which echoed the night before (albeit in slow motion), we half-ran back to the station… but there was absolutely no sign of the bus. Or any bus. Or even a bus stop, for that matter. Unless the Potes bus is a mystical bus which flies through the air and receives its passengers from the balcony of the Palomera offices on the second floor, I declare that bus stop to be an enigma. The city of Atlantis and the fabled kingdom of Shangri-La have captivated the imagination of man for centuries. Now I shall brazenly add the Palomera bus stop to that box of unsolved mysteries.

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Thinking on our feet, we dabbled with the idea of catching the train into Asturias in search of the equally mysterious inland bay of Gulpiyuri, but after all of that faffing around with the Potes bus we’d just missed the only practical train to Llanes by five minutes. As though calling out from a memory, Santillana del Mar came to mind and I decided we would grab the next train back to Cabezón and strike out for the coast via the Town of Three Lies. Public transport has as its advantages, but as a species, we should never forget that it was learning to walk on our own two feet that got us where we are today. And so off we went.

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The strangest thing about this last-minute change of plan was that it meant retracing my steps almost pace for pace from that ridiculous adventure, now some four years ago, right down to getting off at the very station where the driving rain turned me back to the shelter of Santillana del Mar. But for a few forks in the road, I had the entire route embedded in my mind as though I’d walked it ten times over rather than once. Perhaps that’s fate. She’s been playing a long game with me.

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It felt decidedly weird coming down out of the hills into the cobbled streets of Santillana all over again. As Spanish villages go, Santillana has got to be amongst the very prettiest. It’s known as the town of three lies – being neither holy, flat, nor by the sea – but if that is so, then it’s a damned beautiful liar. As I so often find myself doing, I made sure to revisit all of the places I’d been before: the same church, the same quesada shop, the same Savage Culture boutique that I still don’t fully understand. I can’t explain it, but something about this town keeps pulling me back.

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We had a picnic lunch of peanut butter sandwiches on the steps of the Colegiata de Santa Juliana and basked in the afternoon sun. 15 degrees Celsius… not bad for Cantabria. In all the bad weather Spain’s north coast has been having of late, I must confess I think myself bloody lucky to have landed a whole twenty-four hours of glorious sunshine in the one day I had to explore the place. I could hardly have asked for better: better weather, or better countryside, or better company.

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Leaving Santillana behind, we climbed steadily northwards across the rolling hills to the coast. Along the way we were misled by the Arch-Deceiver that is HERE Maps, which tried to convince us that what looked suspiciously like an overgrown stream was actually a main road, and we were caught up in a high-speed chase with a tractor, like an extremely low-budget Cantabrian version of Need for Speed. The stereotype lives: Cantabria truly is a land of green hills, of cows and of tractors.

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The last time I wandered these hills, the skies were iron-grey and I could only see as far as the next range of hills for the glowering rainclouds. I can’t have known it at the time, but I was seriously missing out. After abandoning the path and freelancing our way up a hill, Watership Down fashion, we were treated to what must be the most awe-inspiring landscape I’ve seen since I first stepped onto the plains of Caceres.

For once, I had the full works on me, so you can enjoy the view three times over, with the wide-angle 18mm…

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…and the macro 200mm…

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…and the telephoto 500mm.

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Sadly, the Nikon-compatible Sigma 500mm doesn’t come with an in-built autofocus motor, so it won’t be the powerhouse it has always been for rapid-fire avian photography, but at least I got some use out of it this weekend.

It was a beautiful view and all of that, but it was an equally beautiful dead end, so we had to climb back down the hill, cross the cow-fields and roll under a possibly electrified fence in order to get back to the road down to the sea (we didn’t check to find out – not when we were so close to our goal). After a very long and very winding road down one last hill, we made it – at last – to the sea.

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Extremadura has so much to offer, but there’s one thing it really lacks: the sea. You don’t notice until you think about it. Discounting Uganda, I’ve never lived more than an hour from the sea (much less in the UK) so Extremadura is the most inland location I’ve ever had to deal with. To see the Atlantic in all its cold fury once again was a real sight for sore eyes. The storm-force winds and murderous waves of the previous week are gone, but the waves still put on a formidable display for us.

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We spent about an hour by the sea, Kate and I, watching the waves pounding the shore and snacking on Cantabria’s finest delicacy, quesada pasiega. Yum yum. There’s a little ermita built into a cave in the cliffs which we didn’t get the time to visit, but I doubt it would have looked any more impressive up close than from afar. Imagine living in a place like that, with the sound of the Atlantic roaring all about you, twenty-four hours a day. The focus you would have to have – or learn to have – borders on the superhuman. Little wonder, then, that it is what it is. I wonder how an estate agent might describe it?

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It’s getting to that time of year when the sun starts to set later, but sunset was already fast approaching as we turned back for Santillana at about six o’clock. In the gloom of the oncoming night, we finished off the quesada on the banks of the Saja river by moonlight and killed time by making for Rudagüera, the next stop along the Cabezón line… and then legging it back the way we came when it became apparent that it was a little further than we’d thought (one last flick of the claw from HERE Maps) and that we’d probably miss the next train.

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Back in Cabezón, after a drink at a local hunters’ bar, complete with mounted boar heads and numerous black-and-white stills of hunting men of old stood proudly over the carcasses of Cantabria’s once widespread brown bears, Kate took me to visit one of her favourite eateries, El Paraíso. At 2,45€, I thought a ración of patatas bravas would be enough to fill a corner after so much walking (we crammed in about thirty kilometres today, all in all), but I forgot…

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We’re in the north. In my experience, northerners in any country seem to have a much better idea as to what constitutes a decent portion size. Maybe it’s the climate. Who knows? In my earlier traveling days, food was the last thing I was prepared to fork out for. How things have changed since then! Coming back from that Spain trek dangerously underweight four years ago has left a profound mark, and these days food is the one luxury I’m prepared to spend on, and spend well. A long day’s walking deserves a long night’s eating, and I think I did pretty well on both fronts.

So, all in all, it was a very successful trip, albeit a very brief one! I was lucky enough to get a BlaBlaCar on the way back that didn’t mess me around. Better yet, he was no more and no less than a gaditano. Oh, to hear that accent again after twenty-four hours and more of people pronouncing their s’s…! You have no idea how happy it made me.

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Cabezón de la Sal to Villafranca is still a bloody long way to go, but where the bus took all of nine hours, Rafa made it for me in six. In those six hours, taking in the windswept, snowy heights of Reinosa, I was treated to the finest conversation BlaBla can offer, up to and including:

  • Franco’s suppression of the education system
  • The legacy of al-Andalus
  • An anthropological history of Cadiz
  • The true nature of corruption in Spain
  • The Spanish Civil War
  • Gibraltan Spanglish
  • The rationality of England’s outside stance on the EU
  • Podemos and the total absence of a government at the moment
  • Why and how dubbing came to be one of Spain’s biggest businesses (and blights)
  • Piracy in the Old Mediterranean
  • The Growth of the Spanish film industry

I could go on. There were at least five or six hours of it. And all of it in Spanish, and in the very finest gaditano. Talk about a workout… and politics! The eighteen year-old me would never have believed a word of it.

Needless to say, my faith in BlaBlaCar is restored and I’ll be bound for Cadiz proper at some point to make good on that drink I’ve been offered. If I am to live up to the title of ‘Él que va conociendo al mundo’ that I’ve been given, BlaBlaCar is a damned good way of going about it.

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But last of all, I’d like to air high-five my good friend Kate for putting me up (and putting up with me) for two nights and a day in Cantabria. Yours truly is not the most pleasant company in a city, but in the countryside where he belongs, he’s just as insufferable, if only on the other side of the positive/negative spectrum. Kate’s seen me at my lowest in Amman and probably at my highest – quite literally – in the life-giving paradise that is Cantabria. Thank you, Kate, and I hope to return the favour when you’re down in the south! The adventure never ends. Not really. Not ever. BB x

PS. You can read about her side of things here. It’s a lot more tongue-in-cheek than mine.

Ned Stark was Wrong

Two weeks ago I saw the first martins wheeling about over the bus station. Last week the first swallows began to arrive and the lonely stork on the chimney of the old factory was joined by his mate. This weekend the chiffchaffs have finally joined in on the dawn chorus and, whilst it’s hardly been what you’d call wintry around these parts, today suddenly feels decidedly spring-y. The sun is blazing away in a sky of cloudless blue and everybody is out in the town square, soaking up the good weather and generally having a good Sunday of it.

The truth of the matter is, quite honestly, that winter has simply not come this year.

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Maybe I’ve been in the north of England for too long, but it stills feels like I’ve been cheated of a season out here. Extremadura is, as its name suggests, a land of extremes: of fiercely hot summers and bitterly cold winters. There are people in Villafranca who remember whole years when it never rained at all. It has rained here, but not often; about four or five times since I arrived, all in all. And whilst the presence of the cranes is a sure sign that it’s winter somewhere, it looks a great deal more like spring right now. The cherry blossom is already in bloom, over a month early, which is more than can be said for the unseasonably early arrival of the migrants. I think I’ll head on down to Tarifa next weekend to check on how things are going in the Strait. If spring has come early anywhere, it’ll be there for sure.

Which reminds me, I really must go looking for the cranes before they leave.

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To celebrate the gloriously early return of spring (alright, so that wasn’t really the reason), a local friend and our would-be guide, Jesús, threw a barbecue gathering in his casa de campo out in the vineyards of the Tierra de Barros. A casa de campo is a real Spanish boon that I’m still struggling to translate. Country house might work, but that conveys a sense of grandeur that most such buildings – merely glorified sheds where your average town-dwelling Spaniard stores his produce, spare furniture and ‘all the shit that doesn’t go anywhere else’ – simply do not have. Ask a Spaniard to show you their casa de campo and you’ll quickly see why Spanish houses are so ludicrously tidy.

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A common mistake that foreigners make is that these are dwellings in their own right. Far from it. They’re almost all two-room bungalows, equipped with sofas, plenty of chairs and a kitchenette, purely for the purposes of hosting summer gatherings like the one Jesús held yesterday. The locals will pay regular visits to their campo, especially during harvest season when they’re more practical than pleasurable, but most of them would never stay in one. It’s simply not done. Would you sleep in the tool-shed?

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Jesús had invited a fair crowd, with an equal balance of Spaniards and guiris, the latter representing England, Wales and three American states. The Almendralejo crew, in all but name. I had the audacity to avoid them almost entirely last term, stopping by only twice, for fear of being sucked into an English-speaking failure of a year abroad (I speak enough English for my job). That was poorly done indeed. Quite unlike the infamous all-English compounds in many a Spanish town, the Almen lot are very much half and half. As the most fluent of the guiris (a title the Spaniards themselves have given me and which I cherish above all other compliments), I get more than enough practice in my grandfather’s language as the ultimate go-between and little could make me happier.

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Although, that said, the copious offerings of grilled chorizo, crackling and manchego cheese on offer yesterday did a damned good job of it.

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No campo gathering would be complete without una vueltecita, or stroll. Jesús’ casa de campo is just off the Vía de la Plata, the lesser known northbound Camino de Santiago and the old road from Seville to the silver mines in the Asturias. We didn’t stroll particularly far, but then, you don’t have to; the Tierra de Barros is so vast and flat that you can see for miles in all directions. It’s hard to imagine when you compare it, but the village of Hornachos, sat astride the high Sierra which shares its name, is as far from Villafranca as Walmer is from Canterbury. Twenty seven kilometers, or fifteen miles, there or thereabouts. And you can see one from the other. It’s that flat.

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We didn’t find any unicorns (don’t ask) but we did find two very excitable dogs and an emu. And a characteristically gorgeous sunset over the olive trees.

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Andalucía, that dusky southern beauty, might have stolen my heart years ago, but honest Extremadura is doing her hardest to win me over and very nearly succeeding. If I end up returning to this land of endless steppe, of Kings and buses named after Zeus’ lovers and home of quite possibly the hardiest of all of Spain’s assistants (I maintain that you have to be at least a few screws loose to choose Extremadura as your home for a year), it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

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Carnaval is coming, but it’s not here yet, and before that yawns our second five-day weekend; the best we get by way of a ‘holiday’ besides Christmas and Easter compared to the French assistants (a necessary sacrifice, I suppose, for being in a superior country). I’ll sign off before the Spanish blood in me goes to my head. BB x