Diamond in the Rough

This week started just about the same way as every week begins, with me waking up to the sound of my seven o’clock alarm, with the morning’s first class just an hour and a quarter away, and finding myself struck with the weekly conundrum that is ‘now, what am I going to teach today?’.

For the first three weeks I had some stellar lesson plans, but we’re filing into my fifth working week here now (I told you before, my observation week became my first teaching week) and my tried-and-true classes have come and gone. Four down, twenty-seven to go. Since in school I teach across the age-groups, from six to twenty-two, I have to split my material in half depending on their ability, which requires two new lesson plans each week. Not exactly a challenge, per se, especially when several of those are shared between groups, meaning it’s possible (and highly recommended) to recycle material; but it’s a weekly problem, after a weekend spent traveling, partying or what have you, that on Sunday night the question is always there on the tip of my tongue as I bed down for the night. What am I going to teach them today?

Today I thought I’d brave it and try literature on the kids. Foolhardy, I know, especially after my last attempt at sparking some creativity amongst the would-be dullards, but I’m not about to give up on them yet. To spark their interest – and since I’ve just spent most of the weekend reading the tale – I kicked things off by drawing a blackboard-sized Moby Dick on the board, complete with scars, harpoons and rigging. Most of them had heard of it, but understandably, none of them had actually read it.

Well, not quite. One of them had.

I did a little double-take at this and made him explain the plot to the class. The way he put it, in English, a language that is not his own, told the tale better than Herman Manville (personally, I found the text hard-going, turgid even, though the story itself was impeccable). Better yet, he beat me to it and cited Manville as the author. I thought I’d let him sit on his laurels for a while and ask the others for any books they’d read recently, but they just stared blankly at me, as though I’d asked them if they’d like to spend the rest of the day doing quadratics. Moby – the pseudonym I shall forthwith use for this very literate kid – had his hand up the whole time and went on to tell me about Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. That he had read them in translation is beside the point. This is a boy of fifteen who’s busy working his way through the classics.

As I was struggling to elicit some kind of interest from the rest of the class – who, as you might expect, were getting visibly bothered by Moby’s contributions – my colleague spent the hour taking notes of other writers that he might enjoy, amongst them Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens. One of Moby’s companions lost it and complained loudly that it was unfair that only Moby was talking. My colleague and I soundly brought him down a size by repeating that all I was asking for was a story any of them had read, and that as Moby was the only one who was willing to talk, they only had themselves to blame for their silence. I opened the floodgates a little by allowing them to tell me about a film or television series they might have seen, but on that inch they took a mile and missed the point completely; three accounts down the line I had to remind them that match reports, game shows and reality TV are not stories, and consequently didn’t count.

Pushed into a corner, one kid looked very chuffed to say he thought his favourite TV show, a Spanish version of Match of the Day, was far better entertainment than any book he’d ever read. Granted, he probably hasn’t read very widely – I hadn’t at his age – but for good measure I told him that a show where two obnoxious early retirees discuss what happened, what might have happened, what should have happened and what might happen next time in a football match for an entire hour could hardly be as entertaining as a decent read. I could have done worse, of course, but I held back. Most of it went over his head anyway, as it was supposed to. I’m not foolhardy enough to let my personal prejudices against the tedium that is the world of football discussion ruin my relationship with my students, who already know I’m none too keen on it.

As you might have guessed, I was getting pretty frustrated by this point. I’ve learned to mask it after a month of teaching these kids, but it’s still pretty galling when you ask a simple question and all you get in return is twenty-three gormless expressions. But Moby came back with the goods, stating that he hadn’t read any books in English yet, but that over Christmas he was going to try with Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings. You’ve got to hand it to the kid; starting to read in a foreign language with Tolkein…? That takes guts. My parents are prolific readers and they can’t stand his writing, and sadly they’re not alone (though I, for one, can’t get enough of the stuff).

In the other establishment I work at there are several kids like Moby in every class; students who are well-read, well-cultured and whose English is streets ahead of their companions. It’s the norm in a private school. And teaching in both private and state has its merits. But kids like Moby make the state school experience so much more worthwhile, for all the challenges. Here is a boy who, despite everything, is working his way through the literary greats for the pure pleasure of it, with his mind bent on attending university in Toronto of all places. It’s kids like Moby who remind me just why it is that I love teaching. Because for all the sour looks, disinterest and gossipping that goes on, when there’s at least one kid who’s shining with promise there’s a reason to go on. Obviously you can’t cater to that one child alone – if it were that simple, everyone would want to be a teacher, I think – but as long as you know that what you’re dealing is going towards somebody’s personal development, that’s reward enough for all your travails.

As for me, I’ve got a fair amount of catching up to do. Moby Dick was this weekend’s read; The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Robinson Crusoe await, along with Allan Quatermain (after a two-month hiatus). Maybe I’ll recommend King Solomon’s Mines to Moby when I next get the chance. It’s certainly one of my favourites. BB x

Creativity in the Classroom: A Step Too Far?

I´m falling into something of a routine out here, now. Three hours with the state school, two hours with the Catholic school, one hour´s private English lesson, one hour´s Spanish conversation with my flatmate, a couple of hour´s reading and then bed. That´s good. I like a routine. It lets me know what I´m doing. I tend to go a bit spare without exact orders.

As I guessed all along, the term ´language assistant´ is a very loose one, interpreted by different schools in different ways. Some of my companions are working as ´classic´ language assistants, taking individuals or small groups for short periods for conversation. Others attend class with an English teacher as a human dictionary, there to lend a hand whenever a native speaker´s touch is needed. In Spanish, the term ´language assistant´ gets shortened down to just one word – auxiliar – which leaves even more room for interpretation. And just as happened in the last two ´language assistant´ jobs I´ve had, I seem to be working a real teacher rota.

Granted, I had prior warning this time. The first time I was promoted, so to speak, I had no idea that I was supposed to be taking full classes on my own until I was told that the diminutive head of the French department had decided to benefit from my presence by taking a month´s holiday at short notice. This time I was given a couple of lessons´ observation to get the feel of it, and even though they mostly left me leading the events – a harbinger, I guess – it was good to know what I was getting myself in for in advance.

So I´m a sub-teacher. That´s not a problem. In fact, it´s exactly what I wanted. It´s just… well, it´s reassuring to know that it doesn´t matter where you go in the world, ´language assistant´ is always a very flexible term.

In one school I take entire classes on my own, from bawling primary level to studious upper sixth. In the other I also prepare an hour´s class for whichever groups of the twelve I have that day – equally widely-spread, but fortunately without the weekly terrors of the primaria – and these are almost always under the supervision and occasional assistance of one of the English staff. The irony there is that they´re probably doing what comes under my job description. The system in place is the one used by bilingual schools nationwide: one class where the language of conversation can only be English, to compliment the others which are spent on writing and grammar. Nobody likes grammar. So that means it´s my class that everyone looks forward to by default, which is something to smile about.

Taking a full class obviously means you need an hour´s worth of material, and with teenagers thrown into the mix, you need to be prepared for all eventualities. I´m learning what to do when they´re tired, and how to calm them down when they´re exciteable, without letting them know there´s a system to it all. I´m learning what ideas students wants to discuss and which ones turn them off, and which games work well, and which ones don´t. And though I should have seen it coming a mile off, I tried this week once again with what is and always has been the greatest stumbling block of all: tapping into the students´ creativity.

Now this is something I feel very strongly about, and I´ve already written one behemoth of a text this week, so I´ll tackle it as lightly as I can. The simple fact of the matter is that there isn´t enough emphasis placed on creativity in schools these days. To tell the truth, I´m not entirely sure there ever has been. One of my English teachers once announced at a parents´ evening that she was ´paid to teach, not to inspire´. I disagree entirely. Inspiration should be right at the front of teaching, if we´re not all to become mindless robots.

Ah, but this is beginning to smack of yesterday´s post. It´s vaguely related, primarily because the game I´ve been ending my technology lessons with – a simplified variation on the British radio show I´m Sorry I Haven´t A Clue´s “Good News, Bad News” – has, time and again, come up dead in the water. The reason? Because nobody´s able to tap into their own creativity. I don´t know whether it got stamped out of the education system in favour of textual comprehension or the study of presentational devices – the kind of stuff that actually comes up in an exam – but the art of coming up with stories seems to disappear once you hit secondary school level.

For a budding author, I find this nothing short of horrifying. I spent most of my school career writing stories, and yes, it probably did affect my grades, but I left with an impressive English mark, and it´s my English that has always saved my neck. I´d have been flat-out rejected from grammar school if it hadn´t been for my English, since my mathematical capability is comparable to that of a wet flannel. The only excuse I can think of is that I´ve never stopped writing: from short stories to novels, diaries to blogs, love letters to newspaper articles. It keeps me alive. More importantly, it keeps my brain alive.

The higher up the education system you go, the less you´re encouraged to think for yourself. At some point you have to start quoting other writers. Then you have to start referencing other texts you´ve read and basing your arguments on the standpoints of extinct luminaries. The result, of course, is that by the time you get to university and you´re suddenly encouraged to come up with your own argument, a lot of people are quite understandably left high and dry, because they haven´t been taught how to think that way.

Here´s the difficulty. Creativity cannot be taught. It can be encouraged, it can be inspired, but it cannot be taught. For starters, how do you mark creativity? This is a regular feature of the arts world, of course, but outside the tripartite kingdom of Art, Music and Drama, creativity doesn´t get all that much of a look-in. In a world where everybody is mark-centric, from pupils to parents to headmasters and the governors to whom they bow, that kind of question gets thrown out early on, and the baby with the bathwater. So me going headlong into a class of fifteen year-olds and expecting them to come up with a story in fifteen minutes of “Good News, Bad News” was the very height of foolishness, especially for somebody with two jobs´ worth of teaching experience under his belt. A different English teacher – one who certainly did know how to inspire – once told us that the truth of the matter is that there are those who can, and those who can´t. I´m still not entirely sure where I stand on that, since I´m none too keen to cut anybody off, but I acknowledge that there´s more than a kernel of truth in that statement.

Creativity, I believe, is something that we´re all born with. We all loved to listen to stories when we were children, and most of us will have tried our hand at making one or two, intentionally or no. Heck, it´s fuelled language growth, all the arts and technology for all human existence. The trouble is that so much of it disappears when we grow up, when we´re told we have to put fiction behind us and focus on the real world. Unless you´re a stubborn little bastard like me, and you decide early on to defy that and to hold on to your creativity and remain a child forever. Like a twenty-first century Peter Pan.

In short, it´s perhaps too much to expect every student to be able to create stories of their own, especially at secondary level. There are a few rogue elements – it´s not difficult to recognise your own characteristics in others – but on the whole it strays much too far into the awkward silence minefield. Well, I´ve learned my lesson (no pun intended). But I´m not about to concede defeat. Never. I doubt I´ll make story-tellers out of the lot of them, but if I can sow the seeds of a budding Cervantes or Lope amongst the drowsy horde, I´ll consider my job accomplished. At the end of the day, we´re all story-tellers in one way or another. All it takes is the courage to leave behind what is real and to dabble with what is not. I said right at the start that I like exact orders. True. But there´s enough of an anarchist in me to want to break free sometimes. I hope there´s a little anarchy in everybody. BB x

Shrinking World

I got my new timetable last night, first from the Carmelitas, then from my own school. The end result, as of a few last-minute additions this afternoon, is a twenty-two-hour working week. Not a truckload by regular working standards, but the longest by a yard in my working life so far, and a world away from the twelve-hour maximum we had dangled in front of our faces at the first British Council meeting. So much for that holy four-day weekend! I’m lucky enough to have clung on to three days of freedom, and I had to stick out my neck for that. At the very least they let me have Friday off instead of Monday, which gives me quite a few more days off in the long run, though navigating back to Villafranca on a Sunday is going to cause some headaches, mark my words. Still, I signed up for the back end of nowhere and that’s where they put me. At the very least I’ll not be getting bored here. I don’t have time to get bored. And I haven’t even started on any of the music groups yet…
But hey, there’s thirty kids who now know what a loon is, what it sounds like, and consequently why we say ‘as mad as a loon’. That was an icebreaker and a half.

Teaching at both a state school and a private school gives me the opportunity to take a look into both worlds, and I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how very different they are. My main obstacle with the state school kids is getting them to be quiet. Their English is good, but they quickly revert to their mother tongue for argument’s sake. Conversely, my private school pupils have a very high level of English, but they just won’t talk. And in primario, it’s every man for himself. I’m expected to take those classes alone, so it’s a biweekly war with a small army of Spaniards in the making, shouting everything and everybody demanding attention at the same time. The one thing they all have in common is the inevitable ‘do you have a girlfriend?’ interrogation, to which the answer has reduced from ‘not anymore’ and ‘not yet’ to a simple ‘no’. It’s easier that way. It doesn’t stop them changing tack and asking ‘what about boyfriend?’, but hey, at least that’s as far they go. One kid in primario had a particularly unfortunate way of phrasing it this afternoon – are you gay or “normal”? – which I tried to rectify as best I could, Catholic school or no, but I guess it went over his head. On the plus side, I haven’t been hit on by a guy for several months now. It must be a new record. Maybe I’m doing something right! That, or I simply haven’t been going out. Probably the latter.

I’m now in the curious position where I find myself teaching across every conceivable age group, from the rowdy little tykes in primario right the way up to people my own age in grado superior; and then, of course, there’s the private classes for adults in the afternoons on top of that. Teaching kids and adults is one thing, but with students your own age it’s an odd feeling. I guess the real catch is that in a town as small as Villafranca (I remind you that, by my standards, it’s still pretty massive) the chance of getting to know anybody on a non-professional basis is rather slim. I bumped into some of the girls I teach whilst out walking last week and they were adamant that they were going to find me a girlfriend in Villafranca. The trouble is, where does one draw the line? Because, like as not, anybody roughly my age in this town who I don’t teach (a number which shrank even more this afternoon) probably has a sibling I do teach, and that makes things rather complicated. I wouldn’t say no to a Spanish girlfriend – sheesh, who would? – but it’s easier said than done. The auxiliares in Almendralejo, the nearest city, don’t have this problem, as there are plenty of young people there for the job prospects on offer, but here it’s a family town, like I said before. And I’m still very much in that mindset of ‘absolutely no fraternization with the students outside of class’, as I had drummed into me in my last teaching job last summer. Which means if I want to meet people my own age, I’d better check out Almendralejo.

Here at least, I’ve had a stroke of luck. There is another auxiliar placed here in Villafranca, though like more rational minds than mine she chose to base herself in Almendralejo. A bright and beaming button of a Texan. I must have gone berserk speaking English with a native speaker at last after almost two weeks without doing so, but she bore it patiently enough and gave me an insight into Almen life. Apparently there’s a nightlife scene. Who knew? I was beginning to forget what nightlife is. And yes, they abide by Spanish hours; ergo, a far more rational 11pm until 6am mentality. That, at least, makes the possibility of a night out in Almendralejo feasible, as far as buses are concerned, though it’d probably knock out a whole weekend in the process.

All in all it’s been a pretty long day at the office. Those 8:15am starts are very hard on the eye but I’m simply going to have to get used to them. It’s largely thanks to them that I have Friday off. Monday isn’t the longest slog – that’s Wednesday, from 8:15am until 6:30pm with one hour for lunch – but it’s certainly one of the more mixed. I teach a bilingual gestión y acogida class in the morning (essentially, life skills: interviews, CVs etc), then a mid-teens 3º ESO, then I have twenty minutes to walk to the other school and mentally prepare for the chaos of a class of six-year olds, after which I get a free lunch from the nuns (probably the best part of the job) and return to take my final class of the day, a private school version of 3º ESO, before hopping down the road to my private class with my lawyer friend. And thus is a light day.

It’s bonkers. Good bonkers, paid bonkers, but bonkers nonetheless. It’s like last year, but without the music. That’ll come, you just watch. It’s the only thing I’m genuinely missing right now (I sang through the entire Northern Lights set when I was home alone yesterday, until the neighbour told me to shut up. Oops.

So there you have it. Busy, busy, busy – but I’m never truly happy if I’m not truly busy, that’s what I always say! Yet another example of yours truly not knowing when to shut up. So here’s BB, shutting up. BB x

Return of the Paperwork Fiend

I’ve been riding on an unfairly long streak of good luck for the last week, as you might have guessed by the cheery tone of the articles. As is to be expected, the honeymoon-period had to come to an abrupt end at some point as the stresses of making one’s own way in the world came to a head, and as usual, it’s the little things that take you by surprise. I managed to dodge the iceberg that was the NIE without even a scratch, only to plough straight into the reef that is trying to open a Spanish bank account.

What have the Romans ever done for us? Administration. You’ll hear a lot of horror stories about foreign administration, especially in France and Spain, where the foul creature was spawned long ago. The Spanish love their paperwork, arming themselves with signed forms, photocopies, rubber stamps and enough identity cards to start a national trading-card game. Obtaining an NIE – a numero de identidad de extranjero – is one of the most important parts of enrolling as an auxiliar de conversacion, as without it you cannot open a bank account or be a legal resident in Spain. Normally it’s this that gives most people a bellyache, when pencil-pushing fiends in the foreign affairs office at the local police station decide to liven up the tedium of their day’s work by sending you on a merry wild goose chase after that form that looks just like the one you brought in, but with one number’s difference, which of course changes everything. And of course, you’re not the only one after one of these precious little commodities.

Right now it’s coming up to harvest season and Extremadura is awash with migrant workers here to reap the benefit of a temporary boom in the job market. This year, the officials in Almendralejo have their hands full with a large group of Romanians, also requiring an NIE to validate their existence in this country. If it hadn’t been for the Director and my mentor in the English department, I honestly think I’d have turned back when they told us to return at nine o’clock the following morning. But the sad fact of the matter is that ‘big old whitie’ always prevails, and I was shunted to the front of the queue so that I could leave that very morning with my NIE stamped, cleared and ready to go. There’s something very sick about that system. Guilt aside, it wasn’t as clear-cut as I’d have liked. My landlord hadn’t thought to give me a contract, so I couldn’t apply for my tarjeta de residencia on the spot. That wasn’t too difficult to achieve, but it would have been handy to know in advance, before attempting to tackle the bank this morning – which, of course, needed that precious tarjeta also. Passport, NIE, proof of address and proof of stable financial employment are all well and good, but if you don’t have that little red card – if you’ll forgive the expression – it don’t mean jack.

Did you know that the United States has a Paperwork Reduction Act, dated from 1980? Spain could sure do with something like that.

Following on from this trend, today’s been a bit of a bad luck day all around. My timetable’s still in flux because of the absence of any bachillerato classes, which the authorities decree needs changing. And until that’s done, I can’t clarify the timetable of my second job with the Order of the Carmelites. And since both of those are paid affairs, this bank situation needs clearing up fast, or I’m going to end up high and dry soon enough, Erasmus grant or no Erasmus grant. Don’t even get me started on that.

As a final hurdle, I stumbled just short of the fence over the Jornadas de Formacion in Caceres this morning. My BlaBlaCar driver didn’t show up, the only bus that passes through this town leaves at half four, which is when the training day begins, and I haven’t received a smidgen of confirmation as to whether I’ve actually got anywhere to stay there tonight. So all in all, despite not having fully prepared any classes, I’ve decided to toss that in the towel and start work today. It’s not a major loss, as I’ve had two teaching jobs before and I’ve done half of the paperwork already, the main focus of these meetings. They’re also non-compulsory, so it’s no big deal, but I was hoping to go if just to formalise the whole shebang, though perhaps more so to meet some other auxiliares. I may be a blood traitor to my kin, choosing to eschew any and all English speakers by living with Spaniards way out here in the sticks, but that doesn’t mean I don’t miss my mother tongue. At the moment writing is proving my only channel for it, and Hell, is that benefiting from an absence of conversation…! I must have written a chapter a day for the last four days. That’s ten A4 pages a day. I have far too much time on my hands – for now.

How’s that for a healthy antidote to the ‘I’m having the best year of my life on my year abroad’ drawl I’ve been riding on for the last week? Alright, alright, I’ll quit putting myself down so. On the plus side (finally!) teaching’s been really fun, and that’s what I’m here for. My Spanish is improving daily, in vocabulary, grammar (I never did learn the simple past tense at school and I’ve been winging it for the last ten years) and stumble-rate. The latter is, of course, a problem in every language I speak – even English – and has more to do with my machine-gun rate of speech than anything else. Teachers have been telling me to slow down for years. ‘You never will learn, Benjamin’, as my father would say. He’s right on that count.

The shining light in my experience though, above and beyond school, is the couple of hours I spend a week with the husband of one of the staff here, who’s requested extra English lessons. Not only is his English at a much higher level than any of my students, but he’s also one of the most interesting men I’ve ever met: a genuine intellectual if there ever was one, his bookcases lined with legal tomes and a collection of certificates and photographs on his desk, featuring such leading lights as Umberto Eco, King Felipe VI and Mikhail Gorbachev. We had to cut our lesson short yesterday when, mid-meeting, he received an important call from a government official promoting him to high office, a decision which he had been labouring over for some time since it would require a drastic change in his life. He took the job and poured out his heart to me, and I felt more than honoured to be the first person to hear about it; before his wife, children and even his own secretary. ‘I feel like a child at EuroDisney… like a little boy on Christmas Day’. That was how he put it to me. I left him to open his Christmas presents and set off to treasure that warm fuzzy for an hour in the park. It may only be for a couple of hours, but it’s already the highlight of my week.

And there I am, fussing over kids, when the real gem out here is a man older than most of my teaching colleagues. Life has a funny way of playing around with you, sometimes. BB x

Outsider

I think I’m contracting hayfever, which is frankly ridiculous in a place that’s almost as dry as Jordan. Or maybe that’s just my sinuses reacting to an overdose of chorizo in last night’s risotto. Whatever it is, it’s spoiling the atmosphere.

It’s two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon here in the Parque de la Paz in Villafranca de los Barros, which means the town’s finally awake and everybody and their five children are out to enjoy the sunshine for a few minutes and then spend a good three hours in the shade, chatting noisily over a pint or a cafelito, more often than not the other way around to what you might expect. Where the students of the town are is anybody’s guess (I suspect they lead a more nocturnal existence at the weekends), but all the families converge on the park come Sunday morning. Scores of children on roller-skates climbing up and down the ramps by the Bar Atalaya whilst mami and abuela witter away with babi in a pushchair, getting ogled at every other minute or so with cries of ‘ay que linda, ay que linda’ or such like. One or two of the children who aren’t too fond of roller-blading are tottering around in oversized shirts, hands stuffed into crisp-packets and gaping in wonder at everything that moves. Especially the strange individual sitting on the bench on his own. Who even does that?

It’s both the easiest and the hardest thing about village life in Spain. Or village life just about anywhere, come to think of it, but especially in Spain. It’s a big family world, and if you’re not part of the family… well, you get the idea. Little Sunday idylls like this remind me just how much I’ve always wanted little dark-eyed curly-haired toddlers of my own, and whereas in England that kind of remark would probably earn you a wary look if not a second opinion from most people, here in Spain it’s a totally natural thing to be baby-centric. It must be – these Spaniards have giant families. One of the students I’m to be teaching put me in a tight corner when, during an introductory class, she asked ‘why is your family so small?’. My colleague apologised on her behalf and told me I didn’t have to answer that one, but the point had been made. I come from a family of four, including myself. Naturally, then, I’ve always loved the idea of a large family. It was one of the things I treasured most about my first relationship. We all want what we can’t have.

I suppose I ought to tell you that I’ve found somewhere to live for the next eight months. It was almost too easy. The new mechanics teacher from Plasencia made good on his offer and I’m now conveniently based just five minutes’ walk from the centro, and one minute’s walk from the park – which, ironically, is to be my internet hotspot for the rest of the year. I’m not going to complain about that. It’s a wonderful place to be. With any luck, in a couple of weeks I’ll have found the younger generation of this town and this may prove to be their hangout too – albeit at a different time of day, of course. That’s the only thing I envy the Erasmus students for; a ready-made social circle of people their own age. But at least I get the golden kernel in that I am, quite obviously, the only Englishman in town. And I mean that quite literally. There are two other auxiliares to be working here when October rolls around, but they’ll be living in Almendralejo, leaving me as the English-speaking bastion here. That couldn’t suit me any better. Because that means that, apart from when I’m teaching, or when I’m reading or writing my novel, the only language of communication I’ll be using out here will be Spanish. And unlike Andalucia, where (beautiful though it is) I might well miss half of what is said in the slur, I understand everything here. It’s an enchantingly countrified strain of Castilian, and that suits me down to a T.

When the time is right and I’m fully settled in and documented (the latter awaits in the Oficina de Extranjeria in Badajoz tomorrow, or as long as it takes) I’ll head for Olvera, where I’m lucky enough to have a host of old friends waiting to meet me, after I had to leave them behind to return to life in England, now almost nine years ago. I should thank my stars for that much. It may feel like I’m an outsider, watching all these families going about their Sunday paseo, but I’ve got my toe in the door already and I’m working the rest of my foot in as we speak. BB x

Flicking V’s

The first thing you should know about Villafranca: life may seem slow here, but the underground current moves lightning quick.

And here we go! The longest stretch of the year abroad has begun, and boy does it look it. It certainly felt it as I tried to bed down after packing everything I’ll need for the next nine months into a single suitcase. I got a bad case of cold feet in the last five minutes before I fell asleep, wondering when the next time I’d have a bed of my own would be. I’m hosteling it for the first three nights whilst I find my feet here, which takes me up to Friday night. It’s looking like it won’t all be resuelto by then, but, it’s still early days. If nothing’s been arranged by then, I’ll use the weekend to sort out a few vital affairs in Badajoz, namely acquiring an essential NIE, or número de identidad de extranjero, a turgid, long-winded process that looks to be quite the bureaucratic nightmare, worse by far than a flotilla of ICPCs. But we’ll just have to wait and see. If the Facebook page is anything to go by, some manage it with minimal hassle, others don’t. Luck of the draw. You just keep your head screwed on and tackle it sin compromiso, niño. This is no time to be shy.

Taking a breather under Alicia’s Bridge

Getting to Villafranca from Seville was not the simplest voyage I’ve ever undertaken. What really didn’t smooth things out was the singularly unhelpful bus driver, who told me that the 14:15 to Valladolid would not pass through Villafranca de los Barros; even if I wanted Mérida, I’d need a different bus. Fortunately this is Spain, and one of the passengers told me otherwise. So I took a chance on the Valladolid bus and, what do you know, it does pass through Villafranca. El Conductor was none too gracious with letting me take my suitcase from the bowels of his bus either, but he let it go in the end, and I took my first steps into Villafranca de los Barros fighting the temptation to flick several triumphant V’s in his direction.

This place is a lot drier than I’m used to (discounting Amman)

At four in the afternoon, the place really is nothing short of a ghost town. I took a walk through the centre to have a little look-around, and for the most part the place was deserted. On the edge of town, where the comparatively large park meets the open countryside, you can see all the way to the Montes de Toledo to the north. A cold wind was blowing across the steppe, which only added to the frontier town vibe. I was entirely alone in my circuit of the northern part of town, but for a handful of chatty students leaving the walled confines of the Colegio San José, essentially a Spanish remodeling of Worth Abbey. Mum thinks I should put in some extra hours there if I can and I have to say I’m pretty tempted, but it looks like I might be kept quite busy here after all.

As arranged, I’ve come into school right away, and thanks to all eight of the Meléndez Valdés English staff, I feel like I know the place already. Must be that charming will to help out that most Spaniards have preprogrammed into their systems (I’m looking at you, Mr Bus Driver). It’s dead similar to IES Sierra de Lijar as far as memory serves, but then, I suppose all Spanish secondary schools follow a similar mold. A major confidence boost is the music teacher, who was particularly keen to see me – she already has her sights on a Christmas concert with a potential choir in mind. I’ll keep you posted on that one.

At any rate, it’s such a relief to be speaking Spanish again, even if I do keep tripping over invading Arabic words – especially ‘na3m’ and ‘qariib’. It’s like 711 in my brain. But if I can keep this up, I’ll be fluent in a matter of months. Which is no bad thing.

Back to the staffroom life!

I’ve been charged with assisting with a few ESO classes primarily, which in this case is the bilingual branch of the school, along with a couple of classes of bachillerato. I’m still not entirely sure what that entails, as it seems a lot of my lessons will be open-book. It’s less a case of ‘here’s what we want you to teach’ and more a case of ‘there’s your office, and here are some materials you may wish to use’. That said, the age-old rule where ‘assistant’ is a byword for ‘another teacher’ still stands, as it did in Dr Obote College and with my summer job last year; I might end up taking a full class once or twice a week. Or more. My horario still isn’t finalised so it’s still all up in the air, but we’ll see. What I do know is that I get a day off a week, on either Monday or Friday, and I’m free in the afternoons – ‘para viajar’. They seem keen that I do, and I’m not about to disappoint on that count. I’ll probably need that extra day anyway; getting to and from VdB isn’t the easiest of operations. Given the spread of Saint’s Days and national festivals (a poor year for puentes, I’m afraid) I should probably try for having my day off on Friday, but I’m not about to get shirking just yet. Besides, I think I’m going to like it here.

I’ve still got to sort out somewhere to live for the next nine months, but that might not be the Herculean task it first seemed. I was game for roving the town in search of se alquila signs, but the staff have been lightning-quick in the hour since I arrived here. I already have two apartments and two flat-shares on the table to choose from. One of the newer members from staff is very keen to help out on that front, sweeping all the other offers off the board in typically bombastic Spanish style with an offer from his primo for a very competitively-priced flat-share. He’s showing me the place after the meeting this afternoon, and since I can have the place until June, it seems the best offer yet. The dueño is a real gitano and I’m going to have to negotiate to get as good a deal as it is by the sounds of things, but if it means I can share with a Spaniard, so much the better, purely so that I don’t have to worry about company. As it turns out, Wikipedia’s estimate as to the population count of Villafranca de los Barros, currently at 13,000, was wildly off the charts – by about ten thousand. So in a curious twist of fate I’ve got exactly what I asked for. And since everybody seems to know everybody here, I’m hoping it won’t take too long to get comfortable.

As before, it’s going to be a mask-wearing game. In the staff room, it’s Spanish for everything, and they’ve been very complimentary already as to the strength of my castellano – but the children cannot know that. To them I’m just a native/naïve English speaker, here to improve their English. Here’s to hiding that fabulous Andalou drawl for as long as I can.

I guess that if chinks start to appear in my armour, I could always claim it’s the Arabic coming through instead. It’s not like it hasn’t tried several times already. BB x

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

And Then He Threw A Table At Me

There’s a line in Tolkein’s The Fellowship of the Ring when Gandalf returns from his first encounter with the Balrog and tells his companions that he has ‘never felt so spent’. Well, I just got back from an hour spent looking after nine Iraqi children, and I think I have a fair idea of what it must have been like to face said fire demon.

But don’t get me wrong. I signed up for this. Willingly, even.

After three weeks of teaching English at this church Andreas introduced us to, I’ve been enjoying it so much that when one of my co-workers called in to say that she’d be absent, I leapt at the chance to try something new in looking after the children of our students for a change. They looked pretty fun, they sounded like they were having a good time with the girls, and Firas’ youngest is just about the cutest little thing on the face of the planet, even with the super-saiyan hair. The year abroad is all about new experiences, right? And I’m not afraid to say I’ve always been rather good with kids. I guess it’s my willingness to de-age mentally by about twenty years whenever I’m in that kind of position. Clown mode, or something like that. Kids love it. It’s supposed to be foolproof.

These kids don’t exactly speak much English, but I’d been told that they could introduce themselves and that they knew a few basic words, like colours, animals, the parts of the body… that kind of thing. So I thought I’d get the ball rolling with a song and dance kind of game. ‘I get loose’, to be precise. It always went down a storm in Durham, and that was with twenty year old students. Once they finally understood that they were supposed to be copying me – Maryam, the oldest of the girls, had to explain it to them – they seemed to be enjoying it. But one of the kids, Fadi, wasn’t having any of it. He just stood looking surly in a corner saying ‘ba’ over and over again, getting louder every time. After a few minutes of this it became almost impossible to think, so I shot him a dark look. He just yelled even louder at me, and then ran over and started hitting me with a microphone that he’d picked up from who knows where. I scolded him for it but he kept at it, and in the end I let him tire himself out until he got bored of smacking my arm. At least, I thought he had. Instead he ran to the other side of the room, grabbed the nearest small object – a piece of wooden train track – and threw it at me. Luckily, he missed, which is more than can be said for the dollhouse, the microphone, Noah’s ark, the drum, the foam floor mat and three chairs. When I looked up from teaching the girls (whose attention was quickly beginning to wane by this point) and saw a table flying at me from the other side of the room, I guess I realised that we had gone beyond the point of no return. At least he didn’t get his hands on my iPad, or I might really have lost it.

And then the screaming began. Whether Maryam had lost faith in my ability to control the class, or whether she was angry that it wasn’t Susie taking the class, or whether she just revelled in the chaos, I don’t know. But the next thing I knew all five of the microphones that Fadi had been using as missiles had found their way into the hands of the older girls and they were all screaming at the top of their voices into them. Fortunately, they weren’t on, though for all intents and purposes, they might as well have been. I tried everything – disappointed face, changing tack, feigning ignorance, even getting strict – to no avail. They just waved a massive thumbs down in my face and the screaming continued.

It was at this point that Andrew stepped in to lend a hand. For a few seconds the kids stopped, judging how he might react – and then unleashed a new barrage of screaming on him instead. Between the two of us we made absolutely zero headway and eventually Andrew retreated back to the Bible study group. Five ear-bleeding minutes later Kate came to my assistance and we tried again. More screaming – only this time they got tactical. ‘We’ll stop screaming if you dance’. So I danced, and they stopped screaming – for a grand total of two minutes. ‘We’ll stop screaming if you sing’. I whipped out the Circle of Life for them, and they actually shut up – until the English lyrics, at which point the screaming started up anew, not least of all because one of the girls who had slipped away during the chaos had returned with five cups of water. Ammunition to renew the war on the Substitute. There was a point when Kate and I just looked at each other in an expression of utter helplessness. What could we have done? The kids were mutinous in the extreme. They weren’t having any of it; no Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, no introductions, no colours, nothing at all. Just screaming. When their parents came in to tell them to shut up, and they got the screaming treatment just as bad as we had, Andrew, Kate and I threw up our hands in defeat. We’d tried everything. The kids had overwhelmed us. And when the clock struck five minutes past five, I can honestly say I’ve never felt happier to have finished something.

So the next time I jump at the chance to teach kids, somebody stop me. Please. My ears, at the very least, would be grateful. BB x

  

Not All Those Who Wander Are Flossed

It’s just taken me about an hour and a half to wade through the latest Arabic text for tomorrow’s class. With a night of karaoke at the Marriott Hotel on the cards for this evening, I don’t exactly have the ‘I’ll do it later’ gambit at my disposal.

First off I want to apologise for a very rocky week or two of bipolar posting (some of you noticed, I gather…). The mid-term fury is over and things have settled back to the way they were before, helped along the way by much meditation, H.R. Haggard and Karl Jenkins. Ouch, that’s a painfully middle-class sentence. Life in Amman rumbles slowly onwards, the daily Arabic homework’s still coming in thick and fast and the Versailles branch of the British Council still haven’t told Andrew where he’s going. Business as usual. I took an entire weekend out to deal with my restless psyche and it seems to have paid off. It meant missing out on a couple of parties, but for the sake of my bleeding heart, it was worth it. So if you were feeling the strain of my sine-wave posts over the last week or so, fret not; the dust has settled. It should be a little easier on the eye from here on out.

It’s been a fairly productive couple of days, which means we haven’t had that many adventures; but that’s no bad thing. I saw our first clouds in a month or so the other day, and what a sight for sore eyes that was. You’d be surprised how uplifting it was to see a speck of grey on the horizon for once. Blue skies are lovely and all that, but when you’ve had temperatures balancing out over the high thirties for almost three weeks without cease, a cool breeze is a welcome miracle. There was supposed to be a thunderstorm, which we all got super excited about, but it never came. Instead, the sky went a very queer shade of brown and a mild sandstorm swept through the streets. No rain. One of the strangest weather phenomenons I’ve ever seen. We got the full force of the stifling storm heat, though; the temperature soared up into the mid forties. My insides felt like they were being cooked every time I stepped outside and there was a weird charge in the air. Mostly we found ourselves retreating to our various homes to sit like idol-worshippers before the air-con until the sun decided to call it a day. Even then it often carried on long into the night, that stuffy, all-pervading heat. The blankets had to go. How they’ve lasted this long is anyone’s guess. BBC Weather’s been getting an unnatural number of hits from our flat, at any rate. They say there’s a 51% chance of precipitation tomorrow. Good news takes the strangest forms…

I finally got around to sending off an email to the school I’ll be teaching at in Extremadura. I’ve had it written for the best part of a week and a half, but for some reason I never hit the send button. I guess I wanted to be dead-certain on the grammar, but in the end I just had to be happy with what I’d written, bite the bullet and hit SEND. With any luck, I’ll get a reply at some point before I arrive in September. So that’s pretty cool. In the meantime I’m keeping my teacher senses trained with this project of ours at the Iraqi church Andreas got me in on last week. The last session must have gone down well enough, because we had double the numbers this time. We’ll have to call in reinforcements at this rate. Parts of the body this week, following on from the previous lesson on going to the hospital. Getting the groups to use the vocab to compliment each other was a great idea, and also highly amusing. Apparently eyebrows are a valuable commodity. Or maybe they were just trying to get their heads around the pronunciation. I’d like to believe the former. Having to explain the difference between diarrhea and constipation in the politest possible way is definitely going down as one of the most entertaining moments of my teaching career. Something along the lines of ‘let’s say you eat a bad falafel, and it goes right through you… and for the other one, well, it doesn’t quite go right through you…’. British humour. It never gets old.

This church is just about the best thing that’s happened to me out here, though. It’s the one thing I’d return to Jordan for, given the chance. Maybe this is the beginning of a spiritual journey, maybe not. I hope so, at any rate. I’ve been waiting for my chance for so very long now, ever since I left that world behind almost six years ago… I’ll be dropping by three times a week from now on, twice for class and once for the service, so things should start to look up. And that’s a real slice of good news.

Bummer, I’m out of toothpaste. Looks like I really will have to resort to this weird Arab brand I picked up in the corner shop last week. At least it smells nice. After Morocco I’m none too keen to follow up on any of these traditional Arabian dental practices. BB x

The moment we thought Andrew’s placement might have come through…

A Sex-Tape is a Step Too Far

I think the title needs a little explanation.

In addition to the mid-term exam, our Arabic teacher set us the task of coming up with a five to seven minute presentation on a topic of our choosing. It took me until the morning to come up with something I could realistically rattle on about for that amount of time (no, seriously), but after stumbling over my words as usual, I ended up putting Andrew up to a bet whereby he had to talk about Kanye West. Naturally, Andrew tried to make his presentation somewhat relevant to what we’d studied so that he could activate the vocabulary, or whatever buzzword you want to use. The result was an exploration of the modern wedding through the Kimye phenomenon, complete with all the gory details, ego, sex tape and all. Highly entertaining, of course, but our teacher took umbrage at the subject, claiming that it was ‘hardly suitable’ for class, and debarred us from asking any questions so as to bring the topic to a decided halt. Still, the man did a good job, and he held his ground in spite of all the criticism, so I held up my end of the bargain and rustled up a pretty neat lentil and vegetable stew for him and Andreas, as promised.

To kill some time in the post-class hours, Andreas took us to an underground church in West Amman to help him to teach English to a group of Iraqi refugees. Just a couple of hours in a church not too dissimilar in style from a Worth Abbey chapel, which made me smile almost as soon as I set foot in the place. John 3:16 was up on the wall behind the lectern in golden lettering; it was pretty clear from the first four words, even in Arabic. Beautiful stuff. The Iraqis themselves, Christians from Basra, were just about the nicest bunch of people I’ve met here in Jordan yet. Andreas and his teaching partner Jason assigned Andrew and I four to teach, and we discussed hospital related vocab to get the ball rolling. Whilst we worked, the children of our students scampered about the church at full pitch. I haven’t seen such unfettered happiness in a while. One of our group was a lot quicker on the draw than the others when it came to learning all the new words and expressions, but Raja’, the oldest of the group at seventy-one years old, was an utter delight to teach, especially when she came out with a flawless sentence at the end of the session, primarily because she was so shy. It kind of reminded me of how I must have been earlier down the line. Boy, but it was good to be teaching again, though. Getting back into practice for my assistantship in two months’ time. Better still, Iraqi Arabic is the closest to fusHa out there and a joy to listen to. Basra sounds like a beautiful place, as if Iraq needs anything more to make it more appealing. Land of the Abbasids! Home of Abu Nuwas! Man, why can’t I spend my Year Abroad in Iraq?

Wait, on second thoughts, don’t answer that one.

There’s a lot to be said for this religion malarkey. With any luck, one day the moment will come and I will believe. Warm fuzzy aside, I’ve got to say that those two hours were a godsend, no pun intended. All of my frustration and anger from the past week simply disappeared. I have Faras and his friends to thank for that, for being so friendly and eager to learn; and of course Andreas, for giving me the chance to get in on the project. All is well with my heart once again. I’m still going to fight for the chance to go back to Morocco next year, but I know now that I can and will survive another month out here. I can do this.

Hold the phone, according the beeb there’s a storm coming. Rain. You have no idea how happy this makes me. That it’s going to be 41 degrees at the peak of the storm is beside the point. Bring on the rain, I say. Bring it. BB x