Be Kind, Rewind

My primary function over the last week has been more akin to a substitute CD player than a teacher. The Epiphany term is drawing to a close and mock exams are very much in fashion. The trouble is, the school’s CD players are acting up, and have been for years. I was called in to help – in my free time, I’ll have you know – to ‘improvise’ a brand new listening text for them on the Tate Modern.

And I’ll also have you know it was totally worth it. Whipping up a different, two-minute text on the same subject to suit different ability sets every time might sound dull, but as a writer I found it deliciously challenging. And as a former Langtonian, to whom improvisation comes quite naturally (for want of a better term beginning with B), it’s something I’m rather good at.

I’m now quite used to doing favors for my school. I feel I owe it to them every time I get a lesson off (which isn’t often, but it does happen from time to time). But that’s a mercenary approach: it’s more because I simply love what I’m doing. If I didn’t have these occasional hankerings to go adventuring at the weekends, I don’t half wonder whether I’d throw my day off out the window and work Fridays as well. It’s not as though I don’t already come into school on the occasional Friday almost hoping to be asked to take a lesson. I really must be a few screws loose.

I appreciate that I’ve been damned lucky to have landed such a jammy set-up. I wouldn’t say it’s the best shift in the world – the kids are about as rebellious as you might expect from teenage Spaniards – but it comes very close. I’m still going to strike out for somewhere new in the year after Durham – and I’m thinking one of either Aragón, Andalucía or a different part of Extremadura – but I’m almost 100% set on coming back to Villafranca in September 2018. I mean that. It’s not the most exciting place in the world to live, but it’s a wonderful place to be from a people perspective. The only thing I lack is a friend circle of people my own age, and that’s due in part to my Olvereñan fatalism and my awareness that this was always going to be a year in transition; perfect for getting a taste, impossible for laying down roots.

Sadly, I’ve become painfully aware that there’s only ten teaching weeks left. It was Brocklesby who alerted me to that; beforehand, I’d barely given it thought. That does mean ten more weeks of new lesson plans, of riotous primary classes and of absent teachers, but the ups outnumber the downs.

And best of all, it really is spring now. I forgot to wear my hoodie to sleep last night as I’ve been in the practice of doing since October (Spamish duvets are stupidly thin) and I didn’t notice until I put it on this morning. Spain’s about to put on her very best dress and I can’t wait to see what her stylist has done with her this year. BB x

  
PS. One of my colleagues just came to the staff room to tell me that despite the difficulty of the text, quite a few of them actually overachieved, so it shows they were listening after all. Which is kind of what you’d hope in a Listening exam, but there you go. It’s little things like that that make my days! They were also shown the artwork which I chose to talk about, which just so happens to be an old enemy of mine. It’s Andre’s Equivalent VIII (The Bricks). I’ve met it once before. The students hated it. The teacher hated it. And if I’m perfectly honest, out of my entire art class of 2011, I couldn’t stand it either. Great minds, eh?

Tractor Beam

Andalucia and Extremadura have plenty in common. They’re both southern, they’re both gorgeously hot and sunny most of the time and the language in both of them borders on the incomprehensible. So you can understand why I applied for both when I got myself into this auxiliar malarkey just over a year ago. My third choice, unmentioned since my very first blog posts back in May, was Cantabria. Land of cows, snow-capped mountains, green hills and tractors. The Iberian Alps, the Spanish Yorkshire. About as far away from the dusky south as you can get. So what in Creation drove me there this weekend – besides a frustratingly slow bus?

I’ll put it like this. You can’t keep a good man down, and you most definitely can’t shut up a wanderer in his house for long.

Besides hopping down to Olvera for Carnaval, I’ve done no traveling since Madrid back in the first week of January. That’s only a couple of months back, granted, but compared to the madness of last term, I’ve been doing a lot of nothing of late. In any case, I got a bad case of itchy feet last week and, watching the weather forecast, I made a spontaneous decision to visit my dear friend Kate in Cantabria – on the other side of the country. She’s working as an auxiliar up there and we’ve got much the same setup, right down to the state/private school split. If you haven’t already been keeping up with her adventures, check them out over at Langlesby Travels. Besides being jolly good fun, it makes for a lot easier reading than most of my biweekly outpourings!

I’d planned on two full days up north, as for the first time since I started trawling the site last year there was a super-convenient BlaBlaCar bound for Santander at midnight on Thursday, meaning I’d be in Cantabria for seven o’clock in the morning. It was just too good to be true…!

And so it proved. After a fourth BlaBlaBlunder where the driver changed his mind and shifted the drive six hours earlier, bang in the middle of my afternoon classes, any hopes of arriving early were dashed, so I resigned myself instead to one day in Cow Country and one whole day on the bus. Thanks, BlaBlaCar. I feel like it’s important to point out that as a system it’s by no means foolproof, as so many headstrong young things would have you think. It’s done me some very good turns and I do believe it really is the way forward, but it’s screwed me over in equal measure. You win some, you lose some. In that sense, perhaps BlaBlaCar is a good metaphor for life.

The journey began, as they so often do, in Mérida, where I found myself on the Roman bridge, scanning the reeds for a ridiculously early little bittern. Villafranca and its endlessly repetitive surroundings lack a viable soul spot, which Mérida offers in the ever-changing Guadiana. Mérida may always seem to be lacking something, but the river has never let me down. There’s something beautifully elemental about rivers. This one in particular is never the same. The first time I saw it, the river was playing host to several families of purple gallinules, frolicking about in the reeds. A month later the whole stretch was clogged with water hyacinth. Three weeks after that, half of it had been siphoned off and the rest was being heaped onto the banks by a team of gumboots. This weekend, the river was barely ankle-deep, with only the deepest stretch in full flow – only to be magically restored to life two days later. Oh Guadiana, you baffle me.

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What gives, Guadiana?

The journey north was fairly uneventful. I spent almost all of it trying to read Cavell’s Moghul, but more often than not staring out of the window at the changing scenery and, before sundown, came to the conclusion that Cáceres province truly is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. If you don’t believe me, visit Plasencia. If Spain has an Eden outside of Doñana, it may be found there.

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Snow on the mountains in Castilla y Leon

Despite reassurances from the driver that we were perfectly on schedule, we still pulled into Torrelavega a full twenty minutes late – which, coincidentally, is the exact amount of time I’d factored on giving myself to get from the bus station to the train station. Sprint as fast as I did – I may not be much of a sportsman, but I consider myself half-decent over a short distance – I arrived at the station just as the last train was leaving. Last year’s BB would have cried in frustration at this oh-so predictable turn of events; this year’s BB shrugged it off and chartered a taxi. It ended up costing me almost as much to go the last few kilometres to Cabezón de la Sal as it did to come all the way from Mérida, and at least three times the train fare, but that’s taxes for you. I’ve told you before… I don’t like taxis. Period.

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The River Tagus in the plains of Caceres

At any rate, I made it to Cabezón de la Sal and, after wandering aimlessly in the dark, lost in the Alpine beauty of the place, Kate finally found me, introduced me to her friend Almu and I had my southern accent swiftly corrected. That can only mean one thing: all those weekends in Olvera are paying off. They’ll make a guiritano out if me yet.

The following day’s adventures require a post in their own right, so I’ll give them that much. Keep your eyes peeled for the second installment! 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

And the Manacles are Off

It’s over, at last! After almost a month of to-and-froing between school, the ayuntamiento and the Almendralejo police station, I have a Spanish bank account and the admin period is finally at an end. Alright, so there’s still some confusion over whether I really need a Spanish social security number and I’m not entirely sure how to top up my phone since it isn’t compatible with its own network app, but the most important stage (and one that, by the sounds of things, the other assistants accomplished weeks ago) is done and dusted.

So what better way to celebrate than with a little travel?

You see, I adore traveling. I’m sure I didn’t need to tell you that, but I feel like in the three weeks I’ve been here I’ve never had the chance to get out. Not for want of opportunity, of course, but I told myself right at the beginning that I wasn’t to go traveling until I’d finished all the paperwork. That was supposed to be before my (abortive) training course in Cáceres on 1st October. Well, now it’s the 16th. But that’s ok. Villafranca feels like home now, I’ve christened it with my first stupidly long walk, and I have to say I’m quite enjoying being ‘El Inglés’. But I’ve waited long enough, and now here I am in the Plaza Alta in Badajoz, enjoying a ración of some seriously high-quality croquetas as the city wakes up for the night.

A paltry three and a half euros took me all the way to Mérida, the regional capital of Extremadura. It’s also minuscule compared to Badajoz and Cáceres, for which the two provinces of Extremadura are named, which means you can get around the place in a couple of hours. I didn’t plan on staying long, since I only intended to use the city as a launch-pad for getting to Badajoz – there’s only one bus direct from Villafranca and it leaves at nine in the morning – but, as is so often the way of things, Mérida turned out to be a whole lot more than a collection of pristine Roman ruins.

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At first glance it looks a lot like Córdoba, with the Roman bridge and the great big river splitting the old town from the new. But then, so does Badajoz. It’s missing the beauty of the mosque, of course, but then, Córdoba is and always will be in a league of its own. What it does have is a spectacular aqueduct on the north side of town. If you see any photos of Mérida, it’s bound to feature in more than one of them. Unlike the one in Segovia the city gave it breathing space and there’s a park around it now, but that hasn’t stopped the storks from taking advantage of all those convenient flat-topped towers.

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Ah, but I can do better than that. It took me almost half an hour to cross the Roman bridge over the Guadiana this morning, not because of its length – you can span it in five minutes or less at a stride – but because I was held up by two of my favourite little riverside friends, both of them easy to spot because of all the noise they were making.

I haven’t been to Doñana National Park almost every year for the last seven years for nothing, and when I heard a distinctly disgruntled grunting cutting over the babble of an approaching horde of school kids, I was hanging over the side of the bridge and scanning the reeds in a flash; and sure enough, there he was. Old Longshanks himself.

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What can I say? Gallinules. Love ’em. Loved the ridiculous things since I first saw a picture of one in a book. The name’s daft enough – Purple Swamp-Hen, in full – but the feet are something else.

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I don’t know why I make such a big deal about gallinules over anything else, but they’ve always been the ultimate Doñana bird for me. Perhaps it’s because it’s basically a giant purple chicken. Mm, close enough.

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Feathered friend number two should be a lot more familiar to most of you. He’s also rather colourful, but a heck of a lot smaller and shinier to boot. And once you know what they sound like, you’ll see a lot more of them. It’s a kingfisher, of course!

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At least, I hope you know what a kingfisher is. Nobody here does. Not even if I give them the equally impressive Spanish name of martin pescador.

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I’m still waiting on that perfect kingfisher photo. The one everyone wants: wings spread wide, water droplets falling from a dive, fish in beak etc. but until that moment, they’re always a pleasure to watch.

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Everybody else was walking on by and doubtless wondering who that young loony was in the maroon hoodie-and-chinos combo with the ridiculous lens, hanging half over the bridge, but hey, I was having a good time. That’s my idea of a morning well spent, anyway.

Sheesh, long post. My travelogues usually are. Badajoz is rather beautiful, and if my right thigh weren’t still punishing me for that 45km cross-country hike last weekend, I’d probably be enjoying it more. I could do with a rest. It’s a lot bigger than Mérida and I had to double the distance when it turned out that the albergue I had in mind was a school groups affair. I was accosted outside by three young girls who asked me if I wanted a blowjob and called out ‘oyé, feo’ and ‘mochila verde’ after me when I ignored them. Then I tried taking a shortcut through the park into the Alcazaba, but shortcuts do tend to make long delays, and in this case the road came to a sudden and unexpected end. The door was there alright, but the road… wasn’t.

The adventures never end! Left the restaurant to soak up the night in the square and a wandering troupe of musicians asked me for directions to the ayuntamiento. I pointed them in the right direction, but their leader deduced that I clearly wasn’t from Badajoz. Back atcha, tío; ‘I’m from Villafranca de los Barros’. ‘Villafranca?! Hombre, somos de Ribera!’ (the next town along from VdB). It’s a small world. And I’ve just noticed that I missed a major performance from the best gypsy musicians of Badajoz at the theatre tonight. Only two doors down from the hostel, as well. Rats. I’ll be back.

I’d better call it a night there and head on back to the hostel. I might try for sunrise over the Guadiana after this evening’s gorgeous Portuguese sunset. On a final note, I had the happiest moment of the month on the road to Badajoz when I saw, in the distance, a giant V-flock of some one hundred and twenty cranes on their way south. It’s only the very moment I’ve been waiting for, the first true sign of winter in Extremadura. I was practically jumping out of my seat, I was so happy.

The photo hardly does it justice, so I’ll go hunting for them some other time when I’m not stuck on a bus. But that’s an adventure for another day. BB, which may or may not stand for Bird-Brain amongst other things, signing out 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

Necessarily Childish

Would you believe it? There are clouds over Amman today – real, genuine clouds. Yes, I really am getting excited about clouds. So tell me I’m crazy; I already know that. I just miss the sight of a sky that isn’t a brown shade of blue, that’s all.

We’re coming to it now, the end of my stay in Jordan. Just three days of class remain, and then a whole week and more to do whatever before our return flight takes us home – via a day’s sojourn in Kiev, provided the airport authorities allow us to pop out for a visit between flights! (Those twelve hours sure will drag if they don’t…) Way back in May when Kate, Katie, Andrew and I booked our flights, we had no idea we were going to get almost all of our traveling done before the end of term. Well, here we are at the end, and I’ve already seen the abandoned desert castles, seen the sun set over the Promised Land from the bitter waters of the Dead Sea, wandered the Roman ruins of Jerash, swam with triggerfish at Aqaba, trekked Dana, gawped at Petra by day and night and watched a veritable storm of shooting stars over Wadi Rum. Somehow I’ve managed all of that in our weekend breaks, and in retrospect, it’s as well that I did so; had I stuck to my guns in leaving some sights for next year, I’d have missed out for good on sights like Petra and the reefs of the Red Sea. Though Amman itself may have crushed this little country mouse, I can’t recommend Jordan highly enough. That’s always been my stance.

Trees, people! Trees……..!

We took an hour and a half of class today out in the sunshine in the Jordanian University grounds. They’re on vacation at the moment, so the grounds were deserted of students and we had the run of the northern campus. I’ve never felt more focused in all my time out here; just a little dose of sunshine, the warbling trill of a sunbird from one of the cedar trees and the taste of air that hasn’t come from a fickle conditioner… I was speaking more fluently than ever before. I guess that drives home this morning’s debate on students being more attentive if given access to green spaces in school. Now that’s something I can agree with! If only we could visit the university more often… It’s a bummer, living right next to the only green space in Amman, and not being allowed to enter it except on official business.

Class dismissed

To keep the engine going in the last hurdle, I’ve been making liberal use of Youtube. Specifically, two animated films from my childhood: Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (the 1988 Burbank version) and Don Bluth’s The Secret of N.I.M.H., based on the 1971 book Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien. If there’s one thing I’m seriously into, it’s obscure cartoons. The ones that fell by the wayside, in a manner of speaking. I guess that has something to do with growing up with Freddie as F.R.0.7., the obscurest of the lot, but there’s something magical about trawling through all of these hidden gems. Jaded as it sounds, they just don’t make films like ’em these days. Dreamworks and Pixar paved the way for a new era of animation with works of genius like the Shrek films and Finding Nemo, but since then, it’s just been one furry animal film after the other, as far as I can tell. I’d say I’m getting too old for such things, but that’s a complete lie; I still get the same kick out of The Lion King that I did when I was a five year-old sitting ten inches from the television in the back room. Preach.

But Don Bluth… oho, now we’re talking. They’re just so… dark. Tell me you didn’t feel afraid when you first watched The Land before Time – those jagged landscapes and bubbling swamps, and all the death…! Littlefoot’s mother died onscreen. Disney could do it too: The Lion King was extraordinary because you saw Mufasa die onscreen. Powerful stuff. But the best Disney offers up these days is one of a thousand villains falling to an offscreen demise (my sincerest apologies, Clayton). Not so with Don Bluth. The wise Nicodemus is crushed beneath a mountain of scaffolding. Rasputin’s soul is sucked out of him by the forces of Hell itself. The guy even had a hand in the original Sleeping Beauty, so you know he knew what he was doing. His style is also truly iconic; those stark, jagged landscapes from The Land Before Time follow you through American TailThe Secret of NIMH and Thumbelina; truly, a world apart from the sugar-coated Disney kingdom.

Derek Jacobi, is that really you?

Not that I have anything against Disney. I love it. Even some of their new stuff is great. I thought Wreck-it-Ralph was going to be dismal from the premise, but it blew me away. I just find myself wishing that the Paperman project had pulled through. Hand-drawn animation just smacks of my childhood and I covet it dearly.

Don Bluth, you really did have a thing for glowing eyes…

If you remember any of these classics, I’ll point you towards some even more obscure titles that you may not have heard of. Give Ralph Bakshi a try if you haven’t already: I’m thinking Cool World and Fire and Ice. Or there’s Nelvana’s niche Rock and Rule. Equally trippy, but worth the ride. And don’t forget the darkest of them all, the one that gave an entire generation nightmarish images they would never forget: Rosen’s 1978 adaptation of Watership Down. So… much… blood…

This, of course, has next to nothing to do with Jordan, or even Arabic for that matter. But it’s a damned good healing technique. I’m quite ready to go home, even though eleven days still remain, but the memory of these animated gems will keep me soldiering on. Ah, to have been alive in the sixties and seventies when these wonders were being created… I might have thrown caution to the wind and gone for a career as an animator. What a different life that might have been! BB x

Deliverance

My heart’s soaring. Not least of all because I’ve got my Africa playlist on full blast, but that’s not the real reason. Eights months and x days after submitting my paperwork to the Year Abroad office at Elvet Riverside, I finally have a destination. Next year has a name at last and it’s VILLAFRANCA DE LOS BARROS.

I’d love to dive right into an entire evening’s worth of trawling, if just to get a real feel for the place and its environs, but that’s easier said than done with a murderous-looking Arabic comprehension in for tomorrow. Even without that, Ali Baba shuts at six o’clock, at which point Andrew and I go necessarily radio silent until ten o’clock the following morning. (It’s a liberating existence, being completely out of contact for half a day, every day – I highly recommend it). So no aimless surfing tonight. But according to Wikipedia Vilafranca de Los Barros is known as the City of Music, which means the wizards at the British Council know what they’re doing. I owe them that much. It’s also in a very decent spot indeed, in a town large enough to have most convenient amenities, a lively atmosphere and possibly a good range of accommodation options. It might not be as small a town as I wanted, but that might not be such a bad thing. At least it’s smaller than Amman. At any rate, it’s close enough to a serious mountain range to keep me satisfied. As expected, Google Images isn’t swimming with material, even in a town of some 14,000 inhabitants, so Villafranca de Los Barros gets to keep a little mystery from me for the time being. And that’s no bad thing either.

Andrew zoned out a couple of minutes ago. He’s still waiting for the Versailles branch of the BC to get back to him with similar details. Trust Spain to jump the gun for once and beat France to it! We’ve been working flat out as usual (and working out flat to boot, every morning – my limbs are getting mutinous) so he’s taking a well-earned nap. The air con’s on and it’s going to stay that way for a little while longer. As for me, I’m going to spend the next hour or so finishing King Solomon’s Mines and then learning as many animals and birds in Arabic as possible after finding myself at a loss in this morning’s Arabic Alphabet game. Sure, osprey might not exactly be a word you use everyday, but who wouldn’t want to drop iqāb nisārī (essentially, Judgement Hawk) into a conversation? They might not have been very inventive at naming the swan, the cormorant or the manatee, but the Arabs sure knew how to put a name to a bird of prey. BB x