The Unspeakable

I can’t believe I’ve left it until my final teaching week to make use of Jeopardy and Mr Bean in an English class. They’re two absolute staples of ESL teaching and I’ve managed thirty teaching weeks thus far without using either one of them. Just as well, I suppose; it made planning my last lesson less painful. And as usual, for a lesson that was drafted in ten minutes flat on a Wednesday morning, with just an hour to go before my first class of the day, it’s turned out to be one of my better plans. It’s definitely not a rule to live by, but the pressure of last-minute living certainly does produce fantastic results.

At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.

Today is Thursday. The last working Thursday of the year.Fortunately, it’s not quite the end. I’ve got at least two more days next week, and if I can help it, I’m going to see if I can’t wangle an extra two hours in tomorrow on my day off to catch up on the two classes I’m missing to catch up for that one primary class I thought I’d been spared this week. Future teachers, beware: state schools might not make you make up for lost hours if you’ve been on a school trip, but private schools will. At this stage in the year I don’t even want a day off. I want every last second I can get with this lot, especially since most of my stars will have gone by the time I get back.

It’s been a rather predictable finish. No poppers, no fireworks. Just a gradual loss of classes until I’m left with my last next Tuesday, which promises to be a wonderful finish; the only class of the twenty-five I have that I can guarantee to be quiet, relaxing and easy-going. There are only three of them. That’s probably why.

Predictably, my exercise routine died. For the fifth time this year, I tried to get into a work-out routine. It didn’t work. After almost three weeks, I simply lost interest. Again. Some people say that going running and getting a good sweat going in the gym gets them into a state of relaxation like none other. Golden orioles do that for me. Or hoopoes. Or woodlarks. Or just about anything that lives, breathes and moves in the wild.

For a good deal of the run-up I assumed it was standard form to duck out early, since that’s what everybody else seems to do. Looking around, the French assistants were allowed to leave before their time, since they ‘weren’t really needed’ towards the end. I get that impression from the other Spaniards, too. But I’m contracted to work for two schools, which complicates things a little – and makes things a whole lot simpler. This week’s school trip meant that I missed Tuesday, my favourite day of the week (Tuesday used to be Funk Band rehearsal day, and Northern Lights rehearsal day, and Arabic Literature day… Tuesday has always been a good day). This year, the 31st May falls on a Tuesday. So there’s absolutely no way in heaven or hell that I’d miss that last Tuesday. Heck, if I could extend my stay by another week, I would. It’s only the thought of flying out to Morocco and getting settled in on my birthday that stopped me. Twenty-two is no big deal, but I’d rather not be on my own on my first day in a new country for my birthday. There are some things that simply aren’t done.

If it sounds like I’m raving about how good my job is… I am. Because this time next week it will all be over, I’ll be back in England and I’ll have to wait another year – another eight months, British Council time – until I can come back. I’ll need this kind of stuff to re-read when I’m sweating over my finals this time next year. Looking back, everything tends to look rosier than it really was. In my three brushes with the law – in Spain, in Uganda and in Morocco – I was absolutely terrified, but it’s all hilarious in retrospect. I just need to remind myself that it was just as good in the moment as it was in memory. Remember that when you’re panicking over that last summative essay, Benjamin. Bloody £41,000 degree. The decision of what to do with my life turned out to be so easy, I could have saved myself a lifetime’s debt and simply marched straight out here, if only I’d known. The things we do to make our way in the world, the hoops we have to jump…

There’s only a few little hurdles left before the finish line. I need to pay in a cheque for 50€ worth of peanut butter that I’ve had on me since March. I need to sort out Student Finance for next year, saddling myself with another £12,500 worth of accumulative debt. I also really need to write up my Spanish TLRP on banditry in the Spanish sierras (although at least it’s planned and ready to go).

Must dash. The only class I’m not going to miss awaits. BB x

PS. I’ll tell you about the school trip in another post, I just felt a regular post was needed for the time being… before it all goes mad.

The Notebook Kid

My parents used to tell me it was exceptionally bad manners to carry my drawing book around with me. Something along the lines of attention-seeking, they said. In my defence, the idea behind was quite the opposite. As a kid I was simply looking for just about any means of avoiding conversation. That it usually backfired and had people asking me about my drawings was beside the point. It was a defence mechanism and a habit I never really grew out of, as proved by the fact that even today, in my job as a teaching assistant, I still give classes with a sketchbook on my person at all times.

The hardest thing for me to do in any language is to explain my novel, for no other reason than that I have difficulty summing it up in English. It’s one of those books that requires a fair amount of backtracking, it being historical fiction. Until the day I find a means of summing it up succinctly in English, attempting to do so in Spanish or even Arabic should be beyond me. But that doesn’t stop me from trying. And as carrying the sketchbook around with me practically guarantees that somebody will ask after the subject, I put myself in the firing line on an almost daily basis. It’s a real bastard of a task, but I do have a knack for constantly setting myself up for challenges that are very almost beyond me. You’ve got to keep yourself on your toes, after all. There’s no use in securing the moat when besieging the keep is the perfect practice.

In two weeks’ time it will all be over and I’ll be at home, enjoying the second half of a forty-eight hour respite between shifts before I’m needed in Tetouan. But let’s not talk about that. It hurts.

Villafranca isn’t half rolling out the party parade for my final week. I’ve got a two day trip to the countryside coming up with my 3° ESO class, which will largely consist of forty-eight hours of birdwatching, hiking and singing campfire songs. And, of course, speaking the most beautiful language on God’s earth. Then it’s two more days with the Carmelitas, and a whole bunch of farewells there – especially to my seniors, who I will miss terribly when they’re gone. It was the Day of Santa Joaquina yesterday and the school took the day off to celebrate in style. Touchingly, the lower sixth put on a celebration last night for the upper sixth; a fifteen-minute sequence of dance from the entire year group, ranging from classical dance to salsa – at which almost all of them were reasonably professional. Something you wouldn’t expect in an English school.

For some reason I don’t get much contact with the upper sixth in either school. There’s just a handful of leavers in my Cambridge FIRST class, and the others know me only because they usually stop to wave and scream at me when they’re going past one of my classes on a Thursday afternoon. Kids. Last night I went to watch the show (under orders from lower sixth to photograph the event) and the leavers seized upon the chance to grab a conversation last night. Two on-the-go portraits and several photoshoots later, I was enjoying a decent conversation with two of the girls, who I’d met – apparently – on a night out in Alemdralejo once. I should show face to these of events more often.

It’s only recently occurred to me that I no longer need that warm-up period to get into the driving seat as far as Spanish is concerned. These days it’s simply a case of jumping in and off we go. I thought I’d settle any lingering doubts by taking that CEFR Spanish Language Assessment that’s been hanging over me for some time. When I left, it graded me at B2 level, which stung a little. I had high standards.

This time it came back C2.

So, officially, I’ve done it. Fluent. I already knew I could handle myself in just about any situation in Spanish now, but it takes something like an official grading to drive the point home. It’s easy to overlook how far you’ve got until you’re out of the native country. I recall feeling like I was failing massively when I left Olvera, only to find myself half-fluent when I got home. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Must dash – the upper sixth are graduating today and I do believe I’m expected. And tonight, the final gathering of the guiris in Almendralejo. It promises to be a grand finale. BB x

Sins of the Fathers: Lessons in Perspective from an Israeli

My biggest failing when traveling is overestimating my staying power. I’ll always give myself just a few hours, days or, on occasion, weeks more than I really need. Call it arrogance or a mistaken belief in my own capabilities – or perhaps, sheer idiocy – but it’s the one mistake I never fail to repeat, beating underpacking, undereating and underbudgeting to the top spot. I’ve been at this traveling game for a while now, honing my skills in Spain this year, and in all honesty, it’s a mistake I don’t intend to amend anytime soon.

Why? Because every second counts. Especially the last.

I remember backing out of my last week whilst crossing Spain in the trek of ’13, partly out of fatigue (I’d slept rough in the hills for several nights and lost a shaming amount of weight) and partly out of a harrowing loneliness, the kind of loneliness that really begins to gnaw at you after three weeks alone on the road with only yourself for company (you can only run through the script of your favourite musical with you playing every character twice, apparently…)

I was younger then; quieter, inexperienced, even more shy than I am now. I saw a shot at an early exit and I took it. But those last two days, trying though they might have been, served up some of the most memorable moments: swimming in the crystal waters of the Mediterranean with an entire cove to myself, being chased along the beach at night by men with torches, falling asleep to the sound of the sea and the eerie silence of the lighthouse doing its rounds on the cliffs. Pure Almería. Pure Spain. Pure living.

The same thing happened in Uganda. The last week felt like an eternity when all we really wanted was to be home in time for Christmas, but when the last night rolled around I realized what a fool I’d been to ever want to leave. And my own mother had phoned just days before telling me to make the most of the time I had left. I’ve been kicking myself ever since.

Even in Jordan – dear Jordan – I met my match in our last week. The veil was lifted a little; Amman was no longer the inhuman monster it had first appeared. It was friendly, warm and oh-so-very human. But just as it was starting to bloom, we were on the plane and out of there. Oh, I look back and laugh now; it’s so very easy to do. And trying though it was, I don’t half appreciate it all the more. We all need challenging experiences like that in our lives. And since I don’t go in for drink, drugs, sex or sports, where else am I to find experience but in the open road?

Jordan’s twilight was like a sunset over a battlefield – if you’ll forgive the expression. Suddenly, just for a moment, what was once so terrifying became beautiful. It made sense. The final hours can make all the difference.

Today it was just a couple of hours’ difference: a choice between the 11:25 or the 14:20. As usual I decided on the later bus, assuming I’d find something to do that would fill the hours. That something was looking very much like the first season of Doctor Who at eight o’clock this morning, when my limbs were still recovering from being scratched, scraped and strained in yesterday’s gorse-navigating adventure. A tempting offer.

That is, until I met Roy.

Roy was the only other guest in the hostel this morning. He was bound for Monfragüe for no particular reason beyond that it was a recommended spot, so I told him what he might expect to find and pointed him in the right direction. We’d got talking indirectly – as is so often the case when I’m involved – through a two-way conversation with the friendly hostelier about the impossibility of Spanish accents (a subject on which I consider myself reasonably well-versed). Roy, a native Israeli, had taught himself Spanish through the genius of Michel Tomas during his military service and, after reading Coelho’s The Alchemist, had decided to visit Spain, eschewing the post-military course for India, Australia and the Americas.

Naturally, Israel came up in conversation. I don’t remember how exactly. I think it was because I mentioned that I’d been nearby last year, when I saw the Golan Heights from the Jordanian side. He told me a little about his home, and let me tell you, it was refreshing to hear a little of the other side of the argument for once – or at least, an Israeli approach, as Roy’s was hardly the mainline view. Despite living in the Western World, the last three years have shown me nothing but anti-Israel sentiment. For obvious reasons, Jordan isn’t the best place in the world to go looking for a balanced view on the Israel question, but neither is my own Arabic class. Perhaps the study of Arabic makes us more sympathetic to the plight of Palestine?

I’m not entirely sure what it is, but I was brought up to idolize hooked noses and Jewish perseverance by a mother who spent a very long time searching for her own faith, so I’m not naturally predisposed to see Israel as the enemy it’s often made out to be. Nation and religion should never be mixed, and Israel is the example, but there is something more to a country that still values its faith. I could have visited last year… if I’d been ready. But I wasn’t. For me, Israel is more than just a nation. It’s more than an idea. It’s more than an Instagram on the West Bank. It’s a dream, and when I saw the sun setting over those mountains and went weak at the knees I knew I wasn’t ready. Israel could very easily destroy me… because I fell in love with it. And my track record for destructive love affairs would back me up.

Roy, however, gave me exactly the answer I was looking for. One of hope, understanding, of looking forward rather than back. That, he claimed, was the problem in Israel: there is too much emphasis on the past. The old Holocaust clause; bring it up and you’ve lost the argument. Does Israel deserve the entire landmass? You might ask, does Mexico belong to the Aztecs, or does Britain deserve its former empire? Hardly. Israel has as much right to the West Bank as the Asturian knights did to Granada. These things are gone. History is to be studied and learned from, not brandished as a weapon in court. And speaking of courts, there’s a good deal of finger-pointing going on all over the world, but what good does it ever serve – especially when the culprits are two generations dead and buried and it’s their descendants taking the flak? What is done is done. What is important is to dream and to push on towards a better future… or whatever idealistic tripe should fill this gap. 

My apologies. An earthworm could have phrased that better. Personally, I’ve never believed in Utopia, nor would I ever want it. I only believe in hope and the good that it can do. As for the present, I take the Doctor’s approach; the world is perfect the way it is: that is, imperfect. The balance of good and evil, right and wrong. It’s that imperfection that makes us struggle to create a better world, and it’s that struggle that makes us so very human. I see that as perfection. Things could be so much worse than they are now.

Roy’s was a balanced opinion. Here was a man who’d gone through the Israeli military service telling me not of his blind hatred for the Arabs – as a couple of Palestinian cabbies would have had me believe – but of his desire to see the country where The Alchemist began. What is that if not human? There is no “us” and “them”. There never was. There never will be. There is only the future. And it is by looking ahead that we move ahead. Ever tried running backwards?

This is why I travel. This is why I give myself those few extra hours: for conversations like these. For Roy, for Simone and all the other brief and wonderful encounters on the road. It restores my faith in humanity. Trump, you should really give backpacking a try someday. It might just change your world.

I hate to end on a quote, as it seems so abominably unoriginal, but I’ll break my golden rule just this once because a certain Allan Quatermain spiel is simply crying out for this post. BB x

“It is the change, the danger, the hope always of finding something great and new, that attracted and still attracts me.”

Henry Rider Haggard, Child of Storm

Frustration

The year abroad, as is so often said, is supposed to be one of the best years of your life. Erasmus students say it. Universities say it. Even the interns say it. Heck, I’ve probably said it at least four or five times already. It’s about spreading your wings, perhaps for the first time, and branching out into the outside world.

The British Council sent me to Villafranca de los Barros, a middle-sized municipality in the Tierra de Barros of some fourteen-thousand inhabitants in Extremadura, a Spanish region largely overlooked by all but the most intrepid of tourists. That suited me just fine – after Amman I was practically desperate for the lull of a country town – but you’d think it’d be no place to start looking for contacts in the wider world.

Like me, you’d be wrong. Over the last couple of days, it’s as though somebody stepped on the accelerator pedal. A visiting school group from Lugoj, Romania, shook things up by giving me an unexpected two days of bilingual art class, working as both translator (Spanish into English, which the Romanians had a better grasp of) and art teacher in various exercises using Dadaist motion-capture techniques, light and shadow, cartoon creation and plasticine modelling.

Somehow, my vocabulary was just about up to the task. An easel, for the record, is a caballete.

As it turns out, the leaders of the expedition were so impressed by my attempts that they asked me to join them in July for the International Arts Festival held in their hometown, board and lodging all paid for. All I’d have to look into would be the flights.

In July. When I’m supposed to be in Morocco.

The following day I went out for lunch with the Romanians and their hosts from Meléndez Valdés, where one of my English-teaching colleagues put before me a proposition to spend the May Bank Holiday weekend with the English department in Morocco. Not one to turn down anything travel-related unless backed into a corner, I naturally said yes. Fortunately, I had no prior engagements that weekend. I’m booking that tomorrow, so more on that later.

Anyway, the lady in question offered to drop me off in Almendralejo afterwards, there to meet up with the Escuela de Idiomas and set off for our weekend language exchange in Burguillos del Cerro. In the car we discussed Morocco and she put before me another proposition, more enticing by far: Egypt.

You might remember my failed attempt to travel to Egypt last year; the one where Andrew, Mack and I were turned down because of the colour of our skin. Granted, it was a fair cop. In retrospect, crossing the Sinai peninsula by bus does sound a little hit-and-miss, to put it lightly. I’m still damned keen to see the place, if not for the fact that it’s bloody Egypt – enough said, surely – then for the simple fact that the place is so devoid of tourists at the moment. Ten years ago the pyramids and the temple complexes would have been heaving. These days, people are afraid. I suppose they have their reasons. They also have reason, which I tend to lack from time to time.

When? Oh, that’d be July, too. A couple of days after returning from Romania, to be precise.

The same teacher has her oposiciones coming up the following year and is keen to travel as much as she can before the year is out and she is thrown back into the impoverished, restricted life of a student once again. So she’s traveling to Thailand in August and – you guessed it – asked if I wanted to join.

Baby, I swear it’s déjà vu. This is Jordan clashing with Archie’s grand Central American adventure all over again. Only this time I genuinely want to do both. One of the main advantages of both Romania and Egypt – the two that are actually feasible, given the time frame – is that I would be traveling with Spaniards and consequently speaking almost entirely in Spanish. What that equates to is almost an entire year  working on perfecting my grandfather’s language, which is absolutely amazing for my Spanish.

As for my Arabic, it leaves much to be desired.

What I have to keep reminding myself is that Arabic is not a career path for me like Spanish is. I love the Arabic culture, the beauty of the language, the history and the world that is North Africa… but I’ve never wanted to work in politics, or diplomacy, or the Army, or even as a translator, and I’d like to think that I’ve at least enough morals not to even go near the oil industry. Besides, Spain feels like home. It always has. Therefore it has and always should occupy the greater part of my mind.

That said, I have to spend an absolute minimum of four months in an Arabic-speaking country. There’s simply no going around that. What with the sudden arrival of so many opportunities, it’s not just frustrating that I’ve got this quota to fill – one that I genuinely want to fill. It’s brutal in the extreme. If only I could stay abroad during Fresher’s Week and gain myself one week more… but I have prior commitments – not least of all the upkeep of this blog – that require me to be back in Durham before September is out.

I’m not saying I wasn’t warned. We were explicitly told on several occasions that taking up an eight-month British Council Assistantship would royally screw over your second language. Put bluntly. And I fiercely maintained that, come all the paradoxes of Hell, I was going to go for it anyway. Because I’m stubborn like that. And it’s been one of the very best decisions of my life, one that I don’t regret for a second, and an experience that I’ve loved so very much that I’m finding it very hard not to apply for the very same Villafranca de los Barros in a year’s time. The fact remains that I need that four month quota, and the way things are going, it’s looking like a month and a half on either side. Which isn’t exactly ideal.

Do you ever feel like time is running out on you? I do. So very often.

I’m going to do what anyone with half a brain would do in my situation: consult the parents. I had to back down from South Africa for various reasons, and I really don’t like quitting. Especially when there are so many people counting on me. Oh, to be free from the shackles of academia! 2017 can’t come soon enough… BB x

Griffonheart

Sometimes, when a bird flies low over your head, you can hear the rush of wind through its wings. Swifts do that, from time to time. Swifts and pigeons. It’s a quiet, singing sound like a sudden release of breath, over and gone by the time you’ve worked out where it came from. Now try to picture the same scenario with a nine-foot wingspan. The result sounds something like a gale, a genuine roar of wind, every bit as impressive as those giant wings. This is Monfragüe and this is a griffon, truly one of the most spectacular creatures on the planet.

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I don’t really know what it is that attracts me to vultures so much. They’re not the most attractive creatures on the planet. Their heads are snake-like and feather-bare, their eyes are cold and sinister and they spend their entire lives feeding on dead things. If birds are supposed to sing, vultures sound like they have a bellyful of iron filings when they make a sound – and that isn’t often. But for some reason, I’m obsessed with the damned things, and always have been.

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Extremadura is a very special part of the world, but doubly so if you’re as much of a bird nut as I am. The immense blue skies are almost always dotted somewhere in the middle with a black speck wheeling round and round on the thermals: kite, eagle or vulture. I grew up in the south of England where the largest soaring bird you’re likely to see is a rook, and I still remember the sheer thrill of seeing my very first vulture when I was about nine years old. For me they represented Valmik Thapir’s India, of cliff-forts and desert kingdoms. To see them wheeling lazily about the Spanish sky was like something out of a dream. And so the love affair with the griffons began.

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Since then, they’ve got me stranded in the mountains, terrified my little brother, warned me of thunderstorms and – in quite possibly my favourite travel anecdote to date – they even got me arrested by the Spanish military police. I kid you not. Apparently photographing vultures isn’t a believable excuse for wandering about the countryside alone at fifteen without one’s passport…

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(Not even for results like this…?)

If I’d had any idea what kind of scrapes my passion for vultures would get me into, I wonder whether I’d have had second thoughts. Somehow I doubt it. Something tells me I’d have found my way to the same spot sooner or later.

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There are four kinds of vultures in Europe, and all four of them can be found in Spain – if you know where to look. The griffons are the most obvious and by far the most numerous, nesting in colonies that can number as many as a thousand strong. The other resident is the far rarer black vulture, recognisable by its sheer size alone; fully-grown adults measure three metres from wingtip to wingtip, making them one of the largest birds in the world. The Egyptian vulture is a smaller summer visitor from Africa, where they eat ostrich eggs by smashing them open with stones. But it is the fourth and final that is the most famous: the lammergeyer, a golden-bodied, diamond-tailed king of the skies that feeds almost entirely on bones. I’ve only ever seen one once, at an incredible distance, whilst in the French Pyrenees some seven years ago. It remains one of my greatest dreams to go chasing after the legendary quebrantahuesos, ‘the one that breaks bones’.

Like I said, I’m hooked on the creatures.

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I have to admit, they do have some seriously menacing eyes…

Dad was in a grouchy mood and didn’t let us stay very long. Must be something to do with the distance from Villafranca to Monfragüe (which, I should point out, is as beautifully in the middle of absolutely nowhere as are all of my favourite destinations). I could happily have spent five hours and more just stood atop the castle with the vultures wheeling about all around me, or sitting under the cliff and watching them plummeting out of the sky and onto the rock in a fierce rush of thunder.

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Needless to say I will be back. Everyone has their vice. Some like their drink, some like their fast cars, others have difficulty sitting still. I have this peculiar fascination with vultures and I’m not even close to understanding them. Yet. BB x

Pilgrim

That’s the first time I’ve ever walked twenty kilometres to get home after a night out. Suffice to say, I also sincerely hope it’s the last. Talk about a walk of shame…

Why did I do it? Because I could? Very possibly. I think it was more the thought of sitting shivering in the dark until the nine thirty bus that made me decide to walk the distance. It certainly wasn’t stinginess on my part; the Almendralejo bus fare is a paltry 1,31€. Perhaps I thought I could beat the earliest bus back to Villafranca on foot. That’s vaguely logical… in a very roundabout-Ben-way-of-thinking. But then, it was five forty-five in the morning. I don’t think I had any real sense of what I was doing. I just remember saying to myself “Alright, let’s do this” before marching off into the darkness like a low-budget Leeroy Jenkins.

As the crow flies, it’s just under twenty kilometres from Almendralejo to Villafranca. I had to take a detour to cross the motorway, so I reckon I clocked just over that. At night the distance looks deceptively close; the twinkling orange lights of the polígono merge with those of the hospital in the middle of the two towns, presumably so situated for industrial accidents in the field. Most of it is traced by the Via de la Plata, the pilgrim road to Santiago from Seville, so it wasn’t exactly a challenging hike. It’s also probably the first time I’ve been sincerely grateful for the vast, empty flat of the Tierra de Barros: navigation is as easy as pie when the nearest hills are a good forty kilometres behind your destination. 

The whole walking-at-night bit didn’t bother me in the slightest. I’d put that down to a six a.m. lack of awareness too, but then, it never has. Of all the things that frighten and frighten horribly in this world, I’ve never been afraid of the night. I learned a long time ago to consider night as just another shade of the day. It’s the same world, only somebody turned off the lights. No deep-seated fears of a shadowy assault or mugging either: I do believe that even the dullest criminal mind would have more sense than to be lying in wait in the countryside in the small hours. The countryside is safety. It always has been, in my eyes. In fact the only mildly unsettling thing in the whole walk was the occasional startled growls of the caged dogs in the farmsteads that dotted the early stages of the route. Alsatians, most of them. It’s a popular breed here. I remember saying to myself “Why can’t you people just keep cats?” and not for the first time. 

Besides the dogs, the soundscape of the early morning Tierra de Barros was really quite magical: roosters crowing, ravens croaking, the tinkle of a pipit overhead and, from somewhere far across the plains, the lonely cry of a stone-curlew. All of this as the sun rose dim and yellow into the clouds on the horizon. My feet might be punishing me two days later, but I don’t regret that walk for an instant. I just don’t think I’ll be repeating it all that soon. It’s a bit like that Spain north-to-south adventure of mine a few years back: it was there, it had to be done, and I did it. Now I can move on.

I don’t think I even stopped for one second to consider what I’d do if it started to rain. The forecast for the weekend was set to bucket it down. I guess I forgot all about that. That I will blame on my fatigue. If it had rained, I’d have been well and truly drenched, and in my best clothes, no less. Why is it that I’m always wearing my best clothes when I set out on these ridiculous adventures? At any rate, it did; a royal thunderstorm hit on the following night, sheet rain, lightning and all the works. Luckily by then I was holed up in my apartment with a cola cao and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor on TV. Someone up there likes me.

I’d like to think that it’s due to foolish misadventures like this that I get to see a side of Spain that most modern travelers simply pass over. You could be forgiven for thinking that Spain, like much of Europe, was fully humanised a long time ago: the sweep of olive plantations and vineyards in the Tierra de Barros certainly gives that impression. But all you have to is close your eyes and listen: the world survives on the fringes. The stone-curlews of these tilled fields and the mournful plovers that ply the once-pristine sands of the raped Costa del Sol hark back to an older Spain, one more ancient than even the oldest of the moorish forts that dot the distant hills. It puts me back in touch with that world to hear them again, just as though I were playing a record from a forgotten world.

It’s not a purely avian nostalgia. As I arrived on the fringes of Villafranca I saw another scene from a bygone age: a muddle of tents positioned about a small campfire where a couple of ragged-looking men stood cooking a light breakfast. Spain’s native gypsies (if such a term is not a misnomer) are a heavily romanticized lot and were mostly squeezed out if their old ways by government programs decades ago, but this new generation of travelers – Romanians, mostly – have taken their place. When I say tents I don’t mean the bright canvas of a modern traveler, nor the UNICEF-stamped donations you might encounter in a war-torn country. These ones might have been cut out of a picture book from the 1930s. Situated on the very fringes of the town, hidden from sight by the town’s waterworks, it’s the very definition of a gypsy encampment. And I thought such echoes had long since faded into history.

You don’t see them in Villafranca proper. The only encounters I’ve had with them so far have all been in Dia supermarket, where they are instantly recognizable by their clothes, by their language and by their complexion; a rich, ochre-brown, marbled like the soil. I’d like to get to know them, to know why they’re here, where they came from and what other stories they might have brought with them, but the townsfolk only have dirt to say on their account. And in my propensity for romanticising the underdog, am I really any better?

Seeing the Romanian encampment made me think of home for some reason, but I was really too tired by then to dwell on it for long. It was purely because I was still moving that I didn’t collapse from fatigue; on the two occasions I paused to get my bearings my head began to spin and I very nearly dozed off. It was only later that night, when sorting through my music collection and The Land Before Time‘s Whispering Winds came on, that my thoughts took me home again. I cried. Profusely. I always do when I hear that one. Damn you, Don Bluth, for producing a film that still brings tears to my eyes some twenty years later. Damn your genius.

Many auxiliares use the holidays to go home to be with their families. Some of my closest friends out here have done just that. It’s a very sensible move, but it’s only when I stumble over such memories that I remember how vulnerable and human I really am. Whispering Winds is on my iPod for exactly that reason; 1608 times around I can put my weaknesses aside and soldier on alone, but there’s that 1609th song that’s there to remind me that neither home nor family is ever truly put aside.

I won’t be seeing home until August. I won’t have time to do so until then, since the third and final leg of my year abroad across the Strait begins almost as soon as I’m done here. Fortunately my parents are coming out to visit me in a couple of weeks, so I don’t have to. I won’t deny that I’m looking forward to having a car at my disposal – being in Europe’s bird capital and relying on public transport is nothing less than tortuous – but more than that, I miss my parents. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Sometimes I need to remind myself of that. There’s only four of us left; my family is precious to me, no matter what impression my aloofness might give.

A lot of things have happened over the past year. Some good, some not so good. Now that I’ve got the time, I’m retreating for a couple of days to the one place in the whole world that makes me truly happy. It’s a place that has answers… of a sort. My rock, my cradle, my very own Shangri-La. BB x

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?