Veni, Vidi, Victus Eram

And that’s that. My last working day in Villafranca is over. I only just got away with crying out of my final class. 4°A are total angels, the lot of them.

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What other class could handle Hobbes vs. Rousseau in another language?

I should make it clear that it’s my last working day of 2016… because I’ll be back. Sooner than I’d originally planned. The truth is that I’ve had such an amazing time this year, I don’t half wonder whether it would be difficult to top elsewhere. So I’ve burned my boats and taken advantage of the British Council’s four-year cap by deciding to return to Villafranca independently in 2017, leaving me another three years to wander about Extremadura, Spain and/or the rest of the Spanish speaking world if I so choose under the British Council. Maybe then I’ll be ready to train as a real teacher. Don’t call it unadventurousness on my part. Think of it as happiness found. Villafranca has been a wonderful home for the last nine months. And now, I suppose, I’d better do it justice – peppered with photos of some of my favourite moments of the year…

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…starting with this.

The hardest thing here is knowing where to begin. How do I possibly sum up what has been the very best year of my life? Do I start from the beginning – from touchdown in Seville airport? But you know the story from there. And if you wanted to know the details, the entire year is spread out across the blog. Just go back to the 23rd of September and follow on from there. I don’t think I’ve ever been more faithful to a diary in my life.

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Where it all began… under Alicia’s bridge in Seville in September ’15

It took the British Council all of eight months to provide me with the name of my home for the following year. Eight months that would have dragged immensely had it not been for my intense extracurricular existence. Protocol. But I spent a good part of my childhood as an avid birdwatcher, and that taught me that patience – even vain patience – always deals its own rewards. And that’s as good a metaphor as any to begin with.

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Hanging on a few hours in Badajoz and accidentally finding a vulture is a good example

Villafranca de los Barros is not exactly what you might call ‘buzzing’. If you were to tell anybody else that they’d be spending the year in a town of some fourteen thousand inhabitants with no nightlife and a lively farming scene, they’d probably jump ship in less than a week and make a break for the nearest city. That’s what the last applicant assigned to Extremadura did, or so I was told by my concerned supervisor before leaving Durham. But Benjamin has strange triggers, and is nothing more than a simple country boy at heart. I could spend my life traveling the world, but if the truth be told, I want nothing more at the end of the day than to come back to some quiet, village retreat that I can call home. After Amman, anywhere with a pop count below twenty thousand would have done for me. As such, Villafranca could not have been a better place.

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Spain does do some pretty spectacular skies on a regular basis

It’s been a formative year. You do all sorts of growing up when you strike out alone for the first time. Over the course of the year I’ve tried my hand at a whole range of new and crazy experiences, including:

  • Mobile data and WhatsApp. Frankly I don’t know how I’d have managed this year without the tech, as Spain as a whole seems incapable of functioning without it, but it’s proved absolutely invaluable as a last-ditch traveller’s aid. Except HERE Maps, possibly. Deceiving trickster.
  • Drinking. Ron Barceló isn’t so bad after all, but rest assured I’ll be back on the dry wagon when this is all over, if just because it’s a lifestyle I know and love.
  • Skiing. And I discovered that I am singularly useless at it.
  • Flirting. Likewise, useless. Try as I might, I’m just not the casual type.
  • Interpreting. Specifically, interpreting a spiel on Dadaist techniques. Talk about a challenge.
  • Olive-harvesting. Trust me, it’s really quite technical.
  • A (surprise) foam party. God bless Spain’s laissez-faire attitude to risk assessment.
  • Being the person that starts a conversation. Radical.

The last point is probably the most poignant of the lot. When this year began I was the kind of person who happily let others get the engine running first. Striking up a conversation with fellow travellers, calling the waiter in a restaurant, starting an essay… I’ve never been very good at starting things. It’s a running theme in my life. But this year I’ve seen myself talking to strangers on the road, setting up a bank account and even asking for help when a certain primary class got simply too much for me. These basic things were well out of my reach when I got off the plane back in September 2015. By hook or by crook, I’ve made it.

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Proud to say I’ve done my bit for the local cooperativa!

Of course, it’s not all been roses. When I say it’s been the very best year of my life, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was flawless. There have been lows. Getting misdiagnosed with herpes was one. Getting the friend-zoning of the century on the night of what was supposed to be a romantic break in Madrid was another. And I seem to remember spewing my guts out for an entire twenty-four hours in a hotel room in Andorra, manacled by an ever-increasing tab from the mini bar; though it did spare me from more skiing fiascos, that was a definite low point too. And then there’s that primary class, a weekly nightmare that I’ve somehow survived. But my attitude to life is that balance is the most precious thing of all: life would be no fun whatsoever if there wasn’t the occasional crippling blunder to make things interesting. Not that I wouldn’t beg not to be given that lot if I were to go through it all again, but if they’ve done one thing for me, it’s left me in very good stead to be the father of Spanish children. I reckon I know all the necessary vocabulary after a year’s stint with that bunch.

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It’s largely thanks to this little star that my Spanish has come so far this year!

Now comes the most difficult part: listing the highlights. Since each and every one has its own entire blog post somewhere along the line, I’ll be as brief as I can. I’ve forced myself to choose only ten, though I could quite easily go on to make twenty-five. Still, ten it is.

  • A close encounter with a lost griffon vulture in Badajoz
  • Taking time out beneath the stone pines in El Rocio
  • Seeing El Rey León from the best seats in the house, Madrid
  • Accidentally getting the best views of the Semana Santa processions, Seville
  • Olive-harvesting with Ali and the family, Olvera
  • Sitting beneath the Monfragüe cliffs with the vultures flying in overhead
  • Spending the weekend in Cantabria with the wonderful Brocklesby
  • Getting a surprise party from one of my bachillerato classes
  • Discovering that simply speaking Spanish makes me happier
  • Hearing the first bee-eater calls of spring from my own bedroom in Villafranca

Tough call. And yes, I’m aware that two of those ten are vulture-related. If the number really had been twenty-five, there’d have been plenty more feathered highlights.

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Specifically for Cantabria, climbing Watership Down Hill was a high…. geddit?

As for what this year has meant in the grander scheme of things, it’s pretty much laid out the road beneath my feet. I was pretty hooked on this country before I came here. I was even pretty certain already that I’d be living out here someday. Somewhere in the back of my mind I always knew. I guess that’s why I never quite managed to lay down roots with a girlfriend or even a best friend per se. Perhaps I always knew I’d be leaving England behind.

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A ready-made fan club is also a major reason for coming back

Well, now it’s fixed. I won’t be swayed. I’ll be back for another two or three years of this auxiliar life, garnering experience as I go, before throwing myself at the notorious oposiciones and trying to carve a space for myself in the Spanish education system as a fully-qualified English teacher – without robbing the places of my friends and colleagues here, of course.

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Reasons to live abroad: a risk-assessment free foam party courtesy of the fire brigade

It was a remarkably easy decision to make. I’ve enjoyed teaching since I took my first class in pure spite of my flustered English teacher way back in 2007. Despite years of my parents warning me not to follow them into their trade, here I am, teaching, and loving almost every second of it. Being an auxiliar is all of the best parts and none of the bad, granted, but I reckon with another few years under my belt I’ll be ready to take on the homework and the discipline. It’s not like I haven’t been asking to help out all year.

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I also owe Concha Velasco Band for introducing me to Escuela de Calor. Tune!

Just before I go and christen the end of the Spanish stretch with a severe haircut, here’s a few goals for next time:

  • Learn to drive (car or motorbike)
  • Apply to work afternoons at San José
  • Share a flat with people roughly your own age
  • Likewise, find friends your own age in the area
  • Pack less… or buy less books

Just five. That will do. All of which would be a lot easier if I had a clear idea of where I would be living – which is one of the chief deciding factors in Villafranca Part II. And after that… Who knows? As of 2016 the British Council offers teaching placements across Spain, but also in Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Ecuador. I think I could afford to be apart from my grandfather’s country for one year. Especially now that I know I’m coming back – and coming back for good.

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Oh, and one more goal: get inside the goddamn Alhambra again. It’s been too long.

So today it’s neither a ciao, nor goodbye, nor even adios. It’s hasta pronto. Muy, muy pronto. Que te lo pases bien en mi ausencia, España. Y sera breve. Te lo prometo. BB x

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

Spring Cleaning

I did a test-run with the packing today. I think I can just about get everything into one suitcase and a rucksack, if I can only jettison a few books. It’s always the books. If there’s one constant that’s true for everyone in my family, it’s that we’re all great accumulators of stuff. Not fridge magnets, not stamp collections, just… stuff.

I booked my flight home a couple of days ago. I booked my onward flight to Morocco the day after. I’ve been in a kind of denial ever since. Three weeks and two days to go. By this stage in Jordan I was getting feverish over the tally calendar in the back of my notebook. Right now I don’t even want to think about it. It’s a testament to just how much I want to hold on that I’m sticking it out right up until the end, rather than ducking out of the last two days like the others. I’ve got a job to do. It’s a bloody brilliant job.

I don’t want to go.

It was raining this morning. Rain… One of the only things I miss about England. Whenever I was home from university I used to put my bed against the window, draw back the curtains and go to sleep listening to the sound of the wind in the trees outside. The colder, the better. It was especially magical around Christmas time, with the street lit up with blinking yellow fairy lights and the chill of frost in the air. Nights spent wrapped up in bed watching Watership Down or Harry Potter.

Winter in England. It’s the only time I ever get nostalgic for home.

Three weeks remain. History lessons this week. I’ve been meaning to do a lesson on British  history for a while. We’ll do something time-travel related so it can span the year groups. I might even throw in a little Doctor Who. Tennant, though. Naturally. And no historians in these lectures, no sir. Just full-on individualism. Just the way I always wanted it when I was at school.

Cracks at the seams, I think. Did you notice? I’m nearing the end of the DVD collection I had sent out. I forgot that I took out at least half to make room for The Tudors and then forgot to replace them when I took them out separately. I guess that means I’ll have to fall back on reading again. That’s no bad thing. I’ve had a nice long break since finishing Shadow of the Moon. M.M. Kaye writes with a golden pen but she doesn’t half suffer from a Stephen King-esque page-churning syndrome. Pavilions took me months to wade through, what with all the research I kept going away and doing…

I tidied up my room today. Threw away a lot of junk. Found some things I haven’t even used yet. Stuff. The wryneck feathers were at the back of the drawer where I put them way back in October, along with the vulture feather I found in Badajoz, of all places. My first aid kit. Andrew’s adaptor. The condom from Fresher’s week ’13 – ‘just in case’. The diary that lasted all of two months. As is so often the case, it documents the build up to yet another one-sided love affair and then, like a candle, it snuffs out. I might add it to the pile when I get home. Or not.

There’s a sizable part of me that doesn’t want to go to Tetouan in June. A part that wants to toss in the towel with this two-and-a-half-year Arabic sortie for good. It’s the very same part that gave me cold feet the night before Arch and I set off for Morocco last Easter. The part that turns telephones into air raid sirens and bank clerks into drill-sergeants. The part that turned the vale of Jordan into a personal Hell.

I have strange triggers.

I don’t want to be a spy, or work for the government, or serve in the Middle East. I want to settle down to a quiet life teaching English in Spain, writing novels on the side and searching for the One, wherever she may be. I don’t need Arabic for that. I really don’t.

No. I’m many things, not all of them good, but I’m not a quitter. I’m not quitting on this, nor will I ever. This time, I’m determined to make it work. That’s why I’m pulling out all the stops: going solo, staying with a local family, extra classes. It’ll cost me, both in cash and freedom, but it’ll be worth it. Besides, everybody gets cold feet from time to time. It’s perfectly human to be afraid of the unknown… but even more so to face it head-on.

I’ll be twenty-two in a month or so. The open world yawns and it looks a lot like Extremadura right now. But that’s OK. I know where I’m meant to be. BB x

P.S. I’m going to lay off The Pacific for a while. It’s put me in an odd mood this evening…

Out of Control

I’ve described being an auxiliar as a pariah state before; a grey blur between staff and student, neither one nor the other. The disadvantages include discipline control, ambivalent reactions from the students and generally feeling like you don’t belong in either group. It’s also pretty hard work, depending on how much your school wants from you. So what’s the upshot?

Well, that depends entirely on how much party you’ve got in your soul.

Ok, disregard that last statement. What I meant to say is that it’s a massive boon to the auxiliar job if you’ve got more than a few party tricks up your sleeve. Having had two teaching jobs before, I’ve been wiser this year and doled them out over the course of the year rather than all in one insufferable first lesson. And boy, do I need every one of them… because it’s not easy living in one of the world’s premier footballing countries when you really can’t see the attraction in the sport whatsoever.

Kids like an entertainer – it’s why clowns exist – and as long as you can keep your head, there’s no harm in playing up to that every now and again. Since October I’ve drawn for them, I’ve sang for them, I’ve acted for them, told stories for them and cracked several bilingual jokes, usually at my own expense (the latter gets easier, or more effective, as you get to know your surroundings). Yesterday I rolled out another firecracker in the Día del Centro, our school’s annual celebration, in what I’m told saved the show (though I beg to differ – and if you could see the filmed results, you probably would too).

Where Thursday is usually my busiest day of the week, with a full ten hour shift from eight til eight, yesterday I didn’t have a single class in the morning. The day began instead with a free breakfast of churros con chocolate, which I must say is no bad start to the day. Anna and Tasha turned up, representing their schools, who seemed to have let them off for the day, too. I assumed that the other thirty schools in attendance would have brought their assistants with them, too, but with the exception of one giant blonde American who pulled a disappearing trick shortly a cameo appearance at the end of his school’s mini-production of Grease, there was no sign of any other guiris. That, or they were all so Hispanic that they evaded our searching eyes.

Not that I had all that much time to waste searching for fellow Anglophones. I was roped between two presentations to sing at both, for which I’d prepared a cover of Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through The Grapevine; my attempt at a social comment on the furious gossip culture in the Triángulo de Loro that is La Fuente del Maestre, Almendralejo and Villafranca de los Barros, a mildly humorous spin on India’s Golden Triangle. My cheerleaders had dashed out before me, as they too were needed in both productions, so I was left with an audience of the Mayor and three student representatives from each school. It was a fairly good show, but a relatively tame audience…

…which is more than can be said for the crowd over at José Rodriguez Cruz. Melendez Valdés’ resident dance troupe took their show across the road just before I got there, and then I had to re-run my Grapevine cover to a much warmer reception. The next act, however, was nowhere to be seen. Garci, our school’s magician-turned-technology teacher, was still only halfway through his magic show across the road, and we had to cover in his delay. That meant another number from yours truly, which, it hardly needs saying, was yet another solo rendition of Circle of Life. Unlike my cohorts back home, who were all too ready to drop the number along with the rest of the old repertoire – and who are currently doing exceedingly well – I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it; and fortunately, I didn’t have to feel guilty for going over old ground, because this time it was my own students who requested it. So, despite having left the stage to pack my bags, I was launched back onto the stage with the kids chanting my name. I tell you, this job does no good for one’s ego. No good at all.

But the magician still hadn’t arrived. Then a professional choreographer, who was there for the day to lead various workshops after the presentation, stepped in to get the crowd dancing. If I mentioned before that Spaniards are none too keen on dancing – especially if it’s not Latin – then I forgot to mention that they have absolutely no problems with it if it’s fully choreographed. Think of the Macarena, for example. Give them a song where there’s a set routine and they’re off. MV’s dance troupe were the first to their feet, naturally, and after not even a minute, they relinquished the shadows of the back of the hall for the lights of the stage. Fired by the sheer enjoyment of it all, I could hardly help myself and found myself following them.

At least I had the sense to take a stand at the back, because to begin with, I had no idea what I was doing.

Dancing, however, if one of those few things I think I’m not that bad at, if only because I don’t give a damn what people think of me when there’s music playing (years of Michael Jackson and James Brown might also have helped along the way). We kept the show going for a full quarter of an hour until Garci finally arrived, which was pure laugh-a-minute, as I don’t think the dancers had any idea that I’d have gone up with them.

Oh boy, but it’s going to be tough going back to work on Monday.

But teaching, like so many arts, is on a stage. I used to go to pieces at the idea of speaking in public, but years of concerts, productions and musicals have worn down any stage-fright I might have had, and all this teaching’s done for the rest. One of these days I’ll grow up and learn to balance maturity with responsibility, but whilst I’m still young, I’ll dance and I’ll love every minute of it.

Enough of this reckless, youthful banter. I feel like it was necessary after the sobering social commentary of the previous post – if only to remind you that I’m still very much a work in progress. And long may that be so! BB x

Spoilt Rotten

Today offered up the perfect example of why you should save a weekly summing-up-style post for the end of the week. Because most of what I was talking about in yesterday’s mammoth entry happened again today, if only in miniature. But because it’s probably ranking amongst the best days I’ve had here yet, I’ll throw it in – if just to find an outlet for the photos I took today.

I should warn you; if you read yesterday’s post, today’s might smack more than a little of déjà vu.

So I went into class this morning and tried to do another round of ‘My Secondary School’ presentation. I must have jinxed the system last night, because it froze no less than six times, requiring six reboots and twenty minutes lost. Still, I managed to get most of the presentation done despite everything. Once you’ve been doing the same lesson for four or five hours a week, you hardly need to look at your notes to know what comes next. You find yourself saying the exact same turns of phrase, making the same gestures and cracking the same jokes, whether they worked or not. It’s a little strange, that. I only notice it when I look back.

My second class of the day was spent half on the workbook, and half on John Lennon’s Imagine. Considering the near-total absence of a choral tradition in this country, they did a damn good job for a class of twenty-nine twelve year-olds. They also reminded me that they haven’t forgotten that I promised to bring them some peanut butter. If mine hadn’t been confiscated at the airport, I’d have obliged them earlier, but as it is they’re getting restless… At least it’s on its way! The things I do for these children, honestly…

My third class of the day was (technically) my last class with one of my favourite groups, a lower sixth bachillerato class and one of the very best. I had a Uganda presentation planned for them, but if I expected them to sit and listen in silence, I had another thing coming. Halfway through OMI’s Cheerleader started playing and the ringleader of the group revealed three bags full of crisps, cups and Coke. After apologising for not paying much attention during my presentation, he explained to me that when they heard me announce that today was my last lesson with them, they arranged on the spot to throw a party. That explains why there was a general hum during the presentation (these kids are usually silent) and why Candi left ‘to take an important phone call’. A lot of hugs, a lot of puñados and a lot of love.

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Yeah, I really need an autofocusing lens. Nobody really understands manual focus

I never even got to finish my presentation; we’d only got as far as Kyambura. But I don’t care. I’m touched. And if I can find a way to claw back an hour with them, even if it’s out of my own free time, I will.

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On to today’s main event. Today is Día de la Paz. It’s something I haven’t celebrated since I was last in a Spanish school myself, which was way back in 2007. I’m not entirely sure why, but English schools (or at least, the ones I went to) don’t deem it celebration-worthy. Must be something to do with the general negative attitude towards anything that might detract from that sacrosanct curriculum of ours.

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Now 2007 was a long time ago – almost a decade – and I can’t really remember what it was we did in C.E.I.P. Miguel de Cervantes to celebrate Día de la Paz. Something similar to today’s events – minus the John Lennon, of course. Melendez Valdés’ plan was heavy on the balloons, anyway. Handy, since I’ve been trying to explain the concept of a balloon race all week.

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We all gathered in a square the patio in the final hour of school, and two representatives from each class came up to the front to read a quote about peace, which was written on a small dove-shaped card and attached to one of many white balloons brought forward by the students.

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I’d brought my camera on the off-chance that Día de la Paz would be a good chance to finally grab some photos of the instituto; for my drawing, if not for the sake of it. Madrid with Ali should have been a reminder, but I’d plain forgotten just how willing kids are to have their photographs taken. That’s reassuring – because they make the very best of subjects. Always.

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When everybody had said their piece (no pun intended), I was called out of the square to lead the recorder orchestra (oh, now that takes me back) and the rest of the lower school in singing Imagine. I guess I should have seen it coming, but that basically resulted in the recorders playing a completely different version of the song to the one everybody else had learned – and, consequently, me singing on my own. Well, I can’t say I didn’t see that coming. Because I did. And in the background, the teachers began to release the balloons and their messages of peace, one by one.

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It’s not been particularly windy for a while, so wonder just how far those balloons will go…

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Here’s to hoping that wherever they end up, the messages of peace they’re carrying with them put a smile on somebody’s face – in irony or in truth, it really doesn’t matter. Just as long as they’re smiling. (Exit Sop, stage left) BB x

A Step in the Right Direction

I love blackboards. They’re quirky, they’re the very definition of old-school and, more importantly, they’re reliable. Grab yourself some chalk and you’re good to go. The sad thing is, they’re on the way out.

Wait, what? I thought they were done away with years ago, I hear you say? I remember a grand total of two years of blackboards in primary school before whiteboards and whiteboard markers edged them out, to be replaced almost instantly by the firestorm that was the first wave of interactive whiteboards. Well, blackboards are still the status quo here – or rather, they were, until last week. The twenty-first century has arrived in Extremadura, it seems, and the herald is the interactive whiteboard.

It’s been highly interesting to watch the reactions, as my scope as a teacher covers kids from five to eighteen along with several seniors. Unsurprisingly the youngest are the most in awe, and I’ve had to play the fool and feign ignorance, living through the ‘brand new toy’ atmosphere along with the rest so as not to spoil it for them. How are they to know that I was no older than nine years old when I had my first encounter with an interactive whiteboard, some twelve years ago?

As such, I’m long since past the shock-and-awe stage, and I see them as more of a nuisance. Not only have you got to spend time mucking about with the computer and projector, but you’ve got to keep an extra eye open, because kids just love to touch the damn things (I’ve already banned its use in my two primary classes because they just won’t keep their hands off). On top of that, if you’ve planned a lesson that requires the technology and it decides, for whatever reason, to screw you over by playing up, that’s the entire lesson out of the window.

And that’s without mentioning the calibration nonsense. How does one even draw properly on one of those things? As such, I’m definitely in Camp Blackboard.

All I can say is that if my generation made the same fuss over this new technology, I’m truly sorry. The last two weeks have been comparable to trying to plug a burst water main with one’s hands.

So, apart from lapsing into his old Luddite ways, what else has yours truly been up to?

In a complete turn-around from the way things were at the beginning, my state school kids have been nothing less than complete angels of late. Our school hosted a charity event last Friday in aid of the Syrian Refugee crisis, which I agreed to sing for. When my backing singers bottled out, I ended up having to improvise a new number, which was a mish-mash of several of Tolkein’s walking songs set to music, half from the 1981 BBC Radio adaptation (my childhood, right there) and half from the 2003 Return of the King movie – specifically, Billy Boyd’s The Steward of Gondor. And what do you know, it worked! I’ve had people coming up to me all week telling me how it sent shivers up their spine (or the Spanish equivalent, piel de gallina), which has done my crushed ego a world of good.

Alicia of 4º ESO delivers a brilliant monologo

On top of that, I had a wonderful surprise yesterday when I turned up to a class to find four people missing: three students and, crucially, the teacher. Of course, nobody thought to tell me until that moment that she’d be on a school trip. As it turns out, I’d arrived just in time, as most of the kids were on the verge of following their three classmates’ example and doing an early runner. For reasons I still can’t fathom, instead of making a break for it – unwisely, I did give them the opportunity – they stuck around to see what I’d got in store for them, after giving me a demonstration of the songs they’d prepared for this year’s chirigotas (satirical songs, often covers with the lyrics rewritten to local effect).

It was halfway through the second when a cover teacher showed up and tried to take over. I managed to persuade him that I had the situation under control (Nixon never told a bigger lie) and let him have the afternoon off. From the moment he shut the door behind him I had the unwavering attention of the whole class for the presentation I’d prepared, and that in itself was nothing short of a miracle.

But better yet was when I got to school the following morning to be told by their teacher that not only had they enjoyed the lesson, but that they’d told her that they really learned a lot from it. It’s little moments like that that really make teaching worthwhile. It truly is a vocation and I can’t help but feel I was called a long time ago. And so what if it’s a family tradition? I’m a traditional sort of guy. I can handle that.

Not so nice was what came later, when I voluntarily took an hour out of my free time to pay a visit to the Upper Sixth class, which (for reasons beyond my understanding) is the one year group in the school which has no contact with me at all. Most of them were really keen to see me at last, but I also had the first example of hostility I’ve ever faced in a classroom when one of the students, pressed to ask me ‘a question, any question’ by the teacher, said in perfect English that he ‘quite honestly couldn’t care less about [me]’. He shut up pretty quick when I revealed that I was actually part-Spanish myself, but it did sting a little.

It didn’t hurt for long. I had a primary class right after which took my mind off the whole thing, to put it lightly, and for the rest of the afternoon I had my hands full trying to keep the restless upper tiers of my private school kids under control – which came to a head in one of the funnier instances of the year so far.

We were discussing Netflix, illegal downloads and streaming on the internet and, naturally, the subject of porn came up – what do you expect in a Catholic school? Now, one particularly chatty kid always gets that class’s goat and today one of them decided the kid had simply gone too far and brought him down to size royally, joking that he watched porn, but on his Smart Watch, ‘because it’s a lot more practical that way’.

He didn’t need to demonstrate. I couldn’t keep a straight face for ten minutes.

On the whole, there’s been lot of reasons to smile over the last two weeks; ever since I wrote that post on reasons to smile, in fact. Troublesome though they are, I still cherish the hugs I get from my primary kids on a Wednesday. It makes me feel appreciated. So too do I accept the hero worship I get from my cuarto class every time I pass their classroom, because it makes my heart soar when they scoff at my facts, laugh at my jokes and generally get so involved in my classes.

Oh, and the swallows and the martins are here. Already. In January, for Pete’s sake. I’m practically on tip-toes I’m so happy.

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Couldn’t grab the swallows, but the siskins that stopped by the park were pretty obliging

But perhaps the best thing that’s happened over the last two weeks has been the arrival on YouTube – at last – of last summer’s A Night at the Movies concert in Durham Cathedral. I wrote a blog post about it at the time, which you can read here to refresh your memory if you like, but needless to say it was the single best night of my life, and remains so to this day. To have the chance to watch it all over again has had my head spinning. I’ve put a link to the grand finale below. Listen carefully at 3:10 and you might just hear yours truly belting out the Zulu solo, despite having next to voice left by that stage of the night!

It’s been a love-filled few weeks, and I’ve needed it, all of it, as after what was supposed to be the date of the year became the friend-zoning of the century, I’ve not had the easiest start to 2016. As it is, I’m coming out fighting.

I’ll leave you with that Smart Watch image, I think. It stills gives me the giggles, in the most shameless, puerile fashion. But then, I am shameless. You know that. BB x

Go West

For once, it’d probably be better if, whilst reading this, you’re not hearing my voice saying it to you – because my voice right now is wrecked, and you wouldn’t recognise the guy on the other end of the line if you could hear him.

I put that down to three things: three hours of choir practice (most of which spent singing at the top of my range as there are no tenors or basses here), two hours of conversation with Upper Sixth-level students and one hour of wrangling with one of my two very-almost-out-of-control primary classes. First and foremost, I blame Ariana Grande, but that primary lot don’t help much. Still, I got my first hug from my two favourite kids in that class today, which was heart-warming, to say the least. Tasha’s been getting hugs since the get-go, and I guess it’s normal procedure for the female auxiliares, but not for me. It made my day, anyway. When they’re not launching a full-on assault against my sanity, my will to live and my voice-box, it’s nice to know they see me as a human being.

I catch myself saying to myself almost constantly: remember the Iraqi kids, remember the screaming, remember the chair-throwing incident… It can’t possibly get any worse than that. I think that’s probably the right way to go about it.

In truth I’ve not got all that much to report at the moment. In a couple of days’ time I’ll hit the road as it’s the December puente (when a national holiday falls close enough to the weekend to create an extended weekend; literally, ‘bridge’). This year it’s only (!) a five-day weekend as the national holidays on the 7th and 8th fall on a Monday and Tuesday respectively, but that’s enough for a mini-adventure at least. I’ve been juggling several ideas over the last few months as to how best to use the time – surprising my friends in Cantabria, Morocco or Granada was the main plan – but it wasn’t until last weekend that I hit upon a decision, and my decision is PORTUGAL.

Yeah. I don’t speak any Portuguese.

It’s only occurred to me recently to take an interest in this nation that just so happens to be lying RIGHT ON MY DOORSTEP. No, seriously, it’s less than half an hour’s drive in the car if you just keep heading west. I suppose the main thing that stopped me going in the first place was that, quite simply, I know nothing about Portugal. I can read Portuguese almost as well as I can read Spanish, but understanding it spoken is… well, it might as well be Russian. The odd word might sound familiar, perhaps, but otherwise it’s a different language in its own right. And rightly so. But, just as Andrew and I decided in Kiev, the mere fact that I don’t speak the language shouldn’t be a barrier in the slightest to an adventurer like me, so… there we go. I’ve booked a couple of nights at a hostel in Lisbon, and I’m leaving it until I get there to decide whether the plan is to head south and check out the Algarve whilst it’s still tourist-free (a tempting prospect) or the gob-smackingly-beautiful north, peppered with unforgettable villages like Monsanto, Marvão and Piódão. It’s a tough call. As always, I’d rather leave that decision until the day. I’d feel better, that way. Come the day, I’ll know which way to go.

As for the Portuguese, well, I’m not going in completely unarmed. In Kiev all I could say was a feeble ‘спасибо’ (thank you). I’ll brush up as many little phrases as I can before I go, as a little always goes a long way, however badly you pronounce it. I’m told the Portuguese are a fascinating people; proud, polite, gaudy and brilliant linguists. My bachillerato class also seem to think that the women have moustaches, but I’ll be the judge of that.

With any luck, I’ll return doubly keen to pick up another language and add it to my belt. I was planning on making my next big language attempt in Zulu, but it is a bit of a jump… Perhaps it would be better if I worked my way towards Zulu, say, via Portuguese…?

Oh Monty Python. How I miss you. BB x