When ‘No’ is a Cultural/Moral Faux-Pas 

Of all the misadventures on this earth, I didn’t expect to wind up in the cardio ward of a general hospital during my stint in Morocco.

No, don’t worry. It’s not me. It’s the mother of my host family; there was an accident involving a police car and now she’s hospitalized. I’m just sitting here to show face, typing this up on the old iPad (and, if I might be so selfish, feeling very hungry). The entire family were here a couple of hours ago, but they’ve all filtered out and left one by one. It’s just the old guard, now. The old guard and me.

And of course, it’s Dārija on all sides. My posts from Jordan from last year imply that within two weeks I’d tuned unto 3mia. Not so with Dārija. It’s just too different a sound. Some of the words are the same but the accent is just too strong. I guess it’d be like studying the Queen’s English and then being exposed to Cajun. 

The trouble is, I was asked if I wanted to come along. I certainly could have stayed at home and got some more of that essay done, but what was I supposed to say? No, thank you, I’ve actually got a lot of work to do? How soulless is that?

But then, this is exactly how I’ve ended up in these scrapes before. I went to a funeral in Uganda once, for a family member of a former member of staff. We’d never met her, but one of my companions got it into her head that it would be kind of us to go along. That meant a five-hour drive out into deep country, far away from the English-speaking hub of Lira, to attend a lengthy service in a language none of us understood a word of for a woman none of us had ever met. That I spent the entire journey there and back wedged between the two fattest women in Africa didn’t help matters.

The trouble is, I guess, that I’m just very bad at saying no. I think a lot of Englishmen are. Maybe that’s why we have the word awkward and so many other languages don’t: we need it. What does that say about us as a nation? I’m just throwing ideas about here. Anything to take my mind off this Dārija.

Everyone’s off now, except the father, of course. One of the family took the car with them, which means I’m stuck here, I guess. Stuck in the general hospital with no power in my phone and a missing pen. For how long, I don’t know. We’ll just have to wait and see.

The good news is that the mother seems to be recovering. Also, food has arrived in the form of biscuits and a Danone yoghurt drink. I’m even feeling a little guilty for venting like that back there, I guess that’s what hunger does to you. Thank goodness Ramadan’s over. In a while, crocodile. Let’s hope it’s not all night. BB x

Fast Breaking

It’s funny, the difference a day can make. Twenty four hours ago I’d have been tempted to title this post ‘Man vs Food II’ and it would have come across as a rather negative, Ben-gets-defeated-by-dinner-again sort of post. Right now I’m a little groggy, having just woken up from a much-needed afternoon nap, but the high that’s kicked this post into action has taken Monday’s negative finish and given it a firm kick out the door.

Coming back from Rabat and a more relaxed attitude to fasting has thrown the first two weeks’ routine off the rails, I confess. Apparently one of the various excuses for not abiding by the fasting laws – besides illness, pregnancy and being on one’s period – is travel. As a non-Muslim I’m under absolutely no obligation to fast, and it was only because it seemed the logical thing to do that I started fasting in the first place, but it has since occurred to me that there’s no shame in backing down over a light lunch here and there. 

There’s a lot of misconceptions about Ramadan. It’s a bit like the phrase Allahu Akbar: people tend to take it on face value. Here’s a really eye-opening insight I picked up today from a friend of mine. The Akbar part can be comparative or superlative, and if you let the media and its endless portrayals of gun-touting rebels carry you away, it’s easy to assume that it’s a gesture of defiance; ‘Allah is greater than any other (false) God’. In truth – or at least, in this interpretation of it (which I fully endorse) – it’s a simple reminder to the faithful that God is greater than whatever it is you’re doing right now. Harmless, right? Now that’s a pretty effective call to prayer. Better than a couple of church bells, at any rate.

Back to Ramadan. As far as I can tell, Ramadan isn’t about denying yourself food; it’s about getting closer to God. Fasting is just one way of focusing on such matters, reminding you daily of your obligation to the man upstairs. It’s that drive that gives believers the strength to persevere. I’m not a Muslim, so it’s little more than an act of respect or cultural appropriation on my part to act like the world around me. Fasting isn’t easy: I challenge anyone to try throwing their daily routine amiss with that two o’clock suhūr and still trying to get up for seven for that fifty minute walk to class. Faith is a greater fuel, however, and it’d be foolish of me to fight on without it. One day, I hope, I will find my way to God, but until then I would only be going through the motions, playing at mimicry. I’ve always been frustratingly stubborn, but on some matters the light, I find, is a little easier to see. Faith is one of those areas.

So without further ado, it’s out with the false scruples and in with the £2 tajines.

Now that the shackles are off, I’m going to tackle the meat of this post (there’s a knee-jerk reaction in pun format, if there ever was one). After a solid two hours’ research on the Barbary pirates, I ducked out of Dar Loughat this afternoon with comrade Alex to investigate our options for lunch. For the first time in two weeks I actually felt really rather hungry today, not to mention nursing an odd, woozy feeling in my head. In the latter I wasn’t alone; there were a fair few complaints about fatigue today across the board, even more than might be considered normal during Ramadan. The only difference is that the Levante has been blowing warm and strong all day, that westerly wind that’s supposed to dull the senses and even drive men mad. Believe what you will, I was tired and hungry. Alex offered to show me a local joint he’d uncovered and I was game.

Over lunch – a ridiculously cheap and delicious kofta stew – Alex shared a little of his knowledge of Egyptian Arabic with me. Something clicked upstairs, something that’s been dormant for a long time. Here was a guy who had had just as many years at the Arabic game as I, but one who, like my Parisian classmate, had beaten the language into submission over the course of time through a combination of drive and maintained interest. I found myself inspired to go home and study, and that takes some doing. Between the two of them, they’ve shown me that it’s not impossible to get to grips with the grammar. I’m no pessimist, but I do need reminding of my own capabilities from time to time.

It’s taken two and a half weeks to get to this stage. Two and a half weeks out of eight and only five remain. But I’m here at last. That’s what matters. And I haven’t even started the culture classes yet.

Watch out Arabic. I’m going to take you down. Just you wait and see. BB x

Headcase

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Predictably, my first session in Dar Loughat was a bit of a shock to the system. Perhaps even more so than my attempts at conversation with my hosts. That would be because striking up a conversation doesn’t tend to require case-marking every single letter.

As lessons go, it was superbly taught. The whole asking-you-for-the-word-in-your-own-language thing is new and a serious improvement; it put a stop to me nodding my way into ignorant oblivion from the get-go. I’m not sure why other teachers haven’t tried that in the past, I needed it bad. I guess it’s the sign of a truly capable linguist, if he’s able to field three languages at once on top of his own.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel I was trailing. The placement test landed me with a Parisian postgraduate who had taught herself Arabic alongside Farsi, Urdu and Russian. As if that wasn’t enough, she case-marked everything she said or read almost perfectly, tanwiin fatHas and mansūb endings all over the shop. Like an Archie 2.0. I pretty much gave up on cases in Year Two… and boy, does it show. Some find hardworking people like that inspiring. I just feel cowed. I spent most of that class with a weak smile on my face, like some kind of vestigial ape expression of fear. I brought this on myself, I suppose. I wanted to meet new people, to have a non-Durham class. I got what I asked for.

At the end, the teacher asked us how the lesson went. My classmate said it was very basic. I personally felt like I’d just finished the first assault course in boot camp. He laughed and said that Arabic is a bit like sports.

Great. Exactly what I wanted to hear.

I never said it was going to be easy. To make matters worse, we’re starting from Al-Kitaab 3 again. Not that that’s a bad thing – it’s pretty clear now that I’ve forgotten almost everything I learned out there, except possibly all the bird names I taught myself (escapism – because it was in my interest) – but the first topic is politics. Anybody who knows me knows how pigheaded and closed-minded I am about politics… That is to say, I hate it. I don’t like talking about things I don’t know and I know grand zilch about politics. Again, my classmate proved the yin to my yang: she loves it, takes a passionate interest in the subject and wants to pursue it through journalism.

So just as conversations at home tend to err towards the one-sided field, so too may classes here. All I have to offer is that I study books… A firm background of literature, art and music doesn’t make for an easy playing field when the subject is politics; specifically, the political ramifications of the Iranian Revolution in Islamic nations around the world. Give me the sleazy wine poetry of Abu Nuwās any day.

There’s an orientation at half three. Lessons last from nine to twelve and it sounds as though students spend the afternoon involved in projects. Which projects exactly I’m hoping I’ll find out today. That might be the key to staying alive. There’s little use in heading back to the flat… I have everything I need here, and it’s a tad too far to walk (dammit). So just for today I’ll stick around and take advantage of the speedy WiFi.

The first class was always going to be tough. Nevertheless I’m determined not to give up, not this time. If Arabic were only vocabulary, it’d be a dream… But we must be realistic. Besides, I guess it’s like maths – another thing that floors me. It’s simply a matter of knuckling down and mastering the technique. I gave up on maths too early. As a result, I can’t do division. I never could. I won’t make the same mistake with Arabic. 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

Volver

‘What is he saying?’
‘It’s closed.’
‘Wakha. Fermé. No ferry.’
‘Closed? Why?’
‘I think he said there’s a strike… Huelga? Uh… grève? Est-ce qu’ils ne travaillent pas aujourd-hui?’
‘Ah! No lanchan ferry! Wakha, sadiqii, wakha!’
‘Pero, en serio Ben, tu te has enterado?’
‘A mí me gustaría mucho enterarme…’

You know what I was saying a couple of posts back about loving the multilingual melange that is Tangier? Well, I guess I got my comeuppance this afternoon. After a long shopping trip in the medina, loaded down with suitcases and food for the return journey, we hailed down a grand taxi for the harbour. But for the photography hiccup in Chaouen (and Booking.com refusing to refund me for a bungled payment), our four-day trip to Morocco had gone without a hitch.

So it’s only natural that the taxi driver would leave it until we got to the harbour to tell us that, due to exceptionally strong winds, the port was closed. This was swiftly backed up by both the police and the FRS office, as if we weren’t already doing a bad job of playing the trust card. If we wanted to get home, there was only really one viable option: we’d have to catch the big FRS ferry from Tanger Med near Ksar Es-Seghir, some forty kilometres up the coast.

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We should have seen this coming just looking out from the hotel, really…

That’s how I found myself still in the same taxi some twenty minutes later, rounding the bends of the twisting coast road for the port and trying to make one intelligible sentence out of the five-language jumble of our taxi driver. His Classical Arabic, French, Spanish and English were all perfectly reasonable, but his mixing-up of all four of them mid-sentence with his native Dārija made it nigh-on impossible to understand a word of what he was saying. Speaking four languages is one thing, but trying to make sense of them all at once is a step too far for me.

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So green – but how much longer will it last?

By some streak of luck we made it to the docks in time, and for a fair price, too; 180MAD for the car from Tangier, for the record, and not quite the 2500MAD that was his first offer (trumping even the villainous Oulad Berhil cabbie in greed). Predictably enough, we weren’t the only ones caught with our pants down by the closure of the Tangier port: at least two other boatloads turned up for the 14.00h, which was necessarily shunted back to 15.00h, and then 16.00h. Passport control was, for the once, the least of our concerns; a succession of connecting buses came and went, none of them bound for the FRS service. I don’t suppose I minded too much. I spent the last hour playing Peep-O and making silly faces at a little girl who seemed only too pleased at the diversion. By the time the FRS shuttle pulled in it was coming on to five minutes to four and tempers were running short. Mufasa would have been all too familiar with the stampede that followed.

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God, I’m so evil

Despite repeated warnings from the bridge, I spent almost the entire journey out on deck in the hopes of seeing a shearwater (I’d seen a few dusky shapes in the gloom on the way out, but I needed to be sure). The Strait is also a very good place to look for whales and dolphins, so I had an eye out for them, too… whenever it wasn’t shut tight in a wince in the game-force winds, that is. The sea was choppier than I’ve ever seen it, making whale-watching a no-go and rendering photography difficult. At its worst, the ferry was tilting at a twenty-five degree angle from side to side, giving spectacular views down the deck into the ocean or the open sky at any given moment.

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Not the healthiest angle for a ferry

A sensible mind would have given up the ghost and retreated. But I’m not all that sensible, and I was rewarded for my obstinacy just short of the bay of Gibraltar by a single, chocolate-coloured seabird gliding effortlessly between the waves and a far-off but recognisable vertical jet of steam. Stubbornness has its rewards.

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The Bay of Gibraltar (plus very distant shearwaters)

Let’s just take a step back for a moment. This is now the third extracurricular adventure I’ve had with my colleagues, following Andorra and the Romanian exchange. Before Meléndez Valdés I’d never imagined life as a teacher to be anything like this. I’m completely and utterly sold on this way of life. This is my life, opening up before me: traveling Extremadura as a qualified English teacher until I have enough experience under my belt to settle for good. The oposiciones sound tough, but my colleagues here are encouraging me to come back and go for it, which makes it all the more worthwhile. Spain, you just keep winning me over. How I love you with all of my heart and more…

It’s coming up to ten o’clock, Spanish time. The sun set an hour or so ago. Eight o’clock start tomorrow morning. Ive had worse. On the whole it’s been a very good weekend, and my appetite for the summer is more than whetted. Only next time, I think I’ll catch the plane. 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

Diamond in the Rough

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

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

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

Well, not quite. One of them had.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homecoming

How do I begin to describe it? The feeling of being home again, some nine years after I left? It’s like your first ever Christmas morning. Like getting into a hot bath at the end of a hard working day. Like falling in love for the second time. All these things at once. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen it, every time I see that silhouette on the horizon, there are tears in my eyes and my heart starts racing.

I’ve lived in several places during my twenty-one years of existence, from Dover to Durham to Boroboro and beyond, but no one hometown has ever had the same effect on me as Olvera. Not even El Rocío stirs up quite the same initial rush, like a starstorm in my heart, and El Rocío is far and away my favourite place on the planet. Maybe that’s Olvera’s own magic at work. I wasn’t born here and I didn’t even live here for all that long – all of ten months and more – but if anybody asks, I always tell them that this is where I grew up. Pretentious, yes, but there’s more than vague half-blood pride behind that statement. I was twelve when I moved here, and turned thirteen just over a week after I returned to England, so I was here at a critical time for growing up. I had my first crush out here. I developed a serious passion for languages, I had my musical awakening – and consequently began to toy with the idea of abandoning my violin – and, perhaps most importantly of all, I became the avid naturalist that I am today. Oh, I’ve always been stark-raving mad about animals, but it was only here when it got to the stage where I started going out on my own and putting names to things furry and feathered (mostly feathered) without the aid of a book. My own book came into its own here – I even went on local TV to advertise it when the chance arose. Essentially, the four pillars of my life, music, writing, travel and nature, were cast here, from the same marble that mottles the rolling hills that cradle the lonely peak of Olvera.

Oh, and of course, Andalucía, like a shard from the Devil’s mirror, lodged itself in my heart and I’ve not been able to remove it since.  
I’ve used the word ‘heart’ three times now. I’m aware of that. I’ll try to keep a level head. It’s not an easy thing to do right now.

But simply being here isn’t the best part. In truth I’ve made three return trips since 2007, once with my family, once with mum when we were grounded by the Eyjafjallajökll eruption and the third, the last, towards the end of my crazy pan-Iberian adventure back in 2013 when, my endurance failing me, I turned from my road towards the homely peaks of the Sierra de Grazalema. On all three occasions I tried to find my old school companions, without success. This time, armed with WhatsApp, I’ve finally managed to track them down, and a reunion of almost a decade in the making is on the cards. Excited? You bet I am. Ecstatic? That doesn’t even cover it. I’ve been planning this day in my head for the last nine years, adding new stories every year. I’m still going to walk into it and freelance it anyway, but that doesn’t kill the hype. These are people I haven’t seen since we were primary school children with brightly-coloured rucksacks and unbroken voices. I’ll bet I’m still the one who sands out a mile with the blonde hair and the blue eyes – and now, of course, the shirts – but I wonder how much will be refreshingly familiar?

  
I get the feeling they’re planning something behind my back as well. All I have is a time and a place, the rest is Cristina’s doing. I have twenty-four hours. That’s perfect. It means that I can spend tonight rediscovering the delights of my old Friday night haunt, the pizzeria Lirios. Better still, the red murder that’s scarred my face since Jordan is fading away thanks to a visit to the doctor yesterday, and only just in time. With a little luck, I’ll be as good as new by tomorrow.

  
It’s coming up to nine o’clock. I think I’ll wander on up to Lirios. I wonder if the ginger-haired porter from the Hotel Sierra y Cal who used to frequent the place is still there? If anyone in this town would recognise me, it’d be him. He was the first Olvereñan I ever met. It would be so very fateful if he were. There’s an air of fate hanging about this whole weekend. That’s what I’m feeling. BB x

Return of the Paperwork Fiend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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