The Best Margherita in the World

It must be time for the second half of Biff and Ben’s Andalusian Adventures. Apologies for the delay; work is picking up speed fast, just like it always does. Private lessons are adding up now. I look after a group of kids for an hour twice a week and suddenly the whole town is in on the game. It won’t be long before my previously timetable is fully booked, perhaps even more so than the last time I was here. The way things are going, I might even earn more than that year, too: private lessons pay a lot more in the long run than a regular assistant’s hourly salary.

So, after spending an enjoyable sunset watching bats skimming low over the water in the town park, I thought it was high time I got this post out of the way so I can justify giving you weekly musings and updates – which, I maintain, always make for much more entertaining reading than another ‘wish-you-were-here’ travelogue.

That said, here’s one such adventure.



After a day wandering about Seville and discussing the pros and cons of Salvation, I thought we could do with a trip further afield. Through our AirBnB host Emma we managed to rent a car at less than twenty-four hours’ notice. It took some doing, but we did it. All we had to do was decide upon a destination. It took some convincing, but I managed to dissuade Biff and Rosie from visiting El Rocío. Why they alighted on that one in particular is beyond me. I suppose the fact that I’d name-dropped the place for years and years had something to do with it. At any other time I’d have loved to show off my favourite Spanish lady, but after a year of bad droughts and worse forest fires, she’s hiding her skirts in shame at the way she’s been treated. I can only hope she finds her smile again.

Emma looked horrified when they mentioned their plans to her, pulling the same pained expression most Spaniards seem to pull whenever you mention you’re headed for Huelva (“but… why?”). I spent most of the night and a good twenty minutes of the morning making other plans and, over breakfast, I posited a route through the Serranía de Ronda an alternative. They took the bait. Thank the Lord.

With Biff at the wheel, we reached the intersection and headed east, instead of west. Towards the mountains. Always a good direction to be going in. There was a strange black fog over the town of Dos Hermanas as we left Seville behind. Not sure what that was all about. Time to head up into the mountains where the air is clear.


Ronda. It’s been ten years. It’s been more than ten years. And still I remembered my way about that most beautiful town, truly the jewel of the Andalusian sierras. Little wonder the famous bandoleros made the sierras around here their home. A guitarist and his accompanying dancer plied their trade before the balcony on the park promenade. A horde of Spanish tourists marched down the walk towards us, the noisiest of all the world’s sightseers. And now they’re armed with selfie sticks. They seem to be one of the few things the older generation has learned how to use – and discovered to be much to their liking. God help us all.


We had plenty of time and a lot of shadows to kill. So we meandered along the cliff wall in the direction of the famous bridge, whilst I explained how GHOTI was fish and Biff threw me for a loop with the seven pronunciations of -OUGH. Trust me, when you’re in the English teaching trade, nuggets like these are fun. I’m serious.


Or at least, they are for me. Biff may have other ideas

Rivalling the Spanish tourists in town were the Asians, who had come in great numbers. And upon the battlefield of the bridge, where Spanish and Asian met, selfie-sticks held aloft, it looked as though two armies wielding pikes were set to clash. It was rather difficult to find a good spot without crossing somebody’s line of fire, I can tell you.

What’s wrong with a good landscape?

We passed the homage to the Romantic Travellers of Ronda where, despite the relatively sparse decoration, the selfie stick brigade was back in force. A little further on, past a curio shop and the Museo de Lara, we stumbled upon another blast from the past: the bandit museum. Had I had half a brain I would have made it priority number one to visit this little establishment whilst writing my TLRP on bandits two years back. I didn’t, and I still nabbed a decent 85% (thank you, Google Books), but boy, do I still wish I had! The place was a gold mine and – to my surprise – it didn’t drive Biff and Rosie out of their minds. On the contrary, they even seemed to enjoy the visit! Which made me happy. Though perhaps not as happy as having the chance to see an entire collection of bandit knives…

Lunch – at Gastrobar Déjà Vu, directly opposite the museum – was spectacular. I haven’t eaten so well for so little since Amman’s Bab el-Yemen. Twelve euros for ten tapas. And that’s ten home-made, local produce tapas. Insane. England, please look and learn. Tapas shouldn’t cost more than three to four euros a head, if that. Not seven. Please remember that.


Ronda’s streets look stunning under the azure sky, but it was the gorge we came to see. And this is where my ten-year-old memory failed me a little – because the last time I came here, I’m almost certain the path beneath the cliff wall went no further than a few metres or so.


Not anymore. I guess Ronda must have hit the bigtime on the tourist circuit, because the track down to the gorge is in a brilliant state, complete with Via Ferrata routes, ropes and little cairns left by daytrippers here and there.


I could have sworn the Tejo river itself was polluted and closed off the last time I was here. Not so anymore! You can wind your way down the gorge and walk along the river valley, looking up at the bridge high above. It’s quite a surreal experience, and very humbling. The bridge looks enormous from on high, but it’s nothing compared to how it looks from below. And when you’ve got the sierras beyond framed by the archway…


…I could hardly ask for more.

The only anomaly of the excursion was the well-hut a short way out on the other side of the gorge. Because, if memory serves, I remember getting as far as a small building like that when I was twelve years old… though this one lies so close to the waterfall at the bottom that one might as well be there already. I wonder just how far I got?


From Ronda we took a meandering north route home via Setenil de las Bodegas, another gorge town where the denizens decided to build under and over rather than just over. It’s well off the beaten track, and well worth the visit. The sun was quite low in the sky by the time we got there and much of it was in shadow, but as Biff pointed out, you could definitely feel the difference between the warmer, sunlit side of the street, and the cooler, forever-shaded side. Enterprising people, these Andalusians.


The road home to Seville took us on a beeline towards a sight which is now very, very familiar to me: the silhouette of my old home, Olvera. The road from Setenil offers perhaps the best view of the town for miles around. So despite my better judgement, Biff and Rosie convinced me that we needed to pay it a visit.

So we did.


It was decidedly weird to see Biff – my oldest and closest friend – walking down the streets of a town which, until now, has stood like an island in my life, a year away and apart. Worlds collided. And I said as much several times. So, to recover from the weirdness of it all, I suggested dinner at Bar-Restaurante Lirios. And there’s a decision I had no second thoughts or qualms about. Because Lirios, in my humble opinion, serves up the best margherita pizzas in the whole world. And that’s worth travelling all the way over the hills and across the sierras for. I usually order margherita whenever I’m out at a pizzeria to see if anywhere can do it better. Having not been to Italy, my options have been limited, but thus far, I’ve yet to meet Lirios’ match. When last I came to this town, it was in search of an old flame of mine. Frankly, I missed a trick. What was really calling to me over the distance of years was not a brown-eyed beauty, but a well-seasoned pizza. As with most things in Spain, and in life, I suppose, it’s the simplest pleasures that speak the loudest.


I’ve no travels on the books as of yet. The bike hunt is still in progress (I put a busy WhatsApp conversation on silent at just the wrong time), and I’m still waiting for a day when I have the time and the lack of errands to allow me to find a bike to take me to Hornachos and beyond, that prince of towns.

It’s winter, now. This morning was bloody cold. I almost got my scarf out of the drawer. It won’t be long until I’ll be less hesitant. Autumn lasted for a grand total of one week and three days. Fran’s complaining about the absence of an enagua for the table, and I have a cold. Summer’s finally taken her leave. Winter has arrived. 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

Veils and Cartwheels

Another weekend, another adventure gone by. My weekend travel budget is capped at 90€ wherever I go, for which I’ve managed Cantabria, Lisbon and now Granada. Not bad from Extremadura. I’d like to say I’m entering economy-mode after this, for the end-of-year adventure’s sake, but that’s unlikely what with Semana Santa around the corner. So let’s just say I’m going to be even more budget-savvy than usual from now on. But that’s hardly going to stop me from going searching for more adventures.

I made a promise to a few friends from Durham to pay a visit whilst they were lodged in the gorgeous Moorish stronghold of Granada. That promise was, however, dependent on the arrival of the first snows in the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada. That little proviso caught me out, as it only began snowing in earnest around Carnaval weekend, by which point most of the Durham crew had long since left Granada for their next destination. Still, a promise is a promise and I’m a man of my word, so off I went. It just so happens that I have a couple of Spanish friends based there anyway, so I wasn’t heading for another solo weekend.


I’m now a total convert to BlaBlaCar; if not for the drastically lower price tag and journey time (16€ for a four-hour ride from Zafra to Granada is pretty fantastic) then for the conversation practice. In a funny, roundabout kind of way, I remember complaining that it was exactly this kind of taxi-practice that bothered me in Jordan. I suppose that was because it felt like the only window of opportunity at the time. Here, it’s just one of many, and I’ve made some really interesting acquaintances through the system. One day, if just for the ease of going wherever I want, I really should learn to drive.

The real boon of BlaBla’ing it to Granada was getting there in time for sunset. It was gone half past six o’clock when we got there and the sky was already a gorgeous yellowy-pink, so I had a bit of a run to the Mirador de San Nicolas to get what I – and the rest of Granada – was after: that unforgettable view of the Alhambra, surely one of the world’s most beautiful buildings, set against the backdrop of the salmon-pink snows of the Sierra Nevada. I’ve never seen the Mirador so busy, and the views explain it all.


To the outsider, the presence of a gypsy troupe breaking into song and the chatter of Arabic in the crowd might seem too good to be true. There’s often flamenco up here, according to my local sources, but the Arabic is new to me – perhaps because this is the first time I’ve been in Granada since I started learning Arabic, and therefore I’m tuned to listen out for it.


The trouble with working a British Council assistantship on your year abroad is that it royally screws over your second language. Had I more brain than heart, I would have prioritised Arabic over Spanish, being nearly fluent in the latter before I set out anyway. But it’s never that simple with yours truly, and the prospect of spending eight months and more in my grandfather’s country was just too good to turn down. That I could have gone for a similar placement in Chile, in Argentina or Ecuador but didn’t is testament to just how much I adore this country.

As a result, I’m none too confident with my Arabic right now. Oh, it’s probably still all up there, buried deep beneath my Amman angst, but I haven’t really given it much thought since I packed my bags and left Jordan last summer. Seeing the Alhambra reminded me why I chose to study it in the first place. The sad truth of the matter is that it’s not the Middle East that interests me (at least, not the contemporary one), but North Africa. The Moors. Al-Andalus. This is what drove me to study Arabic; so that I might understand this ancient world a little better. That’s why I have so much love for Morocco and why I was in such high dudgeon about being sent to Jordan last year. My heart is here, in this part of the world, and I always follow my heart.


Take one look at that view and tell me I’m a fool for falling in love.

It was quite a fiddly weekend on the outset. The group gathering I’d planned on fell through straight away because one of the girls went to Seville for her best friend’s birthday, after which the others pulled out, leaving me high and dry with my hostel and ride already booked. It only dawned on me then that most of the other Durham students had already left Granada, and when my only remaining card said she’d probably be busy all weekend with a project anyway, I thought I’d have a rather lonely city break on my hands. Because, Granada being Granada, you can’t just stroll up to the Alhambra. It’s usually fully booked at least two months in advance at the weekends and on public holidays, so by the time the girls let me know they weren’t going to be there, it was far too late for a flying visit.

Understandably, I was feeling pretty let down.

Nevertheless, Fate is a most unpredictable woman, and as it turned out she dealt me a very fair hand indeed. The weather was impeccable, and I spent a gorgeous sunny morning with the albayzin – Granada’s labyrinthine Moorish quarter – pretty much to myself. I was mainly in town for inspiration and I found buckets of it. My sketchbook came back at least five or six pages more full than before, so I call that a success.

I must have spent at least two hours just sitting and sketching at Washington Irving’s feet on the garden walk up to the Alhambra, where six or seven costumed students asked me to photograph them beside the Son of the Alhambra. I think there was a treasure hunt or competition of some kind going on. I’m still not entirely sure. Saturday, I’m told, is when all the bachelor nights and hen nights take place, and these usually start in sunlight hours – visible, and often audible, at quite a distance. It could have been one of those… minus the phallic straws, of course.


My luck turned whilst I was people-watching atop the Alcazaba and a message came pinging through, telling me that the one Durham student left in Granada had not gone to Cordoba as planned due to a heavy night on her flatmate’s account and was game for some exploration. Hallelujah for you, Violet! It was getting infuriating sitting by the Alhambra and watching the hundreds pouring in and out in the knowledge that I couldn’t get in if I tried, so it did me a world of good to be called down from the heights and back into town.

There was a loud, booming sound as I wandered back down the path which I put down to construction work, but the closer I got, the more rhythmic it sounded, until it sounded much too upbeat to be a pneumatic drill. The Plaza Nueva was packed and, at the centre, I was met with something I really hadn’t expected to find: a samba band.


Accompanying the band was a veil-dancer, not unlike the one I saw in Caceres back in November, only this one had more of a gypsy’s flair to her style than the lithe Arabic movements of her predecessor.


The veils this dancer wielded streamed off the blades of the twin red fans in her hands. Needless to say it was something beautiful to watch and I was mesmerized, for how long I don’t know. When you see a thing of beauty, you really have to look.


That wasn’t the only attraction in town. Barely five minutes after the samba band had packed their things and left, another street artist took their place.


What looked quite commonplace to begin with quickly turned out to be anything but.


Was it acrobatics? Was it dance? Was it mime? Something of a mixture of all three, I think. The girl turned wheel after wheel about the square, casually stepping out of the hoop every so often to wiggle about for a bit before stepping in for another spin.


Violet’s still new to the place, but she did a fine job showing me about the place nonetheless. All I ask is good conversation and she delivered, and how. She even led us straight into a free-for-all tango, which may or may not have consisted of no staff or professionals whatsoever. It’s so hard to tell in this country, where almost everybody can dance when it comes to the crunch.


It’s really quite something to see the oldies really going for it, and practically flooring the youngsters whilst they’re at it.


If the technique is all in the feet, then the passion is all in the face. Oh, to be able to dance with the passionate restraint of these deities!


We found a decent place to tapear outside the touristic district where I made a beeline for my Achilles’ heel – croquetas – which were of a very high quality, I must say, and further story-swapping, which was of an even higher quality. I could hardly ask for more. Thanks Violet!

Now, somebody up there must have been smiling on me, because Ana, my Olvereñan friend, managed to wrap up her project for the afternoon and turned up to pick me up from lunch. Ana’s a gaditana through and through but she’s been in Granada for some time now, so she knows the place better than I ever could. She took me to a gorgeous café under the Mirador de San Nicolas with a killer view of the Alhambra. They didn’t have Arabic tea, but they did have Pakistani tea, which was a damned good substitute. And what better could I ask for: two fascinating, challenging conversations in two languages with such good company all afternoon! I’m truly spoilt.


There was better to come. This is where knowing a local really comes in handy. Ana found her cousin up at the mirador and after we’d been chatting with them for a while, they left and we got their space on the wall. It’s a fiercely contested wall, for obvious reasons, and Ana and I got all of an hour with that unbeaten view as the sun set and the lights were turned on. The Alhambra looks spectacular at any time of day, but by night the snows on the mountaintop are a deep blue and the castle walls seem to glow golden in the torchlight. It’s overdone, it’s clichéd and some might say it’s even cringe-worthy, but for me, it’s nothing more and nothing less than the most beautiful building in the world.


I’ll finish off the tale in another post tomorrow. Y’all need breathing space, I think. As do I – I’ve a private class in twenty minutes and I can’t be dilly-dallying around! BB x

Be Kind, Rewind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking like an Indian

I’m completely out of it. I just cleared half of Seville at a sprint. The Sunday evening bus from Olvera pulled in five minutes earlier than usual and I figured I could just about make the eight o’clock bus to Villafranca at a run. As you might expect in such situations, all the traffic lights went red as I reached them, but despite everything (and aided by a significantly less-crowded city centre than usual) I made it to Plaza de Armas with five minutes to spare… only to be mortified to find it operating on a pre-paid tickets service. I’d already resigned myself to a two hour wait and a miserably sloppy 2.30€ egg salad sandwich that almost fell apart in the vending machine (one of the world’s most villainous rip-offs) when the bus driver hailed me over. There was room for one more after all. Just once, just this once, I got lucky.

And now it’s your turn to be out of it, because this one’s a real titan. Get comfortable.

I’ll be perfectly honest with you, I was umming and ahhing about going ahead with this weekend’s plan right up until I went to sleep the night before. I had my reasons. The torrential rain forecast across the south was one of them.

To cut a long story short, am I glad I didn’t! It’s been quite a weekend.

I didn’t really do it summative justice in my last post, but last weekend was Carnaval weekend across most of Spain, and Villafranca de los Barros (in some ways for once, and in others as always) was no exception. The reason for that is because I wasn’t really happy with the quality of the two write-ups I drafted, both of them being a little too dry and/or morose for my liking. I’ll put that down to spending all of my creative energy on the novel.


More problematic by far, there’s simply no escaping the Lilliputian environment of Villafranca. It’s very hard to go anywhere or do anything without the whole school getting wise of it in twenty-four hours. It’s like my every step is watched. As I’m often guilty of doing, it’s possible that there’s more conjecture in that statement on my part than fact, but in any case, Carnaval weekend was a poor time to test that theory. All of my students were out on the town – every last one of them, in various states of dress – and that old pariah state of feeling like an intermediary between teacher and fellow human being was buzzing about my head all night like so many brown flies. Even underneath a salwar kameez, a red felt cap and thick sunglasses, they still smelt me out. In the end I got tired of being asked the same question – ‘Who did you come with? What? You came alone…?’ – and went home. It’s the fourth most common question I get out here, after ‘What’s your football team?’, ‘How do you know so much about stuff?’ and ‘Are you gay?’.


Well, the forecasted rain came, and it came down hard. I was fortunate enough that most of it fell during my commute to Seville, giving me an hour’s reprieve to test out my new auto-focusing wide-angle lens on Triana and the Giralda (as if I didn’t have enough photos of them both already). It’s a doozy and we’re going to work some serious magic together.


I have to say, I do feel bloody lucky to have to go through Seville every time I feel like heading south. Like Canterbury Cathedral before it, I’ve become very blasé about the gorgeous streets of Seville, knowing the place like the back of my hand as I do now. But as cities go, it’s every bit as enchanting as its reputation. It’s a thought that struck me as I sat in the parakeet-infested park by the Alcazar sketching a girl who was sketching some Japanese tourists. I thought it was worth sharing, because sometimes the best things in the world are already at your feet.


I mentioned that last weekend was Carnaval weekend across most of Spain. Not all of it. Thanks to the immensely popular celebrations in Cadiz, some of the province’s neighboring towns follow the practice of delaying their own festivities until the following weekend, giving their denizens the chance to support Spain’s Carnaval capital both home and away, as it were. Olvera is no exception.


As Hindu-ified as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, snub-nosed Englishman can manage, I found myself outclassed a thousand times over by my hosts, some of whom might well have passed for bona fide Pathans, if not Indians.


Durham, please look upon this little corner of the world and learn. This is how fancy dress is done.


Whatever Moorish blood remains in the heritage of the Andalusian is brought straight to the fore when he dresses in Eastern garb. The curling black hair, dark complexion, regal profile and sparkling brown eyes of these people evoke both an ancestry hailing from across the Strait, not more than a few hundred miles away, and the mystical infusion of a more ancient, more haunting legacy chased from the Punjab so many centuries ago.


I could sing the praises of the beauty of the Andalusian all day. Fortunately, I won’t.


After arming themselves with all the rings, chains, hoops and bangles in their parents’ possession (most of this lot wear nose-rings habitually anyway), we set off to dine together. Adrián, very much the leader of the group – if not for his age or spectacularly authentic costume, then because of his experiences in India – led the way, beating a tambourine and striking up a ready chorus of sevillanas (in both senses of the word). I found more than one willing future traveling companion amongst Alicia’s friends over lunch, which is quite an achievement in this poverty-stricken part of the world; although, as Ali put it, ‘esá chicá tiené dinero, eh’. I also snagged an invite to Granada, which I intend to make good on now that the first snows have finally arrived.


The rain returned with a howling vengeance during lunch and there was much talk of the street parade being called off. In the end the locals seized on a five-minute reprieve as the excuse they had been waiting for and it went ahead despite the return of the driving rain. For the sake of our outfits – and my camera – we left after only twenty minutes to seek shelter in the familiar settings of Bar Manhattan, but not before I’d ticked off all of the usual Spanish politically incorrect faux-pas: blackface, falangistas and an Arab with an ISIS flag getting mock-assaulted by a troupe of minions. This is my country – half of it – and everyone and everything is fair game for a laugh. Is it any wonder I’m so anti-PC?


After a cubata or two we raised the roof at Manhattan in a manner that you could only hope to find in Andalucia. Once again led by the tireless Adrián, the lot of us laid down sevillana after sevillana, with much clapping, dancing, wailing voices and the full support of the neighboring tables. This is the South. This is Andalucia. And I adore her. And to think I was tempted to even compare you to Extremadura…!


At length we set out for the carpa (the local barn-cum-sports hall) where the real party was just getting started. The three black men I’d noticed at our restaurant earlier – always an oddity in the Spanish countryside – turned out to be the drummers of the Brazilian dance troupe leading the festivities, backed by a true slice of Rio in the form of four feathered dancers decked out in the most sparkly lingerie.


There were prizes going for best costume, which was necessarily split into nine categories: essential, when you have the likes of a centaur herd, the seated judges of La Voz and Pedro Sanchez (complete with PSOE podium) to choose from. The top prize went to the most obvious gathering of the night: the Amish. Who’d have thought they were such party animals?


For once – FOR ONCE – Reggaeton did not dominate proceedings, and my shameless footwork landed me in the centre of several dance circles. Fortunately, I was the only one with a camera by this point, and therefore there’s no evidence of this. Of my cohorts, however, there’s plenty of material.


Simply put, Spaniards have far less qualms about having their photo taken than other nations.


Things wound down after a while and we retreated in search of dinner at the ungodly hour of ten o’clock; too early for dinner, and far too early to call it a night. That meant another sit-down meal, which in turn meant more sevillanas. Then it turned into a bilingual Disney face-off between Adrián and I as we sang Disney classics at each other across the table in our respective languages until either one guessed which it was and joined in. Wizard. Ali was getting pretty tired of it all by now and told us to shut up more than once. The victorious Amish on the other table didn’t seem to mind in the slightest. They were too busy getting mortal.


We ended up in Frena, the usual disco spot, for a dance and a couple of drinks, and I talked travel with the endlessly charismatic Adrian. By half one, though, everyone was worn out. Dreadfully early, even by English standards; but then, we had been partying since five in the afternoon.

I spent the following morning at a friend’s house watching Bride Wars whilst they downloaded all of the photos I’d taken. In all fairness, I’ve had worse Valentine’s Days than munching popcorn over a chick flick with the one-that-could-have-been and her best friend. At least, I think I have.


As a final note, I’ve been considering climbing down off the fence and choosing a football team to support. It must be said, family bias aside, I’m drawn to Barça, but the insufferably indefatigable commentator on the radio and his full-throated adoration of Messi may make a Real Madrid fan of me yet. BB x

The Green Hills of England

It’s drawing near to December, that time of year when, like as not, English hearts across the world look back to Albion. Say what you like, but Christmas just isn’t the same anywhere else. I’ve been told as much by the Spaniards themselves, some of whom know it only from what they’ve seen in books and on TV.

I’ve never been the kind to get too nostalgic about home, probably because I’ve always lived by the creed that home is where the heart is, and if truth be told, my heart is rather portable. I’ve been none too careful with it. There’s pieces of it everywhere; in Olvera, in El Rocio, in Boroboro and in the Lake District. This year is no different. I’ve been working here in Villafranca for exactly two months now, and I’ve yet to feel any desperate pangs for home home. How can I, when there are so many places I want to be? I’m also a natural loner, by habit and by necessity. Spending long periods in my own company has never bothered me all that much. Sometimes I prefer it that way. It’s a lot less complicated. So it’s got a fair amount to do with my personality, but it could well be because I’m simply too busy to get homesick. Being told I wasn’t needed for one of my classes this morning felt so decidedly wrong that I heard myself asking to make up the time later. I’ve told you before, I can’t deal with not being busy up to my eyes. It’s a state I both love and hate. But it’s a damn sight better than having nothing to do, which is the very worst state of all – just short of despair, which, I suppose, it is, in a way.

Enough musing! I’m not completely immune, and after reading several blog posts on a similar theme, I’ve got to wondering what it is that I miss about England when I’m not there, and I came up with a few:

  1. Milk. You know, regular, cold milk, none of this warm UHT stuff. Yes, I get it, we’re the only species that drinks another animal’s milk and it’s unnatural, but it’s a lot nicer in the morning than UHT.
  2. Music. I’ve already elaborated on this one, so I won’t go into it again.
  3. Footpaths. When you’ve grown up in a country so well-stocked with public footpaths across open country, coming to a land where unsigned farm tracks of dubious public status are the only alternative to roads is a little depressing.
  4. Rain. There’s something magical about rain. It makes me feel elated, especially the real storms, the ones where you simply have to rush outside and get soaked to the skin. That’s more of an African thing than an English thing, but we do get a lot of rain in England, and a lot more than Spain, anyway.
  5. Green. It’s not as much of a problem here as it was in Jordan, as Extremadura is actually rather green itself at this time of year, especially in the north. But it extends beyond that. It’s that cold wind in the night, the dewy scent in the morning, the crunch of frosty ground underfoot. An English autumn green and red and gold. As much as I love hot countries, it’s the one thing I truly miss when I’m gone. And nowhere, NOWHERE does it better than the Lakes.

That’s about as much as I can think of. Family, obviously, would be at the top of the list, but that’s a given. That’s the only reason I’m going home for Christmas this year, because I’m rushing straight back out here for January; for the Reyes Magos, for Olvera and for the Lion King in Madrid (I’ll save that for a later post). What with my younger brother at university now, all four of us left in the Young family are living and working in four different places, so it’ll be nice to be home together again for Christmas. As for the things I thought I’d miss – friends, food and life in general – I’ve got plenty of all three out here, and in a few cases it’s better than back home.

But the important thing is this: Christmas is a time for being with your family. Forget Christmas; the end of the year, when it’s dark and cold, and a new year is on the brink – that’s a better time than any to be with your nearest and dearest. I’d have liked to have stuck it out here, in defiance, or maybe gone to Olvera to spend it with my friends, but at the end of the day, they have their own families, and I wouldn’t want to hijack somebody else’s special day. So for England I’ll be bound, mere hours before Christmas Day, and for once, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I’m not ashamed to be British. And I have Allan Quatermain to thank for that. Allan Quatermain, and John Lockley, and Flashman, and all the other British heroes of literature, who in spite of all of my self-imposed angst at the shame of being British, have shown me that there is in fact a fierce integrity in being from Albion.

For the first time in history, I’m an Englishman abroad – and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. BB x

El Guiri y La Andaluza

What. A. Night. No, seriously, what a night. It really does look beautiful from the abandoned hillside of the Via Verde at five o’clock in the morning. The night sky is terrific. You could save yourself several hundred quid and skip Wadi Rum for this, if getting locked out of a hostel doesn’t bother you.

Oh, to own a camera good enough to capture all the night skies I've seen!

Oh, to own a camera good enough to capture all the night skies I’ve seen!

Yes, he’s done it again. Yours truly has managed to spend another night locked out and consigned to wandering in the twilight. But that’s ok. Any other night might really bother me, but my bus home isn’t until five o’clock in the afternoon, and frankly, for everything that happened tonight, I’d be locked out all over again just to live it through once more.

Hallelujah, it's almost dawn...

Hallelujah, it’s almost dawn…

The reunion of the decade was everything I wanted it to be and more (and I just saw a shooting star racing overhead as I looked up for inspiration. This was meant to be). That my former classmates hadn’t forgotten me is a given; though Olvera has a tenaciously stalwart expat scene, I was the English kid there too, the guiri, one of only three in the primary school (the other two being my younger brother and a tot in the infantil group, both desperately shy when it came to mingling). So that doesn’t surprise me all that much. That they should be so happy to see me after so many years, however, is something I can hardly believe. This is a town where friendships are cast for life. Within ten minutes I was nattering away in Spanish as I never knew I could, as though I’d never left at all. Jorge was quick to point out that I’d improved a great deal since the last time we met, which leads me to wonder when exactly that happened, as I recall acing my Spanish GCSE two years early. Perhaps it has something to do with actually knuckling under and learning the preterite. Otherwise, I’ll take it on trust.

Where to begin? How does one even embark upon nine lost years? I’d spent most of the morning narrowing down the years into the most worthy tales, and the rest of the time looking up any key words that might have escaped me, from the lesbian ex-girlfriend to the misunderstanding with the Guardia Civil and my successive failed attempts at tracking them down before. It was quite entertaining to play the Storyteller, but it was better still to hear all the things they’d been up to. Foolishly I’d expected them all to be in the same big group from primary school – a technical oversight anyone with half a brain could have known in advance – and it came as a fair surprise to see how everyone had splintered off. That’s growing up, though. I have to admit their voices alone sent my head spinning. When last I knew this lot, we were primary school kids with unbroken voices. Oddly enough I got the same start on being addressed by Jorge in his low Olvereñan bass that my entire generation got when Ron wound down the window and said ‘Hiya Harry’ at the opening of The Chamber of Secrets.

Jorge had to spark off to Málaga to another party – they’re all driving now – and we called it a night. I’d only just taken off my jumper when Alicia, another old friend of mine, gave me a buzz to let me know she’d arrived. Cue Catch-Up Round Two over tapas with Little Miss Popular before she invited me out to a night out on the town with her girls. What could I say? A night out with five Spanish girls, and andaluzas at that? That’s not the kind of invitation you turn aside.

Breaking the habit of a decade to celebrate the quest of a decade!

Breaking the habit of a decade to celebrate the quest of a decade!

I hadn’t exactly planned on sampling Olvereñan nightlife, but it found me nonetheless. All I need say is that it was everything I’ve ever wanted from a club – and this in nothing more than a bar, no less: great atmosphere, a broad clientele, impeccable music (zero Taylor Swift – sorry) and a crowd quite happy to get up and dance. Alicia taught me to dance the bachata and I taught her a few moves of my own. I haven’t ever had such an obliging dance partner – mostly because in the UK, any guy really going for it in a club is almost instantly written off as gay and given a wide berth by all but the most determined non-closet cases (speaking from experience). When Alicia left to grab another Barcecola to share, I was hailed over by a group of girls sitting at a table across the floor who asked the inevitable question. But instead of surprise when I said I wasn’t gay, they gave me an encore. ‘Hombre, tienes dos cojones y bailas muy bien,’ said one, ‘podrías salir con cualquier chica que te apetece.’ That’s probably not strictly true, but it’s a damned sight better than the usual British reaction. England, you could learn a lot from this world.

Having way too much fun to bother about blur

Having way too much fun to bother about blur

The bar gradually began to empty and eventually it was just the guiri and the andaluza left on the floor. We clocked out just before four o’clock, closing time, and left the night there. Four hours of dancing. Think about that for a second. That’s more than brilliant. It’s bloody phenomenal. 2015’s been the best year yet, but that night trumps the lot: Saad Lamjarred, June Ball and the Music Durham inaugural concert in Durham Cathedral, they don’t even come close. And Alicia tells me that’s just a regular night; next week is a puente, and the parties will be better, busier and longer. And so I find myself on the bus back to Seville, happy in the knowledge that I’ll be back in Olvera in five days’ time. If that’s how the rest of my year abroad is set to pan out, I’m one happy guy.

It’s going to be a year spent living a double-life: one as a teacher in Villafranca under one name, the other as a party animal in Olvera under the other. English in one location, Spanish in another. So we’re juggling again. But I’ve been juggling for several years now and I’m getting the hang of it.

Seriously, though. There are only a few times in my life I’d willingly relive. I don’t look back. Last night, however, was definitely one of them. BB x


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

The Trouble with WhatsApp

By the time this blog post reaches you, it’ll have been several hours since I finished writing this article. In a world where so much of what we do is instant, from long-distance communication to microwaveable dinners, it’s both painful and exhilarating to be stuck on what seems like a desert island in the wavestorm. Perhaps even a little rebellious, too. So, in a way, quite a bit like sex. But what do I know?

I’m currently living in a very comfortable two-bedroom flat on the edge of town, just a three minute walk from school and a seven minute walk to the nearest supermarket. During the week I share it with a flatmate some ten years older than me who returns home to his family every weekend, leaving the flat all to me if I’m not traveling. That’s just to give you some background detail. We agreed early on that there wasn’t much point in getting internet for the flat, despite his having access to a discounted deal, as we have no mainline phone, but chiefly because there’s free internet whenever we want it at school.

That means one thing: I live under a communication curfew. When school finally shuts its doors at half past nine, I’m off the grid until the following morning.

To my knowledge there are two other WiFi access points in town, if you don’t count all the cafés and bars: there’s the hotspot in the town park, and the WiFi service operated by the town’s youth hostel. I’ve been leeching off both for the last month, but neither are reliable. The park is a very hit-and-miss affair; sometimes there’s WiFi, sometimes there isn’t. Usually, there isn’t. The albergue is normally operational, but it’s a longer walk, and you have to be inside the front door to get a good signal, and that just looks plain suspicious. Which it is. I only play that card these days if I’m out of all other options and really need to contact somebody.

The crux of the matter is that I’m leading a largely internet-free existence. I’m not fully weaned of the system by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve taken the first few steps.

For one thing, YouTube no longer dominates my spare time the way it used to. I haven’t even accessed YouTube since I left England some four weeks ago. Nor do I have the option to spend hours trawling Facebook for whatever reason I used to do so. And since nobody out here ever uses SMS – this is a world where WhatsApp has well and truly taken over – my contact with the outside world is limited to an average of an hour a day: which, when you think about it, is still more than what you need. In an hour you can send and reply to a few messages, check your emails, Google a query that might have been troubling you and still have time to check the news. Anything more than that is unnecessary.

The trouble, as I’ve already mentioned, is WhatsApp. The whole world seems to turn on it, and Spain in particular has taken a really obsessive shine to it. All communication happens through WhatsApp. ‘Join our WhatsApp group’, ‘envíame una WhatsApp’, ‘don’t bother with Facebook, I haven’t checked mine in weeks, message me on WhatsApp’… I hear the same lines every day, unfailingly echoed word for word, like quotes from a cult film. It seems to be the only way people keep in touch, both personally and professionally. Even my colleagues among the staff have their own WhatsApp group, which swamps me with some three hundred new messages each time I’m back in wireless range. I asked a class to guess how many messages they send a day – upon investigation, every single one has both a smartphone and WhatsApp – and got the answer five hundred. As an absolute minimum.

I don’t know whether it’s the same in England, because I never could get WhatsApp on my old phone, so I never bothered. It’s an undercurrent I’ve done without thus far. And I don’t know whether, like Facebook, eBooks and Instagram, I’ll get sucked into the mire like everyone else in time, but I hope not. Face-to-face conversation is so much more worthwhile, worth waiting for. Surely there’s no need to go on talking into the small hours, firing round after round of thumbs-up, smileys, voice clips and the rest of the arsenal? I’m a very chatty bean when I want to be, but only if I’ve anything worth saying – small talk is something I’ve never really mastered, let alone understood – and anything worth saying is worth saying face-to-face. Cue Thumper: ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all’.

The hypocrisy of my argument is this blog, of course. But as I said before, these posts are usually conversations with myself more than informative insights – as well as being my university job.

I thought I’d broach the subject because I had a particularly fulfilling debate with my Seniors class on this and other subjects last week. I had them explain to me the Spanish attitude to the online world and their stance on the blight of WhatsApp. They’re all well and truly connected, but they were at least able to recognize the foolishness of it. A few observations from my students, for the record:

  • Facebook is for older people. (This is notable because that’s how it was, once upon a time, in the UK, before it became a social staple for everybody from eleven and up.)
  • Instagram is only for artistic photos, not for food. (Preach.)
  • Checking in should be solely a holiday feature, if you ever use it.
  • WhatsApp is a problem, but it’s unavoidable – and cheaper than SMS.

In my internet-free evenings, I’m getting a lot more done than I used to. I’m reading more. I’m writing more. I’m even watching the odd film on TV. The news suddenly means a lot more to me, now that I’m not getting it ticker-tape-style every second. And the conversations I have with the people I live and work with on a daily basis are so much more entertaining for the silence between each encounter. News is fresh and comes in a wave, and I enjoy that. It’s a hermit life, but I’ve always been rather partial to that kind of existence.

Please don’t take this as a holier-than-thou condemnation of the rest of the world. I’m the one at fault, the Luddite, the Philistine; as usual, it’s probably yet another case of ‘it’s not the rest of the world, it’s you’. (More’s the fool I am for having left my weekly shop to a Sunday, when everywhere is shut… Tch. Catholic countries. Looks like lentils and rice for dinner once again…) What it is is a welcome break from the year abroad whines and shines that we’re all bombarding you with right now, though you might read it as a wake-up call to myself and others as well, before we’re all swamped by the touch-talk phenomenon of the twenty-first century… if you’re so inclined.

If you made it all the way to the end of this tirade, all I can say is I admire your stamina, and thank you for your patience – I had quite a lot to get off my chest! I’ll leave the musing and tell you all about this past weekend’s adventures as soon as I find a way of getting my photos off my old SLR. In the meantime, I’ll reward your endurance by giving you a final insight into something sweeter.

This coming weekend I’m finally returning to my old hometown of Olvera, some nine years after I left for England for good. I can’t wait to see my old friends again, as I was still a child when last I saw them, but there’s one in particular I’d dearly like to see. She was a good friend, and one of the only ones I haven’t yet got back in touch with, for whatever reason. But I’m saving all nine years of stories for when I see her, like something out of the fairy tales I spend my life writing. It’s childish, foolish and more than a little bit wet, but it’s a damned sight more real than a buzz in your pocket. That is the reality of it, and that’s this year’s big project: breaking free. BB x