Old vs New

It’s been a mad week. Over the last week I’ve had to fret over dwindling career prospects, squeeze answers out of a class that don’t appear to have improved at all in two years, hurdle a new wave of needlessly ambiguous admin, wrangle with pushy internet dealers and, to top it all off, deal with a flatmate and a friend who could still disappear at any given moment should a better offer arise. It’s not been easy. The first few weeks of term are always an uphill struggle but I’ve never known one week quite this bad.

Five days of mental block were torture. None of my attempts at writing came to fruition. I needed a break. I had to get away from it all. And Fate, as she often does in such situations, came up with the goods. At the end of an afternoon spent filling in forms for Student Finace and the local Junta – and venting my hysteria through last week’s Have I Got News For You – an offer to join the other auxies for a Halloween Party came through. I ummed and ahhed and was on the verge of turning it down when I had one of my spontaneous urges and decided to go for it. I had no time to prepare an outfit, so I came as an un-ironed shirt. Perhaps that’s the least of the small-world horrors I’ve had to deal with this week, but it was easier to explain.

It was an enjoyable if tame night, for which I was truly grateful. I had the chance to discuss my music withdrawal issues with a kindred spirit, and to gather opinions from the new auxies on their new home. I also got to put my dancing shoes on at Concha when Billie Jean came on. I needed that. But most importantly of all, I got to spend some quality time with two of the brightest stars of the Tierra de Barros, Tasha and Miguel.

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If I needed a reaffirmation that I had made the right choice in coming back to Villafranca and not striking out somewhere new, this was it. These two are perhaps the greatest of all reasons for my return. Vultures, Hornachos and migas were waiting, but these two goofballs were a greater lure yet. And it isn’t often you can so easily allow yourself the luxury of moving your workplace to be near to your friends.

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We spent the day in Mérida, where Fate once again showed me a kind hand for my spur-of-the-moment decision. Because I spent time with Tasha, I learned that the Junta needs a stamp from the bank and a paper copy of our ICPC, which have to be mailed, not emailed. Even though I went to the Orientation days this year, that detail wasn’t spelled out, nor was it included in the emails. It’s a good thing I spent Friday morning hunting for envelopes and stamps, albeit for a different purpose. If the man at the estanco hasn’t been so dishearteningly begrudging at surrendering two rows of stamps rather than the twenty I was asking for, I might have used them all. Forewarned is forearmed.

She also demonstrated a knack for knowing my desires by meddling with Miguel’s car’s CD player. The Red Hot Chilli Peppers CD kept pausing, so he put on a Galician band who played the unmistakeable lullaby-dream of Erin Shore, albeit to the name of Romance de Novembro with Galician lyrics – this, after gallego has been so on my mind after my parents’ visit this week. Fate, or whatever it is that organises these things, sure knows what she’s doing. At twenty-three years old, I still cling to the storybook belief that everything that happens happens for a reason. It’s hard not to see the lines when you want to.

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 We had a couple of beers in a Bremen-themed bar on the curiously named John Lennon Street, complete with memorabilia of the former Beatle plastered on the wall beside buxom stein-bearing belles and German insignia, whilst the bartender bemoaned the loss of jobs in the wake of Catalonia’s defiant pursuit of independence. Spanish flags still hang from balconies across the region a week and more after the Día de España celebrations, in solidarity with a nation that’s being pulled apart by old wounds. My beer tasted like strawberries and wasn’t unpalatable. I guess beer is like tea, coffee and sitcoms: unappealing at first, but you learn to appreciate it over time. Effort leads to endurance, eventually, enjoyment.

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Lunch was superb. We visited La Taberna del Sole on the recommendation of a student of Tasha’s and we were not disappointed. Four courses (including a green asparagus and almond pâté and the ever-reliable croquetas de jamón) left us fit to bust, and at under twenty euros a head, it was a steal for a fancy lunch. The city is finally opening up to me.

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Despite having already lived here for a year, I never visited Mérida’s famous Roman theatre. Tasha and Miguel thought it was high time that was remedied. I guess I’m spoiled from having wandered the ancient beauty of Jerash and Petra, but Mérida’s reconstructed theatre complex is nothing to be scoffed at. It’s hard to believe it was all but underground a few decades ago, back when the city was confined to the north bank of the Guadiana and the Los Milagros aqueduct still marked the northern edge of town. Stradivarius and Burger King now adorn the old streets, rubbing shoulders with the Temple of Diana and Saint Eulalia’s basilica. Times are changing quickly here.

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The amphitheatre is equally impressive. Complete with a sunken arena that wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of Pokémon, the building is in remarkably good nick for its age. It’s always a little hard to tie the two together, the sophistication of the Roman Empire and the bloodlust of its citizens who paid to watch men and beasts kill each other. Man, the noblest of all beings, and the one who delights most in killing his own kind. In Rome we see man for what he truly is, perhaps. A vainglorious hypocrite.

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I entered via the dens where the wild beasts were kept for venato fights, ducking low so as not to bang my head on the way out like I had on the way in. I wonder what unwilling denizens of the Empire were caged here for the sport of a Roman carnival: boar from the surrounding hills, bears from the Cantabrian hills, lions from across the Strait… Maybe they even had aurochs here, mighty shadows of the toros bravos that still fight on in the Roman games of a land that saw fit to preserve them. I wonder how many beasts in all lost their lives in this arena.

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We crossed the Roman bridge on the way home. I looked, I listened and I spotted the swamphen that often haunts the reeds on the island, gnawing away at a reedstem clutched between its gangly toes. I wonder if it’s the same bird that I so often saw here two years ago? It always brings a smile to my face to see it, and it was a pleasure doubled to share it was my friends. Durham had its goosanders. Mérida has her curious calamón. Overhead, the impressive silhouette of a black vulture glided noiselessly to the west. For all the fury and doubt that the modern world brings in its wake, there is such beauty left in the old world.

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The storm has passed. The last of the rain fell during the night. I woke up this morning and opened the window to a cold breeze that had not been there before. I smiled. Everything seems better in the cold light of day. I can do this. Autumn has come at last. The long, dry Extremeño summer is over. BB x

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NB. It’s a pain when you have to write a blog post twice. This time it was because I wanted to italicise Have I Got News for You, erased it by accident, and, when Undo didn’t return them, rebooted to save the effort of writing those six words again. This will all be so much easier when WiFi finally comes to the flat in just under two weeks’ time…

Withdrawal

My school has a band, now. Secondary school or not, I have to admit I was a little excited when I found out. It consists of a piano, a guitar, a trombone, two saxophones, a drummer and a singer. Three guesses who that last one is. Better still, the music they thrust into my hands upon my return was by none other than Stevie Wonder. It’s For Once in my Life – in my opinion, not one of his best (I WishSuperstition and Uptight are in a godly league of their own), but better than a poke in the eye.

The first rehearsal was a bit touch-and-go. The drummer had an egg-shaker and I had to explain the concept of counting in.

The withdrawal is real. I’ve written two and a half arrangements for my old a cappella group in three days. I’ve had Marvin Gaye’s greatest hits on repeat and I threw myself at the Concha Velasco Band as their most avid supporter at their gig in Villafranca last night. I lost my voice from shouting the lyrics so much. That’s probably a good thing. My Romanian neighbours are spared another day of me wandering in and out of the house keeping my unused tenor voice exercised. Saturday morning means gym for a lot of folks here, time to work on their bodies. My voice isn’t getting the workout it used to. I have to keep practising.

This week, perhaps more than ever before, the blow of severing ties with the musical world has come down hard. Perhaps doubly so because almost all of my old Lights buddies will be back in Durham this weekend for a reunion gig of sorts. I made the decision not to go, even though it’s the Puente del Pilar this week and I haven’t been at work since two o’clock on Wednesday afternoon. It didn’t break my heart as it might once have done, but the aftermath hurts. We all have to make tough decisions, sometimes. It’s got a lot to do with growing up and moving on. The collegiate music scene, brimming with talented musicians from near and far, is behind me. I’m here now, in a country which a friend of mind once described as simply having no ‘afán’ (desire) for music for its own sake. Even my holdfast, the Concha Velasco Band, are set to disband soon. Real life, work and responsibilities have risen like the tide, and as is so often the case, it’s only the lead singer who’s pushing blindly for unity in the wake of disarray. It’s as much a reflection of how things could have been had I not let go of the group I loved the most. I needed that.

If I haven’t said it before, I’m saying it again now. Spain is not ideal for the musician. I laughed at the notion that it would get to me like it did to my parents, thinking that with twenty-odd years’ less immersion than them, I’d be alright. I was wrong. The lack of a music scene hurts. It hurts a lot. I think I’ve done more listening to music here in the last week than I did in an entire term at Durham, discounting the obligatory use of my essay-writing playlist. Granted, I’ve compounded my situation by living not just in Spain but in the sticks. But even so, music isn’t as much a part of this world as it is in England. In a class the other day we were discussing activities you might do at a youth club, and I genuinely had to spell it out that music was or could be an option. One of the brightest girls gave me a nonplussed look and said, very matter-of-factually, ‘music is only extracurricular’. Make of that what you will.

Flamenco is more than music. Flamenco is an art form which, like so many, has its masters and its endless amateurs. And so much of it is tied up with dance. The joy of making music for its own sake is lost here. As the son of two music teachers, it hurts. Having been in choirs, groups and bands my whole life, it cuts deep. I feel lost, and more than a little distant recently.

On the way back from the library, I saw something in the sky and I looked up. It was a vulture. I’d just been writing about them in my book, so I felt pretty fortunate to see my own material brought to life before my eyes. Riding the thermals on wings spread wide, with tapering fingers splayed in the current, it circled the park for a few minutes. Within a minute there was another one, closer. They rode higher and higher until, finally, they tucked their wings into that upside-down W shape and, like spinning disks, soared motionlessly from the top of their spiral to the west.

I could have cried. I love this country. I love it so much. I love the language, the people and the food, and I especially love the animals that live here. Especially the vultures. Music lifts me high, but nothing lifts me higher than being where I want to be, in a land where such magnificent creatures still roam the skies on your way to and from the supermarket. My heart bleeds a little. I had to give a queen to take the king. I may yet regret my decision. Or, I may find some new wellspring of energy in this country. I may not have my music, but I still have hope. That’s all I can ask for. BB x

Griffonheart

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

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

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

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

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(Not even for results like this…?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Griffon

‘Si te intereses a las aves, hay un buitre al otro lado del río. Hay mucha gente allí esperando que los bomberos lo remuevan. Por si lo sabes…’

The last thing on the hostel TV last night, after the late night showing of Colombiana, was a brief news report documenting the beginnings of a rise in interest in ornithology in Extremadura. I have to say I’m impressed; surprised and impressed. In my experience of living and working in Spain, the most interest the majority of ‘folk here take in birds is whether or not they go well with olive oil. Spain’s not unique in this regard. As my secondary school Physics teacher once said when I explained the risk the Bristol wind farm posed to migrating waterfowl, ‘if it won’t end up on my plate, I couldn’t give a monkey’s’. And that was in England, the biggest nation of bleeding hearts. Well, here’s a little proof that Spain at least is finally taking a turn for the better.

I’ve got a fairly long wait until the bus home, so I thought I’d take a walk along the Guadiana again whilst I’m here and look across the river to Portugal. The cormorants were out on the rocks with their wings spread wide after a morning’s hunting, so I got my camera out for a few shots with Respighi’s The Pines of Rome playing in my ears. And that’s when I got a tap on the shoulder and a friendly local pointed me in the direction of a grounded vulture on the east bank of the river.

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I haven’t power-walked so fast in years. A vulture? Here, in the middle of Badajoz? It sounded too ridiculous a notion to be a lie, so I packed up my gear and left the bridge and the sunning cormorants I was photographing behind in the dust. At first I thought he might have confused buitre with any other large bird – it wouldn’t be the first time – but this just must be my lucky weekend or something, because just a short distance before the second bridge…

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…boom. Sulking in the shade of the roadworks with a crowd of five or six startled onlookers. It could hardly be anything else: vultures are bloody huge, even youngsters like this one.

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I was worried that it might have a broken wing, as it didn’t seem particularly keen to get back into the air. What it was doing here, bang in the middle of the city, is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it was simply tired. At any rate, it wasn’t all too bothered by the two men who’d gone down to join it, both to have a closer look at something you normally only see high in the sky above, and to ward off any dog-walkers that might cause the bird any further distress. My heart goes out to those two.

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I have to admit, I probably won’t ever get a better viewing of a wild vulture than this. Not even in Monfragüe, which is the best place to see them in all of Spain. And here, in Badajoz, of all places! Bonkers.

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‘Watch out,’ said one of the onlookers as it came bouncing forward, ‘That thing’s got a beak that can bite through bone.’

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To everyone’s relief, there was nothing wrong with it in the end, because after some ten minutes it puffed up its feathers, made a few bounding leaps and took off into the air on two giant wings. It wheeled about over the river and almost flew headlong into the bridge, clearing it by little over a metre or so, and flew off in the direction of Portugal.

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Not something you see every day! And now I need to go in search of a USB cable or card reader of some description, because my memory card is chock-full. Well, gallinules, kingfishers, cranes and a griffon vulture, all in twenty-four hours of city-hopping! Now there’s a feathery micro-adventure for you. BB x