Marmite Man (A London Story)

Marmite Man

Marmite Man arrives in his chariot. He walks into a library, hiding from the autumn sun. He climbs up to the second floor, carrying a weatherworn traveling rucksack on his back, and finds a table hidden away on the west side. It’s eleven o’clock on a Tuesday morning, there are only a few other people in the building: a couple of students, a woman in her mid-twenties looking for jobs on one of the desktop computers, a middle-aged gentleman or two. Anybody who can afford not to be working at eleven a.m. on a Tuesday.

Marmite Man takes off his windbreaker, lays it over his chair and slouches into the seat. His face is red and pockmarked, his beard more of a tired, uniform grey than cultivated salt-and-pepper. He looks about. Once. Twice. Pauses. Then he empties the contents of his rucksack noisily onto the desk.

First, a multipack bag of McCoys ridge-cut crisps. Then two bottles of water and a plastic Pret a Manger cup. A can of spray-on deodorant – no, two cans. A pack of Johnson’s baby wipes. A hairbrush and a bath scrubber. And, finally, four pots of Marmite.

He inspects three of the Marmite pots in turn, looks around, and after some rumination, opens the multipack bag and breaks into a bag of crisps. In the silence of the library, his feasting sounds like the construction work beyond the Bunhill Cemetery: an unhappy ruckus in a place of quiet. He munches and crunches his way through a second bag, then a third, and another, and another. It’s as though he is issuing a deliberate challenge to the librarian downstairs: come up and stop me, if you dare. But the librarian does not hear, or perhaps he does not choose to hear, and still Marmite Man goes on munching, crunching, sniffing, snuffling, belching and clearing his throat. He wipes his fingers, stuffing the empty packets into a plastic Tescos bag, and smacks his lips, looking around. There it is again: the challenge, who’s going to stop me? There are signs everywhere that say that eating is forbidden, and yet here he is, Marmite Man, rattling the sabre with his portable orchestra of sound: percussive plastic bags, guttural brass belches, woodwind grunts and groans. The anteroom stinks of synthetic flavour, a fabrication of burnt and powdered meat. He rubs his hands, his breathing loud and laboured, and applies a baby wipe tissue to his fingers and thighs. He rolls up his trousers and scrubs vigorously at his shins, scraping off a night’s worth of grime – or perhaps more. He stops – smarts – curses under his breath as he hits a sore.

Who are you, Marmite Man? Where have you come from? What brought you into the library today? The world has been unkind to you, I think. You swore at the man who left the anteroom a while ago, repulsed by the stench and the noise. “You got something to say? Fucking pig.” That’s what you said, through a mouth full of crisps. But maybe it was he who threw the first stone, the stone of silent judgment, as he turned his head, lifted his bag over his shoulder and promptly left the room. Perhaps what hurts the most is the silence, the everyday judgment of those who do not wish to see you. A vagabond is a part of the world gone wrong; a cog out of place, a dust blur on a family photograph; a purple brushstroke across the Mona Lisa’s coquettish face. We can choose not to see it if we so desire. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

I notice you have not picked up a book since you arrived. To you, perhaps, escapism is dangerous – or maybe you have enough unhappiness in your life without imagining it through the eyes of somebody else. What is fiction, if not an experience of somebody’s else’s misfortunes? It is armchair entertainment for the comfortable, who sympathise enough with the poor to read about them, and would happily become them for a quiet hour or two in the afternoon, with a cup of tea on hand and the day’s work put behind them, only to return to reality as Mr Smith of Fulham, associate, papers due by close of play tomorrow. True misery is intangible to Mr Smith: it is merely something to be considered from behind a glass, and frosted glass if at all possible; the bubbling mire at the bottom of the ladder.

Marmite Man knows the mire. He has been cleaning it from his shins for the last twenty minutes.

Marmite Man counts his coins onto the desk. He is frustrated. He does not have enough. He pockets them again and sighs heavily. He plugs a charger into the socket under the table and wires in his phone, and sits. Looks about. Once. Twice. Then gets up and shuffles off in search of the toilets.

I am no longer hemmed in to my corner of the anteroom. I take my leave, packing my things away quickly and quietly. As I leave, I see Marmite Man again. He is standing in the history aisle, leafing through a book on the First World War. He does not see me go.


 

The Ladybird Tree

Regent’s Park is wide-open and cold. I have never been here before, except perhaps once when I was a little boy, and London Zoo was the destination. I hear they are closing down the aquarium today. I overheard a man in the London Review of Books talking about it, about how he’d taken his time coming to work because he wanted to see it, before it disappeared. What will they do with the fish, asked his associate. Feeding time for the penguins, he joked. It’ll be another ten years before the new aquarium comes along, so frankly I wouldn’t be surprised.

The benches are taken. It’s early afternoon, but we’re into the half-term holiday and the park is alive with kids on the swings, the climbing frame, running up and down the knolls, whilst mum and dad – but invariably mum – sits beyond the fence. And why not – the weather is gorgeous. The ground isn’t wet, and there are no ants about – none that I can see, anyway – so I sit down beneath a tree to eat my lunch.

I can see a ladybird on the bark. It’s not the kind you grew up with in kids’ picture books, post-box red with big black spots. It’s beetle-black with two red eyes, giving its wing-cases the impression of a cartoonish snake’s head viewed from above.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ladybird like that before. Point of fact, I don’t think I’ve seen any of the ladybirds on this tree before either. There are yellow ladybirds with twenty spots or more. Red or orange ladybirds with no spots at all. I believe these might be the so-called harlequins, invading ladybirds from distant Asia. Up and down the trunk they go, in that apparently directionless march that beetles seem to adopt, racing in and out of the grooves in the bark. One stops. Its wings click open in a single motion, like the safety-catch on a gun, and then it takes off from the tree into the sunlight. As it goes, another arrives, jet black with those two red eyes like the first one.

There are no deer in Regent’s Park. I rather hoped there might be, but that just goes to show how little I know London. I think that’s Richmond Park – anyway, there are deer enough in my neck of the woods. I walked right past one the other day; a roe buck, fearless, much like the muntjac I’ve become rather used to encountering there. I did not move so much as a muscle as I walked past, which is doubly impressive as I believe I was singing George Michael’s Freedom ’90 at the top of my voice at the time. It just watched as I walked past, eyes unmoving but always facing me, like that illusion of Mickey Mouse’s ears. Teaching bottom set classes is both physically and mentally draining, but I do get the payoff of working in the countryside, and that’s a major payoff by any standards – but especially by mine.

The ladybirds seem to be increasing in number. I just had to brush one off my shirt. I think it’s time I took my leave. I’m not getting any reading done. It’s hard to read when it’s cold outside, no matter how bright the sun is shining. I remember reading somewhere that you’re supposed to kill harlequin ladybirds, as they’re an invasive species. The trouble is, how can you be sure you’re not killing the native ones? Spain had the same problem with red-eared terrapins, if I remember correctly. I found one as a kid in the national park. It’s not so easy to stomp on a baby terrapin, just because it shouldn’t be there. Easier with ladybirds, I guess. Perhaps size does count. Though that is, was, and always has been a rather unpalatable idea.

 

Hesperornis

At around eight o’clock in the morning, the sun isn’t quite all the way up yet and the beaches around Arenal d’en Castell are, for the most part, empty of swimmers. A few Speedo-wearing junkies hug the shoreline, and the running girl is back on the boardwalk as she was yesterday, same time, same place. Other than that, the beach is empty – except for one unexpected bather out for a morning swim.

The Mediterranean Shag – perhaps more appropriately dubbed in Spanish as the tufted cormorant – is a diving bird that one normally associates with the rugged cliffs and seabird colonies of the north. The last time I saw these odd-looking snake-necked seabirds I was standing atop the windswept cliffs of Inner Farne, where the birds had built their messy nests mere inches from the footpath. The Farne Islands are magical in their own right with their denizens so fearless and so close at hand, so I suppose I assumed the Farne birds to be a braver sort. In most other parts of the world, birds (and other animals for that matter) know well enough to steer clear of the capricious hand of man. The Great Auk didn’t – and is consequently no longer with us.

Before the tourism industry boomed in the Mediterranean, sea turtles and monk seals swam into the sandy coves to give birth and plovers nested on the shorelines. The human demand for a place in the sun has pushed many of these creatures to local extinction – the Mediterranean monk seal is now one of the rarest mammals on the planet – but some species have decided the only way to cope with the summer surge of noisy humanity is to simply go about their business as though nothing had changed. The shags of Arenal d’en Castell do not appear to mind the presence of their human neighbours in the slightest. The waters of the bay are still teeming with fish, and for this master fisherman, the presence of a few hardy toe-dippers is no obstacle to a morning’s hunting.

There are at least three shags in the bay, not counting those that haunt the rocky cliffs of the headland to the northeast. Like many “urban” animals, they lack the lustre of their wild counterparts. The shining bottle-green feathers of the Farne birds are absent here: Phalacrocorax aristotelis desmarestii dons a more humble suit, with a touch of the sandy-grey “pardel” colour that flecks the coats of all Spain’s beasts, from its mice and rabbits to its bears and wolves.

Or at least, this bunch of townies do.

They really are masterful swimmers. This youngster did an entire length of the bay in a matter of minutes, displaying incredible agility as it darted through the shallows, oftentimes passing within a few feet of the day’s first paddlers, and avoiding what obstacles it encountered with incredible dexterity – with one exception. Perhaps age will bring wisdom.

Every once in a while, nature, that ancient mechanic, finds a form it likes and seems to say to itself ‘yes, that’ll do – no need for further adjustments’. Sharks and sponges and jellyfish have filled an ecological niche since time immemorial, and there is much in the shag that harks back to some of the earliest birds, not least of all the fearsome Hesperornis, a seagoing avian dinosaur with sharp teeth on its beak. There are no teeth on its descendant, but as it floats along the surface of the water, snorkelling often and propelling itself along by its back legs, it seems an ancient creature; and when it finds what it was looking for, it kicks with its powerful legs and dives. And if it looked a capable swimmer on the surface, that is nothing compared to what it can achieve below the waves.

Would that I had an underwater camera and could show you just what I mean! Swimming around the headland this afternoon, I ran into the bird again, paddling only a few metres away without a care in the world. When it dived, I went under and followed it on its underwater hunt. Such speed! The bird moves like a torpedo through the water, powering ahead with powerful kicks of its bright yellow feet. I could only keep up for as long as it allowed; when it had enough of the lumbering tag-along, it kicked harder and took off through the depths. Were the sea calmer I might have watched it go, but the high winds stirred up the sand on the seabed and within seconds it disappeared into the gloom.

It’s moments like this that I wake up for. The flycatchers hawking around the climbing frame in the garden. The hummingbird hawkmoth that visits the hedge every day, the turtle doves that purr from the Aleppo pines, and the blue rock thrushes that warble from the cliffs of every rocky cove – and all of this within five minutes of the flat. Menorca is wild and, for the nature lover for whom a casual swim is simply not enough, it is a truly beautiful place to explore.

The high winds of the last few days are finally on the wane; the waves are not crashing upon the headland as they were this morning. Tomorrow I make for Fornells to explore the reefs on the northernmost cape of the island. I hear there are moray eels to be seen, though I should consider myself more fortunate if I should have the chance to swim with the shags once again. It was a real RSPB moment, up there with the vultures in the mist and the saltpan harrier, and I shall treasure it for years to come. BB x

Screamers

April isn’t normally a mad month. This one has been, though. Since getting back from La Mancha, I’ve been here, there and everywhere. Performing in the school play. Working at a Language Immersion weekend in Burguillos del Cerro with the local EOI. Attending extra Gospel Choir rehearsals in Zafra. Taking additional classes at school, cancelling my private classes (at last) and doing intensive research in the library. For what is supposed to be a twelve-hour working week, I’ve been rather busy. It’s never anything that I can’t handle, though, and with the end in sight now, lesson planning is becoming easier rather than harder. That’s some small relief.

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Parroquia de Santa Maria de la Encina y San Juan Bautista, Burguillos del Cerro

The weather, though… What is with the weather this year? Ignoring the fact that I’m English and that my first blog post in almost a month should naturally be to talk about the weather, it’s been one of the weirdest years for weather I’ve ever seen. First the cold, then the rain – three and a half weeks of it – then a week of glorious sunshine, then hard rain again, and now summer, with high humidity and thunderstorms forecast over the Puente de Mayo. It’s as though Spain just forgot to do Spring this year.

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I’m wondering whether that Star of David tucked away in there was intentional…

Winter was long, dry and freezing cold here in Tierra de Barros. Spanish houses are designed with the long, sweltering summers in mind, and though they’re well-adapted to shutting out the light and heat in August, they’re lamentably bad at keeping it in during the winter months. You basically need the brasero (a flat heater, often kept beneath a covered table) on every night. It’s a long battle between cold hands, feet and everything, and the bimonthly electricity bill, and the latest invoice that’s been lying on the kitchen table for the last fortnight serves as a reminder of the cost of the season’s war crimes. It’s a pity one can’t live in Spain for half the year and England for the other. You could make a killing on the savings.

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Booted Eagle (aguila calzada) from the castle at Burguillos

On a minor note, it’s impossible to get into a comfortable position on this sofa. There. I’ve acknowledged the elephant in the room. We can move on.

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Painted Lady taking a break on the castle top

I’ve been wondering what to write the next blog post about for a while. A couple of weeks ago the bee-eaters arrived, on the very day I’d commented on their absence, and that brought joy to my heart. Later, I had the Language Immersion, which raised some rather disconcerting news concerning my beloved Extremadura, but that wasn’t strictly blog-worthy. I also dug out the local library’s regional encyclopedias, which were filled to the brim with local information I could only dream about before… but at the risk of boring you all senseless, I’ll wait until I’ve properly processed the information before regurgitating it here and now. No, the answer, my friend, was blowing in the wind.

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Or should I say, screaming.

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The swifts have been here for over a month now, hawking overhead on their way north alongside the hundreds of swallows, martins, kites and storks also bound for northern Europe, but the Villafranca contingent only arrived a few weeks ago. How do I know this? Well, it’s quite simple, really. I know this because the screaming only began a few weeks ago. The collective noun for a flock of swifts varies, with some opting for a box of swifts, or the more alliterative swoop of swifts, though in perfect honesty I’m going to tip my hat to the chappie who coined the phrase a ‘screaming frenzy’ of swifts – because anybody who’s familiar with these peculiar creatures will know that they’re not exactly the most inconspicuous of birds, to put it lightly.

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Swifts are odd-looking birds, to say the least. In flight, they’re right out of a kid’s drawing: long, tapering wings with no trailing fingers, a stubby, featureless face and a cigar-shaped body which makes them look more like a fish that grew feathers and took to the sky. At the same time, their large brown eyes and tiny mouths lend something mousy to their appearance, too. They’re not even that closely related to swallows and martins, with which they share the skies. But whatever they are, they’re endlessly fun to watch, as they duck and weave and scream and perform some of nature’s most endearing acrobatics on a summer evening, seemingly for the sheer thrill of it.

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The saying “one swallow does not a summer make” holds more and more weight here in Spain, especially now that in recent years many swallows never leave at all, opting instead to take their chances with the Spanish winter rather than brave the journey across the Sahara and back. Swifts, on the other hand, are die-hard migrants, spending almost their entire lives on the wing. They eat, sleep, mate and collect all the material they need to build their nests in the air. The ancients believed they never came down at all: their scientific name – apus – derives from the Greek for ‘without feet’. Needless to say they do, like all birds, though they’re small and underdeveloped in comparison to their powerful wings. I’ve only ever seen a swift’s feet once, and that was because I found a dead fledgling beneath the eaves of the village church when I was thirteen. I remember Adisham being a haven for rare birds then: spotted flycatchers, yellow wagtails, corn buntings, grey partridges and even local rumours of a lonely corncrake. I wonder how it’s faring now.

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There are five species of swift in Spain: the common swift (above), the larger brown-and-white Alpine swift and the chunkier pallid swift, and the two newcomers from Africa, the white-rumped and little swifts (you’ll see the latter a lot more readily if you take a wander through the streets of Marrakesh, where they make a habit of weaving between the heads of the shoppers on their way to their nests). It’s the common swifts we get here in Villafranca, the same kind we see back home in England, even though theirs is a sound I have come to associate more and more with Spain than England. Like the cuckoo and the turtle dove, the early summer screams of the swift faded into memory as I grew up and they began to disappear. It can’t be easy, sharing our little island with Man.

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Look close and you’ll see the fly that once was

The older I get, the more I appreciate the simpler things. When I was younger, it was all about the bells and whistles: hoopoes with their punk-rocker crests, rollers with their shiny blue jackets and gallinules in their resplendent purple glory. I’m still mad about the gallinules, but a long detox from the serious bird-watching of my teen years has done me wonders. Swifts and starlings are just as worth watching these days as kites and eagles, with the added bonus being that they can be counted on to be outside my window at any given moment… Although, that being said, it’s a rare moment when I look out the window and don’t find myself picking out a kite, stork or eagle in the blue sky. Yesterday I’d popped my head out for just a minute when a raven flew over. My flat seems to be on the flight path, because most everything I see passes right overhead.

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Time for bed, I think. Well, another chapter of Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One and then bed, anyway. There are some authors I just keep coming back to. Bryce Courtenay is one of them. BB x

Slow Clocks and White Socks

Good morning from the staff room. My second 1°ESO class are busy preparing posters on British food for next week’s Semana Cultural this morning, so I’m off the hook for an hour. It’s a shame, really; they’re probably the one class that could have really benefited from a presentation on the UK, seeing as it’s what they’re working on right now. My other 1°ESO class loved it, and I dare say the addition of a Honchkrow to explain ‘honcho’ helped a lot in the ‘foreign words in English’ section. Not that honcho – a Japanese term for ‘big boss’ – is a word you expect to come across all that often, but it makes the language learning process a lot more colourful. Going over the same ‘how much is a ticket’ dialogue every week gets a bit dry, eventually.

I went for a walk in the park yesterday. It’s been so warm and sunny recently, I simply couldn’t justify going straight home from work. Tired as I was, I slapped a small lunch together, downloaded a few In Our Time podcasts and crossed the road into the park. It was a little windier than I’d have liked, so I didn’t stay all that long in the end. Without it, it might have been as warm as 18°C. In February. But here in the plains of Extremadura, we’re ruled by the terrain. The wind that blows across the flats is cold and loud, like something out of the Old West. You half expect a tumbleweed to pass you by. It’s a shame that we think immediately of America when we hear that name: with its wide open plains, rocky cliffs and canyons teeming with bandits, and its historic code of honour and justice, I’d like to think Spain was the real Old West; the Ancient West, if you will.

The swallows are here. I watched a few of them twittering noisily as they careered about the pond, whilst one of the town’s storks soared lazily overhead. The trees were alive with goldfinches, and I saw a huge bat on its way to the park from my flat the other night. It was a lot easier to consider a job in England a month ago, I’m telling you, before Spain started thinking about her Spring clothes. Now that it’s feasible to go to bed without having the heater on for a full hour, and the blue skies are no longer laden with a biting cold air, I find myself in love once again. The saying goes: ‘nueve meses de invierno y tres de infierno’ – nine months of winter and three of Hell – but Spain can be equally unforgiving in the grip of winter.

I spent a little while watching a robin – always one of my favourite birds – and a couple of hoopoes flapping about like oversized butterflies. Symbols of England and Spain, in my head. I should go to the park more often.

It’s hard to see the change in the seasons here in Tierra de Barros, with the park full of evergreens and the surrounding eternity of vineyards and olive trees, but the animals tell you. And where they fail, the town drummers do a pretty good job. Carnaval is over, and I thought that might be the end of their incessant weekly drumming, but I was wrong: last night as I lay dozing in the living room, I heard the unmistakeable march of the Holy Week procession. It’s a good month away, but preparations have begun in earnest. But I’m not complaining: Semana Santa is far and away one of my favourite things in Spain and I never want to be anywhere else when it’s on. Like countless Brits before me, I’m shamelessly enthralled by the primal magic of it.

And, like countless Brits before me, I’m steadily coming to understand that our humour and theirs – or anybody else’s, perhaps – simply don’t mix. My jape about my countrified accent got cut from the play this morning. I guess they didn’t see the funny side. One of my students did point out to me recently that imitating their accent is one of the few things guaranteed to rile an extremeño. As a guiri, perhaps I’m allowed a certain amount of leverage – it’s always funny to see a foreigner having a go, I guess – but patience, in the end, wears thin. Especially when I have to make that same joke at twenty-five minutes past eight every Thursday morning.

A few weeks ago there was an article in The Times titled ‘How to be Spanish‘ that caused uproar on Spanish social media. The Spanish, it seems, don’t like being told how to be Spanish by an Englishman (a puto guiri, to quote various Twitter users). Surprise of the century. Spaniards came out with war flags, claiming the author had no idea what country he was talking about. Whoever these folks were who eat tapas at the bar and never at the tables, swear so liberally and have a slightly more relaxed attitude to time than the hyper-punctual English, they certainly weren’t Spanish.

Shortly afterwards, the Spanish retaliated with an article of their own on how to be British, citing such customs as queuing for everything, wearing white socks, wall-to-wall carpeting and, of course, our penchant for exaggeration. It was a childish exchange, but you have to admit, there were a few cultural nuances both sides got spot-on.

It was a lot of fun to discuss in class, I’ll give you that, but whilst I agree that the original author could have been a little less damning in his exaggerations – a flaw I’m often party to (see the war flags remark) – it seems to me that the problem lies not in the content itself, but in how it was received. Of course not all Spaniards act the way the author describes, but then, he doesn’t go out of his way to make that clear. And, of course, it wouldn’t be so funny if every observation in the article carried a disclaimer. Remember those jokes that your friends make that you didn’t get, and they then had to explain? Yeah… They weren’t funny at all.

As Brits, we read such things with a smile, seeing the irony and the humorous comparisons, because as a nation that’s what we do best: ridicule. We love to laugh, to laugh at others, and (sometimes) to be laughed at in turn. It’s not a universal attitude, but trying to be funny on a regular basis is, I think, an inherently British custom. Most everybody else has a life to be getting on with. Great Britain is cold, rainy and – according to some – has potentially the worst cuisine in the world (the very un-English chicken tikka massala was our most popular dish for years), but we are fantastic at making light of this and everything else, from our politicians and our history to our friends and neighbours, even if the rest of the world looks on in confusion. I gave up trying to introduce my kids to Blackadder and Monty Python a long time ago. It requires too much explanation. By contrast, Mr Bean works like a dream… because there’s no dialogue whatsoever. Which, given that he’s portrayed by easily one of our wisest and wittiest comedians, is a crying shame.

So that’s all it is. The British like being funny. And when our jokes involve people beyond our remit, we get confused when they take offence. Why can’t they see the funny side? The answer is simple: they don’t have to. That’s not to say we shouldn’t make jokes anymore. British humour is, in the humble opinion of this author, king. But we could be try to be a little more aware of what cultural difference means. If the Spanish come across as having a lax approach to time, it’s only because we’re unreasonably pernickety about it. The whole and ungeneralised truth lies somewhere in between.

Jokes are fine. Our problem is that we expect others to take a joke, to know when we’re being funny and when we’re not… and it’s not always easy. Especially in print. BB x

Morito

Little Moor. That’s one translation for one of Spain’s most beautiful natural treasures, a gaudy creature of swamps and marshes that we know as the glossy ibis. Dressed as it is in chocolate brown with feathers that flash green and purple in the sunlight, it’s easy to see how this characterful bird got its name: its very being evokes another world, one that lies across the Mediterranean sea, of men of small stature dressed in jewels and shimmering silks. The Moors and their Spanish kingdom are long gone, but there are hints of that world all around to this day – if you know where to look.

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You can spot a flock of ibises from a long way off by their colour alone. The wetlands in which they live, such as the Doñana National Park, teem with white herons, egrets, spoonbills and flamingos, all of which stand out a mile against the Spanish skies. Down on the ground, however, the ibis is a good deal more conspicuous, rummaging around in the water in groups that can number as much as a hundred strong. Like their wading cousins, ibises fly in a loose V-formation. It’s quite a sight to watch them going to and from their roosts as the sun sets at the end of the day, with flocks departing in waves for the security of the trees. I’ve lost count of the number of times I used to stand on the rusty fences that border the village of El Rocío to watch hundreds of ibises, egrets, herons and ducks all making their way into the park interior.

You might think a bird as beautiful as the ibis would have a beautiful voice to match. You’d be wrong. As is so often the case in the world of birds, the best feathers do not necessarily mean the best voice. Ibises, like flamingoes, have a very inelegant call, low and grunting, not too dissimilar to a cow on helium. They make a whole host of other sounds at their roost sites, but I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself. It’s quite the experience. And, I might add, quite the smell, too.

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These are the ibises that the Egyptians worshipped. Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom, was often portrayed with an ibis’ head. According to one legend, a plague of winged serpents descended upon Egypt every spring, only to be stopped at a mountain pass by scores of ‘ibis birds’ which devoured them all. Herodotus claimed that the birds of this particular legend were jet-black, which points towards the morito. This leaves their close cousins, the stately sacred ibises, in a bit of a fix; and if you have ever seen their kind rummaging around in refuse dumps as they are wont to do, their smaller, darker morito appears far more worthy of worship.

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Morito surely is a fitting name for such a princely creature. Spain has a long love-hate relationship with its African past, which centuries of church doctrine and cultural genocide have failed to quell. Al-Andalus faded into the fabric of history centuries ago, but it left behind the ibis, and it soothes my heart a little to think that maybe, just maybe, I am watching the spirits of that most beautiful and industrious past when I see a flock of moritos flying by.

BB x

A New Christmas

I’m back in Villafranca after a five-day sojourn in Córdoba. It was sunny when I left. The skies are grey and heavy with cloud now. There’s a strong wind in the air, and it’s blowing against the blinds, which are rattling all through the house. Olivia Ong’s bossa nova vocals fill the room, and keys click and thump intermittently as I type. Cars pass by. My family are so close and so far away. I find myself wishing I was back in Córdoba.

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There’s something truly special about Córdoba at any time of year. Granada is undeniably beautiful, Málaga has plenty of charm and Seville needs no introduction, but Córdoba is, surely, the jewel in the southern crown. After all, few other cities in Andalusia – or Spain, for that matter – can claim to have been one of the world’s greatest in their heyday. Like Granada, it’s been raped and meddled with over the centuries, but what remains is shadowy and beautiful in its fusion. I still get the shivers when I wander along the winding streets of the Jewish quarter, and if you stand on the Roman bridge after sunset and look towards the city from the south bank, the mosque shines like liquid gold in the river.

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(No weddings this year, I took that one six years ago on a research trip here)

Normally on Christmas Eve I’d go to Midnight Mass with my mother. I could have done so here, but for me, the Great Mosque of Córdoba (or so-called Mosque-Cathedral) is like setting foot in the Holy Land. It’s an intensely emotional experience every time and I could not bring myself to open my heart in a place denied to those for whom it was far more important (have a read of this article to dig a little deeper). So I stayed at home instead, surrounded by a thousand babies on red carpets.

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Christmas Day in Spain came with the ringing of the bells across the city. Clouds drifted in from across the Sierra Morena, but as the day went by, sunlight came streaming down through the odd pocket here and there. I’ve never had a Christmas quite like it, but it was wonderful in a new way, seeing Christmas Day celebrated from start to finish in a very different family. We get glimpses into Christmastime when we visit friends and family, but it isn’t often you get treated to the whole twenty-four hour affair.

Doubly so, perhaps, when the food is also very different, too.

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Roast chicken with fios de ovos –

Córdoba is one of those cities that is well worth a prolonged stay. That’s where AirBnB comes up trumps. For a short time, it’s as though I was living in the former capital of al-Andalus. Like most Spanish flats, the building looked unimpressive and samey on the outside – many of them are so identical as to fool you into thinking they’re carbon copies – but on the inside it was dreamily homey. Just what you need at Christmastime!

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A short distance to the west of Córdoba, perched atop a formidable hill overlooking the Guadalquivir valley, is the castle of Almodóvar del Río. At a half-hour’s drive from town, and just ten minutes beyond the ruins of Medina Azahara, it’s well worth the trip for the day. Lovingly restored at the savvy hands of Adolfo Fernánez Casanova, it makes a welcome change from the rubble of the surrounding ruins. There’s also a fantastic asador at its feet that provides the perfect opportunity to wait out the hours until the sunset. I recommend the brocheta. It’s nothing short of divine.

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And that, of course, is precisely what we did. And we timed it just right to catch the winter sun as it was on its way down over the hills to the west.

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The fields around Almodóvar made Tierra de Barros feel like a barren wasteland. Crag martins zoomed about the castle walls, soaking in the last of the sun’s heat on the buttresses. Egrets and herons stalked the river, a single vulture flapped lazily overhead and I swear I heard the piping trill of a kingfisher. Best of all, within the space of five minutes I saw three black-shouldered kites on the road to the castle, a delicate, stunning little hawk I’ve never laid eyes upon with certainty before. I might just have to come back in search of them one day. In my books, vultures will always be king, but kites are the princes of my feathery kingdom. And what princes they are!

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A couple of trains shuttled back and forth as we waited for the sun to go down. I haven’t travelled much on Spain’s train network. Besides the short trip I took with Kate in Cantabria last time I was here, the only train ride I’ve ever taken here was the one from Ávila to Madrid. I’m told the railroad passes through some truly stunning scenery. Perhaps I should give it a go someday. It’s something that yet to come our way (see the Tren Digno Ya cause for more) but in other parts of Spain, it’s a doozy.

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Winter sunsets. Moorish castles. Mosque-cathedrals. Rolling hills. Night herons, kingfishers and cranes in the cornfields in their hundreds. The entire province of Córdoba is a jewel. If I could say for certain that I’d have a shot at being placed here, I’d be sorely tempted to put Andalucía higher up on my list for next year. But I stand by my beliefs: comfort is dangerous. It’s time I thought about moving on, before I take for granted what I have here. Spain is more than one city. She is more than one province. And, if the last few months have taught us anything, she is, quite clearly, more than one country. The city of Córdoba alone is proof enough of that. Vamos, kid. It’s time to see the rest of this land. BB x

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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…