Crash and Burn

Galicia’s forests are burning. They suspect foul play. Somebody somewhere truly does like to watch the world burn. Here in Villafranca, we were woken by the long-awaited crash of a thunderstorm, the one that usually rolls around on the second weekend of October. It was late this year, but it came nonetheless, and it came down hard. For just an hour or so, the roads were rivers.

Aeolus had more than the winds of wrath in his bag this morning. Some five or six staff are leaving for Seville tomorrow, perhaps for good. A bag of a very different nature – a bolsa extraordinaria, to be precise – has been opened there, offering the chance for many wayward Andalusians scattered to the far regions of Spain to return home. It’s no guarantee, but as the sudden glut of places for maths and science teachers overrides the need for success in the all-important oposiciones (the national exams that decide the fate of teachers here) there’s everything to fight for. My housemate was one of those called up. He packed his bags and left twenty minutes ago. He left some yoghurts in the fridge and a towel in the bathroom – ‘por si acaso‘.

For a few hours, I was in freefall. I made a stand here when the going was good in Almendralejo, adamant in my decision to improve my Spanish and stay true to Villafranca. It looked as though it had paid off. Two and a half weeks in, the storm broke, the floor vanished and I found myself staring into the abyss. Strong-armed out of the storm by a savvy Argentinian, I’m back on dry ground for the time being. After the ride that the last three days have given me, I’m lucky to be where I am, to know the folks that I do. It could be a lot worse. I could be in Galicia, where the fires rage, or Catalonia, where the cold arm of the state has begun to descend upon the separatists. It’s quite the year to be in Spain.

The storm isn’t over yet. The clouds were building thick and dark over the mountains to the east as I made my way home. We’re due for another night of thunder and lightning, and a lot of rain. Aeolus hasn’t done with us yet. But I’ve got the sails drawn and my hand on the rudder this time and I’m ready to ride it. That’s quite enough being blown about for one month. A handful of the staff were after some ‘Inglés de la calle’ at the staff lunch yesterday. Well, here’s an old classic for you, folks. Aeolus, come at me, bro. BB x

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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

The Swing of Things

Routine has returned. The dust has settled, and I’m not talking about the kind that’s tinting the sky a dirty grey every day, nor over the Catalan situation. My life as an auxiliar de conversación in IES Meléndez Valdés is back in shape, much the same as before, with a few noteworthy changes. They’ve decided to streamline the programme a little more this year, with me working through the coursebook rather than preparing a random talking point every week. Honestly, I’m rather relieved. It was fun coming up with something new and bold every week, but I found myself questioning more than once whether it was really the most efficient use of my time and theirs.

Oh, and there’s talk of a band or even choir in the making. Pretty revolutionary for a country where it takes a class of sixteen-year olds the best of ten minutes to realise that the one potential youth club activity they’ve forgotten is music. ‘Music is only extracurricular’, explains one of the girls who couldn’t understand why I was so confused that none of them had come up with it within seconds. I guess that’s Spain for you. This is a country that loves sport so much you spend your primary years learning theory of sport, for pity’s sake. Proof, if ever you needed it, that people vary in their tastes from country to country. I’ve been trying to enthuse about music here, but I’m fighting a lose battle. It’s not so much selling sand to the Arabs as trying to convince them of the merits of a pair of high-grade skis. Still, we live in hope. Enrique Iglesias, the Gypsy Kings and Camarón de la Isla all hailed from this peninsula. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

I found the town library. It eluded me all year during my last post, because – like many things in Spain – it’s so badly signposted that unless you happen to know that many libraries are located within the confines of the Casa de Cultura, you’d be lost. It’s certainly not advertised on the outside of the building. I found it, anyway, and it’s the perfect working environment. They converted what looks like a small factory floor into the reading area and the typist’s offices into the library itself. It’s a far cry from the Bill Bryson, but it’s a start. Before the year is out, I’ll give the bigger one in Mérida a look-in. I wonder if it has any material on Hornachos…

Just a short post today. I’ve little more to say. The air-con in this library is on at full blast and noisy. Most of the kids in here are wearing Spagnolo shirts, which means they’re almost certainly from one of the two private schools, though I can see at least one of my lot at one of the tables. But then, it’s five to six in the afternoon. Who in their right mind would be in the library when they could be out in the evening sun with their friends? BB x

Live Organ Transplant

These are interesting times.

I must confess that, from time to time, I do wonder whether I’ve made the right choice. As university drew to a close, I watched many of my friends leave for London and five figure salaries. If it had ever occurred to me that I might be interested in that path, I suppose I too would have followed it. But here I am in Extremadura, one of Spain’s poorer regions, getting by on a modest salary and picking up extras in private classes where I can. At the very least I have a job; for that much I am truly grateful. There are plenty of wanderers here. Worlds collide: the English graduate in me seeks confirmation, stability and satisfaction. The Spaniard in me wants to use the here and the now to go from job to job until I find the medium that suits me best. It isn’t often that I have such Jekyll and Hyde moments, but in this period of intermission, the two are often locked in combat. My devil had been long caged, and he came out roaring.

Putting my doubts and concerns into perspective was the King’s address to the nation this evening. In light of recent events in Catalonia – up to and including several counts of police brutality as the Catalans made another bid for independence – it seems foolish to break my head over my petty apprehensions. I’ve never really taken a stance on the Catalan question, treating it in much the same manner as the age old Real Madrid/Barcelona F.C. divide – that is to say, taking the easy way out (in the latter case, opting to support Sevilla’s Real Betis as a nonconfrontational middle ground). But at such a time of crisis, it is difficult not to have an opinion here or there.

I’m a reluctant supporter of the Spanish cause. And I’ll explain why. In studying for my novels, I have been paying especial attention to the year 1640 and the troubles that spiralled out of that most hectic year. Critically, it was the year that not only Catalonia but both Portugal and Andalusia all made a break for independence from a weakened, overstretched Spain. After more than a decade, and much blood, only one would achieve that privilege. Taxes, once again, were a primary concern for the Catalans, who felt unfairly treated by the government. In this case they may have had a point: Spain’s various wars were costing the empire dear and Catalonia often suffered the brunt of it. The upshot was that, despite French intervention, Spain crushed the revolt and Catalonia was reined in, thanks in part to various double-dealings with the French.

(DISCLAIMER: I apologise if my history is off. Working in the medium of alternate history as I do, I sometimes forget how much of the history I study is the product of my own alterations…)

Four hundred years later and many Catalans still want their independence. It’s been an ongoing concern for some time, rumbling along the undercurrent of Spanish news for as long as I can remember, but when images surface such as those of the clash between the police and the fire brigade and of armed men raiding polling stations, the cause becomes that bit easier to understand. Some of the pictures look as though they have been taken out of a Latin American country rather than on Iberian soil. It’s really quite shocking.

What would independence for Catalonia mean? A lot of things, of course, but not least of all, trouble. Catalonia supports Spain more than many of its autonomous communities because it has the money to do so. Were regions such as Aragon and Extremadura to shoulder the kind of burden Catalonia carries, they might easily collapse. Catalonia is strong; it’s one of their mean reasons for making a bid for freedom in the first place. Not only is it one of the wealthier regions, it also receives a significantly larger intake of the country’s tourism. If you ask a lot of holiday-goers where they’re headed when they’re off for a trip to Spain, many of them will tell you Barcelona. When it comes to a summer holiday, a weekend trip or a day out, the Madrid/Barcelona question is far more easily answered. In short, Catalonia is savvy. Whilst for much of its history Spain looked religiously inwards, Catalonia was looking out at the wider world. When the tourism industry kicked off, the Costa Brava was one of the first on the scene. Had he not been hit by a car on his way to the airport, my enterprising grandfather would have been one of the first to reap the whirlwind. Though Castilla la Mancha was his home, he responded to the call of Catalonia. You might say I have a dash of personal interest in the matter.

We get to the heart of the matter. In her strength, Catalonia is one of Spain’s greatest assets. Just as much as she is wary of a merging with Portugal, Spain is anxious not to let go of Catalonia. A break with Spain, bloodless or not, would be a hammer blow to an already weakened nation. Whether Catalonia would prosper in the long term is beyond my understanding, but for the first few years at least, there would be trouble. Regardless of the political or economic outcome, Brexit resulted in a bitter taste in the mouth for many, both at home and abroad. The Catalan question outlives the Brexit debate by hundreds of years; I should not like to see that bitterness multiplied.

2017 is, in many ways, not too dissimilar to 1640. Alright, so there’s no pan-European war, popery is no longer anybody’s primary concern and explicit empire building is a thing of the past (or at least, as it was in the seventeenth century), but the point remains that it was a year of change and unexpected events. Last year saw both a British rejection of Europe and the election of what many considered to be a joke candidate to the seat of the most powerful man in the world. These are strange times. It is fitting, then, that Catalonia should choose this moment to strike out, as it often has before, at a time when predictions are off and nationalism is creeping back after a lengthy absence.

Even Farage made sure he got his oar in over the debacle…


It would not be the death of Spain. But it would come down hard, and upon a nation that has spent hundreds of years recovering from the slaughter of its golden goose. Stanley Lane-Poole once claimed that Spain had been ‘grovelling in the dark’ ever since the completion of its national genocide. Whether you sympathise with his damning appraisal or not, Spain is no longer the great power it once was, and if Catalonia broke free, it would be tantamount to taking one of her lungs.

One of the most beautiful facets of Spain is its diversity. There are few other places in Europe quite as varied, in people, countryside and culture. The Basques in the north are fiercely proud of their unique heritage, as are the Galicians, the Valencians and the Andalusians. In many respects, so are the peoples of all the other regions. Even the Leonese, within the very heart of Old Castile, have been known to make a bid for independence from their own autonomous community from time to time. In that sense, the Catalans stand out only in their dogged pursuit of independence. Where I would normally be strongly persuaded to empathise with their cause, as I was with the Scottish bid a few years back, my conclusion is much the same: one day, perhaps, but not now. With storm clouds looming, now is not the time for the severing of ties. There may come a time, and soon, when unity will be our holdfast. We should be proud of diversity where we find it and treasure unions where they can be made. It is easy to do things one’s own way. It is better for all of us, surely, if we work together. It’s the wishy-washy liberal answer, but I’m sure it’s the right one. If you knew that something you wanted would cause no end of hurt and disruption to somebody you knew, even somebody you had grown to dislike, could you take it from them? Really?

These are interesting times. I wonder what will become of us. BB x

Tetouani Wanderings

It’s another regular Saturday in Tetouan. I’m chilling on the roof of Alex’s hotel doing sweet F.A. in the afternoon sun with a book and a blog and a map for tomorrow’s hike. Today’s a day for doing nothing and not feeling guilty about it. The others went to Chauen en masse. The Alegría music festival is on and they went to check it out, though I don’t half wonder whether they spent most of the day admiring the town itself. Apparently it’s shot from obscurity to one of Africa’s most visited municipalities over the last five years. Oh, to have visited it before the boom…

Tetouan’s Hotel Reducto has some simply gorgeous rooms…


I’ll keep today’s post short. Just a few observations I’ve made over the course of the day in elaborated bullet form. That ought to keep the ideas concise.

  • The wind governs life in Tetouan. Seriously, it exercises a power greater than the beloved King himself. When the Levante is blowing, and it almost always is, the world slows down. People sit out the sun and the maddening wind. The minute the wind changes, the city is suddenly full of joggers and movement. I’m serious about the joggers. That one afternoon when it rained back in June, every other man in town was out running.
  • Tetouan’s a great place to be in summer, even during Ramadan, but this place must simply shut down in winter. With the King out of town, and no tourists, and precious little commerce, not to mention the total absence of desire for the beach… why, it must be like Durham in summer. Or Mérida in winter, perhaps.
  • The Turkish First Army staged a failed coup in the early hours of the morning. Erdogan crushed it. It may not look like it, but the world is chomping at the bit for a war. All these proxy wars, migrant crises and terrorist attacks are the signs of a world that’s been held back from all-out war for too long. Globalization and the atom bomb might have saved us from further conflict, but it’s been over seventy years now since the last global war: seventy years removed from something that has been our oldest and most persistent tradition as a race. There’s a slow creeping back towards the far right across Europe. Britain has severed its ties with the European Union. Trump is within a few months’ reach of being allowed a shot at the nuclear codes. And all the while the terrorist strikes are increasing, striking randomly at civilians the world over like sharks biting at a whale. The centre cannot hold. It’s only a matter of time.
  • Pokémon Go has taken the world by storm… and yet, I have absolutely zero interest in getting in on this fad. And that’s despite being a PokéNut until I was twenty-one at least. I caught them all, all 720 of them – twice – and I must have spent several months’ worth of my life staring gormlessly at those little pixelated monsters along the way. I was just playing at David Attenborough, I guess. Pokemon was perfectly suited to a budding, obsessive, studious little naturalist like me. It’s less that I’ve grown out of it now so much as reading and the novel have taken its place. A well-deserved revenge, perhaps, since they were both ousted for hours of Pokébore when I was ten. No, I’ve already got a world of my own to jump in and out of, and it requires no technology whatsoever, thank you very much.
  • The girl behind the counter in the stationary shop is kinda cute. Buying a couple of 2B pencils and a pen turned into a scene out of one of my novels where I wound up talking to this lady through the glass as we picked out the right kind of pen. That was also a lot of eye contact for a little transaction (I tend to get to know the stationary shop staff far better than the people who work in cafes or restaurants. Hey, I have an insatiable appetite for a certain kind of pen and a certain kind of notebook, alright?). I do wonder, though… If I don’t find Her on the road, or in a park or concert or wherever, I might just end up finding Her in a bookshop. There’d be a kind of divine justice in that.

That’s all for today. Early start tomorrow. After weeks of staring up at those peaks, Alex and I are finally going to tackle Mount Ghorghez. And none too soon; another two weeks from now and I’ll be back in England and all of this will be a thing of the past. Fa3lan, time is running out… BB x

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blaming the Wind

“My country lay within a vast desert. When the sun rose into the sky, a burning wind punished my lands, searing the world. And when the moon climbed into the dark of night, a frigid gale pierced our homes. No matter when it came, the wind carried the same thing… Death. But the winds that blew across the green fields of Hyrule brought something other than suffering and ruin. I coveted that wind, I suppose.”

Ganondorf’s speech, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Have you ever tried to write an essay in summer, when your friends have all gone to the beach and the humidity is fiercely high? Let me tell you: it’s brutal. I have nobody to blame but myself for the panic, having left it this late to really knuckle down and get working on this essay, but the Levante is an obstacle I confess I had not counted on. It tires you out and yet at the same time it holds you back from sleep. On a regular day when the skies are clear it might just make you a little woozy, but when the clouds push the current down to earth it acts like a greenhouse. The very wind saps you of your energy and leaves you hot, sticky and lethargic.

Not the best environment to tackle a 5,000 word research project in a foreign language.

The Levante reminded from the very first of Ganondorf’s final speech from Nintendo’s Zelda: The Wind Waker. Until then he’d been a fairly standard videogame boss with awesome power and not much personality. I don’t know whether it was an act of mercy on the designer’s part or a simple desire for a more human villain, but he was a new man in WW, and that last speech always stands out in my head. Maybe after a thousand years of imprisonment in the Sacred Realm he’d had time to mull the whole world-domination thing over. So Zelda supports cognitive behavioral therapy. Who knew?

Alright, so the Levante doesn’t exactly bring death. But lying here in the heat and the stickiness and the fatigue of the night, it certainly isn’t the kind of wind I associate with green fields.

Fortunately, at least as far as the essay is concerned, I planned well: more than 365 days later, the topic – bandit mythology in Spain – is as exciting as it sounded when I first came up with the idea on a whim last year, when my mind was likely otherwise occupied by British Council anticipation and the next Northern Lights gig. So, whilst the others at Dar Loughat spent a jolly old time at Ceuta, or Ain Zarqa, or watching Grease, I managed to bust out a decent thousand words or so; decent being a liberal term, dependent entirely on whether you can stomach my shamelessly flowery essay-writing style. If it weren’t for the fact that I’ve been run down to my last megabyte of data – quite literally – I might consider going for another thousand this weekend too… But that’s not what the year abroad is for. Besides, I need more data or I’m going off the grid. I think I’ll check out the Three Armies after class.

At some point over the next few weeks I’ll get around to braving new territory and filming a grand sum-up of the year – mainly because I have to, it being part of my contract with the Durham blog. Not so good for this particularly camera-shy blogger, but you never learn if you never try, and it might be a fun little break from routine, anyway. You might even call it a swan song, in light of recent events.

It’s just gone four minutes past midnight, post-Ramadan time. I’ve got the Corrs’ latest album playing as I write – specifically, Gerry’s Reel. This evening, between sweating like a pig and drinking like a fish, I’ve got a decent amount of novelling done, too. Never forget, BB, that that is the crux. University, the year abroad, Arabic… It’s all a passing phase. The book is eternal and if you don’t work on it, nobody else will. It’s really blossomed this year like never before and I’m quite excited to have the time to work on it without any guilt in September, before dissertation season and the travails of Finals year set in.

Speaking of which, we should be finding out our dissertation choices this week. Scary, much. Especially so when it’s a 12,000 word commitment. Fingers crossed, eh? BB x