The Big Graduation Post

It doesn’t happen like you think it will, graduation. I suppose the same can be said of all those grand rites of passage of life: like as not, you speculate a great deal about how it’s going to be, until the day itself is over before you know it, and a lot less grand an affair than you thought it was.

Certainly, when I tried to imagine what graduating from Durham would be like four years ago, I didn’t ever imagine that the cathedral tower would be under scaffolding. You win some, you lose some.

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One of the most difficult things about graduating is that it’s so very easy to use it as your last chance to say goodbye. It makes sense; for some, it might be the last time in a while you see the people who have been your friends through thick and thin for three or four years. Regrettably, for others it might even be the last time you see them at all. That’s a humbling thought. If I have any advice to give, it’s to say your farewells before the big day. Of course there is time for the odd one here or there on the day, but with everybody mingling with friends and family alike, it can be nigh-on impossible to track everybody down in time – especially if you end up on a time limit yourself.

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I’ve had a lot of time to think over the past few weeks, and a lot of things to think about. One of the most enlightening conclusions I’ve come to (and late in the realisation, too) is that, for all of my best efforts, I am not first and foremost a linguist. And if it took missing a First Class degree by less than one percent to realise that, it was a lesson well learned. Language tests, and perhaps grammar in general, have never been my forte, not that that’s ever stopped me from trying. Writing is, was and always will be my trump card. If I hadn’t been so pig-headed about not reading fiction back in Year 13, I might well have let my doubts get the better of me and gone for a degree in English Literature instead.

The fact remains that I didn’t. For all the disparity between my English marks and my marks in French and Spanish, I went for a degree in modern foreign languages. Why? Precisely because of that; because languages were not my strongest point. Talking to people was something I really struggled with. I had no opinions of my own, I felt hopelessly outclassed whenever I had to take part in any kind of intellectual discussion and I tended to avoid any unnecessary socialising.

And in my own particularly sadistic way, I threw myself headlong into the one degree that would give me no choice but to talk to people, to face my fears head-on. And when you’re getting yourself into an extra £9000 of debt per year, it makes no sense whatsoever to go on studying what you’re best at.

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My time as an undergraduate at Durham has been, without a shadow of a doubt, the best four years of my life so far. I might have been to some extraordinary places had I gone for my second choice, St. Andrews, but I most likely would not have found myself in a metro station in Münich with a portrait of Admiral Lord Nelson. I might well have had access to researchers in my primary field of interest, al-Andalus and the Maghreb, but I probably wouldn’t have written such a cracking essay on Spanish banditry. And I might have got involved in a musical, or a choir, or maybe even the funk band I longed for since my schooldays, but I almost certainly would not have found myself wrapped up heart and soul in the collegiate a cappella scene.

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Thanks to one last fling with the Northern Lights at the 70th Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer, graduation was not as final an affair as it otherwise might have been. Knowing that I’d be back in Durham in just over a month took much of the sting out of the farewells, and I left the city dry-eyed and carefree – which is not how I imagined it, but just the way I wanted it. I find that written words often carry meaning a good deal further than the spoken word ever can, and so I made my fondest goodbyes in card form, in case I didn’t get the chance to say so in person. That, too, made the process a lot easier to deal with. In a way, I’d said everything that needed to be said. I could do no more.

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I didn’t have a great deal of say in the matter of coming to Durham. My own mother dropped the name of the place so often as I grew up that by the time UCAS came around, it seemed sacrilegious to even consider anywhere else. And that’s exactly how it panned out, after an initial rejection and a gap year to try again. Bother the prospectuses, there was simply something magical about Durham. I had to go there.

It’s been one long week of thank you’s. To all the friends that supported me, both at home, at university and abroad. To the staff who inspired my interests and discouraged my careless wanderings. To my college principal, who sowed the seed of interest in a PhD in me; to my first Arabic lecturer, who through discipline fashioned a mature love for the language out of nervous enthusiasm; to those who have lived with me these last four years, for putting up with the day-to-day trivial madnesses and misinformed ramblings of yours truly. And of course, to music, for adding so much more to my degree than just books.

The wide world awaits with, at least for now, a smiling, familiar face (and a very strong Villafranqués accent). The far future – the beyond – remains as elusive as ever, but perhaps it doesn’t do to look that far ahead. Three months remain, and then I leave this country for Spain, only this time it will be for a much longer stint than anything I’ve ever attempted before. I can hardly wait.

And you bet I’ll be back to blogging for the whole affair. Just you wait. BB x

The Cycle Repeats

Almost two years to the day, the British Council have given me the go-ahead for the second round of applications once again. I’ve more or less had it sorted up there in my head, but it’s refreshing to see some hard evidence at last. Everybody else has been scurrying about fishing up internships in London, grad schemes in Leeds and MA courses in Edinburgh whilst I’ve been kicking back in the knowledge that I’m returning to a job I know and love, even if it isn’t anywhere near as well-paid as those London-based affairs. Besides a niggling long-term concern for my pension plan (and I’m not entirely sure why I bother, with things as they are), that doesn’t really concern me – if I get to spend another year in Extremadura, I’ll be in seventh heaven.

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La Vera – what Paradise looks like

I’m really looking forward to next year for several reasons, and one of them is my return to regular blogging. I’ve not been out of things to report this year – quite the opposite, in fact – but for some reason I’ve been awful at recording it. I’ve had something on in one way, shape or form every single day, from rehearsals to meetings to deadlines. I’ve never known a year like it, and it’s been a welcome relief after last year’s relative quiet. I may not be working 8am-8pm shifts like I used to, but the few hours I have a day are always demanding and highly rewarding.

Or at least, they were until this term. I have two contact hours this week, as well as a mock Spanish oral on Thursday. Talk about open plan.

What that does mean is that I’ve finally had the time to do a little work on the Mega-Drawing, and consequently it’s very near to completion. That’s something to look forward to.

I mustn’t fall into the trap of making my last few months in Durham a series of looking forward to moments. Time is running out as it is; in less than two months I’ll be out of here, and that saddens me a lot. I’m losing the treasure trove that is the library, the stellar music scene at Durham and, of course, the host of wonderful friends I’ve made here. If I spend too much time looking forward, I’ll end up looking back for most of next year, and that’s no good thing. Better to live in the moment.

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Monasterio de Yuste

I’m making no promises, but now that my British Council go-ahead is in, I’ll try to keep you posted on some of the events coming my way. Coming up:

  • Recording a new single with the Northern Lights
  • A trip to the Farne Islands (finally)
  • A weekend in Dunkeld, Scotland
  • June Ball
  • Graduation
  • The 70th Edinburgh Fringe

If that’s not blog material, I’ll eat my hat. At least, I would, if I hadn’t left it on the ALSA bus to Seville last month. Goodbye, boina. We’ve had some wonderful memories. I can only hope your next owner finds as much joy in you as I did. Like me, it came all the way from County Durham to you, O Sevillano. Treasure it, please. BB x

Life Lessons from the Mixed-Up Chameleon

‘How small I am, how slow, how weak. I wish I could be big and white, like a polar bear. And the chameleon’s wish came true. But was it happy? No…’

Do you remember reading The Hungry Caterpillar as a child? Eric Carle, the author, wrote another book around the same time called The Mixed-Up Chameleon. It’s about a chameleon that becomes dissatisfied with its own skin and so mimics the animals it sees, until it has transformed into something monstrous. The moral was clear: be true to yourself. For some reason it stuck in my mind far more vividly than the ever-popular Caterpillar, and for good reason: I don’t think there’s a children’s book out there that would have been a better beginning for me.

Adaptability is, in my honest opinion, the greatest asset in the human arsenal. It is, in a way, the most human of traits. We thrive because we can adapt. The trouble with trying to adapt is that at some point you have to put on the brakes and remain true to yourself, or run the risk of being many things and none: a mixed-up chameleon in the flesh. I sometimes wonder whether I am one of those who did not heed the warning signs and simply forgot to brake.

Before I even get into tackling this subject, I know straight off the bat that I am not the most qualified person to write about this. I’m mixed-race, but not enough physically for it to have had a significant impact on my growing-up (we’ll leave the mental impact out for now). In many respects, and despite my best efforts, I am a picture-perfect Englishman. There are people from whom this article would make so much more sense, to whom it would ring more true. And that’s exactly why I’m writing about it: because I’m not the man for the job – and, as a result of that, because I am.

As we grow up, we mould ourselves around the things around us, just like the chameleon: the people we associate with, the expressions we use, the music we listen to. We absorb these aspects of our surroundings along the way in a never-ending process, some voluntarily, some involuntarily, and these little changes can affect our lives in the subtlest ways. In years gone by, when the world was smaller, the number of directions life could take you in were, perhaps, more limited than they are today. YouTube can take you to downtown Los Angeles. Spotify can take you to Mali. Everything is just a click away these days, and so the possibilities for discovery are far more accessible than they once were.

And so we go on absorbing. But herein lies the problem: when does one stop? Is it a subconscious action? Or is there a point when we ought to work on what we are rather than search for the self elsewhere?

Growing up, I always felt that some people were ‘more complete’ than I was. Fellow classmates who had firm opinions of their own, or skills they had mastered. Friends who spoke in complete sentences that made sense, an eloquence I could only hope to achieve with a pen or keyboard. These were people who just seemed to have it all together, to be happy with where they were and confident in what they did. I don’t think I ever was. I wanted to be complete, like them. I even went through the motions if and when I could, but I always felt like a fish out of water. I was a romantic in a cynical age; a funkster in a decade when acoustic was King; an Afrophiliac in a white boy’s body.

So much of what I liked or wanted to be was not what I was on the outside. It made me hate what I was for years, and I fuelled that hate by reading into the worst of my race’s actions. For a long time I was obsessed with the brutalities of the Raj, the inhumanity of the American genocide and the barbarism of the West. It taught me a great deal about the world, but none of it did any wonders for my attitude towards my kin.

In one of life’s beautiful ironies, it was actually a fictional Imperialist – Allan Quatermain – who saved me from my condition, at a point in my life when my will was at an all-time low. He may not be the ideal balanced man by twenty-first century standards, but there was something about his acceptance of his lot that spoke to me, and brought me back from the brink of misanthropy.

Even so, I am still something of a mixed-up chameleon. I can be, but I am not. I suppose that’s natural for a mimic – or, perhaps, a linguist. And of all of the factors that mix me up, the strongest by far is music.

As the child of two music teachers, I admit I find it impossible to imagine a world without music. I was exposed from a very early age – before birth, if you listen to my mother – to all kinds of music. I got the full range of classical music from my father, and the most eclectic mix you could imagine from my mother, up to and including klezmer, jazz, gypsy jazz, disco, punk, broadway classics, film soundtracks, zulu chant and flamenco. As a result, my musical upbringing was incredibly mixed-up. I could have gone down any particular route – except perhaps acoustic-guitar-and-voice, which nobody in my family really went in for – and yet, despite my classical training (or perhaps because of it) I grew tired of that very Western world and threw myself headlong into ‘black music’; the blacker, the better.

It probably wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say that my taste in music and its subsequent effect on my identity has had a massive impact on my attitudes to talking about race, either. How else do I explain my willingness to discuss the one subject guaranteed to make most of my countrymen blanch?

Where am I going with this? We had solo auditions this afternoon for a few new numbers in our repertoire and – after the usual fit of nerves – it dawned on me that I was, once again, fighting for something that wasn’t me. I suppose my problem is that musically, as with so many other aspects of my life, I have made myself something of a Frankenstein. I have tried to be so many different things over the last twenty years and, in complete honesty, a great many of them I am simply not: I could go on and on about how much I dig the tune, but James Brown’s Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud) was, quite simply, not written for a white middle-class English boy. And it sure ain’t easy singing about the ghetto when you were born and raised in a quiet country village.

My mother’s gift to me in diversity may not have helped my case much. I worship the things that I am not. And whilst I go through the motions, others around me have grown up singing the ‘right’ music for their world. I rebelled, and here I stand, somewhere in the middle, neither here nor there. The fact remains that I am out of place, and it is entirely of my own doing.

‘Just then, a fly flew by. The chameleon was very hungry, but the chameleon was very mixed up. It was a little of this and a little of that. “I wish I could be myself”. The chameleon’s wish came true – and it caught the fly.’

So in choosing to favour diversity over working on what I do best, I have become something of a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none. A good mimic, but not the best at what I do. Versatility has its drawbacks, it must be said. But, given the chance, I would not trade my position for all the world. I may not be the master of the art, but I love the art to death. Funk music gives me a beat I just can’t shake. Michael Jackson makes me feel alive, African voices lift me to the heavens and flamenco stirs me into a passion I can’t explain. Who gives a damn if I’m white? Music transcends that. It’s how I feel on the inside that really matters.

If catching the fly is the key to getting the job done, I’m still a long way off. But if it symbolises happiness, then I’m better off a mixed-up chameleon. BB x

Perseverance

Gave you all a bit of a fright with my last post, didn’t I?

Since Wednesday’s minor breakdown – the apotheosis of a very shaky start – I’ve eased in at last. It’s as though somebody’s holding up a mirror to last year, when the first few days were whimsical, light and carefree… Well, I’ve bounced back. It was only a matter of time and effort. I owe that to several factors, not least of all the Corrs, C.J. Sansom and a very inspirational young lady – and, of course, to my dear friends for all the support they’ve given. Thank you.

I’ll start backwards. I mentioned a couple of posts back that my Parisian classmate was streets ahead of me in linguistic and thinking ability. From her wealth of vocabulary, maturity of thought and clear sense of direction in life I had her down as at least a couple of years older than me. That’s a major sin right off the bat; false assumptions. The revelation that she was actually several years my junior took the wind out of me. I’ll not say how much… just that for her age, to be equally comfortable in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Russian, English and French (and goodness knows what else) is nothing short of inspirational. Age really shouldn’t have anything to do with it, of course, but it’s always a wonderful thing to find someone so young so very keen, and I’ve always been a sucker for charismatic individuals. And this one’s a real star. I guess I could learn a lot from her.

Jeez, she’s just come back with a newspaper and is reading it as though it were in French. Life goals right there.

Concerning C.J. Sansom… I’ve had Dominion on my bedside table for the last three years but never got around to reading it. It’s like Pavilions or just about any Stephen King novel: the writing is brilliant, top-notch even, but would it really hurt to write a little less? (My brother’s the Stephen King fan in the family… the rest of us use his books as highly convenient door-stoppers). That’s where iBooks came to the rescue. Much as I am loath to accept them as a genuine substitute for the feel of a good hardback book, their convenience as far as travel is concerned is second to none. Especially when the book concerned is over six-hundred pages. I’ve not gone a week since being awarded my iPad last summer without having at least one book on the go, but it’s been a long time since I could hardly put the damned thing down for the quality of the novel. Dominion‘s had me putting off sleep during Ramadan, it’s that good. To write with his grit, his flair for realism… More life goals.

The crux of the matter is the book’s firm focus on England and the spirit of British independence. Churchill. That sort of thing. I needed inspiration and I found it: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts“.

Thanks Winnie. I owe you one.

Lastly, what I really should have done sooner was to pick up my iPod and treat myself to some serious music therapy. It’s a failsafe I always forget to fall back on, provided I’ve got the right track. And the Corrs’ Forgiven not Forgotten – every song on that album, in fact – is always the right track. I’m not sure what the first album I listened to was. I suppose it may have been Spiceworld, but my parents are both music teachers, so the scope there is enormous. Certainly the first one I remember clearly and the one I associate most with my childhood is Forgiven not Forgotten. I still have the cassette, stashed away with other precious mementos of my childhood: the Jubilee medallion, a vulture feather, a bundle of love letters…

The Corrs were, and still are, my favourite band. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there’s a serious hustle for that top spot between Beyoncé, Tina Turner, Michael Jackson and James Brown, with the latter usually taking the top spot purely because of his legendary stamina on stage, but there’ll always be something special about the Corrs. I grew up with them. I listened to them on the way to school and every time we went on that long car journey to the Lake District. I think they even had a hand in giving birth to the novel; Erin Shore, in particular. And after all these years, I still treasure that album above all others. There’s just something about it that never faded.

If it weren’t so expensive (comparatively speaking), I’d up sticks and travel to Ireland every time the songs come on. Forgiven not Forgotten, Someday, Erin Shore, Runaway… There’s real Irish magic in there. Green hills, glassy lakes and stark cliffs. Gorgeous accents and black hair. Resilience. The north. Oh, to be Irish!

I’ll be honest. The older I get, the more attached to my home country I become. And for once I’m talking about England. The pink, fluffy clouds of a winter’s morning over a hard, frosty ground. The cawing of a rookery or the song of a lonely woodpigeon. The wind in the trees in summer. The symphony of colour in the woods in autumn. The first chiffchaffs singing from the blossom in spring. Footpaths and country lanes. Skylarks. These are things I associate with home. My choice of a path in life is destined to lead me further down the path my grandfather took, back to my roots in Iberia, but – how does it go again? – there will always be that part of me that is forever England.

My apologies for grossly paraphrasing you, Brooke. I know that’s not exactly what you meant. But the words have a real magic, a real meaning to them. And I couldn’t agree more.

I think that’s the most important lesson I’ve learned this year, above and beyond standing on my own two feet, learning to ask for help, perhaps even knowing when to shut up… No, more importantly than that, I’ve learned to love who I am, what I am, where I come from. Not in some glorified, nationalistic sense. Only, I’m no longer ashamed to be British. Quite the opposite, in fact. Perhaps I’m even proud to be so, dare I use the term. But whatever Britain stands for, what matters most is that, at last, I am happy with who I am.

World, I’m ready. BB x

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Through the Looking-Glass

It’s been an interesting year. No, more than that, it’s been the very best of years. Not even that terrifying Monday primary class can put a damper on it. Incidentally, autocorrect suggested pterodactyl instead of primary, which is probably a very accurate description of the atmosphere. But like I said, that class alone has had next to no major impact on the year as a whole. As far as me goes, I think it’s been a resounding success.

This morning I found myself, for the first time, feeling genuinely fluent… and that was in the middle of giving a bilingual art class to a visiting school group from Romania, whose English was, in all likelihood, streets ahead of their Spanish. It’s the first time I’ve ever had to translate on the go, and being thrown the most dastardly terms that Dadaist impressionist art jargon can supply was a serious challenge, but one that I lapped right up. But that’s not the real crux: it’s that I’ve started getting tenses, idioms and (more crucially) agreements right without even thinking. It’s easy to think that the four-month point is the peak of language acquisition and after that it’s just vocab, vocab, vocab, but lately I’ve come to realize that the shoemakers’ elves have been at work and my grammar has been improving on the sly – which is grand, though it has made me wonder more than once whether I’m wasting £9000 a year and more on tuition fees if all I had to do to improve my Spanish was to come out here.

That’s a healthy dose of good news, because I was cut off from my principal means of improving my Spanish earlier this year. Or rather, I cut myself off. In a mirror-move of last year, I’ve fallen head over heels in love, had my heart broken and considered then walked away from a potential relationship over a niggling feeling that, as before, something simply wasn’t right. Story of my life, really. No matter how much I think, no matter how hard I try, I’m simply not cut out for the word casual. It’s not in my blood. Like my mother, I fill my every second with a job or project of some kind, be it work, writing or some other task to stave off sloth. I couldn’t ever commit any less than one hundred percent to anything, and though I’ve tried to convince myself of the ridiculousness of such a stubborn attitude, that’s something I can’t change. Whoever She is, she’ll be the kind of girl who gives a hundred percent back. Balance is key, and I’ve had my fill of one-sided love affairs. A couple of old friends I met over the Christmas holidays told me they’d reached the stage where they no longer have time for people who have no time for them. I thought it a rather selfish statement at first, but now I see the wisdom in it. After all, there’s no use in chasing stars over the horizon.

At the core of everything, but especially relationships – and I’m speaking from pitiful ignorance, as usual – is learning to love yourself. Love yourself and others will love you. That’s what they say. And loving yourself is no easy task.

I don’t think I’ve been truly happy with myself since I was fourteen; before girls, before exams and long before stepping out into the wide world (though I’ll make a three-month exception for that brief stint in Uganda). Physically, at least, I’ve always had complaints; why am I so small, why did I get the worst of my parents’ genes, why can’t I squat like an Arab without falling over… Petty, every one of them.

I’m also probably rather unhealthy compared to most of my generation, in that I don’t practice any kind of sport whatsoever (besides the occasional ridiculous trek). As I used to whine as a toddler, it’s not in my interest. And in my books, anything that’s not in my interest simply isn’t worth my time (until it is in my interest, of course, when suddenly I have to be exceedingly good at it). The gym doesn’t appeal to me – just hearing people bang on about their gym routine makes me want to jump down a rabbit hole – and though I’ve tried more than once, anything close to a workout routine tends to peter out after a few weeks because I get no enjoyment from it. The best I ever managed was those two months in Jordan, and that was only because Andrew stoically refused to let me back down. Left to my own devices, though, I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to sport. I’m simply not one of those people who gets a kick out of working up a sweat. I never have been. It’s only pure fear of what may become of me in the future that’s making me reconsider; now, when I should be at my physical prime.

So I have physical issues. That should come as no surprise. Fortunately, I’m either too stubborn or too indifferent to let them do me any emotional damage. Sure, I’ll probably have to start running soon, and that’s no bad thing. Especially in a country like Spain, where the food is a graver threat than terrorism. At least I eat well here.

This stream-of-consciousness was brought home to me by my headmaster in class this afternoon, when he whimsically commented that if I were a woman I’d be ‘marriage material’; “…this boy can draw, he can sing, he can dance, act, write, and he knows all of the names of the birds. He does everything”.

Yes, I basically got indirectly proposed to by my headmaster. Will this madness ever end?

But he was wrong. I don’t do everything. I happen to dabble in the arts, and whilst I consider myself reasonably accomplished in a few fields, there’s so many normal things I can’t do. Like mathematics. Or asking for help. Or driving. Or football. Or skiing. Or any other sport, for that matter. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s only because I’m so forthright with what I can do that I get by at all in this world. Because singing, drawing and writing are all well and good, but they don’t put food on the table – especially when you refuse to go mercenary.

Nonetheless, I’ve learned an important lesson this year, and that’s that I’m at my very best when I’m on my own. Jordan showed me that when there’s a crutch, I’ll use it, almost without thinking. That’s why I struck out for Spain alone, and why I’ll be doing the same in Morocco come June. Being alone forces you to work on yourself, which is never a bad thing, and allows you to truly live for you. I’ve been able to do so much this year, more than I ever thought I’d accomplish in eight months, and that makes me happy indeed. I still haven’t decided how much that’s got to do with being independent at last and how much it’s simply about living in my grandfather’s country. On a purely superficial level, I’d like to think the latter holds more weight.

I may not love myself quite as much for the time being as I should – that, like so much else, will come with time – and, dream though I may, until I am I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for a relationship, but simply being in Spain fills me up to the very top with all the energy I need to survive. Before, I’ve looked to others as charisma batteries, people from whom I could draw that precious life energy when mine was running low. Here I get it for free, right from the earth. And better still, I’ve learned how to manufacture that energy.

It’s the Spanish language. Nothing more, nothing less. Simply speaking in my grandfather’s tongue seems to be enough. If ever I truly love myself, it’s when I’m gesturing away in ehpañó. The earthy appeal of the semi-unintelligible southern accent is a serious draw for me, but it’s something about the raw dynamism of the language itself that really clicks, like a gear that’s been missing all my life. Here it’s functional, regularly oiled and, more importantly, spinning in its place. The very definition of perpetual motion.

So that’s the answer. I’ve simply got to come back and live here for good. The road to true happiness is hard to find, but I’ve found the map, at least, in both senses of the wording . The key is in the language itself. Perhaps it always has been. BB x

Holy Gridlock, Batman!

I remember saying a couple of days ago that I was going to take it easy and travel less this year, beginning with Semana Santa. Predictably, that failed almost as soon as the words left my mouth. I’m now sitting at ease on the balcony of a cute little hostel in Córdoba, having spent the last four days traveling in a large triangle around Andalucía, from Matalascañas to the Great Mosque. It’s the Easter equivalent of last term’s ‘square puente’ to Lisbon, Aveiro and Salamanca. Only this time, I’m not alone, and it’s been a barrel of laughs from start to finish.

I’ve told you about El Rocío. Let’s start with Seville. Seville is one of those cities that I’ve always thought rather overrated. It’s the Spanish equivalent of Frozen; people come back from it raving about what they’ve seen to such an extent that by the time you get around to going to see it yourself, it’s difficult not to be disappointed. Unlike Frozen, however, it’s worth digging in and opening your eyes a little.

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No, I’m not the biggest fan of Frozen. Something to do with Elsa’s dumbstruck ‘of course, love!’ remark, as though love were entirely alien to a Disney film and its target audience… and let’s not forget that ubiquitous Let it Go.

I’m sidetracking. As usual. I’ve been very blasé about Seville all year, using it largely as a transit between Villafranca and other southern destinations – mainly Olvera – and never visiting the city for its own sake. Mistake. If you can find a place to stay for the night in Seville, do. Especially in Semana Santa. Having the freedom to see the city by night as well as by day is a treat not to be overlooked.

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In my current adventures I’m joined once again by fellow traveler/blogger Brocklesby, spending half of her Easter holidays down south. Traveling with a companion can be infinitely more entertaining than going solo, especially when you’re both new to the place, but it’s been super-helpful acting as a kind of lemming-guide. I’m something of an old hand with Sevilla and Córdoba, having spent about a month apiece in each of them when you add up the days, so – with the fifty-fifty assistance of the Arch Deceiver aka HERE Maps – I’ve been acting as a guide. It’s a lot of fun to introduce somebody to all of your favourite spots, as well as the main sights, but best of all you get to try things out that you never quite found the gumption to do alone, like this museum or that ice cream parlour. It’s a blast and I should travel in twos or threes more often.

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Travelers to Seville in Semana Santa should be warned: bring a compass, a map and/or plenty of patience. Navigation is made almost impossible by the processions. In most of the smaller towns, these are usually nocturnal affairs of some eighty metres in length that take five or six minutes to pass, and good seats can be had by simply racing ahead by several streets and waiting by the side of the street.

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Not in Seville. Not only is everyone in town in on the secret, so is the tourist population, both of which are immense. On top that, the processions themselves are enormous, trailing as many as three streets at a time and taking all of an hour and more to pass – and there can be as many as six happening simultaneously across town.

Understandably, this turns something as simple as crossing a street into a labour of Heracles. It’s a circumstance where shortcuts really do make long delays, and itinerant penitants and busy streets make the heart sink. I distinctly remember saying that ‘if you see Jesus, you’re screwed’; blasphemous, perhaps, but in accurate reference to the fact that the float bearing Jesus is almost always followed by the Virgin Mary some thirty minutes later, meaning that Jesus marks the very epicentre of the gridlock. Thanks Jesus.

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That being said, it’s something you have to watch at least once. And whilst it may not be all that much fun to watch the tips of the penitents’ colored hoods sailing by over the heads of a pushy multitude, if you can get yourself to the front, it’s surely one of the human wonders of the world to behold.

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I’m not a pushy person. I think I’m too English. So it would take a miracle to get me to the front of the queue. But God, or Fate – or an unusually benevolent Murphy – had other plans tonight. Having said that it would be ironic if we ended up walking down a street and coming face to face with a procession headed in our direction, that is exactly what happened, and with the grand finale, no less. We tried to duck out of the way through a gap in the multitude, but the Guardia closed it off and shoved us unceremoniously back into the crowd – which put us, quite by accident, right at the front. It suited us just fine, but it must have bothered those who’d been there long before us something awful.

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It might not have been as soul-stirring as the Olvera madrugada procession – which goes on all through the night and involves no small amount of mountain-climbing – but it was a genuine privilege to behold from such a premier position.

I’ll be back next year. Most certainly. A lot of Spaniards claim to be rather impassive on the subject of Semana Santa, but their dogged adherence to an age-old tradition far more authentic than any search for chocolate eggs says otherwise. I, like Hemingway and Irving before me, am yet another foreigner hopelessly entranced by the magic of it all; only, I’ve at least a quarter of Spanish blood in me, so I’m not a total stranger. I’d like to think that counts for something. BB x

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That’s the first time I’ve ever walked twenty kilometres to get home after a night out. Suffice to say, I also sincerely hope it’s the last. Talk about a walk of shame…

Why did I do it? Because I could? Very possibly. I think it was more the thought of sitting shivering in the dark until the nine thirty bus that made me decide to walk the distance. It certainly wasn’t stinginess on my part; the Almendralejo bus fare is a paltry 1,31€. Perhaps I thought I could beat the earliest bus back to Villafranca on foot. That’s vaguely logical… in a very roundabout-Ben-way-of-thinking. But then, it was five forty-five in the morning. I don’t think I had any real sense of what I was doing. I just remember saying to myself “Alright, let’s do this” before marching off into the darkness like a low-budget Leeroy Jenkins.

As the crow flies, it’s just under twenty kilometres from Almendralejo to Villafranca. I had to take a detour to cross the motorway, so I reckon I clocked just over that. At night the distance looks deceptively close; the twinkling orange lights of the polígono merge with those of the hospital in the middle of the two towns, presumably so situated for industrial accidents in the field. Most of it is traced by the Via de la Plata, the pilgrim road to Santiago from Seville, so it wasn’t exactly a challenging hike. It’s also probably the first time I’ve been sincerely grateful for the vast, empty flat of the Tierra de Barros: navigation is as easy as pie when the nearest hills are a good forty kilometres behind your destination. 

The whole walking-at-night bit didn’t bother me in the slightest. I’d put that down to a six a.m. lack of awareness too, but then, it never has. Of all the things that frighten and frighten horribly in this world, I’ve never been afraid of the night. I learned a long time ago to consider night as just another shade of the day. It’s the same world, only somebody turned off the lights. No deep-seated fears of a shadowy assault or mugging either: I do believe that even the dullest criminal mind would have more sense than to be lying in wait in the countryside in the small hours. The countryside is safety. It always has been, in my eyes. In fact the only mildly unsettling thing in the whole walk was the occasional startled growls of the caged dogs in the farmsteads that dotted the early stages of the route. Alsatians, most of them. It’s a popular breed here. I remember saying to myself “Why can’t you people just keep cats?” and not for the first time. 

Besides the dogs, the soundscape of the early morning Tierra de Barros was really quite magical: roosters crowing, ravens croaking, the tinkle of a pipit overhead and, from somewhere far across the plains, the lonely cry of a stone-curlew. All of this as the sun rose dim and yellow into the clouds on the horizon. My feet might be punishing me two days later, but I don’t regret that walk for an instant. I just don’t think I’ll be repeating it all that soon. It’s a bit like that Spain north-to-south adventure of mine a few years back: it was there, it had to be done, and I did it. Now I can move on.

I don’t think I even stopped for one second to consider what I’d do if it started to rain. The forecast for the weekend was set to bucket it down. I guess I forgot all about that. That I will blame on my fatigue. If it had rained, I’d have been well and truly drenched, and in my best clothes, no less. Why is it that I’m always wearing my best clothes when I set out on these ridiculous adventures? At any rate, it did; a royal thunderstorm hit on the following night, sheet rain, lightning and all the works. Luckily by then I was holed up in my apartment with a cola cao and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor on TV. Someone up there likes me.

I’d like to think that it’s due to foolish misadventures like this that I get to see a side of Spain that most modern travelers simply pass over. You could be forgiven for thinking that Spain, like much of Europe, was fully humanised a long time ago: the sweep of olive plantations and vineyards in the Tierra de Barros certainly gives that impression. But all you have to is close your eyes and listen: the world survives on the fringes. The stone-curlews of these tilled fields and the mournful plovers that ply the once-pristine sands of the raped Costa del Sol hark back to an older Spain, one more ancient than even the oldest of the moorish forts that dot the distant hills. It puts me back in touch with that world to hear them again, just as though I were playing a record from a forgotten world.

It’s not a purely avian nostalgia. As I arrived on the fringes of Villafranca I saw another scene from a bygone age: a muddle of tents positioned about a small campfire where a couple of ragged-looking men stood cooking a light breakfast. Spain’s native gypsies (if such a term is not a misnomer) are a heavily romanticized lot and were mostly squeezed out if their old ways by government programs decades ago, but this new generation of travelers – Romanians, mostly – have taken their place. When I say tents I don’t mean the bright canvas of a modern traveler, nor the UNICEF-stamped donations you might encounter in a war-torn country. These ones might have been cut out of a picture book from the 1930s. Situated on the very fringes of the town, hidden from sight by the town’s waterworks, it’s the very definition of a gypsy encampment. And I thought such echoes had long since faded into history.

You don’t see them in Villafranca proper. The only encounters I’ve had with them so far have all been in Dia supermarket, where they are instantly recognizable by their clothes, by their language and by their complexion; a rich, ochre-brown, marbled like the soil. I’d like to get to know them, to know why they’re here, where they came from and what other stories they might have brought with them, but the townsfolk only have dirt to say on their account. And in my propensity for romanticising the underdog, am I really any better?

Seeing the Romanian encampment made me think of home for some reason, but I was really too tired by then to dwell on it for long. It was purely because I was still moving that I didn’t collapse from fatigue; on the two occasions I paused to get my bearings my head began to spin and I very nearly dozed off. It was only later that night, when sorting through my music collection and The Land Before Time‘s Whispering Winds came on, that my thoughts took me home again. I cried. Profusely. I always do when I hear that one. Damn you, Don Bluth, for producing a film that still brings tears to my eyes some twenty years later. Damn your genius.

Many auxiliares use the holidays to go home to be with their families. Some of my closest friends out here have done just that. It’s a very sensible move, but it’s only when I stumble over such memories that I remember how vulnerable and human I really am. Whispering Winds is on my iPod for exactly that reason; 1608 times around I can put my weaknesses aside and soldier on alone, but there’s that 1609th song that’s there to remind me that neither home nor family is ever truly put aside.

I won’t be seeing home until August. I won’t have time to do so until then, since the third and final leg of my year abroad across the Strait begins almost as soon as I’m done here. Fortunately my parents are coming out to visit me in a couple of weeks, so I don’t have to. I won’t deny that I’m looking forward to having a car at my disposal – being in Europe’s bird capital and relying on public transport is nothing less than tortuous – but more than that, I miss my parents. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Sometimes I need to remind myself of that. There’s only four of us left; my family is precious to me, no matter what impression my aloofness might give.

A lot of things have happened over the past year. Some good, some not so good. Now that I’ve got the time, I’m retreating for a couple of days to the one place in the whole world that makes me truly happy. It’s a place that has answers… of a sort. My rock, my cradle, my very own Shangri-La. BB x