Rush Hour

It genuinely took me all of twenty minutes today to find a seat in the library. The place is packed. Every single seat, booth, study room and square inch seemed to be occupied, or worse, occupied in absence. Here in the depths of the ground floor, I finally managed to carve a space for myself on the Palatine floor, and then only after getting a girl to begrudgingly take her feet off the chair. No love lost there.

It must be essay season.

I’ve come here to flesh out an essay myself, on epic and chronicle in medieval Spain. It’s one of those essays that I know I’ll actually really enjoy writing when I get into it – not least of all because I can resurrect El Cid for this one – but starting is always the hardest part. And there’s plenty of reading I could be doing… At least I can be thankful I’m not a mathematician. A sneaky peak over the screen of my laptop and the table beyond is littered with quadratics and algebraic hieroglyphs and other strange runes of that sort. I’m quite happy keeping to the medieval scrawl, thank you very much.

Three weeks left of term. Three gigs. Three deadlines. A total of 7000 words to be written in that time. Add to that the ICCA semifinals the week after term finishes and, of course, the dissertation. I don’t think I’ve ever been busier. But it’s not unmanageable. Busy is happy. Next year may or may not seem quite so hectic by comparison. When I look back and think over all the things I’ve done over the last month alone, I’m frankly amazed that I’m standing here in one piece. It’s been one hell of a ride.

Let’s take a look at the positives:

  • Job application for next year is away.
  • The commissions I had to finish this term are away.
  • The lorry-load of crisps and chocolates for my school is away (don’t ask).
  • Three summatives to go, but at least two are down.
  • 3,000 words into my dissertation. 9,000 remain, but it’s a good start.
  • Ice was forecast, but it’s been glorious sunshine all day.
  • The Lights are going down to London next Monday!
  • Biff’s up for the week. That’s always a cause for celebration.
  • I’m actually writing a blog post. Let this be a sign of new life.

I have so many reasons to smile right now. I didn’t even need to write one of those nauseating ‘2017 reasons to smile’ posts back in January to justify it. I just forget, sometimes, in the face of overwhelming pressure of all the essays I have to do, and the time it actually takes me to beat my brain into submission and focus.

A run to Broompark this morning put everything in perspective. You just can’t be stressed out when the sun is shining, the birds are singing and the light is sparkling in the river. I could have been reading up on Kingship and Propaganda, or on historiographical techniques employed in thirteenth-century Spain, but I decided that twenty minutes by the Deerness river doing absolutely nothing at all would serve me better in the long run. And so it has. Here I am, in the library, having finally conquered a seat for myself, ready to make a start on this essay run.

And unlike the vast majority of grim countenances in this building, I’m actually feeling pretty chipper about it. BB x

Song of Autumn

I usually walk home across the Bailey after lectures, but today I turned left at the end of Kingsgate Bridge and took the path along the river Weir. It was the goosanders that did it, I suppose. The one constant of my three years at Durham University has been that, come winter, there’s a family of three goosanders on the Weir (don’t know what a goosander is? Look it up, they’re beautiful). I was done for the day and everybody else had gone their separate ways to study, so I thought I’d treat myself to a half-hour’s isolation.

I don’t think I ever forgot how beautiful England is in the autumn. In fact, I think I grew to appreciate all the more for being so far away from it last year. There’s nothing like thirteen consecutive months of almost total sunshine to give you a real heartache for a cold, crisp autumn morning. Well, it’s certainly been cold recently, even if the frost hasn’t settled in yet, but now that our boiler’s fully functional, I’m not complaining. Even so, after the madcap nature of the last two months – I really have had something to do every day, come to think of it – something I really had forgotten to do was to make time for myself. And I’m not talking the lying-in-bed-watching-Youtube kind of me-time. Everybody has something that fills them up again when they’re feeling low. Maybe it’s good food, maybe it’s a hearty jog, or that song that never fails to put a smile on your face. For me, it’s nature. Between DELE revision, rehearsals with the Lights and this many other commitments, I’ve scarcely had the time to think straight. I’ve waxed lyrical about the importance of being busy and having people around you that radiate good energy, but for me, there’s no substitute for a good hour or so in nature’s arms.

Mrs Goosander wasn’t about this afternoon. She sometimes goes fishing further downstream. Mr Goosander and his rather shabby-looking youngster (still moulting, but more impressively, still here) were going about their business in their usual spot. The father looks especially impressive at the moment, with his feathers flushed that special shade of salmon-pink that is so particular to his kind. I think I saw him catch about three or four fish whilst I was there. Sit long enough in a sheltered spot and the little world accustoms itself to you…

An inquisitive little coal tit came to have a look-in on one of the trees overhanging the river. A couple of blackbirds were making a lot of noise rummaging around in the undergrowth as is their fashion. The soundscape was so autumnal, I only wish I could have recorded it for you. Words will have to do: the cooing of a woodpigeon in the trees; the machine-gun twittering of a roving party of nuthatches; the high-pitched seee of redwings overhead; the cawing of crows coming in to roost. The pitch-pitch, pitch-pitch-pitch of a chaffinch, tea-cher tea-cher of a great tit, and, once or twice, the distant shriek of a jay.

I don’t tend to talk about my favourite pastime all that often. Sometimes you don’t have to: the things that matter most are plain to see. Besides, who’d want to listen? I learned a long time ago that there are precious few who care about the distinction between wrens and robins, crows and jackdaws, mallards and goosanders. And, I suppose, the names are not important. What matters is that people know that they’re there. Planet Earth II seems to be extremely popular up here, and I hope it’s encouraging people to look around more when they’re out and about. 

So that’s my advice. The next time you’re out for a walk, whether you’re on your way to or from work, or just to kill some time, unplug yourself from the noise, find a quiet spot to sit down, shut your eyes and just let the world let you in. You won’t regret it. There’s no better music (and believe me, I’ve looked – my whole family are musicians).

Blackbirds, crows and redwings. The wind in the trees and the splash of diving ducks in the silent river. These are the sounds of my childhood. Of all the things life has taught me, I am no happier than in my knowledge of the world around me. I have my mother to thank for that, I think. That and my obsessive habit of chasing the details. I should probably have given journalism a little more thought. Then again… BB x

An old photo of mine from 2008, when I had nothing on my mind but birds!

Two Men Skilled in Climbing Mountains

We did it. We conquered Ghorghez. It’s been staring us in the face for all of six weeks but now I can put my hand on my heart and say with all honesty that the beast has been vanquished. Call it the human desire to tame the wild in me, but I could never have left Tetouan with my head held high if I’d never managed to tackle that mountain.

Fortunately, Alex was of a similar opinion, so at nine o’clock this morning we hailed a cab and off we went.

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King of Tetouan (or that obligatory tourist photo)

We didn’t have the best of starts. My host father very kindly gave me the use of his topographic map and took me up to the roof to explain the route we could take; he would have come with us, if his wife was not still hospitalized from the accident. But when he asked how many of us were going, I had to lie and say five. If I’d told him the truth – that Alex and I alone were going – he’d probably have tried to stop us. The last time he went on a fossil-hunting excursion up in the mountains, he was attacked by a group of thugs and severely injured.

In that knowledge, Alex and I arrived at Ain Bou Anane and set off on our journey.

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Don’t be fooled… It wasn’t anywhere near as easy it looks

For the first ascent we had it easy, as there was a reliable, well-trodden path to begin with. Emphasis on ‘begin with’; after a hundred metres or so it vanished into the sea of thorns and scrub that covers most of Ghorghez and we were forced to resort to free-navigating the mountainside, cutting from goat track to goat track with the occasional wayward boulder as a bridge between the paths. And just as well: the tracks often vanished into thin air like fireflies in the night, leaving us stranded in the scrub.

The mountain wasn’t entirely wild. What I took at first for bird calls turned out to be the Ghorghez shepherds out on the slopes with their flocks. I’d quite forgotten how far sound travels in the mountains. More than once I thought we’d been followed, only to see the source of the noise sitting atop a boulder watching over his goats on the far side of the valley. I must admit, due to my host father’s tales, I was more wary than usual around these hill-folk. Seeing their silhoettes appearing and disappearing between the rocks set my teeth on edge. More than once I let slip that we might have to make a break for it if they ‘came back with reinforcements’.

But they didn’t, and Alex smiled and waved at them, and some of them waved back. I think we could all do with a reminder from time to time that, at the end of the day, everybody’s human. A smile and a wave could change everything.

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Now that’s what I call a hike!

As for their fences… Seriously. Fuck fences. The amount of backtracking we had to do to find a way around the vast sections of the mountainside that had been cordoned off was unfair, unhelpful and unnecessary. Who even builds fences on a mountain anyway? I guess they’re for the few cows we saw munching through the scrub, but what kind of a sadistic individual drives their cattle up into the mountains and then fences them in with barbed wire and brambles? Fuck those fences.

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You’ve got to hand it to Maroc Telecom. Fully functional 3G up in the mountains is impressive

Delaying our hike by one day was one of my better decisions. Not only was Alex fully recovered from his late late Friday night, but the weather couldn’t have been better. The sun shone out from behind the clouds all morning, and the wind, though strong, was cool and refreshing. Compared to the Azla trek, it was a much easier ascent. Which is jammy, for double the height.

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Ghorghez’ summit in the clouds

Alex had a run-in with a rather large snake on the way down. I know because one minute I was powering ahead with my trusty bamboo cane, and the next he was racing past, raving about snakes and putting about as much distance as he could between the cliff and himself. ‘I don’t like snakes. No one likes snakes. There isn’t a culture in the works that likes snakes. There’s just some things that nobody likes. Donald Trump, snakes… Oh, it was more than a metre long, easily.’ Ladies and gentlemen, Indiana Jones. ‘We don’t even have any antidote’. True, when I was packing this morning, I didn’t really think about preparing for a snake attack. I was too busy filling up five water bottles.

Five. I’d like to emphasize that five. Ben’s clearly learned his lesson from last year’s Dana disaster (you can read about that here).

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The coolest overhang in geology (or possibly the Wall from Game of Thrones)

Not sure about the snakes, but the cicadas were absolutely massive. Blood-dripping-from-their-fangs massive, as my parents would put it.

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Who needs Pokémon Go? I found a Ninjask without my mobile, thank-you-very-much

Besides the creepy crawlies, the mountain was spectacular for wildlife. That’s probably my favourite thing about mountains: the wonderful creatures it brings you into contact with. Mountains are some of the last truly wild bastions on the earth. Especially for birds, and birds of prey in particular. For a city, Tetouan’s got its fair share of wildlife, namely the local kestrels and cattle egret colonies, as well as the flyover storks and kites, but if you want a really wild experience, you have to go out into the sticks. I watched a pair of booted eagles wheeling and diving and whistling overhead from the summit, as well as clocking a flyby peregrine, a couple of kestrels, a few buzzards, five or six kites, ten ravens and an Isengard-level swarm of choughs. Saruman the White couldn’t summon such a flock.

The scenery up at the top might have been taken from that very scene from The Fellowship of the Ring, strewn with jagged rocks and sparse bushes. But if Saruman was indeed watching our passage south, he must have tired of his vigil before long and gone for a coffee break because, as is the way with mountaineering, coming down was three times harder than going up.

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‘Let’s not throw ourselves to our deaths just yet.’

Finding our way up the mountain had been easy enough, since the next crest was always in sight. You’d think that the same might be said for the descent, but mountains are fickle. Not only do they play with sound, they also throw your perspective off frequently. More than once we followed the latest road/path/goat-track/dry river to its end only to find ourselves staring into abyss as it plunged fifty feet down over the edge of a cliff we’d never seen coming.

The resulting backtracking led us back into bramble country, which didn’t bother me and my long sleeves too much, but it ripped Alex’s exposed limbs to shreds. By the time we made it to open country again he looked as though he’d been mauled by a particularly savage beast. We couldn’t even use the wild boar we’d seen as an excuse, as it took off into the scrub as soon as it heard us coming. Nope, that’s just the bush at work.

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Ain Zarqa at the feet of the Great Pyramid and Saddle Mountain

Seven hours since setting out from Ain Bou Anane we found our way back down the mountain to the village of Wargane, completing the arc that had taken us around most of the Ghorghez ridge. I left my trusty bamboo cane at the side of the road (again) and Alex flagged down a cab to take us back to Tetouan. Three mountains in one. All in a day’s work.

Ghorghez is down. Mission accomplished. BB x

Take Me to the River

The world doesn’t look particularly different at twenty-two. So much has happened since last year, but what’s changed? I’ve been so busy for most of the year that I’ve hardly had time to look. I’ve been binging on Doctor Who lately, and with all of that timely-wimey stuff in mind, I thought I’d pen down a few things that I’ve seen and heard over the last 365 days.

Paris got hit by an earth-shattering terrorist attack, and then a flood six months later. Brussels got attacked shortly afterwards, as did numerous other cities in the Middle East (most of which overlooked, perhaps because Europeans weren’t directly involved). IS obviously wasn’t satisfied with all the fear and blew up Palmyra. It’s a rough world we live in. The migrant crisis is deepening, UK is currently considering leaving the EU and mogul, ‘kill the women and children’, human-seesaw Trump is genuinely the Republican candidate for the US Presidential elections. That may or may not have something to do with all of this. There’s also another plane vanished without a trace, this one flying between Paris and Cairo. We lost a lot of actors to cancer, including Alan Rickman, and also the West African black rhinoceros to boot – but in all the xenophobic madness that’s plaguing the world right now, that’s a loss that most people will have ignored.

There’s a change right away: Ben’s been reading the news this year.

Yesterday was my first shot at getting out and about in Morocco and I seized it by the horns. It was also the first real day of summer, pushing 36°C from 11 o’clock onwards. Summer Ramadan is a challenge on a whole new level. Thank goodness the plan was to spend most of the day in the shade of a canyon.

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Now if Wadi Dana had been this lush and green…

The Moroccan north is nothing short of spectacular. In truth, most of Morocco will blow you away, but the Rif is rather special, even for a seasoned Sierra-trekker like me. Imagine the Pyrenees, sprinkle them with red earth, plant them with cedars and remove the high-rise ski resorts and you have a basic idea of the Rif. You might also care to throw in a few monkeys if it’s to your fancy, though a surprising number of folks wouldn’t.

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Thank God I brought my trunks on a whim

Turn off the road near Talambote and you’ll find yourself in a breathtaking valley of cedar woods and stark, red cliffs, set against a blue, blue sky. Heaven incarnate. There’s a small car park and a couple of bathrooms at the point where a river tumbles out of the mountains, carving its way through the rocks over a series of waterfalls. Akchour and the Bridge of God lie just a couple of kilometres upstream.

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Talassemtane’s pretty amazing, but the party starts south of Tetouan!

The route there is not exactly what you’d call linear; you have to ford the river at least two or three times. And whilst the weather might be sweltering at this time of year, the water rushing down from the mountains is anything but. There are a couple of stepping-stone paths and a few lines of conveniently-placed sandbags,but unless you feel like risking the adventurous, straight-out-of-a-Conan Doyle log bridges, it’s sun’s out, guns out, shoes off. I usually need a seriously good excuse to strip, being white bread through and through, even though I tend to tan pretty well, thanks to the Manchego in my blood (mmm… manchego). Well, a swim is as good an excuse as any.

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Throw me the idol!

The water is cold. It’s not as cold as that pool in the riad we stayed in over in Chaouen, but it’s still bloody cold. After about fifteen minutes in the river my jaw is shaking uncontrollably and I’m having to bite my tongue to talk, which is hardly the most efficient way of going about it. But the water is so clear you can count the stones on the riverbed two metres down. And somewhere up in the trees high above, troops of macaques patrol the cliffs. I only had a fleeting glimpse of them this time, but I’ll be back. Hey, I can’t help it; I lived with two anthropologists last year. It did my obsession with primates no good whatsoever. Get up close and personal with our distant family and tell me you don’t feel some kind of connection on a deeper level – it’s in the eyes. You can tell they’re thinking.

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Barbary Macaque in the Cedar Forest, Ifrane National Park, Morocco (2015)

They must be. If you aren’t buying it, visit the Rock. The Gibraltar macaques know all the tricks to relieve tourists of their munchies: smash and grab, puppydog eyes, even a rudimentary pincer movement. But here they’re free, unfed (and thus unspoiled) by tourists and wary enough to be considered natural. And that’s beautiful.

The car ride home was nothing short of a dream. Why? Because Omar, our guide, spoke Spanish. As did Mika, as did Jennifer. As did I. I can hardly tell you how amazing it felt to be speaking Spanish again after what feels like ages, even though it can only have been ten days, tops. It made returning to Arabic on Monday morning all the harder, but it was worth it for the high. Send me back to Spain. I can see the blue skies, I can see Paradise.

The Corrs have a new album out. White Light. I’m in a very happy place. And now I’m not booked out this August, I might just get to see them after all. 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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The Unspeakable

I can’t believe I’ve left it until my final teaching week to make use of Jeopardy and Mr Bean in an English class. They’re two absolute staples of ESL teaching and I’ve managed thirty teaching weeks thus far without using either one of them. Just as well, I suppose; it made planning my last lesson less painful. And as usual, for a lesson that was drafted in ten minutes flat on a Wednesday morning, with just an hour to go before my first class of the day, it’s turned out to be one of my better plans. It’s definitely not a rule to live by, but the pressure of last-minute living certainly does produce fantastic results.

At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.

Today is Thursday. The last working Thursday of the year.Fortunately, it’s not quite the end. I’ve got at least two more days next week, and if I can help it, I’m going to see if I can’t wangle an extra two hours in tomorrow on my day off to catch up on the two classes I’m missing to catch up for that one primary class I thought I’d been spared this week. Future teachers, beware: state schools might not make you make up for lost hours if you’ve been on a school trip, but private schools will. At this stage in the year I don’t even want a day off. I want every last second I can get with this lot, especially since most of my stars will have gone by the time I get back.

It’s been a rather predictable finish. No poppers, no fireworks. Just a gradual loss of classes until I’m left with my last next Tuesday, which promises to be a wonderful finish; the only class of the twenty-five I have that I can guarantee to be quiet, relaxing and easy-going. There are only three of them. That’s probably why.

Predictably, my exercise routine died. For the fifth time this year, I tried to get into a work-out routine. It didn’t work. After almost three weeks, I simply lost interest. Again. Some people say that going running and getting a good sweat going in the gym gets them into a state of relaxation like none other. Golden orioles do that for me. Or hoopoes. Or woodlarks. Or just about anything that lives, breathes and moves in the wild.

For a good deal of the run-up I assumed it was standard form to duck out early, since that’s what everybody else seems to do. Looking around, the French assistants were allowed to leave before their time, since they ‘weren’t really needed’ towards the end. I get that impression from the other Spaniards, too. But I’m contracted to work for two schools, which complicates things a little – and makes things a whole lot simpler. This week’s school trip meant that I missed Tuesday, my favourite day of the week (Tuesday used to be Funk Band rehearsal day, and Northern Lights rehearsal day, and Arabic Literature day… Tuesday has always been a good day). This year, the 31st May falls on a Tuesday. So there’s absolutely no way in heaven or hell that I’d miss that last Tuesday. Heck, if I could extend my stay by another week, I would. It’s only the thought of flying out to Morocco and getting settled in on my birthday that stopped me. Twenty-two is no big deal, but I’d rather not be on my own on my first day in a new country for my birthday. There are some things that simply aren’t done.

If it sounds like I’m raving about how good my job is… I am. Because this time next week it will all be over, I’ll be back in England and I’ll have to wait another year – another eight months, British Council time – until I can come back. I’ll need this kind of stuff to re-read when I’m sweating over my finals this time next year. Looking back, everything tends to look rosier than it really was. In my three brushes with the law – in Spain, in Uganda and in Morocco – I was absolutely terrified, but it’s all hilarious in retrospect. I just need to remind myself that it was just as good in the moment as it was in memory. Remember that when you’re panicking over that last summative essay, Benjamin. Bloody £41,000 degree. The decision of what to do with my life turned out to be so easy, I could have saved myself a lifetime’s debt and simply marched straight out here, if only I’d known. The things we do to make our way in the world, the hoops we have to jump…

There’s only a few little hurdles left before the finish line. I need to pay in a cheque for 50€ worth of peanut butter that I’ve had on me since March. I need to sort out Student Finance for next year, saddling myself with another £12,500 worth of accumulative debt. I also really need to write up my Spanish TLRP on banditry in the Spanish sierras (although at least it’s planned and ready to go).

Must dash. The only class I’m not going to miss awaits. BB x

PS. I’ll tell you about the school trip in another post, I just felt a regular post was needed for the time being… before it all goes mad.

Paradise Lost and Found

I wish I could tell you I’d read Milton’s poems, from which I’ve shamelessly adopted the title of this post. I haven’t. But even if I had, I doubt a throwaway quote here or there would be necessary. I’m in a place that fills me right up to the top with pure and simple happiness, gives an edge to my writing hand and recharges my well-worn batteries. Paradise has a name and though this one may sound like a cross between a stud and an aviary and smell like a sweet mixture of manure and marshwater, it’s perfection for a country boy like me.

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El Rocío. More correctly known as Aldea del Rocío, as that is exactly what it is: a village. It may be the size of a small town, but looks can be deceiving: over half of the townhouses are empty for the larger part of the year. Once a year in May, El Rocío plays host to one of the largest, loudest and more colourful celebrations of the Iberian peninsula, the Romería deal Rocío. As many as a million Spaniards, dressed to the nines in rustic splendour, descend upon the village from all over the country to pay homage to the Madre de las Marismas, El Rocío’s very own Virgin Mary.

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This is a very big deal. Accommodation in that week is normally booked out months in advance, if not years. To give you some kind of idea, have a look at the price hike in this particular hostel below:


My mental maths isn’t brilliant, but I’d say that’s at least ten times the price I’m paying per night, if not twenty. That gives you an idea as to just how popular the festival is.

Semana Santa, on the other hand, is a minimal affair. A couple of special Masses and a single daytime procession on Holy Friday. So what on earth am I doing here now?

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The answer is all around me. El Rocío is drop-dead gorgeous, but better still is the countryside that surrounds it: the skirts of Doñana National Park, one of Europe’s most beautiful remaining wildernesses. Sandy forests of stone-pines stretching into the infinite. Scrubby heaths awash with colourful spring flowers of yellow and white and powder blue. Shimmering lakes and marshes teeming with flocks of noisy flamingoes and an eternally blue sky that almost always has at least one kite whirling about in the distance, whistling a beautiful trill into the mix of carriage bells, chattering swallows, whirrupping bee-eaters and the incessant oop-oop-oop of a hoopoe. This place is as close to paradise as this world allows. It’s also a place where absolutely everyone wears a cap or riding boots or both, so it suits me down to a T. Especially now, when my hair is a triple-crown disaster of a birds’ nest and in bad need of a cut – and therefore hidden under my very own flat ‘at.

I won’t bore you to death with five hundred words about my birdwatching adventures. It’s not a passion that everybody understands. What I will say about it is that it is deeply rewarding, endlessly unpredictable and that Doñana National Park is the very embodiment of that unpredictability. I swear that it’s different every single year, and I’ve been coming here for the best part of a decade now. In some years it’s half-drowned in rainwater, in others mild after a dry winter. I’ve seen boar, deer and mongooses in one year and never again since. The same goes for the gallinules, herons, pratincoles, harriers and marsh terns; each of them in one good year apiece, but never together. This year’s treasure is the glossy ibis, a Doñana regular that I’ve never been able to get that close to… until now.

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Doñana is one of those places where I can sit and do nothing and watch the world go by without feeling in the least bit guilty. Time just seems to stand still here. That the entire populace of El Rocío seems to prefer the saddle to the driving seat goes a long way to entrenching that romanticism, naturally, but there’s a similarly timeless feeling to be found in sitting in the shade of a stone-pine on the Raya Real and listening to the wind. Every once in a while the blue-winged magpies cease their chattering, the hoopoe calls it a day and all that you can hear is the dry whisper of the wind. It’s spellbinding. Like Merlin to Morgana, I’m ensnared. But it is a very beautiful enchantment.

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At some point I’m going to have to turn my feet back in the direction of town and head for the bus stop (this town’s not big enough for a bus station, especially since they diverted the main road). This morning I was almost keen to move on, in that snug-in-bed-with-a-good-book way – this one’s Shadow of the Moon by my favourite author, M.M. Kaye – but three steps outside and I was entranced once again. Oh, to live here and to spend my days in the saddle! I get romantic notions of owning an Andalusian stallion called Suleiman and riding about the stone-pine woods with the One, whoever and wherever she may be.

That’s quite enough of that. I’ll see you in Seville. BB x