Veni, Vidi, Victus Eram

And that’s that. My last working day in Villafranca is over. I only just got away with crying out of my final class. 4°A are total angels, the lot of them.

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What other class could handle Hobbes vs. Rousseau in another language?

I should make it clear that it’s my last working day of 2016… because I’ll be back. Sooner than I’d originally planned. The truth is that I’ve had such an amazing time this year, I don’t half wonder whether it would be difficult to top elsewhere. So I’ve burned my boats and taken advantage of the British Council’s four-year cap by deciding to return to Villafranca independently in 2017, leaving me another three years to wander about Extremadura, Spain and/or the rest of the Spanish speaking world if I so choose under the British Council. Maybe then I’ll be ready to train as a real teacher. Don’t call it unadventurousness on my part. Think of it as happiness found. Villafranca has been a wonderful home for the last nine months. And now, I suppose, I’d better do it justice – peppered with photos of some of my favourite moments of the year…

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…starting with this.

The hardest thing here is knowing where to begin. How do I possibly sum up what has been the very best year of my life? Do I start from the beginning – from touchdown in Seville airport? But you know the story from there. And if you wanted to know the details, the entire year is spread out across the blog. Just go back to the 23rd of September and follow on from there. I don’t think I’ve ever been more faithful to a diary in my life.

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Where it all began… under Alicia’s bridge in Seville in September ’15

It took the British Council all of eight months to provide me with the name of my home for the following year. Eight months that would have dragged immensely had it not been for my intense extracurricular existence. Protocol. But I spent a good part of my childhood as an avid birdwatcher, and that taught me that patience – even vain patience – always deals its own rewards. And that’s as good a metaphor as any to begin with.

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Hanging on a few hours in Badajoz and accidentally finding a vulture is a good example

Villafranca de los Barros is not exactly what you might call ‘buzzing’. If you were to tell anybody else that they’d be spending the year in a town of some fourteen thousand inhabitants with no nightlife and a lively farming scene, they’d probably jump ship in less than a week and make a break for the nearest city. That’s what the last applicant assigned to Extremadura did, or so I was told by my concerned supervisor before leaving Durham. But Benjamin has strange triggers, and is nothing more than a simple country boy at heart. I could spend my life traveling the world, but if the truth be told, I want nothing more at the end of the day than to come back to some quiet, village retreat that I can call home. After Amman, anywhere with a pop count below twenty thousand would have done for me. As such, Villafranca could not have been a better place.

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Spain does do some pretty spectacular skies on a regular basis

It’s been a formative year. You do all sorts of growing up when you strike out alone for the first time. Over the course of the year I’ve tried my hand at a whole range of new and crazy experiences, including:

  • Mobile data and WhatsApp. Frankly I don’t know how I’d have managed this year without the tech, as Spain as a whole seems incapable of functioning without it, but it’s proved absolutely invaluable as a last-ditch traveller’s aid. Except HERE Maps, possibly. Deceiving trickster.
  • Drinking. Ron Barceló isn’t so bad after all, but rest assured I’ll be back on the dry wagon when this is all over, if just because it’s a lifestyle I know and love.
  • Skiing. And I discovered that I am singularly useless at it.
  • Flirting. Likewise, useless. Try as I might, I’m just not the casual type.
  • Interpreting. Specifically, interpreting a spiel on Dadaist techniques. Talk about a challenge.
  • Olive-harvesting. Trust me, it’s really quite technical.
  • A (surprise) foam party. God bless Spain’s laissez-faire attitude to risk assessment.
  • Being the person that starts a conversation. Radical.

The last point is probably the most poignant of the lot. When this year began I was the kind of person who happily let others get the engine running first. Striking up a conversation with fellow travellers, calling the waiter in a restaurant, starting an essay… I’ve never been very good at starting things. It’s a running theme in my life. But this year I’ve seen myself talking to strangers on the road, setting up a bank account and even asking for help when a certain primary class got simply too much for me. These basic things were well out of my reach when I got off the plane back in September 2015. By hook or by crook, I’ve made it.

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Proud to say I’ve done my bit for the local cooperativa!

Of course, it’s not all been roses. When I say it’s been the very best year of my life, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was flawless. There have been lows. Getting misdiagnosed with herpes was one. Getting the friend-zoning of the century on the night of what was supposed to be a romantic break in Madrid was another. And I seem to remember spewing my guts out for an entire twenty-four hours in a hotel room in Andorra, manacled by an ever-increasing tab from the mini bar; though it did spare me from more skiing fiascos, that was a definite low point too. And then there’s that primary class, a weekly nightmare that I’ve somehow survived. But my attitude to life is that balance is the most precious thing of all: life would be no fun whatsoever if there wasn’t the occasional crippling blunder to make things interesting. Not that I wouldn’t beg not to be given that lot if I were to go through it all again, but if they’ve done one thing for me, it’s left me in very good stead to be the father of Spanish children. I reckon I know all the necessary vocabulary after a year’s stint with that bunch.

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It’s largely thanks to this little star that my Spanish has come so far this year!

Now comes the most difficult part: listing the highlights. Since each and every one has its own entire blog post somewhere along the line, I’ll be as brief as I can. I’ve forced myself to choose only ten, though I could quite easily go on to make twenty-five. Still, ten it is.

  • A close encounter with a lost griffon vulture in Badajoz
  • Taking time out beneath the stone pines in El Rocio
  • Seeing El Rey León from the best seats in the house, Madrid
  • Accidentally getting the best views of the Semana Santa processions, Seville
  • Olive-harvesting with Ali and the family, Olvera
  • Sitting beneath the Monfragüe cliffs with the vultures flying in overhead
  • Spending the weekend in Cantabria with the wonderful Brocklesby
  • Getting a surprise party from one of my bachillerato classes
  • Discovering that simply speaking Spanish makes me happier
  • Hearing the first bee-eater calls of spring from my own bedroom in Villafranca

Tough call. And yes, I’m aware that two of those ten are vulture-related. If the number really had been twenty-five, there’d have been plenty more feathered highlights.

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Specifically for Cantabria, climbing Watership Down Hill was a high…. geddit?

As for what this year has meant in the grander scheme of things, it’s pretty much laid out the road beneath my feet. I was pretty hooked on this country before I came here. I was even pretty certain already that I’d be living out here someday. Somewhere in the back of my mind I always knew. I guess that’s why I never quite managed to lay down roots with a girlfriend or even a best friend per se. Perhaps I always knew I’d be leaving England behind.

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A ready-made fan club is also a major reason for coming back

Well, now it’s fixed. I won’t be swayed. I’ll be back for another two or three years of this auxiliar life, garnering experience as I go, before throwing myself at the notorious oposiciones and trying to carve a space for myself in the Spanish education system as a fully-qualified English teacher – without robbing the places of my friends and colleagues here, of course.

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Reasons to live abroad: a risk-assessment free foam party courtesy of the fire brigade

It was a remarkably easy decision to make. I’ve enjoyed teaching since I took my first class in pure spite of my flustered English teacher way back in 2007. Despite years of my parents warning me not to follow them into their trade, here I am, teaching, and loving almost every second of it. Being an auxiliar is all of the best parts and none of the bad, granted, but I reckon with another few years under my belt I’ll be ready to take on the homework and the discipline. It’s not like I haven’t been asking to help out all year.

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I also owe Concha Velasco Band for introducing me to Escuela de Calor. Tune!

Just before I go and christen the end of the Spanish stretch with a severe haircut, here’s a few goals for next time:

  • Learn to drive (car or motorbike)
  • Apply to work afternoons at San José
  • Share a flat with people roughly your own age
  • Likewise, find friends your own age in the area
  • Pack less… or buy less books

Just five. That will do. All of which would be a lot easier if I had a clear idea of where I would be living – which is one of the chief deciding factors in Villafranca Part II. And after that… Who knows? As of 2016 the British Council offers teaching placements across Spain, but also in Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Ecuador. I think I could afford to be apart from my grandfather’s country for one year. Especially now that I know I’m coming back – and coming back for good.

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Oh, and one more goal: get inside the goddamn Alhambra again. It’s been too long.

So today it’s neither a ciao, nor goodbye, nor even adios. It’s hasta pronto. Muy, muy pronto. Que te lo pases bien en mi ausencia, España. Y sera breve. Te lo prometo. BB x

First Conditional

I’m sitting here in the town park, leeching off the café wifi for presumably the last time this year. It’s a glorious afternoon and I have the place mostly to myself. You’d hardly know this was a town of some fourteen thousand inhabitants at all at four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. The place is dead.

Oh, for pity’s sake. I said that and now it’s clouded over and a wind has picked up. If that’s not a metaphor I don’t know what is. Change is a-comin’. In four days’ time I’ll have left Villafranca. Another three and I’ll be in Morocco, ready and waiting to begin my third and final year abroad placement in the Dar Loughat International Language Centre in Tetouan. Perhaps it would be better to say ‘waiting’; after almost nine months with no Arabic practice, I hardly think ‘ready’ is the appropriate term. I even had al-Kitaab brought out to me and I’ve barely touched it. Why would I, when my heart is here and mastering Spanish is so much more important?

I should be excited for Morocco. I loved it the last time I was there. Both of them. But the sadness of leaving behind Villafranca, my two schools and far and away the happiest year of my life cancels that out somewhat. The thing is, it’s all about a good mindset. I proved that to myself with Jordan. I expected the worst, and I got it. Conversely I came out here with a fierce desire to make it work – and it did. Positive affirmations and all of that self-help fluff. Don’t knock it, though. It really does work. At the dire risk of sounding like a queasy, turtleneck-donning life guru, a positive attitude makes for a positive life. Truth.

I’m leaving this country with a healthy tan, a bagload of farewell gifts, a new, more suitable dress sense and a very acceptable level of Spanish, if I might be so immodest. I’m leaving behind several books, a veritable skipload of old clothes, a healthy bank account ready and waiting for when I return, my exhausted if popular converses and, apparently, bigger shoes of a different nature. I’ve told my kids to be nice to the next auxiliar, and assured them that he or she will most likely do a better job than me, though I have little doubt there’ll be no more ludicrous Trump impressions, eight a.m. blackboard drum-rolls and spontaneous performances of the Lion King.

Here’s a tip for anybody striking out as a British Council assistant next year. The most useful tool to have at your disposal, besides a reasonable ability with chalk for when the interactive whiteboard or projector or computer isn’t working (and those are stackable odds, by the way), is a firm base of general knowledge. I’m not talking dates of World Cup victories and key mathematical equations. I’m talking geography, history, music, art and all the little things that make kids tick. Without overstepping the mark, I’ve found that dropping the occasional hint that you know more than you’re letting on to be a real winner. Little things like sketching Celebi or Doraemon in a lesson on time travel, name-dropping a local star in a lesson on music or having enough of an idea of world geography to draw a map of any particular country without reference to a computer.

I don’t profess to have the best general knowledge in the world at all. In fact it’s precisely because I know next to nothing about sport or mathematics that I was so quick to write them off back there. But whilst I admit that a little sporting knowledge would certainly be a major plus, being unafraid to display an understanding of a broad range of topics will make your kids a lot more interested. You don’t have to nerd out over the details for the sake of those who show an immediate interest. In fact you really shouldn’t. Not only will it alienate the others, it will also alienate you. But a harmless name-drop from time to time will do wonders. That’s a trick I’ve learned this year.

You might say I’ve got one step closer to learning to keep my mouth shut. Which would be a major step forward.

Another little piece of advice for the year abroad. Don’t let your guard down because of a pair of big goo-goo eyes. Don’t do it. Phil was right. I spent my entire first term and most of Christmas sallying to and from the same little town because I’d managed to convince myself that I’d found her. That was the time when I should have been looking for friends here in Extremadura, of course. But I didn’t see it that way then. Granted, falling for girls who don’t lead you on would be a boon. But you can’t control such things. What you can control is what you choose to do with the situation.

I don’t regret any of it. If anything, all those WhatsApp conversations and dinner dates that went nowhere were the perfect trampoline for my Spanish. But next time I’ll try harder to find a friend – and a friend – closer to home. Frankly, I’m tired of being led on, let down and cast aside. I’ve always been better off alone anyway. It’s time to live for me.

True to form, the pressure of the last few days has done wonders for my writing. In a single morning I’ve fully plotted out five of the six novels in my series, which until today had been skeleton texts with a clear start, a clear finish a handful of events scattered in between. My TLRP could sure do with some of that magic, but until I have stable internet, I’ve said a straight no to that. It’s just no good trying to do your research on a single-tab phone on mobile data, or on the pages you’ve saved on Google Books, which expire the instant you scroll up or down. And what of it? My books are my life. And one day, I hope, I will have them in book-format in my hands to read to my children before they go to bed. That’s the dream.

In other news, the hoopoes are feeding well today. There’s at least five of them in the park, but it could just as easily be the same one that keeps going backwards and forwards in that bouncing, butterfly flight behind me. I’m going to miss them, too. Durham might have Reggaeton-free clubs, but it hasn’t got any hoopoes. BB x

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.

The Notebook Kid

My parents used to tell me it was exceptionally bad manners to carry my drawing book around with me. Something along the lines of attention-seeking, they said. In my defence, the idea behind was quite the opposite. As a kid I was simply looking for just about any means of avoiding conversation. That it usually backfired and had people asking me about my drawings was beside the point. It was a defence mechanism and a habit I never really grew out of, as proved by the fact that even today, in my job as a teaching assistant, I still give classes with a sketchbook on my person at all times.

The hardest thing for me to do in any language is to explain my novel, for no other reason than that I have difficulty summing it up in English. It’s one of those books that requires a fair amount of backtracking, it being historical fiction. Until the day I find a means of summing it up succinctly in English, attempting to do so in Spanish or even Arabic should be beyond me. But that doesn’t stop me from trying. And as carrying the sketchbook around with me practically guarantees that somebody will ask after the subject, I put myself in the firing line on an almost daily basis. It’s a real bastard of a task, but I do have a knack for constantly setting myself up for challenges that are very almost beyond me. You’ve got to keep yourself on your toes, after all. There’s no use in securing the moat when besieging the keep is the perfect practice.

In two weeks’ time it will all be over and I’ll be at home, enjoying the second half of a forty-eight hour respite between shifts before I’m needed in Tetouan. But let’s not talk about that. It hurts.

Villafranca isn’t half rolling out the party parade for my final week. I’ve got a two day trip to the countryside coming up with my 3° ESO class, which will largely consist of forty-eight hours of birdwatching, hiking and singing campfire songs. And, of course, speaking the most beautiful language on God’s earth. Then it’s two more days with the Carmelitas, and a whole bunch of farewells there – especially to my seniors, who I will miss terribly when they’re gone. It was the Day of Santa Joaquina yesterday and the school took the day off to celebrate in style. Touchingly, the lower sixth put on a celebration last night for the upper sixth; a fifteen-minute sequence of dance from the entire year group, ranging from classical dance to salsa – at which almost all of them were reasonably professional. Something you wouldn’t expect in an English school.

For some reason I don’t get much contact with the upper sixth in either school. There’s just a handful of leavers in my Cambridge FIRST class, and the others know me only because they usually stop to wave and scream at me when they’re going past one of my classes on a Thursday afternoon. Kids. Last night I went to watch the show (under orders from lower sixth to photograph the event) and the leavers seized upon the chance to grab a conversation last night. Two on-the-go portraits and several photoshoots later, I was enjoying a decent conversation with two of the girls, who I’d met – apparently – on a night out in Alemdralejo once. I should show face to these of events more often.

It’s only recently occurred to me that I no longer need that warm-up period to get into the driving seat as far as Spanish is concerned. These days it’s simply a case of jumping in and off we go. I thought I’d settle any lingering doubts by taking that CEFR Spanish Language Assessment that’s been hanging over me for some time. When I left, it graded me at B2 level, which stung a little. I had high standards.

This time it came back C2.

So, officially, I’ve done it. Fluent. I already knew I could handle myself in just about any situation in Spanish now, but it takes something like an official grading to drive the point home. It’s easy to overlook how far you’ve got until you’re out of the native country. I recall feeling like I was failing massively when I left Olvera, only to find myself half-fluent when I got home. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Must dash – the upper sixth are graduating today and I do believe I’m expected. And tonight, the final gathering of the guiris in Almendralejo. It promises to be a grand finale. BB x

Frustration

The year abroad, as is so often said, is supposed to be one of the best years of your life. Erasmus students say it. Universities say it. Even the interns say it. Heck, I’ve probably said it at least four or five times already. It’s about spreading your wings, perhaps for the first time, and branching out into the outside world.

The British Council sent me to Villafranca de los Barros, a middle-sized municipality in the Tierra de Barros of some fourteen-thousand inhabitants in Extremadura, a Spanish region largely overlooked by all but the most intrepid of tourists. That suited me just fine – after Amman I was practically desperate for the lull of a country town – but you’d think it’d be no place to start looking for contacts in the wider world.

Like me, you’d be wrong. Over the last couple of days, it’s as though somebody stepped on the accelerator pedal. A visiting school group from Lugoj, Romania, shook things up by giving me an unexpected two days of bilingual art class, working as both translator (Spanish into English, which the Romanians had a better grasp of) and art teacher in various exercises using Dadaist motion-capture techniques, light and shadow, cartoon creation and plasticine modelling.

Somehow, my vocabulary was just about up to the task. An easel, for the record, is a caballete.

As it turns out, the leaders of the expedition were so impressed by my attempts that they asked me to join them in July for the International Arts Festival held in their hometown, board and lodging all paid for. All I’d have to look into would be the flights.

In July. When I’m supposed to be in Morocco.

The following day I went out for lunch with the Romanians and their hosts from Meléndez Valdés, where one of my English-teaching colleagues put before me a proposition to spend the May Bank Holiday weekend with the English department in Morocco. Not one to turn down anything travel-related unless backed into a corner, I naturally said yes. Fortunately, I had no prior engagements that weekend. I’m booking that tomorrow, so more on that later.

Anyway, the lady in question offered to drop me off in Almendralejo afterwards, there to meet up with the Escuela de Idiomas and set off for our weekend language exchange in Burguillos del Cerro. In the car we discussed Morocco and she put before me another proposition, more enticing by far: Egypt.

You might remember my failed attempt to travel to Egypt last year; the one where Andrew, Mack and I were turned down because of the colour of our skin. Granted, it was a fair cop. In retrospect, crossing the Sinai peninsula by bus does sound a little hit-and-miss, to put it lightly. I’m still damned keen to see the place, if not for the fact that it’s bloody Egypt – enough said, surely – then for the simple fact that the place is so devoid of tourists at the moment. Ten years ago the pyramids and the temple complexes would have been heaving. These days, people are afraid. I suppose they have their reasons. They also have reason, which I tend to lack from time to time.

When? Oh, that’d be July, too. A couple of days after returning from Romania, to be precise.

The same teacher has her oposiciones coming up the following year and is keen to travel as much as she can before the year is out and she is thrown back into the impoverished, restricted life of a student once again. So she’s traveling to Thailand in August and – you guessed it – asked if I wanted to join.

Baby, I swear it’s déjà vu. This is Jordan clashing with Archie’s grand Central American adventure all over again. Only this time I genuinely want to do both. One of the main advantages of both Romania and Egypt – the two that are actually feasible, given the time frame – is that I would be traveling with Spaniards and consequently speaking almost entirely in Spanish. What that equates to is almost an entire year  working on perfecting my grandfather’s language, which is absolutely amazing for my Spanish.

As for my Arabic, it leaves much to be desired.

What I have to keep reminding myself is that Arabic is not a career path for me like Spanish is. I love the Arabic culture, the beauty of the language, the history and the world that is North Africa… but I’ve never wanted to work in politics, or diplomacy, or the Army, or even as a translator, and I’d like to think that I’ve at least enough morals not to even go near the oil industry. Besides, Spain feels like home. It always has. Therefore it has and always should occupy the greater part of my mind.

That said, I have to spend an absolute minimum of four months in an Arabic-speaking country. There’s simply no going around that. What with the sudden arrival of so many opportunities, it’s not just frustrating that I’ve got this quota to fill – one that I genuinely want to fill. It’s brutal in the extreme. If only I could stay abroad during Fresher’s Week and gain myself one week more… but I have prior commitments – not least of all the upkeep of this blog – that require me to be back in Durham before September is out.

I’m not saying I wasn’t warned. We were explicitly told on several occasions that taking up an eight-month British Council Assistantship would royally screw over your second language. Put bluntly. And I fiercely maintained that, come all the paradoxes of Hell, I was going to go for it anyway. Because I’m stubborn like that. And it’s been one of the very best decisions of my life, one that I don’t regret for a second, and an experience that I’ve loved so very much that I’m finding it very hard not to apply for the very same Villafranca de los Barros in a year’s time. The fact remains that I need that four month quota, and the way things are going, it’s looking like a month and a half on either side. Which isn’t exactly ideal.

Do you ever feel like time is running out on you? I do. So very often.

I’m going to do what anyone with half a brain would do in my situation: consult the parents. I had to back down from South Africa for various reasons, and I really don’t like quitting. Especially when there are so many people counting on me. Oh, to be free from the shackles of academia! 2017 can’t come soon enough… BB x

Pilgrim

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

The Line Must Be Drawn Here

Yes, that’s a Picard line. No, I’ve never watched even a single episode of Star Trek. However, it’s famous enough to transcend that particular level of pop culture, and it suits this past weekend just perfectly.

What with flight week drawing closer (I’m giving myself until the end of this week to buy my flights for good), I’m getting money-savvy and making fewer travel plans. And me being me, that’s resulted in a knee-jerk spontaneous Moroccan adventure with a few Spanish friends and a Semana Santa celebration in Córdoba. The former is largely reliant on my two friends actually getting back to me, so in a way I’m none too bothered whether I end up crossing the Strait or not – I’ll still be heading to Tarifa for the weekend anyway – but it’s there on the table and I’ve budgeted accordingly.

This term has been no less sparing on the adventure front, but I have been a lot more sensible money-wise, forking out on only one big adventure per month: Madrid in January, Cantabria in February and Tarifa in March. Accepting that I’m coming back for at least two years more after Durham has removed me of my desperate need to see all Spain whilst I can and that’s been a very healthy decision on all counts. It means that (with the exception of rent) I rarely need to draw anything out of my account: my weekly private lessons cover groceries and all other expenses, as well as buying the majority of my travel expenses. To fill the time, I’ve allocated at least one or two weekends a month to being sociable in Almendralejo, something I didn’t do nearly enough last term and am currently making up for lost time.

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It’s been a big weekend for swallows – there’s a few here to stay now!

Almendralejo is a bigger town than Villafranca and as a result there’s a lot more to do, especially on the nightlife front. This weekend was the twenty-second anniversary of one of my usual haunts, the Concha Velasco, a kitschy bar decorated with Gothic props (most of them from a film set) and plenty of Goya paintings. It’s usually playing a selection of 80’s rock and it’s a nice place to chill before or after a dance. To celebrate, they were holding a concert for a few local bands, beginning with a free paella and caldereta lunch in the street.

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How long do you think a concert lasts? Four or five hours, perhaps? I’ve been playing in concerts for most of my life and the longest was about five. Not this one. There were about four acts and each one had a two-hour set, there or thereabouts. Due to start at half five, things finally got moving at around ten to six. That’s normal.

First up was the band we had come to support, with our friend Miguel on electric guitar. I’m told it was their best gig yet. I’ve only seen them perform this once and I’m sold. Rock is one of the last frontiers of music that I haven’t really reached into and I’m sold on a few of them. Beginning with the theme tune from Back to the Future sold me and I enjoyed the set immensely – and still found time to take some snaps. Consider me now a fan of Spanish 80’s rock (ed. BB, will you ever learn to be normal?)

I felt pretty voiceless and worn out when the set was over so Fran and I set off to De Blanco, a quieter local, for a change of mood and a few early birthday drinks. Having gorged on all the freebies on offer at lunch, I forgot dinner completely, which was a mistake for several reasons. The most obvious was the effect of a single rum and coke (ron barceló). Having been teetotal until this year, my alcohol tolerance still isn’t brilliant, and I felt rather dizzy for about half an hour. Motoring through a bowl of fizzy sweets the bartender brought didn’t help in the slightest. Fortunately, we weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere and I regained my senses after a time. Still, I know what I’m not doing in future.

One of the strangest things about being English abroad is the simple novelty of being English. Apparently it’s motivation enough to strike up a conversation, and this was just another example. A trio of Spaniards sitting next to us joined us after a few minutes out of curiosity and ended up inviting us out to go dancing with them at another nightclub, Almen’s Whisky A Go-Go. Apparently there was supposed to be a star from Spain’s Gran Hermano turning up, but whether she did or not, I have no idea. At any rate, there was no sign of her by ten to four in the morning, at which point Tasha and I returned to Concha to see if we could catch the end of the last set for the night.

Remember what I said about concerts? Well, here’s the thing. The fourth set hadn’t even started when we got there. At four in the morning. A DJ and saxophone duo (who knew?). This is probably the first time I’d heard a full set without even a single reggaeton number – all dance, from start to finish – and I went into a creative overdrive of at least half an hour before I ran out of ideas and returned to simple jives. The result was that several of the crowd were egging me on for the rest of the night every time I began to run out of steam. At about half five the five hours of almost non-stop dancing, ten hours of music, general fatigue and more pressing hunger began to wear me down. Tasha insisted that I could keep going and kept me fuelled on glasses of water, and I’d like to say that on any other night I’d have willingly stuck it out until the end… but we had been going for almost ten hours, and I hadn’t eaten since three o’clock the previous day. In the end we retreated at the ‘early’ hour of six o’clock for a quick bite to eat at the kebab shop opposite and then, gratefully, I crashed on Tasha’s sofa and slept.

Until the Breast Cancer fun run woke me up at nine o’clock the following morning, that is. I’ve been recovering sleep ever since.

Here’s to a more relaxed weekend to kick off the Easter holiday this weekend. I could do with it. BB x