Veils and Cartwheels

Another weekend, another adventure gone by. My weekend travel budget is capped at 90€ wherever I go, for which I’ve managed Cantabria, Lisbon and now Granada. Not bad from Extremadura. I’d like to say I’m entering economy-mode after this, for the end-of-year adventure’s sake, but that’s unlikely what with Semana Santa around the corner. So let’s just say I’m going to be even more budget-savvy than usual from now on. But that’s hardly going to stop me from going searching for more adventures.

I made a promise to a few friends from Durham to pay a visit whilst they were lodged in the gorgeous Moorish stronghold of Granada. That promise was, however, dependent on the arrival of the first snows in the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada. That little proviso caught me out, as it only began snowing in earnest around Carnaval weekend, by which point most of the Durham crew had long since left Granada for their next destination. Still, a promise is a promise and I’m a man of my word, so off I went. It just so happens that I have a couple of Spanish friends based there anyway, so I wasn’t heading for another solo weekend.

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I’m now a total convert to BlaBlaCar; if not for the drastically lower price tag and journey time (16€ for a four-hour ride from Zafra to Granada is pretty fantastic) then for the conversation practice. In a funny, roundabout kind of way, I remember complaining that it was exactly this kind of taxi-practice that bothered me in Jordan. I suppose that was because it felt like the only window of opportunity at the time. Here, it’s just one of many, and I’ve made some really interesting acquaintances through the system. One day, if just for the ease of going wherever I want, I really should learn to drive.

The real boon of BlaBla’ing it to Granada was getting there in time for sunset. It was gone half past six o’clock when we got there and the sky was already a gorgeous yellowy-pink, so I had a bit of a run to the Mirador de San Nicolas to get what I – and the rest of Granada – was after: that unforgettable view of the Alhambra, surely one of the world’s most beautiful buildings, set against the backdrop of the salmon-pink snows of the Sierra Nevada. I’ve never seen the Mirador so busy, and the views explain it all.

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To the outsider, the presence of a gypsy troupe breaking into song and the chatter of Arabic in the crowd might seem too good to be true. There’s often flamenco up here, according to my local sources, but the Arabic is new to me – perhaps because this is the first time I’ve been in Granada since I started learning Arabic, and therefore I’m tuned to listen out for it.

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The trouble with working a British Council assistantship on your year abroad is that it royally screws over your second language. Had I more brain than heart, I would have prioritised Arabic over Spanish, being nearly fluent in the latter before I set out anyway. But it’s never that simple with yours truly, and the prospect of spending eight months and more in my grandfather’s country was just too good to turn down. That I could have gone for a similar placement in Chile, in Argentina or Ecuador but didn’t is testament to just how much I adore this country.

As a result, I’m none too confident with my Arabic right now. Oh, it’s probably still all up there, buried deep beneath my Amman angst, but I haven’t really given it much thought since I packed my bags and left Jordan last summer. Seeing the Alhambra reminded me why I chose to study it in the first place. The sad truth of the matter is that it’s not the Middle East that interests me (at least, not the contemporary one), but North Africa. The Moors. Al-Andalus. This is what drove me to study Arabic; so that I might understand this ancient world a little better. That’s why I have so much love for Morocco and why I was in such high dudgeon about being sent to Jordan last year. My heart is here, in this part of the world, and I always follow my heart.

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Take one look at that view and tell me I’m a fool for falling in love.

It was quite a fiddly weekend on the outset. The group gathering I’d planned on fell through straight away because one of the girls went to Seville for her best friend’s birthday, after which the others pulled out, leaving me high and dry with my hostel and ride already booked. It only dawned on me then that most of the other Durham students had already left Granada, and when my only remaining card said she’d probably be busy all weekend with a project anyway, I thought I’d have a rather lonely city break on my hands. Because, Granada being Granada, you can’t just stroll up to the Alhambra. It’s usually fully booked at least two months in advance at the weekends and on public holidays, so by the time the girls let me know they weren’t going to be there, it was far too late for a flying visit.

Understandably, I was feeling pretty let down.

Nevertheless, Fate is a most unpredictable woman, and as it turned out she dealt me a very fair hand indeed. The weather was impeccable, and I spent a gorgeous sunny morning with the albayzin – Granada’s labyrinthine Moorish quarter – pretty much to myself. I was mainly in town for inspiration and I found buckets of it. My sketchbook came back at least five or six pages more full than before, so I call that a success.

I must have spent at least two hours just sitting and sketching at Washington Irving’s feet on the garden walk up to the Alhambra, where six or seven costumed students asked me to photograph them beside the Son of the Alhambra. I think there was a treasure hunt or competition of some kind going on. I’m still not entirely sure. Saturday, I’m told, is when all the bachelor nights and hen nights take place, and these usually start in sunlight hours – visible, and often audible, at quite a distance. It could have been one of those… minus the phallic straws, of course.

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My luck turned whilst I was people-watching atop the Alcazaba and a message came pinging through, telling me that the one Durham student left in Granada had not gone to Cordoba as planned due to a heavy night on her flatmate’s account and was game for some exploration. Hallelujah for you, Violet! It was getting infuriating sitting by the Alhambra and watching the hundreds pouring in and out in the knowledge that I couldn’t get in if I tried, so it did me a world of good to be called down from the heights and back into town.

There was a loud, booming sound as I wandered back down the path which I put down to construction work, but the closer I got, the more rhythmic it sounded, until it sounded much too upbeat to be a pneumatic drill. The Plaza Nueva was packed and, at the centre, I was met with something I really hadn’t expected to find: a samba band.

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Accompanying the band was a veil-dancer, not unlike the one I saw in Caceres back in November, only this one had more of a gypsy’s flair to her style than the lithe Arabic movements of her predecessor.

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The veils this dancer wielded streamed off the blades of the twin red fans in her hands. Needless to say it was something beautiful to watch and I was mesmerized, for how long I don’t know. When you see a thing of beauty, you really have to look.

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That wasn’t the only attraction in town. Barely five minutes after the samba band had packed their things and left, another street artist took their place.

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What looked quite commonplace to begin with quickly turned out to be anything but.

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Was it acrobatics? Was it dance? Was it mime? Something of a mixture of all three, I think. The girl turned wheel after wheel about the square, casually stepping out of the hoop every so often to wiggle about for a bit before stepping in for another spin.

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Violet’s still new to the place, but she did a fine job showing me about the place nonetheless. All I ask is good conversation and she delivered, and how. She even led us straight into a free-for-all tango, which may or may not have consisted of no staff or professionals whatsoever. It’s so hard to tell in this country, where almost everybody can dance when it comes to the crunch.

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It’s really quite something to see the oldies really going for it, and practically flooring the youngsters whilst they’re at it.

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If the technique is all in the feet, then the passion is all in the face. Oh, to be able to dance with the passionate restraint of these deities!

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We found a decent place to tapear outside the touristic district where I made a beeline for my Achilles’ heel – croquetas – which were of a very high quality, I must say, and further story-swapping, which was of an even higher quality. I could hardly ask for more. Thanks Violet!

Now, somebody up there must have been smiling on me, because Ana, my Olvereñan friend, managed to wrap up her project for the afternoon and turned up to pick me up from lunch. Ana’s a gaditana through and through but she’s been in Granada for some time now, so she knows the place better than I ever could. She took me to a gorgeous café under the Mirador de San Nicolas with a killer view of the Alhambra. They didn’t have Arabic tea, but they did have Pakistani tea, which was a damned good substitute. And what better could I ask for: two fascinating, challenging conversations in two languages with such good company all afternoon! I’m truly spoilt.

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There was better to come. This is where knowing a local really comes in handy. Ana found her cousin up at the mirador and after we’d been chatting with them for a while, they left and we got their space on the wall. It’s a fiercely contested wall, for obvious reasons, and Ana and I got all of an hour with that unbeaten view as the sun set and the lights were turned on. The Alhambra looks spectacular at any time of day, but by night the snows on the mountaintop are a deep blue and the castle walls seem to glow golden in the torchlight. It’s overdone, it’s clichéd and some might say it’s even cringe-worthy, but for me, it’s nothing more and nothing less than the most beautiful building in the world.

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I’ll finish off the tale in another post tomorrow. Y’all need breathing space, I think. As do I – I’ve a private class in twenty minutes and I can’t be dilly-dallying around! BB x

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Counting Sheep and Blessings

February is over at last and the long, languid days of glorious sunshine are here.

Who am I kidding? This is Spain. We’ve had glorious sunshine on and off since September, and more on than off.

My private school whisked away the entire student body to Guadalupe today, yet another trip which I could have attended had I not a second job to balance. That gave me the afternoon off, which I sorely needed, having come down with a head-cold of some description since Monday morning. Frankly I’m surprised I got through almost the entire winter without a single incident, as I’m usually down with something or other in the first two months of the year. Not that I’d ever let it stop me from working, naturally, but it’s not all that easy to lead a conversation class when talking is just about the very last thing you want to be doing. Nevertheless, the stubborn endurance (or rather, total and deliberate ignorance of my condition) I inherited from my mother won out and I made a decent morning of it. Being ill, in a way, is just like being bored or heartbroken; the very best cure is to keep too busy to give it any thought.

On second thoughts, don’t take my word for that.

I took a detour through the park on the way home and, it being such a warm, sunny day, I sat by the water feature and tried meditating for a bit. I haven’t actually done any in months and boy, does it show. I’m out of practice, so I decided instead to simply soak up the sun, listen to a BBC Radio In Our Time podcast on the Spanish Inquisition and watch the goldfinches bathing in the water. I think I was there for an hour, or two… It could easily have been longer. For some reason when I’m ill I tend to lose track of time.

Something that occurred to me this week is how lucky I am to be where I am. I’ve been searching for a way of putting this that doesn’t come across as boastful, though I’d rather use the term proud; it refers to my ego, and it might just mark the final stepping stone in a healing process that’s taken all of seven years to complete.

I’ll explain. Since the day I moved to a junior private school at the age of eight, I’ve been surrounded by people vastly more capable than me. I was always something of a second-class citizen at that school: I didn’t have the brains to keep up with the best, and I didn’t have the money to keep up with the rest. I was swiftly filtered into the middle set, which is something of a no-man’s-land, from which it’s very hard to escape. I left that establishment after three years for other reasons, mostly financial, but also because (in one of the most pig-ignorant decisions of my life to date) my classmates were beginning to use ‘bad words’ and I’d got it into my head that a boys’ grammar school would be a more civilized environment.

I’ll be brief. It wasn’t. But as far as my surroundings were concerned, the wealth was removed but the feeling of being overshadowed trebled, not least of all because I actually failed the entrance test and got in purely on the merit of my writing. So I came in pretty much at the bottom of the pile, in a school where the average student was scoring eight or nine A*s at GCSE level. Add to that the number of kids on the ‘Gifted and Talented’ list, or on MENSA, with national-level CAT test grades; and the large proportion of students playing various sports at county level; and the musicians with Grade 8 on two or three instruments – most of these, I should add, heavily concentrated in the super-bright ones…

It was very hard to stand out at all in such a school. I guess that’s one of the reasons I’ve thrown myself at so many fields over the years: music, literature, history, dance, art, horse-riding, photography, ornithology… For want of an example, I led my school’s Funk Band, but I was a long way off from being the best singer. I simply did it because I was reasonably good at it and because I enjoyed it. The same with Art; there were some genuine Picassos in my art class. I was not one of them. So I was and always have been kind of a Jack of all trades and master of none, if we ignore a paltry average of 26% in my mock Maths exams.

Durham is not much better. Being the stomping ground of private and grammar alike, it’s just as much of a melting pot for the über-talented as either of my previous schools. That’s a great thing – really – as it brings great minds together. The result is some stellar orchestras, sports teams and research groups… at the cost of being ‘normal’ (which, I hasten to add, is not necessarily a bad thing, but then, nobody in my family has ever been or ever will be normal).

Coming to Villafranca, however, I’ve had my eyes opened for the first time in over a decade to what I can do. It’s not that I’m in a town of country bumpkins – there are some seriously bright stars amongst my students – but for the first time in my life I’m not surrounded by people who are leagues ahead of me in all fields. And for somebody who’s more than used to settling for second-best, it’s a wonderful feeling. Don’t get me wrong, I’m chomping at the bit to get back to a place where music for its own sake actually exists, but I intend to make the most of not being outshone this year. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I love travel so much. Getting away from it all.

That said, I’ve spent most of today in bed, drifting in and out of sleep. My dreams have been vivid and memorable of late, as tends to happen when I’m down with a headache. I can’t remember all the details, but I remember consoling Liam Neeson last night over the death of a family member, and then feeling slightly miffed that I didn’t get a photo with him.

If that’s the kind of thing that my brain does in its spare time, there’s probably a reason I’ve always been second best. But that’s ok. It’s a role that suits me just fine. B, after all, comes right after A. BB x

Out of Control

I’ve described being an auxiliar as a pariah state before; a grey blur between staff and student, neither one nor the other. The disadvantages include discipline control, ambivalent reactions from the students and generally feeling like you don’t belong in either group. It’s also pretty hard work, depending on how much your school wants from you. So what’s the upshot?

Well, that depends entirely on how much party you’ve got in your soul.

Ok, disregard that last statement. What I meant to say is that it’s a massive boon to the auxiliar job if you’ve got more than a few party tricks up your sleeve. Having had two teaching jobs before, I’ve been wiser this year and doled them out over the course of the year rather than all in one insufferable first lesson. And boy, do I need every one of them… because it’s not easy living in one of the world’s premier footballing countries when you really can’t see the attraction in the sport whatsoever.

Kids like an entertainer – it’s why clowns exist – and as long as you can keep your head, there’s no harm in playing up to that every now and again. Since October I’ve drawn for them, I’ve sang for them, I’ve acted for them, told stories for them and cracked several bilingual jokes, usually at my own expense (the latter gets easier, or more effective, as you get to know your surroundings). Yesterday I rolled out another firecracker in the Día del Centro, our school’s annual celebration, in what I’m told saved the show (though I beg to differ – and if you could see the filmed results, you probably would too).

Where Thursday is usually my busiest day of the week, with a full ten hour shift from eight til eight, yesterday I didn’t have a single class in the morning. The day began instead with a free breakfast of churros con chocolate, which I must say is no bad start to the day. Anna and Tasha turned up, representing their schools, who seemed to have let them off for the day, too. I assumed that the other thirty schools in attendance would have brought their assistants with them, too, but with the exception of one giant blonde American who pulled a disappearing trick shortly a cameo appearance at the end of his school’s mini-production of Grease, there was no sign of any other guiris. That, or they were all so Hispanic that they evaded our searching eyes.

Not that I had all that much time to waste searching for fellow Anglophones. I was roped between two presentations to sing at both, for which I’d prepared a cover of Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through The Grapevine; my attempt at a social comment on the furious gossip culture in the Triángulo de Loro that is La Fuente del Maestre, Almendralejo and Villafranca de los Barros, a mildly humorous spin on India’s Golden Triangle. My cheerleaders had dashed out before me, as they too were needed in both productions, so I was left with an audience of the Mayor and three student representatives from each school. It was a fairly good show, but a relatively tame audience…

…which is more than can be said for the crowd over at José Rodriguez Cruz. Melendez Valdés’ resident dance troupe took their show across the road just before I got there, and then I had to re-run my Grapevine cover to a much warmer reception. The next act, however, was nowhere to be seen. Garci, our school’s magician-turned-technology teacher, was still only halfway through his magic show across the road, and we had to cover in his delay. That meant another number from yours truly, which, it hardly needs saying, was yet another solo rendition of Circle of Life. Unlike my cohorts back home, who were all too ready to drop the number along with the rest of the old repertoire – and who are currently doing exceedingly well – I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it; and fortunately, I didn’t have to feel guilty for going over old ground, because this time it was my own students who requested it. So, despite having left the stage to pack my bags, I was launched back onto the stage with the kids chanting my name. I tell you, this job does no good for one’s ego. No good at all.

But the magician still hadn’t arrived. Then a professional choreographer, who was there for the day to lead various workshops after the presentation, stepped in to get the crowd dancing. If I mentioned before that Spaniards are none too keen on dancing – especially if it’s not Latin – then I forgot to mention that they have absolutely no problems with it if it’s fully choreographed. Think of the Macarena, for example. Give them a song where there’s a set routine and they’re off. MV’s dance troupe were the first to their feet, naturally, and after not even a minute, they relinquished the shadows of the back of the hall for the lights of the stage. Fired by the sheer enjoyment of it all, I could hardly help myself and found myself following them.

At least I had the sense to take a stand at the back, because to begin with, I had no idea what I was doing.

Dancing, however, if one of those few things I think I’m not that bad at, if only because I don’t give a damn what people think of me when there’s music playing (years of Michael Jackson and James Brown might also have helped along the way). We kept the show going for a full quarter of an hour until Garci finally arrived, which was pure laugh-a-minute, as I don’t think the dancers had any idea that I’d have gone up with them.

Oh boy, but it’s going to be tough going back to work on Monday.

But teaching, like so many arts, is on a stage. I used to go to pieces at the idea of speaking in public, but years of concerts, productions and musicals have worn down any stage-fright I might have had, and all this teaching’s done for the rest. One of these days I’ll grow up and learn to balance maturity with responsibility, but whilst I’m still young, I’ll dance and I’ll love every minute of it.

Enough of this reckless, youthful banter. I feel like it was necessary after the sobering social commentary of the previous post – if only to remind you that I’m still very much a work in progress. And long may that be so! BB x

Adventures in Cow Country

Good morning Cantabria!

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Cabezón de la Sal is a simply gorgeous mountain village sat in a cleft between the hills of Santillana and the Escudo de Cabuérniga, a mighty ridge stretching in a straight line all the way to the Asturian border. What makes it so immediately different from the south is the layout of the town: if anything, it’s more English than Spanish. Where small two-story flats hold the monopoly in the town centre, semidetached houses dominate almost everywhere else. Long gone are the snake-like rows of white houses with barred windows and marble porches; the Cantabrian norm is stone-brick dwellings with wooden roofs and quaint, upper-storey balconies. It’s charming, if a little alien to a habituated southerner like me.

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There are buses – apparently – but it’s the local train service that holds sway here. Quiet, comfortable and cheap at the price, Cantabria’s FEVE provides a reliable alternative to Extremadura’s LEDA – provided you arrive in town before ten to nine at night, that is.

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‘Let’s go to Potes,’ says Kate, ‘for a little walk.’ So off we went to Torrelavega, that city of burgeoning factories and towering flat-blocks that I passed through twice four years ago in the early days of my trans-Iberian adventure. In the sunlight, Torrelavega looks…

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…well, I’ll not beat about the bush. Torrelavega is not exactly Paris. If Cabezón is a more rustic version of Villafranca, Torre is the Almendralejo equivalent in Kate’s neck-o’-the-woods. But like Almendralejo, it’s got its own charms. One of them goes by the name of red velvet sponge-cake.

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We arrived in Torrelavega looking for the bus to Potes, but the bus station proved singularly unhelpful, and a quick browse of the internet told us that the bus we were looking for left not from the bus station, but from the Palomera office by the train station we’d just left behind. In a scene which echoed the night before (albeit in slow motion), we half-ran back to the station… but there was absolutely no sign of the bus. Or any bus. Or even a bus stop, for that matter. Unless the Potes bus is a mystical bus which flies through the air and receives its passengers from the balcony of the Palomera offices on the second floor, I declare that bus stop to be an enigma. The city of Atlantis and the fabled kingdom of Shangri-La have captivated the imagination of man for centuries. Now I shall brazenly add the Palomera bus stop to that box of unsolved mysteries.

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Thinking on our feet, we dabbled with the idea of catching the train into Asturias in search of the equally mysterious inland bay of Gulpiyuri, but after all of that faffing around with the Potes bus we’d just missed the only practical train to Llanes by five minutes. As though calling out from a memory, Santillana del Mar came to mind and I decided we would grab the next train back to Cabezón and strike out for the coast via the Town of Three Lies. Public transport has as its advantages, but as a species, we should never forget that it was learning to walk on our own two feet that got us where we are today. And so off we went.

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The strangest thing about this last-minute change of plan was that it meant retracing my steps almost pace for pace from that ridiculous adventure, now some four years ago, right down to getting off at the very station where the driving rain turned me back to the shelter of Santillana del Mar. But for a few forks in the road, I had the entire route embedded in my mind as though I’d walked it ten times over rather than once. Perhaps that’s fate. She’s been playing a long game with me.

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It felt decidedly weird coming down out of the hills into the cobbled streets of Santillana all over again. As Spanish villages go, Santillana has got to be amongst the very prettiest. It’s known as the town of three lies – being neither holy, flat, nor by the sea – but if that is so, then it’s a damned beautiful liar. As I so often find myself doing, I made sure to revisit all of the places I’d been before: the same church, the same quesada shop, the same Savage Culture boutique that I still don’t fully understand. I can’t explain it, but something about this town keeps pulling me back.

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We had a picnic lunch of peanut butter sandwiches on the steps of the Colegiata de Santa Juliana and basked in the afternoon sun. 15 degrees Celsius… not bad for Cantabria. In all the bad weather Spain’s north coast has been having of late, I must confess I think myself bloody lucky to have landed a whole twenty-four hours of glorious sunshine in the one day I had to explore the place. I could hardly have asked for better: better weather, or better countryside, or better company.

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Leaving Santillana behind, we climbed steadily northwards across the rolling hills to the coast. Along the way we were misled by the Arch-Deceiver that is HERE Maps, which tried to convince us that what looked suspiciously like an overgrown stream was actually a main road, and we were caught up in a high-speed chase with a tractor, like an extremely low-budget Cantabrian version of Need for Speed. The stereotype lives: Cantabria truly is a land of green hills, of cows and of tractors.

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The last time I wandered these hills, the skies were iron-grey and I could only see as far as the next range of hills for the glowering rainclouds. I can’t have known it at the time, but I was seriously missing out. After abandoning the path and freelancing our way up a hill, Watership Down fashion, we were treated to what must be the most awe-inspiring landscape I’ve seen since I first stepped onto the plains of Caceres.

For once, I had the full works on me, so you can enjoy the view three times over, with the wide-angle 18mm…

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…and the macro 200mm…

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…and the telephoto 500mm.

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Sadly, the Nikon-compatible Sigma 500mm doesn’t come with an in-built autofocus motor, so it won’t be the powerhouse it has always been for rapid-fire avian photography, but at least I got some use out of it this weekend.

It was a beautiful view and all of that, but it was an equally beautiful dead end, so we had to climb back down the hill, cross the cow-fields and roll under a possibly electrified fence in order to get back to the road down to the sea (we didn’t check to find out – not when we were so close to our goal). After a very long and very winding road down one last hill, we made it – at last – to the sea.

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Extremadura has so much to offer, but there’s one thing it really lacks: the sea. You don’t notice until you think about it. Discounting Uganda, I’ve never lived more than an hour from the sea (much less in the UK) so Extremadura is the most inland location I’ve ever had to deal with. To see the Atlantic in all its cold fury once again was a real sight for sore eyes. The storm-force winds and murderous waves of the previous week are gone, but the waves still put on a formidable display for us.

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We spent about an hour by the sea, Kate and I, watching the waves pounding the shore and snacking on Cantabria’s finest delicacy, quesada pasiega. Yum yum. There’s a little ermita built into a cave in the cliffs which we didn’t get the time to visit, but I doubt it would have looked any more impressive up close than from afar. Imagine living in a place like that, with the sound of the Atlantic roaring all about you, twenty-four hours a day. The focus you would have to have – or learn to have – borders on the superhuman. Little wonder, then, that it is what it is. I wonder how an estate agent might describe it?

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It’s getting to that time of year when the sun starts to set later, but sunset was already fast approaching as we turned back for Santillana at about six o’clock. In the gloom of the oncoming night, we finished off the quesada on the banks of the Saja river by moonlight and killed time by making for Rudagüera, the next stop along the Cabezón line… and then legging it back the way we came when it became apparent that it was a little further than we’d thought (one last flick of the claw from HERE Maps) and that we’d probably miss the next train.

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Back in Cabezón, after a drink at a local hunters’ bar, complete with mounted boar heads and numerous black-and-white stills of hunting men of old stood proudly over the carcasses of Cantabria’s once widespread brown bears, Kate took me to visit one of her favourite eateries, El Paraíso. At 2,45€, I thought a ración of patatas bravas would be enough to fill a corner after so much walking (we crammed in about thirty kilometres today, all in all), but I forgot…

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We’re in the north. In my experience, northerners in any country seem to have a much better idea as to what constitutes a decent portion size. Maybe it’s the climate. Who knows? In my earlier traveling days, food was the last thing I was prepared to fork out for. How things have changed since then! Coming back from that Spain trek dangerously underweight four years ago has left a profound mark, and these days food is the one luxury I’m prepared to spend on, and spend well. A long day’s walking deserves a long night’s eating, and I think I did pretty well on both fronts.

So, all in all, it was a very successful trip, albeit a very brief one! I was lucky enough to get a BlaBlaCar on the way back that didn’t mess me around. Better yet, he was no more and no less than a gaditano. Oh, to hear that accent again after twenty-four hours and more of people pronouncing their s’s…! You have no idea how happy it made me.

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Cabezón de la Sal to Villafranca is still a bloody long way to go, but where the bus took all of nine hours, Rafa made it for me in six. In those six hours, taking in the windswept, snowy heights of Reinosa, I was treated to the finest conversation BlaBla can offer, up to and including:

  • Franco’s suppression of the education system
  • The legacy of al-Andalus
  • An anthropological history of Cadiz
  • The true nature of corruption in Spain
  • The Spanish Civil War
  • Gibraltan Spanglish
  • The rationality of England’s outside stance on the EU
  • Podemos and the total absence of a government at the moment
  • Why and how dubbing came to be one of Spain’s biggest businesses (and blights)
  • Piracy in the Old Mediterranean
  • The Growth of the Spanish film industry

I could go on. There were at least five or six hours of it. And all of it in Spanish, and in the very finest gaditano. Talk about a workout… and politics! The eighteen year-old me would never have believed a word of it.

Needless to say, my faith in BlaBlaCar is restored and I’ll be bound for Cadiz proper at some point to make good on that drink I’ve been offered. If I am to live up to the title of ‘Él que va conociendo al mundo’ that I’ve been given, BlaBlaCar is a damned good way of going about it.

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But last of all, I’d like to air high-five my good friend Kate for putting me up (and putting up with me) for two nights and a day in Cantabria. Yours truly is not the most pleasant company in a city, but in the countryside where he belongs, he’s just as insufferable, if only on the other side of the positive/negative spectrum. Kate’s seen me at my lowest in Amman and probably at my highest – quite literally – in the life-giving paradise that is Cantabria. Thank you, Kate, and I hope to return the favour when you’re down in the south! The adventure never ends. Not really. Not ever. BB x

PS. You can read about her side of things here. It’s a lot more tongue-in-cheek than mine.

Tractor Beam

Andalucia and Extremadura have plenty in common. They’re both southern, they’re both gorgeously hot and sunny most of the time and the language in both of them borders on the incomprehensible. So you can understand why I applied for both when I got myself into this auxiliar malarkey just over a year ago. My third choice, unmentioned since my very first blog posts back in May, was Cantabria. Land of cows, snow-capped mountains, green hills and tractors. The Iberian Alps, the Spanish Yorkshire. About as far away from the dusky south as you can get. So what in Creation drove me there this weekend – besides a frustratingly slow bus?

I’ll put it like this. You can’t keep a good man down, and you most definitely can’t shut up a wanderer in his house for long.

Besides hopping down to Olvera for Carnaval, I’ve done no traveling since Madrid back in the first week of January. That’s only a couple of months back, granted, but compared to the madness of last term, I’ve been doing a lot of nothing of late. In any case, I got a bad case of itchy feet last week and, watching the weather forecast, I made a spontaneous decision to visit my dear friend Kate in Cantabria – on the other side of the country. She’s working as an auxiliar up there and we’ve got much the same setup, right down to the state/private school split. If you haven’t already been keeping up with her adventures, check them out over at Langlesby Travels. Besides being jolly good fun, it makes for a lot easier reading than most of my biweekly outpourings!

I’d planned on two full days up north, as for the first time since I started trawling the site last year there was a super-convenient BlaBlaCar bound for Santander at midnight on Thursday, meaning I’d be in Cantabria for seven o’clock in the morning. It was just too good to be true…!

And so it proved. After a fourth BlaBlaBlunder where the driver changed his mind and shifted the drive six hours earlier, bang in the middle of my afternoon classes, any hopes of arriving early were dashed, so I resigned myself instead to one day in Cow Country and one whole day on the bus. Thanks, BlaBlaCar. I feel like it’s important to point out that as a system it’s by no means foolproof, as so many headstrong young things would have you think. It’s done me some very good turns and I do believe it really is the way forward, but it’s screwed me over in equal measure. You win some, you lose some. In that sense, perhaps BlaBlaCar is a good metaphor for life.

The journey began, as they so often do, in Mérida, where I found myself on the Roman bridge, scanning the reeds for a ridiculously early little bittern. Villafranca and its endlessly repetitive surroundings lack a viable soul spot, which Mérida offers in the ever-changing Guadiana. Mérida may always seem to be lacking something, but the river has never let me down. There’s something beautifully elemental about rivers. This one in particular is never the same. The first time I saw it, the river was playing host to several families of purple gallinules, frolicking about in the reeds. A month later the whole stretch was clogged with water hyacinth. Three weeks after that, half of it had been siphoned off and the rest was being heaped onto the banks by a team of gumboots. This weekend, the river was barely ankle-deep, with only the deepest stretch in full flow – only to be magically restored to life two days later. Oh Guadiana, you baffle me.

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What gives, Guadiana?

The journey north was fairly uneventful. I spent almost all of it trying to read Cavell’s Moghul, but more often than not staring out of the window at the changing scenery and, before sundown, came to the conclusion that Cáceres province truly is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. If you don’t believe me, visit Plasencia. If Spain has an Eden outside of Doñana, it may be found there.

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Snow on the mountains in Castilla y Leon

Despite reassurances from the driver that we were perfectly on schedule, we still pulled into Torrelavega a full twenty minutes late – which, coincidentally, is the exact amount of time I’d factored on giving myself to get from the bus station to the train station. Sprint as fast as I did – I may not be much of a sportsman, but I consider myself half-decent over a short distance – I arrived at the station just as the last train was leaving. Last year’s BB would have cried in frustration at this oh-so predictable turn of events; this year’s BB shrugged it off and chartered a taxi. It ended up costing me almost as much to go the last few kilometres to Cabezón de la Sal as it did to come all the way from Mérida, and at least three times the train fare, but that’s taxes for you. I’ve told you before… I don’t like taxis. Period.

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The River Tagus in the plains of Caceres

At any rate, I made it to Cabezón de la Sal and, after wandering aimlessly in the dark, lost in the Alpine beauty of the place, Kate finally found me, introduced me to her friend Almu and I had my southern accent swiftly corrected. That can only mean one thing: all those weekends in Olvera are paying off. They’ll make a guiritano out if me yet.

The following day’s adventures require a post in their own right, so I’ll give them that much. Keep your eyes peeled for the second installment! BB x

Speaking like an Indian

I’m completely out of it. I just cleared half of Seville at a sprint. The Sunday evening bus from Olvera pulled in five minutes earlier than usual and I figured I could just about make the eight o’clock bus to Villafranca at a run. As you might expect in such situations, all the traffic lights went red as I reached them, but despite everything (and aided by a significantly less-crowded city centre than usual) I made it to Plaza de Armas with five minutes to spare… only to be mortified to find it operating on a pre-paid tickets service. I’d already resigned myself to a two hour wait and a miserably sloppy 2.30€ egg salad sandwich that almost fell apart in the vending machine (one of the world’s most villainous rip-offs) when the bus driver hailed me over. There was room for one more after all. Just once, just this once, I got lucky.

And now it’s your turn to be out of it, because this one’s a real titan. Get comfortable.

I’ll be perfectly honest with you, I was umming and ahhing about going ahead with this weekend’s plan right up until I went to sleep the night before. I had my reasons. The torrential rain forecast across the south was one of them.

To cut a long story short, am I glad I didn’t! It’s been quite a weekend.

I didn’t really do it summative justice in my last post, but last weekend was Carnaval weekend across most of Spain, and Villafranca de los Barros (in some ways for once, and in others as always) was no exception. The reason for that is because I wasn’t really happy with the quality of the two write-ups I drafted, both of them being a little too dry and/or morose for my liking. I’ll put that down to spending all of my creative energy on the novel.

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More problematic by far, there’s simply no escaping the Lilliputian environment of Villafranca. It’s very hard to go anywhere or do anything without the whole school getting wise of it in twenty-four hours. It’s like my every step is watched. As I’m often guilty of doing, it’s possible that there’s more conjecture in that statement on my part than fact, but in any case, Carnaval weekend was a poor time to test that theory. All of my students were out on the town – every last one of them, in various states of dress – and that old pariah state of feeling like an intermediary between teacher and fellow human being was buzzing about my head all night like so many brown flies. Even underneath a salwar kameez, a red felt cap and thick sunglasses, they still smelt me out. In the end I got tired of being asked the same question – ‘Who did you come with? What? You came alone…?’ – and went home. It’s the fourth most common question I get out here, after ‘What’s your football team?’, ‘How do you know so much about stuff?’ and ‘Are you gay?’.

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Well, the forecasted rain came, and it came down hard. I was fortunate enough that most of it fell during my commute to Seville, giving me an hour’s reprieve to test out my new auto-focusing wide-angle lens on Triana and the Giralda (as if I didn’t have enough photos of them both already). It’s a doozy and we’re going to work some serious magic together.

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I have to say, I do feel bloody lucky to have to go through Seville every time I feel like heading south. Like Canterbury Cathedral before it, I’ve become very blasé about the gorgeous streets of Seville, knowing the place like the back of my hand as I do now. But as cities go, it’s every bit as enchanting as its reputation. It’s a thought that struck me as I sat in the parakeet-infested park by the Alcazar sketching a girl who was sketching some Japanese tourists. I thought it was worth sharing, because sometimes the best things in the world are already at your feet.

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I mentioned that last weekend was Carnaval weekend across most of Spain. Not all of it. Thanks to the immensely popular celebrations in Cadiz, some of the province’s neighboring towns follow the practice of delaying their own festivities until the following weekend, giving their denizens the chance to support Spain’s Carnaval capital both home and away, as it were. Olvera is no exception.

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As Hindu-ified as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, snub-nosed Englishman can manage, I found myself outclassed a thousand times over by my hosts, some of whom might well have passed for bona fide Pathans, if not Indians.

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Durham, please look upon this little corner of the world and learn. This is how fancy dress is done.

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Whatever Moorish blood remains in the heritage of the Andalusian is brought straight to the fore when he dresses in Eastern garb. The curling black hair, dark complexion, regal profile and sparkling brown eyes of these people evoke both an ancestry hailing from across the Strait, not more than a few hundred miles away, and the mystical infusion of a more ancient, more haunting legacy chased from the Punjab so many centuries ago.

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I could sing the praises of the beauty of the Andalusian all day. Fortunately, I won’t.

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After arming themselves with all the rings, chains, hoops and bangles in their parents’ possession (most of this lot wear nose-rings habitually anyway), we set off to dine together. Adrián, very much the leader of the group – if not for his age or spectacularly authentic costume, then because of his experiences in India – led the way, beating a tambourine and striking up a ready chorus of sevillanas (in both senses of the word). I found more than one willing future traveling companion amongst Alicia’s friends over lunch, which is quite an achievement in this poverty-stricken part of the world; although, as Ali put it, ‘esá chicá tiené dinero, eh’. I also snagged an invite to Granada, which I intend to make good on now that the first snows have finally arrived.

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The rain returned with a howling vengeance during lunch and there was much talk of the street parade being called off. In the end the locals seized on a five-minute reprieve as the excuse they had been waiting for and it went ahead despite the return of the driving rain. For the sake of our outfits – and my camera – we left after only twenty minutes to seek shelter in the familiar settings of Bar Manhattan, but not before I’d ticked off all of the usual Spanish politically incorrect faux-pas: blackface, falangistas and an Arab with an ISIS flag getting mock-assaulted by a troupe of minions. This is my country – half of it – and everyone and everything is fair game for a laugh. Is it any wonder I’m so anti-PC?

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After a cubata or two we raised the roof at Manhattan in a manner that you could only hope to find in Andalucia. Once again led by the tireless Adrián, the lot of us laid down sevillana after sevillana, with much clapping, dancing, wailing voices and the full support of the neighboring tables. This is the South. This is Andalucia. And I adore her. And to think I was tempted to even compare you to Extremadura…!

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At length we set out for the carpa (the local barn-cum-sports hall) where the real party was just getting started. The three black men I’d noticed at our restaurant earlier – always an oddity in the Spanish countryside – turned out to be the drummers of the Brazilian dance troupe leading the festivities, backed by a true slice of Rio in the form of four feathered dancers decked out in the most sparkly lingerie.

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There were prizes going for best costume, which was necessarily split into nine categories: essential, when you have the likes of a centaur herd, the seated judges of La Voz and Pedro Sanchez (complete with PSOE podium) to choose from. The top prize went to the most obvious gathering of the night: the Amish. Who’d have thought they were such party animals?

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For once – FOR ONCE – Reggaeton did not dominate proceedings, and my shameless footwork landed me in the centre of several dance circles. Fortunately, I was the only one with a camera by this point, and therefore there’s no evidence of this. Of my cohorts, however, there’s plenty of material.

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Simply put, Spaniards have far less qualms about having their photo taken than other nations.

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Things wound down after a while and we retreated in search of dinner at the ungodly hour of ten o’clock; too early for dinner, and far too early to call it a night. That meant another sit-down meal, which in turn meant more sevillanas. Then it turned into a bilingual Disney face-off between Adrián and I as we sang Disney classics at each other across the table in our respective languages until either one guessed which it was and joined in. Wizard. Ali was getting pretty tired of it all by now and told us to shut up more than once. The victorious Amish on the other table didn’t seem to mind in the slightest. They were too busy getting mortal.

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We ended up in Frena, the usual disco spot, for a dance and a couple of drinks, and I talked travel with the endlessly charismatic Adrian. By half one, though, everyone was worn out. Dreadfully early, even by English standards; but then, we had been partying since five in the afternoon.

I spent the following morning at a friend’s house watching Bride Wars whilst they downloaded all of the photos I’d taken. In all fairness, I’ve had worse Valentine’s Days than munching popcorn over a chick flick with the one-that-could-have-been and her best friend. At least, I think I have.

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As a final note, I’ve been considering climbing down off the fence and choosing a football team to support. It must be said, family bias aside, I’m drawn to Barça, but the insufferably indefatigable commentator on the radio and his full-throated adoration of Messi may make a Real Madrid fan of me yet. BB x

Ned Stark was Wrong

Two weeks ago I saw the first martins wheeling about over the bus station. Last week the first swallows began to arrive and the lonely stork on the chimney of the old factory was joined by his mate. This weekend the chiffchaffs have finally joined in on the dawn chorus and, whilst it’s hardly been what you’d call wintry around these parts, today suddenly feels decidedly spring-y. The sun is blazing away in a sky of cloudless blue and everybody is out in the town square, soaking up the good weather and generally having a good Sunday of it.

The truth of the matter is, quite honestly, that winter has simply not come this year.

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Maybe I’ve been in the north of England for too long, but it stills feels like I’ve been cheated of a season out here. Extremadura is, as its name suggests, a land of extremes: of fiercely hot summers and bitterly cold winters. There are people in Villafranca who remember whole years when it never rained at all. It has rained here, but not often; about four or five times since I arrived, all in all. And whilst the presence of the cranes is a sure sign that it’s winter somewhere, it looks a great deal more like spring right now. The cherry blossom is already in bloom, over a month early, which is more than can be said for the unseasonably early arrival of the migrants. I think I’ll head on down to Tarifa next weekend to check on how things are going in the Strait. If spring has come early anywhere, it’ll be there for sure.

Which reminds me, I really must go looking for the cranes before they leave.

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To celebrate the gloriously early return of spring (alright, so that wasn’t really the reason), a local friend and our would-be guide, Jesús, threw a barbecue gathering in his casa de campo out in the vineyards of the Tierra de Barros. A casa de campo is a real Spanish boon that I’m still struggling to translate. Country house might work, but that conveys a sense of grandeur that most such buildings – merely glorified sheds where your average town-dwelling Spaniard stores his produce, spare furniture and ‘all the shit that doesn’t go anywhere else’ – simply do not have. Ask a Spaniard to show you their casa de campo and you’ll quickly see why Spanish houses are so ludicrously tidy.

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A common mistake that foreigners make is that these are dwellings in their own right. Far from it. They’re almost all two-room bungalows, equipped with sofas, plenty of chairs and a kitchenette, purely for the purposes of hosting summer gatherings like the one Jesús held yesterday. The locals will pay regular visits to their campo, especially during harvest season when they’re more practical than pleasurable, but most of them would never stay in one. It’s simply not done. Would you sleep in the tool-shed?

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Jesús had invited a fair crowd, with an equal balance of Spaniards and guiris, the latter representing England, Wales and three American states. The Almendralejo crew, in all but name. I had the audacity to avoid them almost entirely last term, stopping by only twice, for fear of being sucked into an English-speaking failure of a year abroad (I speak enough English for my job). That was poorly done indeed. Quite unlike the infamous all-English compounds in many a Spanish town, the Almen lot are very much half and half. As the most fluent of the guiris (a title the Spaniards themselves have given me and which I cherish above all other compliments), I get more than enough practice in my grandfather’s language as the ultimate go-between and little could make me happier.

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Although, that said, the copious offerings of grilled chorizo, crackling and manchego cheese on offer yesterday did a damned good job of it.

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No campo gathering would be complete without una vueltecita, or stroll. Jesús’ casa de campo is just off the Vía de la Plata, the lesser known northbound Camino de Santiago and the old road from Seville to the silver mines in the Asturias. We didn’t stroll particularly far, but then, you don’t have to; the Tierra de Barros is so vast and flat that you can see for miles in all directions. It’s hard to imagine when you compare it, but the village of Hornachos, sat astride the high Sierra which shares its name, is as far from Villafranca as Walmer is from Canterbury. Twenty seven kilometers, or fifteen miles, there or thereabouts. And you can see one from the other. It’s that flat.

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We didn’t find any unicorns (don’t ask) but we did find two very excitable dogs and an emu. And a characteristically gorgeous sunset over the olive trees.

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Andalucía, that dusky southern beauty, might have stolen my heart years ago, but honest Extremadura is doing her hardest to win me over and very nearly succeeding. If I end up returning to this land of endless steppe, of Kings and buses named after Zeus’ lovers and home of quite possibly the hardiest of all of Spain’s assistants (I maintain that you have to be at least a few screws loose to choose Extremadura as your home for a year), it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

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Carnaval is coming, but it’s not here yet, and before that yawns our second five-day weekend; the best we get by way of a ‘holiday’ besides Christmas and Easter compared to the French assistants (a necessary sacrifice, I suppose, for being in a superior country). I’ll sign off before the Spanish blood in me goes to my head. BB x