Slow Clocks and White Socks

Good morning from the staff room. My second 1°ESO class are busy preparing posters on British food for next week’s Semana Cultural this morning, so I’m off the hook for an hour. It’s a shame, really; they’re probably the one class that could have really benefited from a presentation on the UK, seeing as it’s what they’re working on right now. My other 1°ESO class loved it, and I dare say the addition of a Honchkrow to explain ‘honcho’ helped a lot in the ‘foreign words in English’ section. Not that honcho – a Japanese term for ‘big boss’ – is a word you expect to come across all that often, but it makes the language learning process a lot more colourful. Going over the same ‘how much is a ticket’ dialogue every week gets a bit dry, eventually.

I went for a walk in the park yesterday. It’s been so warm and sunny recently, I simply couldn’t justify going straight home from work. Tired as I was, I slapped a small lunch together, downloaded a few In Our Time podcasts and crossed the road into the park. It was a little windier than I’d have liked, so I didn’t stay all that long in the end. Without it, it might have been as warm as 18°C. In February. But here in the plains of Extremadura, we’re ruled by the terrain. The wind that blows across the flats is cold and loud, like something out of the Old West. You half expect a tumbleweed to pass you by. It’s a shame that we think immediately of America when we hear that name: with its wide open plains, rocky cliffs and canyons teeming with bandits, and its historic code of honour and justice, I’d like to think Spain was the real Old West; the Ancient West, if you will.

The swallows are here. I watched a few of them twittering noisily as they careered about the pond, whilst one of the town’s storks soared lazily overhead. The trees were alive with goldfinches, and I saw a huge bat on its way to the park from my flat the other night. It was a lot easier to consider a job in England a month ago, I’m telling you, before Spain started thinking about her Spring clothes. Now that it’s feasible to go to bed without having the heater on for a full hour, and the blue skies are no longer laden with a biting cold air, I find myself in love once again. The saying goes: ‘nueve meses de invierno y tres de infierno’ – nine months of winter and three of Hell – but Spain can be equally unforgiving in the grip of winter.

I spent a little while watching a robin – always one of my favourite birds – and a couple of hoopoes flapping about like oversized butterflies. Symbols of England and Spain, in my head. I should go to the park more often.

It’s hard to see the change in the seasons here in Tierra de Barros, with the park full of evergreens and the surrounding eternity of vineyards and olive trees, but the animals tell you. And where they fail, the town drummers do a pretty good job. Carnaval is over, and I thought that might be the end of their incessant weekly drumming, but I was wrong: last night as I lay dozing in the living room, I heard the unmistakeable march of the Holy Week procession. It’s a good month away, but preparations have begun in earnest. But I’m not complaining: Semana Santa is far and away one of my favourite things in Spain and I never want to be anywhere else when it’s on. Like countless Brits before me, I’m shamelessly enthralled by the primal magic of it.

And, like countless Brits before me, I’m steadily coming to understand that our humour and theirs – or anybody else’s, perhaps – simply don’t mix. My jape about my countrified accent got cut from the play this morning. I guess they didn’t see the funny side. One of my students did point out to me recently that imitating their accent is one of the few things guaranteed to rile an extremeño. As a guiri, perhaps I’m allowed a certain amount of leverage – it’s always funny to see a foreigner having a go, I guess – but patience, in the end, wears thin. Especially when I have to make that same joke at twenty-five minutes past eight every Thursday morning.

A few weeks ago there was an article in The Times titled ‘How to be Spanish‘ that caused uproar on Spanish social media. The Spanish, it seems, don’t like being told how to be Spanish by an Englishman (a puto guiri, to quote various Twitter users). Surprise of the century. Spaniards came out with war flags, claiming the author had no idea what country he was talking about. Whoever these folks were who eat tapas at the bar and never at the tables, swear so liberally and have a slightly more relaxed attitude to time than the hyper-punctual English, they certainly weren’t Spanish.

Shortly afterwards, the Spanish retaliated with an article of their own on how to be British, citing such customs as queuing for everything, wearing white socks, wall-to-wall carpeting and, of course, our penchant for exaggeration. It was a childish exchange, but you have to admit, there were a few cultural nuances both sides got spot-on.

It was a lot of fun to discuss in class, I’ll give you that, but whilst I agree that the original author could have been a little less damning in his exaggerations – a flaw I’m often party to (see the war flags remark) – it seems to me that the problem lies not in the content itself, but in how it was received. Of course not all Spaniards act the way the author describes, but then, he doesn’t go out of his way to make that clear. And, of course, it wouldn’t be so funny if every observation in the article carried a disclaimer. Remember those jokes that your friends make that you didn’t get, and they then had to explain? Yeah… They weren’t funny at all.

As Brits, we read such things with a smile, seeing the irony and the humorous comparisons, because as a nation that’s what we do best: ridicule. We love to laugh, to laugh at others, and (sometimes) to be laughed at in turn. It’s not a universal attitude, but trying to be funny on a regular basis is, I think, an inherently British custom. Most everybody else has a life to be getting on with. Great Britain is cold, rainy and – according to some – has potentially the worst cuisine in the world (the very un-English chicken tikka massala was our most popular dish for years), but we are fantastic at making light of this and everything else, from our politicians and our history to our friends and neighbours, even if the rest of the world looks on in confusion. I gave up trying to introduce my kids to Blackadder and Monty Python a long time ago. It requires too much explanation. By contrast, Mr Bean works like a dream… because there’s no dialogue whatsoever. Which, given that he’s portrayed by easily one of our wisest and wittiest comedians, is a crying shame.

So that’s all it is. The British like being funny. And when our jokes involve people beyond our remit, we get confused when they take offence. Why can’t they see the funny side? The answer is simple: they don’t have to. That’s not to say we shouldn’t make jokes anymore. British humour is, in the humble opinion of this author, king. But we could be try to be a little more aware of what cultural difference means. If the Spanish come across as having a lax approach to time, it’s only because we’re unreasonably pernickety about it. The whole and ungeneralised truth lies somewhere in between.

Jokes are fine. Our problem is that we expect others to take a joke, to know when we’re being funny and when we’re not… and it’s not always easy. Especially in print. BB x

Soundbites II


Gatwick South Terminal never changes. Every third man and their mother is hunched over their phone/tablet and speechless, lips pouted, eyes disinterested. The rush of noise in the waiting lounge is metallic; a firm ground bass of escalators and flight case wheels is cut through by the soaring soprano of children in the play area and the sparkling SFX of the last-stop speaker shops. A man eats a sandwich out of a yellow-and-brown cardboard box. A mother explains something in Polish to her son with a good deal of clapping, then takes a selfie with him. The advertising screen displays the latest range of Boohoo Man. And my eye itches. I should probably stop rubbing it.


Gate information is still a good twenty minutes away. But it’s not all about waiting. The longest, coldest month of the year is gone. I’ve never seen a January run its course so quickly. But it has, and here we are halfway through February. Popping home to England for a job interview (and to see my family, whom I haven’t seen since September) was a good idea. I’ve missed England, more than I thought I might. One’s home country exerts a powerful force over the psyche if you leave it behind for so long. Tierra de Barros is not exactly the most spectacular place to be in winter, no matter how much the sun shines. Knowing my luck, however, Spain will put on its spring dress in a couple of weeks and I’ll wonder why I ever dreamed of England, perhaps on the very day I find out whether work will call me home or not. The point remains, however: January was short. I ought to make a habit of spending January with my girlfriend. It’s always dragged on so before.


I definitely, definitively, undoubtedly heard somebody say acho in the queue for this flight. I also got off on the wrong foot by sitting near the desk; these Spaniards surprised me by forming an orderly queue rather than sitting in the waiting area. Or perhaps they were English tourists with a more generous complexion than mine. Over a decade of practice and all the fluency time can buy will never make me a Spaniard, thanks to blue eyes and blond hair. According to the tannoy, the flight to Seville this afternoon is extremely busy, quite unlike the way out. It remains to be seen whether they’ll slap my rucksack in the hold, but at least if they do, they won’t charge me for it. This is only the second British Airways flight I’ve ever taken and I already prefer it.


This plane is packed. They’ve just declared that’s there’s no room for large cases in the overhead lockers. I got in just in time. There must be a Valentine’s Day rush to Seville. I saw plenty of roses sticking out of people’s handbags on the way in. A couple of Londoners out in front kept me entertained in the queue: the girl waxed lyrical about using her friend as a source of air-miles and the husband kept trying to read his paper in the gaps in her conversation. It helped to ease the nerves somewhat. Behind the grumbles, the problematic passports and the enormous wheelie-suitcases, the other passengers are only fellow human beings.

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


We left some twenty-five minutes late and we’re landing only five minutes behind schedule. I’m impressed. It still wouldn’t have been enough time to catch the bus to Plaza de Armas and then onwards to Villafranca, but that doesn’t matter; Fran’s picking me up. Sweet relief. It’s odd, to be going from the plane one night to work the following morning, but that’s adult life, I suppose. I guess it only feels weird because as kids we’re used to the holidays wrapping our trips abroad in precious time. It’s a reason to stay in the education sector, and that’s a fact.


The Spain I took off from on Thursday is a whole lot greener today. I guess it rained over Carnaval weekend. It always rains over Carnaval weekend. You’d be surprised how much of a difference that makes. I loved being back in England for the green trees, the gentle grassy slopes of the South Downs, the brooks and streams and the sea… I need that. I wasted away in Jordan without it, despite the best efforts of my companions. And Tierra de Barros, it must be said, could be an awful lot greener. But spring is on its way, a good deal earlier than I thought, and I’m about to fall in love again. I think I missed the cranes – they normally take their leave this weekend – but if I hop on my bike this weekend, I might just catch one of the hen harriers I’ve seen ghosting about the fields, though I doubt I’ll be lucky enough to run into the sandgrouse I saw from the bus. If I can’t write authentically about the wildlife here yet, it’s because I’ve yet to have the time to go out and soak in it. This weekend will be my first weekend in months where I have no immediate plans. I intend to make the most of that. I might not make it as far as Hornachos, but I intend to get out. And now that I have my thermals – a Lycra equivalent is apparently essential for cycling out here – I won’t look like a foreign jerk. It’s the details that make the picture. BB x

Dust and Ashes

I watched a house being torn down on my way home yesterday. The sun was setting behind, casting beautiful golden rays through the dust as the maw of the digger ripped the walls apart. Destruction is an odd thing to witness. It obviously has its pull; there were some four or five others standing by who, like me, had paused in their perambulations to watch: an old man, a chap in blue overalls, a man and his dog, a mother and her daughter, and me; all of us gathered there to witness the last moments of a 60’s flat block. The walls came down like sand.

I once heard it said that it can be a thrill to watch somebody on a downward spiral. I never did understand what it meant, though I suppose it’s along the same lines as the death of the flat block. It’s a spectacle. We don’t pay to see movies where the hero overcomes every single obstacle and has a wonderful life thank-you-very-much, with no end to his or her wish-you-were-here lifestyle. We want to see suffering. We want to know they’re as vulnerable as us. And if they succeed, and they don’t always succeed, we want to know it came at a cost. Nobody is invincible, but everybody is human to some degree. It’s about what rises out of the ashes, rather than the ashes themselves.

I’ll have to think about that downward spiral case some more.


Villafranca celebrated Candelas last night. It’s a local festival, similar to the English custom of Bonfire Night only in that the main ingredient is a number of bonfires. Folk were gathered in front of the main bars in town, where a handful of small bonfires had been laid out and set alight. Whatever they were putting on them was coughing up thick smoke and a hellish rain of sparks. Beyond, on the town outskirts, the neon lights of a visiting circus glared through the haze. It looked like something out of a Don Bluth film. I tried to imagine the first candelas, four hundred years ago and more, then the only lights in this dark land. A friendlier festival than Halloween – or, perhaps, what Halloween has become – if only I had somebody around to share it with. That night I wandered the streets alone, knowing once again after a long time how it feels to be on your own.


Our electricity bill is almost double what it was last term. That’s hardly surprising; since then, we discovered the flat’s heaters – both the presence of and the real need for them. No biggie. I’m keeping my options open on the job front, looking for work in both Spain and England. It may be some time before I have the enviable position of being able to make such a decision from a position of comfortable stability. Until then, I need to put Reinette through her paces (Hornachos is still beckoning), read a few more books, write a few more letters and apply some serious muscle to my novel. Time is in my favour this year, but still it slips through my fingers by the second. Orion watches from the night sky as he has for millennia, and the sight of him comforts me.

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I’ll be back in England in under a week. It’s a nice way round to have it, I’ll grant you, living in Spain and holidaying in England. There’s also talk of an upcoming gig for the Northern Lights which I might feasibly be able to make. The ground beneath my feet is moving. In the meantime, I’m relying on Thomas Hardy, Marvin Gaye and a never-diminishing rota of classroom games to keep my mind at work.

In other words, life goes on. I’ll see you around. BB x