Family Reunion: Part Two

When all is said and done, there is surely nothing more important in life than family. I always knew that. A hundred books and films tell you explicitly what your parents don’t have to. But my mother did, in one way or another, and one way or another I set my heart on finding my lost Spanish family years ago. It makes me proud, prouder than I’ve ever been, to say that I’ve done it. It was nerve-wracking and emotional, but I did it. My world just got five sizes larger over the space of a single night. I’m happier than I’ve been in years and not even a third repeat of Charlie Puth’s How Long over the bus radio can dampen my spirits. Not today.

DSC_0252

“How did you know where to find us?” they asked.
“You’re Spanish,” I said. “I knew you wouldn’t have gone anywhere.”

Twenty-four years on and none of my relatives had moved so much as a mile from where they were before. God bless the Spanish and their strong family ties.

DSC_0122

I had so many questions when I pulled into Villarrobledo on Thursday afternoon. I got so many answers that I almost ran out of questions by the end of it all. Now it all makes sense! The great-grandmother from Albacete, the school in Teruel, the letters from Cataluña, the ties to Murcia and the car accident in Alicante. I had all the pieces, but I needed somebody who knew how to assemble them. Luckily for me, my grandfather’s cousin Encarna was just that person. Born in Alicante, raised in La Mancha, educated in Murcia and displaced to Cataluña for a short time, my grandfather Pepe covered in twenty-nine years just about every corner of Spain that I haven’t in twenty-four. Between the two of us we have the whole peninsula in our hands. I still have so much of his world to see, but I’ve made a great start, and that’s always the hardest part.

DSC_0151

It’s hard to know what was the very best moment of the last three days. Rafaelín’s insatiable curiosity. Encarna’s spectacular cooking. Natalia’s “en Semana Santa no se pega”. Hanging out with a generation of cousins I never knew I had. Jokes about vegans, vegetarians and hapless Brits abroad, three spine-tingling saetas, and Jesús brought back to the church in what looked like a body-bag by the Guardia Civil to protect him from the rain. I’ve never felt closer to the spirituality of Semana Santa and the family were only too happy to introduce me. I’ve only ever seen it through the eyes of a curious outsider before, hooked – like so many guiris before me – on the magic of the spectacle. But now it’s closer. It’s not just wishful thinking on my part. Finally, I belong.

DSC_0183

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all came out of my notebook. In all cases but this, I’d have loved to have my family with me for the reunion, but in this instant, I’m glad I came out on my own. Were my mother or father about, they’d have told me not to bring the notebook. They’d have said it was “showing off” or being “unsociable”, perhaps. That was what they always used to say. But if I hadn’t had it on me, I would never have found out that my passion for carrying a notebook everywhere I go is not just a strange quirk of my own – it’s a family affair. You see, my great-grandmother Lucía María Cruz de la Concepción Mercedes – Mercedes for short – was also a prolific notebook keeper, who liked to sit on her balcony on a sunny day with a cigarette, a glass of brandy and the radio on, jotting down whatever she found interesting and penning her thoughts between her doodles. Quite by accident, I’ve been channelling my great-grandmother’s spirit all this time, and I never knew.

DSC_0143

Well… I’m home now. There’s always something a little sad about the end of a great quest. The journey there is filled with hope, excitement and a host of well-wishers who spur you on like a good wind in your sails. Every step is a climb and the end of the road, as short and sweet as it may be, is the most beautiful of rewards by far. But there comes a time when home calls, and every adventurer must gather their things and return to reality, and the road home is quieter. My quest is my family, and it will go on forever.

DSC_0259

It isn’t all too often that you get to be your own wishmaker. But every once in a while you just have to get over your fears and go for it, whatever it is. And if the last week has taught me anything, it’s that whilst something as simple as making a phone call still has the power to cripple me, nothing and nobody will stand in the way of me and my family. Fate tore us apart years ago. My mother gave me the tools, Don Rafael gave me the opportunity, and I have put us back together again. Whatever happens in the remaining nine months, 2018 will go down as one of the greatest years of my life.

DSC_0117

P.S. As if today couldn’t get any better, when I got off the bus I was met with the screams of Villafranca’s swifts, back from the winter in Africa, and when I got home, I found a letter from nothing other than the wonderful Kate Brocklesby waiting in my letterbox. Today has been a very good day!

Family Reunion: Part One

10:52

It begins in Salamanca. It’s not exactly where I thought it was going to begin, but it’s a more auspicious starting point than Villafranca, I guess. The other passengers around me are reshuffling their seats on the bus. The lady on the seat next to me scrolls blindly through her Instagram feed. Flighty pigeons patrol the bus station roof and a few fluffy clouds pepper the sky. Suitcases roll in, buses roll out and people chat about what they’ll be having for lunch. It’s just another day in Salamanca – but not for me. Today’s the day I find my family.

It’s hard to say exactly how I’m feeling right now. Three days ago, when Rafael called, I was nervous. So nervous I waited until the call went through to my answerphone so I could deal with the matter calmly and indirectly. I’d already gone through the business of psyching myself up a couple of weeks ago, when I first made plans to visit. Spurred on by Coco, and some of Bella’s heartbreaking family stories, I decided I could wait no longer. Then Rafael’s sudden hospitalisation put our reunion on hold and I had to wait.

Now I’m racing across the sunny fields of old Castile with the cathedral of Salamanca shrinking into the distance, and my new quest – perhaps the greatest quest of my life so far – has begun.

12:58

The snows on the highest peaks of the Guadarrama seem as smooth as flour. San Rafael, the quiet town that harboured me once when I came down tired and hungry from a sixty kilometre trek across the mountains, looked warm and unfamiliar in the sunlight. I only remember it in the dark of the night. I have left the granite boulders and high sierras of old Castile behind me. Madrid stretches out across the plain with queer mountains of tower blocks and skyscrapers. The Buddenbrooks film they have playing on the monitor is drawing to its sad and depressing finale, a world away from the hopeful sunshine outside. Nineteenth-century Germany and sunlit Madrid could hardly be further apart.

I see a magpie. I count to ten. A second appears. I breathe again.

14:43

Every quest has a dragon to be slain, and today’s is Atocha Station. On the bus I briefly entertained the idea of a small paseo in the Retiro, should I find my way through the station easily. It’s as well that I didn’t. It took me several bewildered attempts to navigate the terminus. Atocha makes London King’s Cross seem like the Dunkeld and Birnam railway station. Stairs criss-crossing each other in all directions. Media distancia here, larga distancia there, high-speed AVE lines elsewhere. The icing on the cake: the platform is not revealed until minutes before the train arrives, or, in this case, withheld until the thing is just pulling in. I was a bag of nerves back there and I’m not proud of it. I love travel, but I don’t like cities. I never have. And it’ll only be harder on the way back when I have half the time to get from Atocha to Estación Sur. But the dragon is slain, and I’m headed south into New Castile and the immense emptiness of La Mancha.

15:08

Where do I begin? What questions do I ask the only man on Earth who knew my grandfather when he was still alive? It’s hard to know where to start. Rafael may be my first cousin twice removed, and his descendants more distant still, but they’re all that’s left of my family and I have to find them. I have to know. It’s what’s been driving this whole Spanish adventure from the very beginning. My grandfather José… When was he born? What was he like? Is there anything left of him in his hometown, or has he passed, like the Moorish kings, into memory? I can only hope for some small detail, a shred of the faintest of proofs. In truth I do not really know what awaits me in Villarrobledo, but I can wait no longer.

15:40

Some etymologists believe the Roman word “Hispania”, from which we derive the modern name of Spain, came via an old Punic-Hebrew cognate “i-shfania”, meaning “Island of Rabbits”. The rabbits are dying out by degrees – I haven’t seen one in months – so perhaps “Island of Magpies” might be a better term today. The kites and the swallows come and go, but I see magpies wherever I go in this country. I used to associate them with the oak tree that grew on the verge by my house when I was growing up. Nowadays I think of Spain when I see them. I’m not sure where we get the word “magpie” from, but the Spanish urraca is supposedly onomatopoeic, like the Arabic ‘āqāq. There was even a Spanish queen called Urraca once. I wonder why they called her that?

The earth is red. We’re rolling into Alcázar de San Juan. Three stops remain. Just to spite me, a pair of rabbits watched our train pass by from the sleepers on the opposite line. Hispania lives on.

17:29

The first words I heard on entering Villarrobledo were not in Spanish at all, but in American English. I’m not sure whether that marred my first experience or not. Villarrobledo looks like a lot like Villafranca, picked up and dropped in the middle of La Mancha. And I thought Extremadura was flat… I’ve never seen such horizons.

The hotel Rafael arranged for me has everything I need, except the little zing of extra courage I could do with right now. To be fair, there’s probably plenty of courage in the couple of Dueros I brought as presents for my family, but if I can soldier through twenty-two years of teetotal trials, I can manage this one sober. I’ve had a shower, freshened up and put today’s date in my journal. There’s nothing left to do but to step out of the hotel room and finish my quest. Some food wouldn’t go amiss, but as it’s Jueves Santo, I doubt anywhere will be open. Besides, needs must: there’s a greater cause at stake. Grandfather, this is for you. It always has been.

Ps. I’ve forward-dated this post, so by the time you read this, I’ll have met my family already. I’ll keep you posted.

Last Straw

Easter has arrived in Tierra de Barros. True to form, as it does every year, the glorious sunshine lasted only as long as the last week of term: now that the holidays are here, the clouds have returned. I remember reading once that it rains more on weekends than weekdays because of something to do with carbon emissions. I never did go down the rabbit hole, so to speak, but given the current state of affairs, it seems plausible.

I’ve made the decision to cancel all of my private classes as of this evening. It’s been on a slow-burner for the best part of a term (I might have considered it more carefully back in first term, were it not such a lucrative source of income). It’s going to be a financial dent, but it’s for the best. Had things panned out differently, I wouldn’t be so keen, but it’s beginning to take its toll on both me and my flatmate.

Making the decision to come to Villafranca de los Barros for a second time was, in part, a financial move, as I knew I had at least two potential second jobs waiting for me here and a healthy spread of contacts. Life, however, is seldom predictable, and as it turned out, I lost out on all three counts: my old job in a local concertado turned out to be in the hands of a local teacher this year; the spare auxiliar post at the prestigious private school across the road was streamlined into the wider auxiliar programme, cutting that option off as well; and, rather than granting me a healthy group of older students, my contacts this year inundated me with requests for classes for their under-10’s. And, like the fool I was, and without the financial security of the two second jobs I’d been holding out for, I took up the latter without thinking.

Since October, I’ve spent an hour every night from Monday to Friday dealing with raucous three-year olds, who have little to no interest in history, literature or current events, and would much prefer to yank the curtain pulls until they snap, or mangle my pencils, chalk my floor and otherwise wreak havoc in my flat. Were the flat mine I might be able to laugh it off, but it’s not, and the circle cannot hold. I moved most of the breakable materials into the storeroom within a couple of weeks, after the inquisitive little monsters found it in them to touch everything in sight, up to and including my flatmate’s school things, which despite my warnings he continued to leave in the line of fire on his return from work every day. And now, on the last day, the line has snapped: we found his satchel this morning with a broken strap.

It’s a shame that this had to come up on the last day, but I guess I shouldn’t have expected anything different. In his shoes, I’d have simply shrugged and gone to work with a broken satchel, taking it as part of the fruits of life, but then, it takes an awful lot to provoke me. Complaining and provoking slows life down and sullies the waters so, and I don’t hold by it; as long as you’re still breathing at the end of the day, there’s really no use crying over spilt milk. But he’s an Andalusian, and the six o’clock noise – bang in the middle of his siesta time – was going to drive him to the brink sooner or later. And I have myself to think of, too; my novel has ground to a slow trudge since taking on these lessons. Back in October, I was writing a chapter and a half a week. Since then, I’ve penned one a month. And isn’t that what this year was all about – to be here in Spain and to have the time to write? Next year I won’t have that luxury, mark my words.

So that’s that. The buck stops here.

It’s not all doom and gloom. The clouds are still here, and they say there’s more rain on the way, but the worst of the storm is over. The birds seem to know it, too: I’ve been lucky enough to see quite a lot of migration from the comfort of my own flat in the post-private lesson lull this week. On Monday I saw seven black kites heading in a straight line right over the flat, as though following the camino de plata in their northward journey. On the bus back from touring with the school play in Elvas on Tuesday, I saw several swifts racing overhead. And yesterday, circling high on the thermals, an enormous phalanx of storks filled the sky before reaching the perfect height and soaring on to the north on outstretched wings.

DSC_0009

One year, I’d love to be in Gibraltar when they come. I hear it’s quite the thing to see. BB x

T-12

The Heavens have given us a temporary respite. The spring rains that began a month ago today are still falling hard, and set to fall harder still over the next week or two, but today the clouds are colourless and clear. I no longer live in a state of quasi-permanence beside the brasero and soon I’ll be able to put my jumpers back in the wardrobe once again. Spring has definitely arrived here: my morning walk to school is a symphony of song from the park, albeit a symphony where every part seems to think they hold the solo, from the strings of the serins and the woodwind of the blackbirds to the kestrel fanfare, stork drumrolls and the uncompromising neither-here-nor-there noise of the starlings. It puts a smile on my face every morning.

I’m conscious, as I often am at this time of year, of my time running out. Where the year seemed to stretch on into the middle distance back in cold, gloomy February, March holds up a mirror as if to remind me how much the cold warps one’s perspective. As it stands, I only have twelve weeks remaining, of which nine and a half are working weeks and only four bring as-of-yet unscheduled weekends. In my desire to be busy once again I’ve burdened myself up with responsibilities that eat into my timetable like caterpillars: a private lesson in Almendralejo, choir rehearsals in Zafra and play rehearsals at 8.15am on a Thursday morning. Combined with commuting time, and those inevitable private lessons that are at the incredibly inconvenient time of six o’clock in the afternoon, my time is slipping through my fingers and the year will be over before I know it. And with a summer job and a proper job at the end of it waiting for me back in England, that’s more than a little disheartening. Something’s got to give.

Reading is keeping me afloat. I finished She the other day and I’m onto another classic, Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. After the insightful but heavy high-Victorian ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ of Haggard’s dialogue, it’s a breath of fresh air to hear people speak in an altogether more human register some twelve years prior. Once again, I’m reminded that, if it weren’t for my all-consuming love for Iberia, I would have followed my grades at gone for a degree in English Literature. I might not have enjoyed reading as much at the time, but I’m certainly making up for lost time here and now, even if that does entail reading two Haggard books per month. Still, I don’t read Haggard for the dialogue: the old adventurer might be unable to tear himself from his medieval register, but there is wisdom scattered in his words like pearls on a stormy beach, and I love mining his books for quotes in such a fashion. I just need to modernise my reading tastes so my own writing doesn’t become quite as jaded. Hardy might be a step backwards in time, but he’s more than a step forwards in modernism. BB x

The Rain in Spain

Snow doesn’t like me. Every time it falls I’m in the wrong country. The last time I remember snow good enough to build a decent snowman was early in 2013, when I was on my abortive gap year and had precious little else to do. Going north to university was supposed to bring better weather; living as close to the coast as I did, pretty much every weather front we got had dissipated by the time it reached us.

Not so. In my first year at Durham we had a light dusting, and second year delivered only a little better. In my third year the powers that be decided to deliver a decent fall… but of course, I was in Spain at the time, and didn’t see any snow whatsoever. The following year I returned to Durham, where it was cold, but not enough for snow. Spain, on the other hand, got a lashing so strong it covered most of Andalusia – one of Spain’s hottest regions – in an impressive layer. And now this Beast from the East lays waste to the UK with snowfall like it hasn’t seen in decades, and here I am in the one part of Europe that was spared.

It’s obvious. Snow and me simply aren’t compatible.

DSC_0142

What are we getting here in Spain? Guess. I’ll give you a clue: they had a fair idea when they wrote My Fair Lady.

DSC_0141

You want the Beast from the East? Try the Pest from the West. It’s supposed to rain for a full fortnight.

There are just over a couple of weeks to go until Semana Santa. I haven’t been blogging much, partly because of the taxing nature of private lessons with under tens, but mainly because any writing I don’t commit to my novels seems like a betrayal, especially with the workload (and the salary) set to treble next year, and by my own hand. I’ll keep you posted. BB x