Losing All Control

Term’s winding up here. Four work days remain, and I’m umming and ahhing about taking on another lucrative private class offer. An extra 24€ per week wouldn’t go amiss, certainly, but do I really want to be taking on yet another three-year old? Four years of university education and I’m spending three hours per week making kids watch Nursery Rhymes. It’s admirable that so many parents want to ‘initiate’ their kids into English conversation, but conversation is hardly the right word. Where are the older kids? Years of swotting up on interesting facts and stories is lost on three-year olds who are busy learning their own mother tongue. The brain might not be a muscle in the strictest sense of the word, but it needs a workout, and I don’t know whether I can justify giving myself over to more hours of daddy day-care, even if it is for an extra hundred euros per month. I have a book to write.

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The Gideons’ efforts at the school gates fell on deaf ears

I spent about forty minutes going through our latest Vodafone bill with Fran last night, as it looked to be anomalous. It turns out they included a month’s adelantado, which they could have spelled out. It certainly wasn’t the clearest bill I’ve ever seen, with costs added and discounted all over the place. Our electricity bill was cause for a breath of relief, so I can’t complain, especially when we saw just how little of Fran’s salary came through after taxes… Our landlord told him to plan ahead ‘pá que no te desmadres’. In a little over thirteen years of learning Spanish, I have to say, I’ve yet to encounter a word quite as fantastic as desmadrarse, meaning to lose control. To de-parent oneself… Fantastic language, Spanish. Now all it needs is a word that describes the certain kind of location-specific road rage that one finds in mobile phone shops the world over.

On the subject of losing all control… I’ve got wheels (they’re multiplying)! And it doesn’t even need that much Grease… It took long enough, but after various setbacks, I finally have a functional mountain bike at my disposal. Spain being the small world it is, the girl from whom I bought the thing turned out to be none other than one of my star students from my 4º class two years back. It needed a few necessary amenities, but after a (rather expensive) wave of the magic wand at Carrefour, I’m all tacked up and ready to take her for a spin.

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And yes, it’s a she. I’ve christened her Reinette, though I couldn’t say why. Reinette has always seemed like a good name for a bike in my mind. Maybe I once saw a Reiner as a kid and got confused. Regardless, Reinette she is. I’m going to wake up bright and early tomorrow and take her for her first adventure. The destination: Hornachos. It’s been so very long since I had a bike of my own, and it felt absolutely exhilarating to be back in the saddle when I took her for a test run last week.

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I give it a couple of months before I give in and buy Lycra

I’ve had enough of clinging to the heaters on these short, wintry mornings. It’s time to hit the road. BB x

Desert Island Discs

There are few things in the world that mean more to me than music. If that wasn’t clear enough by now, here’s me setting the record straight. My tiresome Chinese Bluetooth headphones might instil an odd lethargy whenever I put them on, but they provide a welcome lifeline on the five-minute walk to school on Monday mornings. So it strikes me as rather odd that, in two and a half years of blogging, I’ve yet to pen my own Desert Island Discs-style blog. Perhaps that’s just as well, as one’s taste in music is as much a part of growing up as one’s outlook on the world. It would surprise me greatly if I ever met a man whose tastes had remained unshaken since the beginning. I know mine haven’t. That is, not too much.

I’m going to keep to the BBC Radio programme’s format: that is, eight tracks, from which I will have to pick a favourite. So, whilst I’m still young, naïve and idealistic, here’s my Desert Island Discs.


1. Circle of Life (Elton John/Lebo M.)

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Say what you like about the 90s, but they did give birth to one of the greatest animated films of all time. I haven’t the least shame in admitting that, to this day, Disney’s The Lion King remains one of my favourite films of all time. It’s simply perfect. I used to spend hours gawping at it as a kid, and watching some of my private lesson kids crawling around the room pretending to be all the animals in the opening sequence almost brings tears to my eyes. If there’s a better way to invoke a sense of awe and love for Africa’s natural beauty in four minutes flat, I’d like to see it.

When did you first discover it?
Given that The Lion King came out in the year I was born – a mere four days later, in fact – it’s very possible I’ve known this song for my entire life. I expect my first ‘real’ encounter with it would have been shortly after my first birthday when we got the movie on VHS.

What do you like most about it?
Lebo M.’s voice. The first twenty-eight seconds are pure gold. Who doesn’t love the opening? Even if most everyone gets the words wrong…

Any special memories?
I used it as my audition piece to get into Durham University’s A Cappella group, Northern Lights. Thanks to my dear friend Biff, we ended up performing it, and I got to pay homage to Lebo M. in Durham Cathedral itself in front of a crowd of a thousand. Riffing over the top of DUOS, Chamber Choir and the rest of Durham’s finest in the finale of King of Pride Rock will probably never be toppled as one of the happiest moments of my life.

2. Back in Stride (Maze feat. Frankie Beverly)

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Maze is far from one of the most famous bands of their day. The late 70s was a hard time to make it big as a new artist, with heavyweights like Barry White and Earth, Wind and Fire kicking around. But for me, this is a special one-hit wonder that floors them all. Back in Stride is neither ground-breaking nor thought-provoking, but it is feel-good, and one of the most feel-good numbers I know. There’s just an honest, heartfelt get-up-and-go about it that brings me out of the dark and into the light whenever it comes on. And Frankie Beverly may well be one of the most underrated male vocalists of all time.

When did you first discover it?
If memory serves, it came on the radio on one of the few nights I tuned in to a local Soul and Funk radio station, shortly before my great Spanish adventure. Like I’ve said before, if I’m proud of one thing, it’s my whim decisions.

What do you like most about it?
The delay on the rolling bass guitar line. Apparently Despacito has been scientifically proven to be catchy because of the deliberate delay in the chorus. I wonder whether it’s the same mechanism at work here. I wouldn’t be altogether surprised if it were.

Any special memories?
This song once saved my life. Quite literally. When I was sleeping rough in the mountains to the north of Madrid, it rained through the night and my bivvy bag turned out to be a lot less waterproof than I’d hoped (though I suppose they’re supposed to be used in tandem with a tent, rather than as the sole defence). I couldn’t sleep, I was shaking from head to foot for hours, and I wanted my parents more than ever in my life. Listening to this song on repeat pulled me back from the brink. Which, I suppose, is what granted Back in Stride a certain legendary status in my Top Ten.

3. Forgiven Not Forgotten (The Corrs)

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Anyone who knows me will know that I go on and on (and on) about how black is beautiful when it comes to music. You only need to look at this list to see where my preferences lie, and it’s by no means a good sampling, with Fela Kuti, Tina Turner and the one and only Luther Vandross being narrowly beaten to the punch on this list. So it might come as a surprise that my favourite band is not black at all, but an Irish folk band. The Corrs and I go way back, and there’s hardly a song of theirs I don’t love. Forgiven Not Forgotten is a gem of an album and the title number is the standout diamond.

When did you first discover it?
Forgiven Not Forgotten was my first ever album, back in the days when a mixtape meant an actual tape. My dad used to put it on every once in a while on the way to school, where the novel was born to the sound of Sharon Corr’s violin. The cassette itself is long since missing in action, and – like many of its kind – probably ended up a mess of spent tape that no pencil could fix, but I still have the cassette case.

What do you like most about it?
Andrea Corr’s vocals are hauntingly beautiful. I’d have to say that the break into the harder-hitting second verse is what takes the biscuit, though. It sends me soaring.

Any special memories?
As a kid, knowing that my favourite childhood author, Michael Morpurgo, was also a fan of the group made me smile a lot; he namedrops the band often in his Scilly Isle stories.

4. Thriller (Michael Jackson)

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Who’d have thought that a song about zombies would be one of the most popular songs of all time? Who else but Michael Jackson? Thriller is amazing. I love it. I can’t shake it. The chords are insane. The bassline is unforgettable. And don’t even get me started on the dance routine. It’s MJ at his finest; no deep message, no heavy lyrics, just pure, all-out fun. Any one of these eight songs could be a strong contender for my favourite, but as far as the official list is concerned, Thriller has been in the throne for the longest. And that’s despite Vincent Price’s voiceover, which somehow adds to the charm…

When did you first discover it?
You know, I don’t know? I won’t even pretend I do. We had Michael Jackson’s Number Ones on our CD rack at home, and I don’t think it took me all that long to find it.

What do you like most about it?
The whine of the theremin during the third and final verse. No doubt about it. I get the shivers every single time.

Any special memories?
Turning up to Arrowsmith’s Halloween party in my Thriller outfit, to find fellow Light Luke had come in exactly the same outfit. The beginning of a long and happy friendship, grounded in a common love for one of the world’s greatest.

5. Love Theme from El Cid (Miklós Rózsa)

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Many of the songs on this list are songs I grew up with, and number five is no exception. I can’t have seen El Cid more than two or three times before returning to study the epic at university, which brought me back into contact with the endlessly evocative soundtrack of the film. It just screams Spain, more so even than Bizet’s Carmen. Rózsa knew what he was doing. No matter what happened, I was once a violinist, and to have a set of favourites without the beautiful violin solo of the Love Theme would be nothing short of criminal. There are many pieces from the soundtrack that I adore, such as the famous El Cid March and the Fanfare Coronation, but the Love Theme wins it for me.

When did you first discover it?
Technically speaking, I ‘rediscovered’ it whilst I was writing my El Cid essay last year. I had the album on repeat every time I sat down to write, so it surprises me that Spotify seems to think ‘dance-pop’ was my favourite genre. By all rights, unrepresentative as it would be, my fixation with this album in essay season should have pushed it to the top.

What do you like most about it?
The violin solo in the second half. It’s breath-taking, and makes me wish I hadn’t given up the violin years ago, if only to be able to play it as well as the soloist does.

Any special memories?
I believe I finished my dissertation shortly after playing it for probably the 53rd time. That’s a special memory if ever there was one… right?

6. What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye)

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Stealing its way into the spotlight like a fine wine, Marvin Gaye’s pleading revolution song has been with me for a while, but only found its way into my heart recently. At a time in my life when music was taken from me (after a particularly music-heavy summer at the Edinburgh Fringe), Marvin found me and picked me back up. What’s Going On called out to me with a meaning it never had before and I fell in love with it. Grapevine might be one of his greatest legacies, but the subdued vocals of this particular number make it nothing less than spectacular.

When did you first discover it?
On my first serious fling with the world of Soul, Funk and Disco music in my final year at school, under the guiding influence of my former bandmaster, Mr D. I must have overlooked this diamond then, perish the thought.

What do you like most about it?
Whilst I don’t tend to go for songs for their lyrics, believing the music itself to be of far more importance, What’s Going On strikes a chord with the pacifist in me. And, of course, there’s the violins: the sailing strings of the third verse reach so high they trace the heavens and rain down gold.

Any special memories?
It isn’t often you discover a new artist you adore, but when it does, it’s a little bit like falling in love. Discovering Marvin Gaye ‘properly’ this year via this song makes for a special memory, I think.

7. Erin Shore (The Corrs)

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What do you know? It’s The Corrs again. I told you there was hardly a song of theirs I didn’t love and I wasn’t lying. It was a struggle not having at least three Corrs numbers in this list (you’d find the third if we were to expand this list to ten). Erin Shore is an instrumental, and it must have meant a lot to the band: it’s at the opening and closing of Forgiven Not Forgotten. In my head it’s the theme of the Royals in my novel, and thus this piece alone has had a heavy influence the development of the novel. The Love Theme from El Cid may have been beyond me as a dropout Grade 6 violinist, but I had the book of violin parts as a kid and I remember teaching myself this one, before ear and memory sufficed.

When did you first discover it?
Shortly after (and before) discovering Forgiven Not Forgotten.

What do you like most about it?
The bells, the flutes, the choir… the sounds of Ireland… And, of course, the wicked drumming before the final uplifting round.

Any special memories?
Every time I listen to this track I see the heroes of my book. It’s not a memory as they’re almost always on my mind, but that makes it doubly special for me.

8. Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough (Michael Jackson)

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If the Corrs get a second mention, then the other great light of my life needs to be up there too. And he’s not here by proxy. Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough is the happiest, grooviest, boogiest song I know. I just want to get up on a stage and dance. If there were ever a film made about my life, this would be song playing as they rolled the end credits. The music video says it all: MJ, MJ, MJ. Oh look, more MJ. Billie Jean, Wanna Be Startin’ Something, Earthsong and The Way You Make Me Feel are all serious contenders for my top twenty, but this one makes the cut. Because it makes me want to dance.

When did you first discover it?
It was the first song on the Number Ones CD, which means that, of all MJ’s greatest hits, this was the one I came upon first. I remember boogying about to it as a toddler, unable to understand the lyrics, but smiling all the same.

What do you like most about it?
The opening. Like Thriller, MJ felt like having a few spoken words thrown in for good measure. And though what he says is James Brown levels of inspired, it is almost exactly what goes through my head every time this banger comes on.

Any special memories?
When they played this track on a night out in York back in ’14, I went berserk. I’d been waiting for a song I truly knew to get my mojo on, and then Don’t Stop came on and I lost it. I remember grooving with a couple of great dance partners on the dance floor and feeling like I’d stepped back in time to 1979. What a year to be young and free…

‘…and if you had to choose just one?’

Tough call. But it’d have to be Erin Shore. I might be on that desert island for a while, but Erin Shore would take me home in my dreams.


Special Recommendations:

Someday (The Corrs); Mother Africa Reprise from The Power of One (Hans Zimmer); A House is Not a Home (Luther Vandross); Shosholoza (Ladysmith Black Mambazo); Ukuthula (Soweto Gospel Choir); Truth Gon Die (Femi Kuti); I Wish (Stevie Wonder); Proud Mary (Ike & Tina Turner); I Feel Good (James Brown)

 

Fancy doing this yourself? Be my guest! Isn’t it wonderful to take a trip down memory lane through music? BB x

Don’t Mention the Catalans

It’s 21.14 on a Sunday night, I’m still a little sleep-deprived and mulling over how I can make my lessons on Illness and Disease interesting the third time around for my 2° class tomorrow morning. As for news, I more or less wrote this Puente off as far as traveling is concerned. After briefly toying with the idea of a flying visit to Galicia to investigate its potential for next year, I decided instead to stick around and stick to my writing.

At least, that was the plan. But if life’s taught me anything, it’s that planning to take the emptier road usually leads to getting involved in more than you bargained for.

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And then Archie and Viresh showed up in Seville.

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It’s been far too long since I last saw these two fantastic comrades of mine, so it was a wonderful surprise to hear that they were on their way to Spain at the very time I had off! After the singular honour of being here to welcome Biff and Rosie, little could have made me happier than to be here to welcome more old friends. Leaving England and my friends behind has not been easy, so it’s magical moments like this that make the decision all the easier.

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The Belén market is in full swing, and the city air is thick with the smell of turrón and roast chestnuts. It’s Christmas in another country. The city was packed to its limits this weekend with the rush of Christmas shoppers and holidaymakers taking advantage of the Puente de Diciembre to get their money’s worth. Rather than spending two nights in the city – impossible at such short notice – I took the equally-crowded bus home and returned early the following morning, which worked out cheaper than even the cheapest hostel on offer, had there been any on offer at all. That’s LEDA for you. Thank heavens for the bus network.

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Between the catching-up, the memory-sharing and the tapas, we decided to hit the town at night, something I’ve never done before. From careful inspection I can report that Alfalfa is a fantastic place to start when looking for both decent restaurants and music bars. We found a nice spot where two groups of partygoers had broken out into song. I’m not sure whether your average Englishman takes a guitar on a night out, nor whether he can expect not just his friends but half of the bar to sing along with his songs, but it was entertaining to watch. If I knew any sevillanas, I’d probably have joined in, too.

I learned a lot about India that I didn’t have entirely clear from Viresh this weekend. My knowledge of the Indian subcontinent is bitty at best, gleaned in pieces from a DK Guide to World Mythology, Age of Empires III, The Far Pavilions and Valmik Thapar’s Land of the Tiger series, amongst other chance encounters. So to have both the traditional Indian wedding ritual and the Ramayana summarised – the latter in a mere ten minutes, the former stretched (rightfully so) over the best of an hour – was a real privilege. My love for India is sufficiently rekindled. I think it’s time I re-read Pavilions, too.

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In one of the bars, we got talking to a chatty Sevillano and his friends, who were quick to out us as guiris… Apparently only an Englishman would wear a Valecuatro jacket (I’m not sure how that works, since Valecuatro is a brand we can’t get hold of in Albion, but that’s beside the point). Archie decided to joke with him that he was actually Catalan, which made the guy unnecessarily angry. Before my eyes, it got out of hand very quickly, with the Sevillano hurling abuse at Archie and, by default, the Catalans at large, calling him a ‘puto guiri’ for ‘defending something he knew nothing about’. Hardly fair, when the guy studied Catalan for three years and lived with a Catalan family for several months last year. It’s not the kind of timeframe which makes one an expert on Catalan affairs, but it is a great deal more than knowing ‘nothing’.

It’s a telling response, though. That the very mention of Cataluña should provoke such a hostile reaction from a young Andalusian tells you a lot about the underlying anger resulting from the events of October. Not that Andalusians have a particularly sturdy leg to stand on – they, too, have their fair share of separatist stories, such as the Green Banner Revolts of 1642 – but the Cataluña question still has the power to raise hackles here. I wonder where my grandfather stood on the matter, having relinquished his family home in La Mancha to make a living on the young Costa Brava…

Christmas is coming. I felt naughty and opened a couple of Advent calendar chocolates two days in advance when my energy was running low. I’ll make amends for that in one way or the other over the next few days.

I do hope you Brits are enjoying the snow. BB x

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P.S. I have a bike! After months of half-hearted searching, I finally have a sturdy little mountain bike at my disposal! Hornachos, I’m coming for you!

Where to next…?

It’s getting mighty cold here in Tierra de Barros. I went to sleep clutching at my knees and somehow managed a decent night’s rest, only to wake up and find I’d left the window slightly ajar. I think I need to invest in a winter duvet more than a bike. I’m still not used to this system of alternating between summer and winter duvets. I almost miss the English climate. Almost…

We’re now three weeks away from the end of term. Yes, term ends on the 22nd December, and this year that falls on a Friday. Late, but not too late. Today’s a regular Monday. I’m sitting in the living room, easily the warmest room in the flat, having just turned the heating off after a generous couple of hours’ life-giving warmth. I have a private class with the kiddos at six (hopefully they’ll behave better this week – but then, they are only three years old), and I need to go shopping, as when I went this afternoon it took picking up the first item in the fruit and veg aisle for me to realise I’d left both my cash and my card at home.

So what’s to do? Well, it’s the time of year when I need to start thinking about where I’d like to be next year. Amongst other cards I have on the table – up to and including the JET programme in a few years’ time – the original plan still stands, which is to carry on with the British Council assistant jig for another year, albeit this time not in IES Meléndez Valdés, 06220 Villafranca de los Barros, Badajoz. The school has been wonderful to me and I could hardly have asked for a better host for two years, but I ought to spread my wings and discover somewhere new whilst I can. After all, Spain is a kingdom of many worlds: Extremadura may be one of her most beautiful, but there are other jewels in the crown!

So, for my own benefit – and for those who are interested in applying for the programme – I’ve decided to go through each region, in alphabetical order, to assess the strengths and drawbacks of working in each. Coming back to Villafranca was easy… it’s time to step back into the unknown!

(Ed.: I’ve used my own photos where possible – Andalucía, Cantabria, Extremadura and Madrid – but the rest are various stock images!)


Andalucía

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Where: South
Weather: Hot
Dialects: No (though Andalú, the regional accent, might as well be)
Visited?: Yes (far too often)

Ah, Andalucía. My old homeland! And, until recently, the region of Spain I knew best. In many ways the ‘classic’ Spain that comes to mind, Andalucía is – understandably – very oversubscribed as a destination. The Americans tend to have their eyes on it, and thanks to their system, which allows preferential treatment to consecutive-year assistants, they tend to end up there eventually, too (after doing time in equally beautiful backwater regions). Andalucía isn’t necessarily more spectacular than any of the other regions, but it offers a lot more bang-for-your-buck over the distance it spans: cities like Granada, Córdoba, Cádiz, Ronda and Sevilla ooze Romantic charm, and then there’s the natural beauty of the Alpujarras, Doñana National Park, the Sierra Morena and the all-too-often-overlooked beaches of the Costa de la Luz. It’s a fantastic region in which to fall in love with Spain, but because it’s so well known, it can be difficult to escape… unless, of course, you end up in somewhere like Olvera.

Probability: 7/10

Aragón

Where: Northeast
Weather: Cold
Dialect: Aragonese, Catalan (only in the high north and west)
Visited?: Yes

Alright, so a service station and a brief visit to Calatayud don’t exactly count as visiting Aragón per se… Aragón is a lot like Extremadura. Lots of people pass through it on their way to somewhere else. Zaragoza is probably its most famous city, but what of the rest of the region? Huesca in the north plays host to some of the most beautiful Pyrenean landscapes out there, and Teruel would kindly like to remind you that it does exist, despite what the rest of Spain will tell you. Aragonese, a local dialect, survives to the present, but as Spanish is the only ‘official’ language, there’s no cause for concern. High on the Spanish plateau, it gets mighty chilly in winter, but it is also the home of the Comarca de Monegros, a vast expense of semi-desert. And, like Extremadura, its comparatively unknown status makes it a very good place to go native.

Probability: 8/10

Asturias

Where: North
Weather: Cold
Dialects: No
Visited: Yes

A popular choice amongst second-years, Asturias is where modern Spain was born. With pretty seaside towns, Alpine comforts and forested hills that actually go brown in autumn, in some ways it’s the perfect antidote to the Spanish south. For those used to endless heat, readily available paella and Moorish castles, it can seem like a very different world… which it is. The Spanish is very clear here, and it has some of the most beautiful beaches on the peninsula, even if they aren’t exactly the warmest. It’s a little harder to get to, but Santander’s airport offers cheap flights and is only just across the border. It is, however, a little on the expensive side.

Probability: 8/10

Cantabria

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Where: North
Weather: Cold
Dialects: No
Visited: Yes

Cantabria, after Andalucía and Extremadura, is the region of Spain I’ve visited the most. No, scratch that. Technically speaking, Santillana del Mar is the region of Spain is third region I’ve visited the most, as for some reason I ended up there on all three occasions. A marginally less mountainous version of Asturias, Cantabria is a good choice for the British auxiliar who doesn’t want to leave behind too many creature comforts. Quesada pasiega, a local speciality, is unheavenly good (like most of the Iberian peninsula’s takes on the custard tart), and the stereotype is true: I’ve seen more cows and tractors here than in any other part of Spain. It doesn’t have the quasi-African feel of the south, but what it does have is a cheap and reliable train network, which is a huge plus in any world.

Probability: 5/10

Castilla La Mancha

Where: South-central
Weather: Hot/cold
Dialects: No
Visited: Yes

Like Aragón, Castilla La Mancha is a region I can hardly claim to have visited, having spent just a few days in Toledo a few years back. If Andalucía is the Spain sold to tourists, Castilla La Mancha is the one you find in picture books. It’s Don Quijote country, and any bus ride from Madrid to the south will show you that: seemingly endless fields stretch as far as the eye can see, dotted in various locations with mountain ranges and the iconic windmills (see Consuegra, above). It’s also, coincidentally, the land of my ancestors; my grandfather was from Villarrobledo, a town near Albacete. An immense region where it is very easy to go native, but perhaps not the most awe-inspiring on offer. Toledo, however, is easily one of the world’s most beautiful cities…

Probability: 4/10

Castilla y León

Where: Northwest
Weather: Cold
Dialects: Leonese (in León province)
Visited: Yes

Make no bones about it. Castilla y León is gorgeous. It has its less interesting parts (the Camino de Santiago goes through them), and is in part a mirror of sister-province Castilla La Mancha to the south, but drawn across the meseta are some of Spain’s most striking landscapes. The Duero river gorge is breath-taking, as are the old Roman gold mines of Las Medulas (see above), and the granite-strewn scenery to the north of Burgos looks like something out of a Lord of the Rings film (but then, this was where El Cid was born). Here they speak the ‘purest’ Spanish, so you’ll have absolutely no problems with the language here. It’s clear, crisp and, whilst no slower than the usual Spanish machine-gun delivery, easier to understand than, say, any of the southern accents. The cuisine is also spectacular; in my humble opinion, most of Spain’s best food is its earthy, country food, and you’ll find a lot of it here. The cities of León, Burgos and especially Salamanca are wonders in their own right. Just watch out for the slow-burning Leonese separatist movement.

Probability: 8/10

Cataluña

Where: Northwest
Weather: Warm
Dialects: Catalan (official language)
Visited: Yes

This year would have been a very interesting year to be working in Spain’s black-sheep region. Even after the failure of Puigdemont’s half-hearted rebellion, I suspect it’d be worth a punt for the next few years. I’ve been to Barcelona a couple of times; school trips on both occasions, so I’ve barely begun to scratch to the surface of the place. The Costa Brava is undeniably beautiful, with stunning Mediterranean coves and sparkling white beaches. The Catalonian interior, however, is what grabs me: like neighbouring Aragón, Cataluña has some spectacular mountains. This is Serrallonga’s country, and I’d sure like to find out some more about the gang warfare between the Nyerros and the Cadells of old… if it weren’t for the language barrier. Now more than ever do I regret taking a Persian module over Catalan at university! You should bear in mind that Cataluña’s relative affluence makes it a little more expensive than the other comunidades, especially so in Barcelona itself. But if you’re after a more cosmopolitan experience, this is the place for you!

Probability: 6/10

Ceuta and Melilla

Where: North coast of Morocco
Weather: Hot
Dialect: No (though strong Arabic presence)
Visited: No

Despite the fact that I lived in Tetouan for an entire summer last year, I never did visit Ceuta. For one reason or another, something always came up to stop me going. Which is a shame, really: as the Spanish territories go, they’re pretty unique. Expect a very Moroccan vibe, with the North African kingdom literally within a stone’s throw at any given moment. If it weren’t for their size and the general cost and difficulty in getting to and from them if I ever wanted to travel, I’d probably sign up right away. It would, at the very least, give me an excuse to keep my Arabic polished. Most of the placements are in the two cities, though, which is a bit of a turn-off for me.

Probability: 4/10

Extremadura

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Where: West
Weather: Hot/cold
Dialects: No
Visited: Yes

Of course, I could always stay put, but ask for a more northerly location: specifically, the green hills of Cáceres. There’s no denying Extremadura is by far my favourite region, and with good reason: it’s wild, it’s still relatively undiscovered, it’s lacking in other guiris and the people are some of the friendliest I’ve ever met. Plus, La Vera. Plus, Hornachos. Plus, the book. Heck, I’d stay just to be closer to Tasha and Miguel, who were pivotal in my return to Villafranca this year. With its welcoming vibe and its off-the-wall auxiliares, it’d be my top recommendation to anybody, though I’d concede you have to be prepared to be out in the sticks to be here. For me, however, it’s something of a safe option, and I’d much rather use this chance whilst I have it to explore some more of my grandfather’s beautiful country. Even if Extremadura is the best. Period. I’ll be coming back to this place for the rest of my life.

Probability: 7/10

Galicia

Where: Northwest
Weather: Cold
Dialects: Gallego (official language)
Visited: No

It rains a lot. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at Galicia. Galicia is the Ireland of Spain, where the country’s Celtic roots are strongest. I mean, when their folk bands deliberately cover songs made famous by The Corrs, the ties are hard to miss. Galicia is about as far from the Spanish south as you can get on the mainland, in both distance and culture. Gallego is a thing, but I’m not above learning a new language. The word on the street is that the auxiliar programme there is one of the best in the country, if not the best. That, combined with the cheapness of living and otherworldliness that this region offers, make it the standout competitor for my attention this time around. And I never thought I’d consider it, which makes it all the more appealing. After all, I had no idea what or where Extremadura was, once upon a time. I’d very much like Galicia to be my next miraculous discovery.

Probability: 9/10

Islas Baleares

Where: Mediterranean Sea
Weather: Hot
Dialects: Catalan
Visited: No

Mallorca, Menorca and Ibiza. Party destinations in summer… and for the rest of the year? Well, EasyJet and Ryanair are always offering such cheap flights that there must be something to do there in January… right? If it weren’t for the fact that they’re islands, I might seriously consider the Baleares. But I like having room to manoeuvre, and I don’t know whether I’d feel trapped on an island. Plus, they speak a lot of Catalan there. Once again, I wish I’d not gone chasing Persian down the rabbit hole.

Probability: 2/10

Islas Canarias

Where: Off the west coast of Morocco
Weather: Hot
Dialects: No
Visited: No

First things first: it’s quite a long way from Spain. The Canary Islands, like the Baleares, can seem a very remote posting. Cheap flights are readily available to the UK and elsewhere, thanks to a steady flow of tourists, but I’m not sure I’d be thrilled if I were posted there – not least of all because it’s quite difficult to distance yourself from the touristic side, upon which the Canary Islands depend. I wouldn’t mind going in search of the islands’ Houbara bustards though, or taking a stroll in the misty laurel forests of the Garajonay National Park.

Probability: 3/10

La Rioja

Where: North
Weather: Warm
Dialects: No
Visited: No

I’m going to be perfectly honest. I know next to nothing about La Rioja, except for the fact that it’s a small region with a justifiable fame for its wine. Given its positioning, I expect it’s a little more pricey than what I’m used to, but don’t hold me to that. I’ll leave you to discover La Rioja in my stead.

Probability: 2/10

Madrid

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Where: Central
Weather: Hot
Dialects: No
Visited: Yes

One word. No. The surrounding countryside of Madrid is unquestionably beautiful, no doubt about that, but I would rather leave the country than work in Madrid itself. As cities go, Madrid’s not so bad, but I’m a country boy; cities are for visiting, not for living in. Auxiliares posted in Madrid earn 1000€ instead of the usual 700€ to compensate for the higher living costs and also work 16 hours per week instead of 12, though after calculating the going rate for private lessons and such, I don’t half wonder whether that’s entirely fair – or even financially viable. No; for me, Madrid is just too big a move. I’d recommend the Sierra de Guadarrama, El Rey León and the Parque del Retiro, though (pictured).

Probability: 1/10

Murcia

Where: Southeast
Weather: Hot
Dialects: No
Visited: No

This year’s auxiliares are complaining about the fact we haven’t been paid for October and November yet. If what I’ve heard about Murcia is true, the auxiliares posted there are never paid on time. Murcia is one of Spain’s hidden gems: like Aragón and Extremadura, it often gets overlooked because it has more glamorous neighbours that have more of what it has and better. In Murcia’s case, that’s Valencia and Andalucía. I know a few lovely people from Murcia and I’d love to visit one day, but as year on year it becomes a larger wing of Almeria’s enormous European greenhouse, I find myself drawn to the greener, wilder parts of Spain.

Probability: 4/10

Navarra

Where: North
Weather: Cold
Dialects: No
Visited: No

A former kingdom in its own right (which, you could argue, is an accolade held by most of the Spanish realms), Navarra sits at the feet of the Pyrenees as a less extreme though equally wondrous region in the Spanish north. A friend of mine was based in Tudela last year and had a great time there, so it seems to be to be a good place to work. Like the Canary Islands, it’s also more popular with Brits than Americans, so expect less encounters with scotch tape, candies and Fall. It’s also rather well situated, allowing easy access to several of Spain’s more attractive destinations.

Probability: 6/10

País Vasco

Where: North
Weather: Cold
Dialects: Basque
Visited: Yes

The Basque Country got a positive makeover recently in the film Ocho Apellidos Vascos and its sequel, not doing away with but helping to redirect attention from the ETA bombings of the past to the more attractive aspects of Basque culture. If the Catalans are independent, it’s nothing compared to the Basques, whose regional language – Euskera – is so far removed from Spanish that it feels as though you’ve skipped five countries rather than one region. Situated in the industrial north, the Basque Country plays host to much of Spain’s industry (just look at all the Basque banks), and is therefore afforded a more affluent lifestyle. That makes it more expensive, which is a drawback, but many would argue it’s worth it. The Basques are, after all, the stuff of legend…

Probability: 5/10

Valencia

Where: East
Weather: Hot
Dialects: Valencian
Visited: No

There’s a good deal more to Valencia than the corruption and the coast, even if that is the image most people have. I’ve never made it to El Cid’s triumphal city, it never having been quite on my radar, and though I have many friends who have been up and down the coast, I’ve never quite felt the pull to go. Another more costly region, Valencian – a variant of Catalan – is widely spoken here, though Spanish is also used in its capacity as the kingdom’s official language. It played a large role in the expulsion of the Moriscos though, and that’s something I’d like to look into, albeit over a short period of time. Maybe for holidays, but for me, not for work.

Probability: 3/10


I’m more or less decided on the northwest, but I’m still open to ideas. Now that Senegal is an option for language assistant placements, it’s that little bit harder to say no to the world beyond Spain (that would have turned my world upside down if it had been an option in my second year. I would very probably have dropped Arabic, studied French and continued to wing it with Spanish). However, a promise is a promise, and I’m determined to do what I can to become truly fluent in Spanish, however long it takes, wherever it leads me.

The deadline for next year is 12th February 2018. I have a couple of months to decide. BB x

Rainbow’s End

Hornachos. How you play with my heart! You, who the Moors adored in this land of endless fields, are indeed beautiful; the purple heights of the Sierra Grande soaring out of the earth like the broken spine of some great ship upon the shore… Home of the golden eagle and his imperial cousin, the fierce boar and the mighty griffons, the guardians of this beautiful kingdom… The twinkling lights of your houses, seen from afar to be floating in the night like the island of Laputa…

…why on earth do you only have one fucking bus per day?!

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That’s right. One of the most beautiful towns of Extremadura is hamstrung by its virtual inaccessibility. Centuries after the departure of the Moriscos, the mountainside town remains as unapproachable as ever it was under the rule of the soon-to-be pirate kings, albeit for slightly more mundane reasons.

Hornachos is served by one bus line, which is perfectly suited to the Hornachego with a job in the outside world, but virtually useless for the interested day-tripper. Two buses make for the town at 15.15 and 18.45 on weekdays (with the notable exception of Fridays), and one leaves for the outside world at 7.15am. And that’s it. It wouldn’t be so bad if there were any cheap accommodation offers, but with a slew of casas rurales, 50€ per night is the standard. When nearby Villafranca – which has almost nothing to see, by comparison – has a hostel for 10€ a night, it seems a little ridiculous. Not least of all because I would happily spend as much as 50€ every month (or more) if it meant I could be in Hornachos every weekend. Because I would. As for BlaBlaCar, the distance between Villafranca is too long to walk (and then hike), but too short for a popular carshare. You can’t free camp either, because of local laws. Goddammit.

Simply put, day-tripping to Hornachos is simply not possible without a car.

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Its inaccessibility, however, is my sole complaint. Because, besides a lousy bus service, Hornachos has it all: the ruins of a tenth-century Moorish castle, a Mudejar church, an enormous sierra with vast fields of rolling dehesa stretching out for miles behind, a history so bitter and intense it might have been written in lemon juice and a super-friendly Casa de Cultura. I fell in love with Hornachos from the moment I first laid eyes on it. The unmistakable silhouette of Olvera, my old hometown, still strikes a chord or two in my heartstrings whenever I see it, but the Sierra Grande has long since overshadowed its place at the centre of my heart.

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I was lucky enough to hitch a ride with a couple of friends who wanted to go hiking in the Sierra, so I leaped at the chance. We didn’t have long to stay in the castle, because as we arrived atop the ruins, the shrieks and shouts of an approaching school trip sailed up the hill to meet us, like a colourful besieging army. Amber didn’t hesitate to let them know we were English. I replied to their questions in Arabic. Brownie points go to Amber for being a decent human being, where I just wanted to be difficult, I think.

It did drive home to me just how deceptive the mountains are, though. We had no idea there was a forty-strong school trip coming up the mountain to meet us until we’d reached the top, though one might have heard them for miles around. It’s a dangerous place up there, and little wonder the Moors made a beeline for the mountains when they reached these lonely parts.

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I had a private lesson in the afternoon and a language exchange at the EOI, so I had to be back in Almendralejo for four o’clock, which didn’t give us mountains of time to explore (ho ho). We fitted in the usual circular route, albeit in reverse, as well as a cheeky yoga session at the end – needless to say I remain as flexible as a dinner plate – though this time I scaled the first leg of the Trasierra route which crosses the Sierra Grande and winds down into the fields below. Further exploration is definitely required.

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The church, sadly, is closed to the public. Like the museum, if you’re interested, you have to ask for the key from the local tourist information office. I suppose this is the normal way of things; you take things for granted in the outside world, where Seville and Marrakesh whore their finery to the lowest bidder. Hornachos retains some of that ancient-world mystique. As much as it bothers me, perhaps that’s the secret to its survival.

You’ve got to hand it to the old town for its tenacity. Who’d have thought that this quiet gathering of houses on the side of the Sierra Grande was once home to the men who would go on to become the infamous Sallee Rovers of Robinson Crusoe fame? I wonder whether there were any Hornachegos amongst the corsairs who took part in the equally bloody Sack of Baltimore in 1631, only twenty-one years after their expulsion from the Iberian peninsula… Rabat sure does seem like a world away from this flat, flat world…

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‘We’re not in Hornachos anymore…’

I will make you famous, Hornachos. When the world knows of El Gran Hornachego and his adventures across Iberia and beyond, you will get the fame you deserve. I will write you back into history. That’s a promise.

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Also, after my sour-grapes episode about cold and snow, we did actually have some frost yesterday. Not much, and only in the shaded ditches at the side of the olive fields, but it was something. I hear Durham’s been looking beautiful in the snow lately, like Spain did last year. Why do I always manage to miss the snow wherever I go? BB x

A Waiting Game

Teaching’s going fine. It’s been a misty last few days here in Tierra de Barros. After a hearty Thanksgiving Party in Almendralejo and a decent slog at the karaoke for afters (via Tom Jones and Lionel Richie under my karaoke alter ego, Bem), it’s back to business as usual for the last three weeks of term (the fourth is always anybody’s guess). My old rule – never repeat a game – is holding fast. Amongst the games I’ve played with my classes are:

  • Psychiatrist
  • The Triangle Game
  • I’m Going on a Trip
  • Chain Word Advance (Noun, Adjective and Verb)
  • Never Have I Ever
  • Kim’s Game
  • Mafia
  • Twenty-One

I’ve still got a few more in the bag before I run out of my set, but when I do, it’s only a matter of invention and re-invention. This teaching assistant malarkey is simply a case of giving the kids an incentive to speak in English, and what better way is there than giving them games they can enjoy in their own language once we’re done? Psychiatrist went down a storm – the kids play it at break-times, they tell me – and this week’s Twenty-One (courtesy of Tasha, an old hand at this game) has proven itself to be more popular yet. The Triangle Game left a good many of them boggled and more than a little frustrated, but my older classes found it immensely entertaining.

The key, I suppose, is not to think of these games as ESL activities in their own right, but as the kind of games you’d have enjoyed playing with your friends at school, or at university, or in any other setting. Parlour games are prime material, such as Psychiatrist (for which I am indebted to the French animateurs at my first summer job who rendered it Pussycat, after the French psychiatre). Campfire games are also a wonder here, and I find myself wishing that the younger me had been more sociable; an upbringing in the Scouts or Guides might have armed me with a good deal more material in this field. Last, but not least, drinking games are an unexpectedly rewarding resource, if modified correctly – especially as many of them are already corrupted games in their own right. Remove the element of drink and place a greater emphasis on speech and you have plenty of ideas at your disposal.

Of course, I have to keep this up for a full academic year. That’s thirty-one weeks of games; twenty-one, if we’re counting down (that’s as many days of games as Emperor Commodus declared in Gladiator…). As a point of pride, I will never resort to Hangman. Thus, the search continues. So help me God.

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Meanwhile, I’m finding myself drawn to the attractions of home more keenly than usual. Perhaps it’s because my old friend Biff is bound for South Africa in the new year (KwaZulu-Natal no less, the lucky so-and-so), or perhaps because it’s Christmas and – being in Spain – you’d never know it, or perhaps it’s the simple fact that, unlike the last time I was working here, I haven’t got the surety of returning home at the end of the year. The fact that this will also be my first Christmas away from home does factor into it, too.

Skyscanner went from a casual browsing affair to my most visited webpage overnight. By the end of the night I’d searched for flights to Gatwick and to Newcastle; to Stansted, Luton and even Durham Tees; and then to Durban and Cape Town; Paris, Toulouse and Berlin… With the Northern Lights’ annual Christmas Concert next week and several old friends due to return to watch, I found myself tempted to wing my way over if I could. But between an 8am flight from Málaga, a midnight bus ride from Durham to London and the knowledge that I’d have to take two days off work for it to be even possible, I decided to save the 180€ it would have cost me towards more worthwhile ventures (I could buy a decent bike for that kind of money – or even pay for two return trips to Gatwick in low season).

I still miss music, and I’ve been pouring my heart and soul into my a cappella arrangement of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, as well as tinkering with arrangements of Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love, The Sugababes’ Red Dress and an Afrobeat mashup of Thriller and Fela Kuti’s Zombie and Opposite People. The musical energy within me still needs siphoning off somehow, and even if the Lights have enough material for years already, all these arrangements are, at least, a temporary solution for my own frustration.

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To keep my writing muscles flexed, I’ve been building my vocabulary daily on the sly. Whether I’ll use my learning as part of a Pasapalabra-style test for the kids remains to be seen, as some of the words are downright impossible to divine without the right knowledge, but as a writer I’m hoping it’ll do me some good. Here’s a few of my recent findings:

umbrageous (adjective): (of a person) inclined to take offense easily

nonbook (noun): a book without literary or artistic merit

earthshine (noun): the dim light on the unlit surface of the Moon caused by the Earth

A good many of them are much too specific to wend their way into everyday conversation (see bombinate), but I’m hoping it’ll increase my vocabulary in the long run. Polygon and Scrabble would be a lot easier, for one thing. And, of course, Bananagrams. Until the next time. BB x

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Frost vs Nixon

That was, without a doubt, the smoothest flight I’ve ever taken. No more complicated than getting on and off a bus. The plane was on time, there was no security check at the other end and I was on the bus to the city centre within five minutes of leaving the plane. To top it off, my entire row was empty, so I got the window seat for free. It isn’t often that you get such a slick service with a budget airline, but after my previous experience (I haven’t forgiven you for that 20€ croque monsieur, EasyJet) I consider it my just reward.

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STOP PRESS: The automated American translation in Plaza de Armas just mangled Matalascañas beyond belief (Matter-lass-cun-arse). Help.

Toulouse was covered in a thick fog when I left this morning. Bella said it didn’t feel much like France, but it sure as heck didn’t feel like Spain. With all the yellow and brown trees, misty rivers and starling swarms overhead, it felt a lot more like England than anywhere else. The cold has set in down in Extremadura, but it’s not a true wintry chill like there is here in the lower foothills of the Pyrenees. Oddly enough, on our way through the city streets with salted caramel-drizzled Belgian waffles in hand, I found myself missing home.

That is, I wound up missing England whilst on holiday in France from working in Spain.

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In the past it was a lot easier to say where I wanted to be. Spain had purple gallinules, bee-eaters and griffon vultures, England had woodpigeons. It was an easy decision to make. Now that I’m older and avifauna is no longer priority number one, it’s not quite so clear cut (though the vultures are still a major factor). I don’t begrudge my mixed-up ancestry in the slightest – I couldn’t be more proud of it – but if I did, it would be over the confusion it’s left me with regards to where I want to be.

England is cold and England is damp, and my lungs suffer for over half the year for it. The English are, in my experience, prickly when it comes to difference, nervy when it comes to work and uncomfortable in just about any given situation, without mentioning their appalling inability to talk about their feelings. Living is expensive, work is hard and life is lived for the weekend.

It is, however, the land where I was born. And, for all their faults, the English understand a great many subtleties that pass the Spanish by: public footpaths, music for its own sake, quality satire and coffee shops, amongst others. It’s also a land of gorgeous crispy winter mornings with frosted grass, thick mist and a promise of rain, and indoor afternoons spent reading with a mug of hot chocolate on carpeted floors. In short, England does autumn and winter properly.

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Spain has everything else. Spain is hot – at least until November, when a harsh, dry cold sweeps in across the plains – and damp is a thing of the imagination, especially in drought years such as this. It doesn’t have a fantastic music scene, but it does have endless rolling hills of wild olive trees and cork oaks, overflown by kites, vultures, harriers and eagles, not to mention cranes, storks and a whole host of other impressive creatures. It has tostadas and decent olive oil. It has good food for good prices, skies so blue you couldn’t paint them properly if you tried, and a crippling addiction to ham that goes back centuries.

In addition, the Spanish are only too happy to tell you how they feel, at the expense of small-talk topics such as the weather (which most of them couldn’t give a fig about) and sport (where a lot will tell you how failed their exercise regime is/was/will be). And, for better of for worse, family is everything to them. Many Spaniards are completely hamstrung by their devotion to their families, and a good many more don’t begrudge them for it one bit.

Spain also has Spanish. The happiness machine. That’s the biggest win of them all.

Through my own strength of will (and a fair degree of my mother’s), Spain has become a far bigger part of my life than it otherwise might have been. And if I never shut up about it, it’s because Spain is not just the longest love affair of my life, it’s a family affair. It fills the enormous hole that most of my generation fill with Snapchat and social media. Just being here makes me happy.

You can’t spend your life chasing happiness, and it’s unhealthy to try. But it’s a rare kind of joy when happiness and work combine like they do out here. And when I find myself missing those autumn mornings, frost on the car bonnet and even the beautifully reassuring sound of the woodpigeons, I look around me and remind myself where I am. Azure-winged magpies bouncing out of the trees, shepherds leading their merino sheep across the fields and impressive stone castles sitting atop lonely hills. No Christmas feeling, no carols and definitely no a cappella, but no wheezing either. I can’t do everything I’d like, but at the very least I can be me. I can live with that. BB x