That Smell

I don’t make a habit of leaving my beloved Spain during a placement. Some misplaced sense of pride tends to keep me tied to this marbled rock whilst most of the American auxiliares catch every cheap flight to Yurp they can lay their hands on. And when they’ve traveled across the Atlantic to get here, who can blame them? But duty calls, and I find myself sitting in row five of an EasyJet plane bound for Toulouse. Pride is one thing, holding out in spite of your heart is another. And let’s face it, I won’t have the chance or excuse to stay in Toulouse for free again very soon, and as I rarely visit France anyway, I might as well carpe the diem.

As a gift for Bella’s host family for putting me up (not once but twice) I’m bringing some Torta del Casar, a delicious if seriously pungent cheese from Casar de Cáceres to the north. I’d have got my hands on the more local Torta de Barros if I could find it, but as the Casar is also denominación de origen and equally delicious, I do believe it’s a fine alternative. It’s a sloppy, spreading cheese, and has a spectacular tang like the pimentón that is grown in the north, or – come to that – a good deal of the dry foods that hail from the Iberian interior. The trouble with the cheese is that its smell is seriously strong. It must be, or else I wouldn’t be able to smell it so well. My sense of smell is terrible, and always has been (which must, I wonder, have a fairly major impact on my sense of taste as well), so as a rule of thumb if something smells strong to me, it could probably knock a dog out.

As sense loss goes, having a fault in the olfactory department is, at least to me, one of the easiest deficiencies to deal with in the sensory department. I’d far rather no smell than, say, no sight or hearing. It does, however, occasionally give me cause to wonder whether I’m missing out on the minutiae, like the smell of the Romanian family who were at the Leda kiosk before me on my return journey home last night. No sooner had they taken their leave, the tired-looking woman at the desk gave me a long, troubled look and said, grimly, ‘Qué olor… Qué olor’.

I wasn’t aware Romanians smelled differently. I wasn’t aware they smelled at all, to be honest. I for one didn’t smell anything (though I’ll grant you, for the reasons I’ve already given, I’m not the best judge).

It is, however, a small marker of the resentment some locals harbour towards the not-unremarkable Romanian immigrant population. Whether that’s because it’s harvest season, or because their population has grown in size since my last visit, their presence is particularly notable at the moment. Romanian is the second most commonly heard language in the streets after Spanish, doubly so in certain locations. There are now at least two shops in Villafranca that stock Romanian goods and foodstuffs. I run into the same families in Día on a regular basis (though not as often as I used to since it went upmarket). My weekly route to and from a private class in Almendralejo takes me through what can only be the Romanian quarter. As a local entity, their presence can no longer be ignored.

I’d love to learn Romanian. It’s apparently not such a great leap from the other Latin languages, being a Latinate language itself. But learning the language would be only the first hurdle; breaking the silence would be the next. There’s as much a cultural barrier in place as a language barrier. For a point of comparison, one need only look at the Chinese or the Moroccans, both of whom are now long-established here. There’s even a halal butcher’s in Almendralejo, with Arabic signage as plain as though al-Andalus had survived to the present. Commerce, at least, thrives between the three.

It’s different in the schools. This year I have at least five Muslim students in my classes, the children of Moroccans who live and work in town. It says a lot that that’s worth pointing out, but it says even more that their presence in my classes far outsizes the Romanian presence. There are Romanian kids in the school; that much I know from a glance over the register. But they’re in the non-bilingual classes, along with the gypsies, Moroccans and Algerians. I don’t see them at all.

After a week of hosting the Polish exchange, my mind’s caught up in the whole interculturalism thing, like it hasn’t been since that frustratingly theoretical text on interculturalism vs multiculturalism in university last year. If the Polish presence in the U.K. were as notable as the Romanian presence in Tierra de Barros, the usual intolerant factions of my homeland would have a great deal to say about it. It surprises me – and pleases me – that I’ve yet to see such a bubbling-up here. However, it’s little encounters like the lady at the bus station that make me wonder how deep the suspicion festers. I can only hope it was simply a case of an overly sensitive nose.

There are lots of babies on this flight. I deal with noisy children on a very regular basis on account of my private lessons, so I’m getting better at tuning them out. We’re passing Pamplona and preparing to cross the Pyrenees at their Western end, into French airspace. One can almost smell the strike fever. I hope it doesn’t give me too much trouble this time. I’ve got be back at work on Monday morning. But until then, let the music play. BB x

P.S. Students of Arabic Literature, yes, the title is a deliberate reference to Sonallah Ibrahim.

Flashman’s Lesson

Hughes got it wrong, in one important sense. You will have read, in Tom Brown, how I was expelled from Rugby School for drunkenness, which is true enough, but when Hughes alleges that this was the result of my deliberately pouring beer on top of gin-punch, he is in error. I knew better than to mix my drinks, even at seventeen.

George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman

At twenty-three years and five months, a good five years after most of my countrymen (if you believe the law and reality speak with the same voice), I got drunk for the first time in my life. Tipsy I’ve managed before, having been a strict teetotaller until fairly recently, but until yesterday I couldn’t honestly tell you what ‘drunk’ is. One pint of beer, half a glass of Verdejo and ten hours’ sleep later, complete with a dull headache, I think I have a fairly good idea.

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Having only recently come down from the wagon, I’m still fairly new to the pitfalls of alcohol. That’s not to say the raw knowledge isn’t there; I’ve picked up enough clues over years of reading to have a firm understanding of the dangers of drink. The above quote from Flashman ought to have been enough. But books will only take you so far. It’s one thing to have read a piece of information; it’s quite another to have hands-on experience. You can no more make a streetwise drinker from reading than you can a decent politician from exercise books. It’s all in the art of doing.

Tasha did what no mortal soul had ever managed this year in introducing me to beer. Granted, the first I tried under her guidance was more strawberry than beer, but I didn’t want to spit it back out straight away. Since then I’ve been trying my hand at a caña in most social situations. It must be said, it’s easier on the pocket. In a country where it can be almost twice as expensive to buy a coke or lemonade, it almost makes sense to buy a beer instead. If I had the money to splash, I’d get a freshly-squeezed orange juice on every occasion, but on an auxiliar’s salary I simply can’t justify it (insert comment here about superfoods and vegan dieting). And as I’m gradually reducing the sugar in my diet, it seemed like the natural step to take.

Until my brain went down for repairs at one o’clock in the morning, that is.

After a monstrous amount of salty seafood, ranging from dressed crab and langoustines to mussels, clams and lobster legs (even the idea makes me sick right now), I caught myself reminiscing over my Man vs Food episode in Tetouan (I only hinted at it here). Unlike then, I didn’t come in to this bonanza from a month of semi-fasting. However, in the words of the Tod, I’m a delicate eater… I don’t aught but pick at me meat. So I wasn’t best prepared for the mountains of food, and ended up looking as po-faced as the Polish teachers we were hosting as my colleagues dived in to the banquet.

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I’m getting nauseous just looking at yesterday’s work…

I’m not entirely sure whether the drink-mixing was the only problem. I soldiered through an hour’s nap and made it to the farewell party for the Polish exchange students with only a couple of trips to the bathroom, where I wound up retching dry. Despite my better judgement, I drank a two glasses of water to limber up for an impromptu performance of Yo Me Quedo en Sevilla and the Circle of Life for our guests, before calling it a night early and racing home. But, try as I might, I could not sleep.

For almost seven hours, I was lost in what can only be described as a state of delirium, unable to breathe properly and completely unable to sleep, the one more than likely the result of the other. Every time my lips went dry and I felt a raging thirst, I wound up in the bathroom twenty minutes later. For five of those seven hours I had the crazy notion that I should stave off water, since each time left me weaker. My breathing came out in giant, desperate exhalations, and my stomach was swimming all night. Hallucinations fed my mind, rather than dreams, and my nightmares were in Spanish – that is all I remember (for those of you who ask the age-old question, “do you dream in Spanish?”, this is my definitive proof). One word in particular buzzed through my head for hours (I can’t remember what it was, though I know it ended in -ería) and I wondered what my existence meant, what it was for, why was I here… I tried sleeping on my left side, my right, my front and my back. I got back into my clothes and tried to fight the cold. And over and over again, I cried out ‘Just let me sleep!’.

Finally, at around a quarter to five, after guiltily taking a hearty swig of water, I emptied my guts into the toilet. I’m not sure why, but suddenly I could breathe again. Perhaps something had lodged itself in my throat. Perhaps something of the seafood didn’t agree with me. Whatever it was, the alcohol can’t have helped. But it was over, because breathing never felt so good, and as soon as I put my head back on the pillow, I was out.

For a first experience of being drunk, it was memorable, to say the least. I can’t honestly say I’d recommend the experience, nor will I be eating seafood again for a very long time. It’s back to a healthy diet of lentils and olive oil from here on out. Will I go back to being teetotal? Probably not. I daresay twenty-one years of abstinence didn’t make it the easiest of experiences. And despite the headache still pulsing away up top, I’d still pay  a euro for a beer over two for a coke. But I won’t ever mix my drinks again. That’s for sure. BB x

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Copper, Copper, Everywhere

I love history, but I’m no historian. It was always one of my favourite subjects at school, despite the fact that I wasn’t especially good at it (particularly when it became Historiography). Were it not for History, I might have achieved a string of straight As at A Level. I didn’t. The temptation to study a subject I loved but wasn’t brilliant at was too strong. It’s a lesson I didn’t learn when I went on to study Arabic at university. There, too, I paid for my interest. But I can’t help myself. I love a challenge, and I love history even more. Ever since getting my first Horrible Histories book as a kid I’ve been hooked.

Please don’t ask me about the Chalcolithic Age, though.

Yesterday I went to Almendralejo’s EOI (Escuela Oficial de Idiomas) to take part in an excursion to Huerta Montero, a Copper Age tholos or communal passage grave on the outskirts of town. The visit was primarily for the benefit of the B1 level students of the school, so that they could learn some of their history of their town at the same time as practising their English. We don’t get many tourists coming out here for the history (we don’t get many tourists out here at all, come to that), so rather than hiring the local guide, the EOI decided to use one of the auxiliares to give the tour. Tasha knew me for a history boffin and suggested me. Yours truly then had to clue up on this obscure Chalcolithic (please don’t make me pronounce that again) sepulchre, gleaning facts and titbits about Copper Age Spain to produce a reasonably interesting (and, crucially, intelligible) presentation for the students. I did say I like a challenge…

I learned a lot, I must say. I’ve never really looked into the Copper Age, or the Bronze Age, or even the Stone Age for that matter. Did you know, for example, that the average life expectancy in the third and fourth millennia BCE was around 23 years old? It was pretty humbling to be giving out that little factoid with twenty-three years to my own name. Also new to me, and perhaps more interesting still, was the knowledge that Almería, once home to El Argar, Spain’s dominant Bronze Age culture, is in part the product of Bronze Age environmental meddling. The El Argar civilisation, Spain’s most advanced in its day, developed at such a voracious speed that, together with a shift in climate, it resulted in the creation of Almeria’s vast semi-desert, such as the Sierra de Baza and the Tabernas wastes. A message for our time if ever there was one.

I’m not sure how much information the students gleaned from my presentation alone. I did my best. The ensuing hour or two over a pint in Almendralejo’s Hotel Acosta Centro was a great deal more informative, and it re-affirmed my faith in humanity in finding more than one avid naturalist amongst the Extremeño community. The fires of Catalonia are still smouldering, but on an environmental front, I do believe Spain is changing for the better. Whether it is too little too late remains to be seen, but a little awareness can do so much good.

Here’s to that. Chin chin! BB x

The Best Margherita in the World

It must be time for the second half of Biff and Ben’s Andalusian Adventures. Apologies for the delay; work is picking up speed fast, just like it always does. Private lessons are adding up now. I look after a group of kids for an hour twice a week and suddenly the whole town is in on the game. It won’t be long before my previously timetable is fully booked, perhaps even more so than the last time I was here. The way things are going, I might even earn more than that year, too: private lessons pay a lot more in the long run than a regular assistant’s hourly salary.

So, after spending an enjoyable sunset watching bats skimming low over the water in the town park, I thought it was high time I got this post out of the way so I can justify giving you weekly musings and updates – which, I maintain, always make for much more entertaining reading than another ‘wish-you-were-here’ travelogue.

That said, here’s one such adventure.


 

 

After a day wandering about Seville and discussing the pros and cons of Salvation, I thought we could do with a trip further afield. Through our AirBnB host Emma we managed to rent a car at less than twenty-four hours’ notice. It took some doing, but we did it. All we had to do was decide upon a destination. It took some convincing, but I managed to dissuade Biff and Rosie from visiting El Rocío. Why they alighted on that one in particular is beyond me. I suppose the fact that I’d name-dropped the place for years and years had something to do with it. At any other time I’d have loved to show off my favourite Spanish lady, but after a year of bad droughts and worse forest fires, she’s hiding her skirts in shame at the way she’s been treated. I can only hope she finds her smile again.

Emma looked horrified when they mentioned their plans to her, pulling the same pained expression most Spaniards seem to pull whenever you mention you’re headed for Huelva (“but… why?”). I spent most of the night and a good twenty minutes of the morning making other plans and, over breakfast, I posited a route through the Serranía de Ronda an alternative. They took the bait. Thank the Lord.

With Biff at the wheel, we reached the intersection and headed east, instead of west. Towards the mountains. Always a good direction to be going in. There was a strange black fog over the town of Dos Hermanas as we left Seville behind. Not sure what that was all about. Time to head up into the mountains where the air is clear.

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Ronda. It’s been ten years. It’s been more than ten years. And still I remembered my way about that most beautiful town, truly the jewel of the Andalusian sierras. Little wonder the famous bandoleros made the sierras around here their home. A guitarist and his accompanying dancer plied their trade before the balcony on the park promenade. A horde of Spanish tourists marched down the walk towards us, the noisiest of all the world’s sightseers. And now they’re armed with selfie sticks. They seem to be one of the few things the older generation has learned how to use – and discovered to be much to their liking. God help us all.

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We had plenty of time and a lot of shadows to kill. So we meandered along the cliff wall in the direction of the famous bridge, whilst I explained how GHOTI was fish and Biff threw me for a loop with the seven pronunciations of -OUGH. Trust me, when you’re in the English teaching trade, nuggets like these are fun. I’m serious.

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Or at least, they are for me. Biff may have other ideas

Rivalling the Spanish tourists in town were the Asians, who had come in great numbers. And upon the battlefield of the bridge, where Spanish and Asian met, selfie-sticks held aloft, it looked as though two armies wielding pikes were set to clash. It was rather difficult to find a good spot without crossing somebody’s line of fire, I can tell you.
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What’s wrong with a good landscape?

We passed the homage to the Romantic Travellers of Ronda where, despite the relatively sparse decoration, the selfie stick brigade was back in force. A little further on, past a curio shop and the Museo de Lara, we stumbled upon another blast from the past: the bandit museum. Had I had half a brain I would have made it priority number one to visit this little establishment whilst writing my TLRP on bandits two years back. I didn’t, and I still nabbed a decent 85% (thank you, Google Books), but boy, do I still wish I had! The place was a gold mine and – to my surprise – it didn’t drive Biff and Rosie out of their minds. On the contrary, they even seemed to enjoy the visit! Which made me happy. Though perhaps not as happy as having the chance to see an entire collection of bandit knives…
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Lunch – at Gastrobar Déjà Vu, directly opposite the museum – was spectacular. I haven’t eaten so well for so little since Amman’s Bab el-Yemen. Twelve euros for ten tapas. And that’s ten home-made, local produce tapas. Insane. England, please look and learn. Tapas shouldn’t cost more than three to four euros a head, if that. Not seven. Please remember that.

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Ronda’s streets look stunning under the azure sky, but it was the gorge we came to see. And this is where my ten-year-old memory failed me a little – because the last time I came here, I’m almost certain the path beneath the cliff wall went no further than a few metres or so.

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Not anymore. I guess Ronda must have hit the bigtime on the tourist circuit, because the track down to the gorge is in a brilliant state, complete with Via Ferrata routes, ropes and little cairns left by daytrippers here and there.

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I could have sworn the Tejo river itself was polluted and closed off the last time I was here. Not so anymore! You can wind your way down the gorge and walk along the river valley, looking up at the bridge high above. It’s quite a surreal experience, and very humbling. The bridge looks enormous from on high, but it’s nothing compared to how it looks from below. And when you’ve got the sierras beyond framed by the archway…

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…I could hardly ask for more.

The only anomaly of the excursion was the well-hut a short way out on the other side of the gorge. Because, if memory serves, I remember getting as far as a small building like that when I was twelve years old… though this one lies so close to the waterfall at the bottom that one might as well be there already. I wonder just how far I got?

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From Ronda we took a meandering north route home via Setenil de las Bodegas, another gorge town where the denizens decided to build under and over rather than just over. It’s well off the beaten track, and well worth the visit. The sun was quite low in the sky by the time we got there and much of it was in shadow, but as Biff pointed out, you could definitely feel the difference between the warmer, sunlit side of the street, and the cooler, forever-shaded side. Enterprising people, these Andalusians.

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The road home to Seville took us on a beeline towards a sight which is now very, very familiar to me: the silhouette of my old home, Olvera. The road from Setenil offers perhaps the best view of the town for miles around. So despite my better judgement, Biff and Rosie convinced me that we needed to pay it a visit.

So we did.

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It was decidedly weird to see Biff – my oldest and closest friend – walking down the streets of a town which, until now, has stood like an island in my life, a year away and apart. Worlds collided. And I said as much several times. So, to recover from the weirdness of it all, I suggested dinner at Bar-Restaurante Lirios. And there’s a decision I had no second thoughts or qualms about. Because Lirios, in my humble opinion, serves up the best margherita pizzas in the whole world. And that’s worth travelling all the way over the hills and across the sierras for. I usually order margherita whenever I’m out at a pizzeria to see if anywhere can do it better. Having not been to Italy, my options have been limited, but thus far, I’ve yet to meet Lirios’ match. When last I came to this town, it was in search of an old flame of mine. Frankly, I missed a trick. What was really calling to me over the distance of years was not a brown-eyed beauty, but a well-seasoned pizza. As with most things in Spain, and in life, I suppose, it’s the simplest pleasures that speak the loudest.

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I’ve no travels on the books as of yet. The bike hunt is still in progress (I put a busy WhatsApp conversation on silent at just the wrong time), and I’m still waiting for a day when I have the time and the lack of errands to allow me to find a bike to take me to Hornachos and beyond, that prince of towns.

It’s winter, now. This morning was bloody cold. I almost got my scarf out of the drawer. It won’t be long until I’ll be less hesitant. Autumn lasted for a grand total of one week and three days. Fran’s complaining about the absence of an enagua for the table, and I have a cold. Summer’s finally taken her leave. Winter has arrived. BB x

 

 

 

Bulerías and Bananagrams

I haven’t been traveling much recently. A combination of earnest novel-writing, job hunting, private lesson planning and musing over where to buy a cheap bike have conspired to keep me here in Villafranca for the time being. This year I’m working just the one job (proof that, even in the best of all possible worlds, experience isn’t always the best guide), so I have some four hundred euros less per month to live on. Weekend adventures have become what they always were, at heart: a luxury. Sometimes, however, an opportunity presents itself which cannot be turned down for love nor money. Biff’s visit to Seville last week was just such an opportunity.

How I managed to make it through the entirety of my last year out here labouring under the belief that I couldn’t cancel my private lessons for my own benefit is a mystery to me. I rescheduled my Thursday guardería session, packed my things as the WiFi man finally showed up (hello Murphy, long time no see) and hopped on the afternoon bus to Seville. It felt so good to be on the road on a Thursday afternoon. Previously I was working right up to the wire on a Thursday, so that the weekend began on a Friday morning. This year siestas are a thing, and I wonder how I ever managed without them. They’re the perfect solution to early mornings, late nights and post-weekend fatigue. The blinds in my room are a work of genius: at a basic level, they let in the morning light through little gaps in the shutters, which you can close off completely, leaving the room completely dark. I’m enjoying the shelter now, and I know I’ll appreciate all the more when this country heats up again come May next year… that is, if it ever cools down sufficiently for that to be a noticeable change (it’s almost November and it’s still pushing high twenties here).

After weeks of ESL games, I leapt at the chance to spar on an equal footing. Biff inducting me into Bananagram, which is something like the bastard child of Scrabble and a crossword. My passion for complicated and obscure words dragged me down a lot, but it made for some visually appealing results, win or loss.

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But I didn’t cancel my private class to play Bananagrams all weekend. I’ve been moving in and out of Spain for several years now, so it’s always a pleasure to see my grandfather’s country through fresh eyes. Biff hadn’t been here since our school’s music tour to Spain back in 2006. I’m not sure why I found that so hard to grasp. But it’s chiefly because I had new eyes to look through that I got to see a side of Seville I’d never seen before. Palmeras are delicious, persimmons aren’t half bad and, if you’re looking for flamenco off the beaten track, you can do a lot worse than La Carbonería…

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I work by the rule of three. Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is a message (or interest, if we’re talking about catching somebody’s eye). And three recommendations to visit La Carbonería from three different sources – the head of Chemistry, my flatmate and Biff’s AirBnB host – was too obvious a message to ignore. So, with a glass of agua de Sevilla in hand (that stuff is deadly), we nabbed a table near the performers and were treated to a decent forty-five minutes’ set.

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It was nice to have the time to wander about Seville at leisure. So often I’ve been running through Seville, waiting for a bus, or a plane, or something along those lines. There was a demonstration in the Plaza de España by the police for equal pay, watched from the shade by a mounted division. Catalonia was being stripped of its powers, so I think the police had other things on their mind. It felt weird, to stand in the plaza and see the cities and regions of Spain painted on the panels all around, knowing that up north the kingdom was pulling itself apart. Just like the Paris attacks, it was hard to believe such a thing was possible under the Spanish sun. Babies in pushchairs followed the protesters, Latin tourists snapped photos, gypsies danced for pennies on the steps. Life goes on.

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Fortune favours the interested. Go on a wander about town and you never know what you might find. I’ve seen a Mario Kart stag do, a gypsy wedding and an errant griot here. On our journey in search of a tapa or two, I saw a nun with a stuffed-toy octopus in her backpack. You never know what you might find.

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Seville’s streets are beautiful by night. Some parts look like France, others look like Spain, and others central Europe. I suspect it’s the trams that make it look like central Europe. The monk parakeets that live in the palm trees and the ring-necked parakeets that nest in the alcoves of the various churches jostle for space, and the screeches of the latter make the place sound eerily like London every once in a while, though it’s not quite cold enough at night. The chestnut vendors are out and about. When the nights are colder, the steam rising from their wheeled stands will complete the picture. I hope they’re about in Córdoba, too. I’d like to buy a bag of them and eat them on the Roman bridge as the sun goes down and the lights on the mosque come up.

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I wonder what my next visit will deliver. BB x

 

Old vs New

It’s been a mad week. Over the last week I’ve had to fret over dwindling career prospects, squeeze answers out of a class that don’t appear to have improved at all in two years, hurdle a new wave of needlessly ambiguous admin, wrangle with pushy internet dealers and, to top it all off, deal with a flatmate and a friend who could still disappear at any given moment should a better offer arise. It’s not been easy. The first few weeks of term are always an uphill struggle but I’ve never known one week quite this bad.

Five days of mental block were torture. None of my attempts at writing came to fruition. I needed a break. I had to get away from it all. And Fate, as she often does in such situations, came up with the goods. At the end of an afternoon spent filling in forms for Student Finace and the local Junta – and venting my hysteria through last week’s Have I Got News For You – an offer to join the other auxies for a Halloween Party came through. I ummed and ahhed and was on the verge of turning it down when I had one of my spontaneous urges and decided to go for it. I had no time to prepare an outfit, so I came as an un-ironed shirt. Perhaps that’s the least of the small-world horrors I’ve had to deal with this week, but it was easier to explain.

It was an enjoyable if tame night, for which I was truly grateful. I had the chance to discuss my music withdrawal issues with a kindred spirit, and to gather opinions from the new auxies on their new home. I also got to put my dancing shoes on at Concha when Billie Jean came on. I needed that. But most importantly of all, I got to spend some quality time with two of the brightest stars of the Tierra de Barros, Tasha and Miguel.

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If I needed a reaffirmation that I had made the right choice in coming back to Villafranca and not striking out somewhere new, this was it. These two are perhaps the greatest of all reasons for my return. Vultures, Hornachos and migas were waiting, but these two goofballs were a greater lure yet. And it isn’t often you can so easily allow yourself the luxury of moving your workplace to be near to your friends.

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We spent the day in Mérida, where Fate once again showed me a kind hand for my spur-of-the-moment decision. Because I spent time with Tasha, I learned that the Junta needs a stamp from the bank and a paper copy of our ICPC, which have to be mailed, not emailed. Even though I went to the Orientation days this year, that detail wasn’t spelled out, nor was it included in the emails. It’s a good thing I spent Friday morning hunting for envelopes and stamps, albeit for a different purpose. If the man at the estanco hasn’t been so dishearteningly begrudging at surrendering two rows of stamps rather than the twenty I was asking for, I might have used them all. Forewarned is forearmed.

She also demonstrated a knack for knowing my desires by meddling with Miguel’s car’s CD player. The Red Hot Chilli Peppers CD kept pausing, so he put on a Galician band who played the unmistakeable lullaby-dream of Erin Shore, albeit to the name of Romance de Novembro with Galician lyrics – this, after gallego has been so on my mind after my parents’ visit this week. Fate, or whatever it is that organises these things, sure knows what she’s doing. At twenty-three years old, I still cling to the storybook belief that everything that happens happens for a reason. It’s hard not to see the lines when you want to.

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 We had a couple of beers in a Bremen-themed bar on the curiously named John Lennon Street, complete with memorabilia of the former Beatle plastered on the wall beside buxom stein-bearing belles and German insignia, whilst the bartender bemoaned the loss of jobs in the wake of Catalonia’s defiant pursuit of independence. Spanish flags still hang from balconies across the region a week and more after the Día de España celebrations, in solidarity with a nation that’s being pulled apart by old wounds. My beer tasted like strawberries and wasn’t unpalatable. I guess beer is like tea, coffee and sitcoms: unappealing at first, but you learn to appreciate it over time. Effort leads to endurance, eventually, enjoyment.

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Lunch was superb. We visited La Taberna del Sole on the recommendation of a student of Tasha’s and we were not disappointed. Four courses (including a green asparagus and almond pâté and the ever-reliable croquetas de jamón) left us fit to bust, and at under twenty euros a head, it was a steal for a fancy lunch. The city is finally opening up to me.

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Despite having already lived here for a year, I never visited Mérida’s famous Roman theatre. Tasha and Miguel thought it was high time that was remedied. I guess I’m spoiled from having wandered the ancient beauty of Jerash and Petra, but Mérida’s reconstructed theatre complex is nothing to be scoffed at. It’s hard to believe it was all but underground a few decades ago, back when the city was confined to the north bank of the Guadiana and the Los Milagros aqueduct still marked the northern edge of town. Stradivarius and Burger King now adorn the old streets, rubbing shoulders with the Temple of Diana and Saint Eulalia’s basilica. Times are changing quickly here.

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The amphitheatre is equally impressive. Complete with a sunken arena that wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of Pokémon, the building is in remarkably good nick for its age. It’s always a little hard to tie the two together, the sophistication of the Roman Empire and the bloodlust of its citizens who paid to watch men and beasts kill each other. Man, the noblest of all beings, and the one who delights most in killing his own kind. In Rome we see man for what he truly is, perhaps. A vainglorious hypocrite.

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I entered via the dens where the wild beasts were kept for venato fights, ducking low so as not to bang my head on the way out like I had on the way in. I wonder what unwilling denizens of the Empire were caged here for the sport of a Roman carnival: boar from the surrounding hills, bears from the Cantabrian hills, lions from across the Strait… Maybe they even had aurochs here, mighty shadows of the toros bravos that still fight on in the Roman games of a land that saw fit to preserve them. I wonder how many beasts in all lost their lives in this arena.

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We crossed the Roman bridge on the way home. I looked, I listened and I spotted the swamphen that often haunts the reeds on the island, gnawing away at a reedstem clutched between its gangly toes. I wonder if it’s the same bird that I so often saw here two years ago? It always brings a smile to my face to see it, and it was a pleasure doubled to share it was my friends. Durham had its goosanders. Mérida has her curious calamón. Overhead, the impressive silhouette of a black vulture glided noiselessly to the west. For all the fury and doubt that the modern world brings in its wake, there is such beauty left in the old world.

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The storm has passed. The last of the rain fell during the night. I woke up this morning and opened the window to a cold breeze that had not been there before. I smiled. Everything seems better in the cold light of day. I can do this. Autumn has come at last. The long, dry Extremeño summer is over. BB x

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NB. It’s a pain when you have to write a blog post twice. This time it was because I wanted to italicise Have I Got News for You, erased it by accident, and, when Undo didn’t return them, rebooted to save the effort of writing those six words again. This will all be so much easier when WiFi finally comes to the flat in just under two weeks’ time…

Crash and Burn

Galicia’s forests are burning. They suspect foul play. Somebody somewhere truly does like to watch the world burn. Here in Villafranca, we were woken by the long-awaited crash of a thunderstorm, the one that usually rolls around on the second weekend of October. It was late this year, but it came nonetheless, and it came down hard. For just an hour or so, the roads were rivers.

Aeolus had more than the winds of wrath in his bag this morning. Some five or six staff are leaving for Seville tomorrow, perhaps for good. A bag of a very different nature – a bolsa extraordinaria, to be precise – has been opened there, offering the chance for many wayward Andalusians scattered to the far regions of Spain to return home. It’s no guarantee, but as the sudden glut of places for maths and science teachers overrides the need for success in the all-important oposiciones (the national exams that decide the fate of teachers here) there’s everything to fight for. My housemate was one of those called up. He packed his bags and left twenty minutes ago. He left some yoghurts in the fridge and a towel in the bathroom – ‘por si acaso‘.

For a few hours, I was in freefall. I made a stand here when the going was good in Almendralejo, adamant in my decision to improve my Spanish and stay true to Villafranca. It looked as though it had paid off. Two and a half weeks in, the storm broke, the floor vanished and I found myself staring into the abyss. Strong-armed out of the storm by a savvy Argentinian, I’m back on dry ground for the time being. After the ride that the last three days have given me, I’m lucky to be where I am, to know the folks that I do. It could be a lot worse. I could be in Galicia, where the fires rage, or Catalonia, where the cold arm of the state has begun to descend upon the separatists. It’s quite the year to be in Spain.

The storm isn’t over yet. The clouds were building thick and dark over the mountains to the east as I made my way home. We’re due for another night of thunder and lightning, and a lot of rain. Aeolus hasn’t done with us yet. But I’ve got the sails drawn and my hand on the rudder this time and I’m ready to ride it. That’s quite enough being blown about for one month. A handful of the staff were after some ‘Inglés de la calle’ at the staff lunch yesterday. Well, here’s an old classic for you, folks. Aeolus, come at me, bro. BB x