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

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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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

Back to the Grind

The orientation day for the auxiliares de conversación in Cáceres stands out so far in being the only quirk in what is, for the moment, an experience rather akin to Groundhog Day. But for the rain-starved fields of gold, it really does feel like I’ve stepped back in time. Here I am once again in Villafranca de los Barros, settled swiftly into a cosy flat on the same street as before, no less. Once again, I’m sharing the place with an interim teacher, this time a science teacher from Seville fresh out of university, which makes a healthy change. And, in another mirror of 2015, I’m currently feeling more than a little sleep-deprived, having spent the night in Almendralejo with Tasha and Miguel and the Concha Velasco Band. Some things never change.

Choosing between living in Villafranca and Almendralejo was a rather tough call this year. At heart, I guess I knew I wanted to stay put in the town I now know so well. Anyone who knows me well enough knows that, given the choice between a town of seventeen thousand and thirty-four thousand, it’s hardly even a decision I have to think about. All the same, I found myself rather tempted this year to put old habits aside. Life, as always, has other plans. A series of consecutive events guided my feet, including an incredibly warm reception from staff and students alike, the discovery that Extremadura’s primary avian ecology centre, AMUS, is located just a stone’s throw from the town (how on earth did I miss that before?), the sudden arrival of a twenty-four-year-old sevillano looking for a flatmate and, of course, the ever-present majesty of the Sierra Grande de Hornachos. Like a moth to a flame I find myself drawn ever closer into a spiralling obsession with that lonely mountain range, rising out of the Extremeñan steppe like Kilimanjaro. Just as I could never fully convey my inability to adjust to life in Amman, so too does the true nature of my fascination with that town elude me. It’s just a fact of my life. Some higher force pulls me towards it, and I cannot nor will not resist.

I could have thought of no better a homecoming – if I should be so bold as to reinvent the term for my own purposes – than to spend my first weekend of my new life in Spain with Tasha supporting the Concha Velasco Band. Music is one of those necessary sacrifices I had to make in coming here, and like any sacrifice worth its name it was a painful one to make, so it pieces my heart back together a little to have such a spectacular band to support so close at hand.

It may not be as all-consuming as my devotion to the Northern Lights back in the day, but it’s a start. And at the very least they have a Pon de Mambo-style number in Radio Futura’s Escuela de Calor, which never fails to get me jumping about like a mad thing. I never thought I’d turn roquero, but where funk and a cappella are scarce, needs must. BB x

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Soundbites

11.04am

Would the last remaining passengers travelling to Bordeaux please make your way to Gate 101.

The Duty Free at Gatwick North Terminal has grown twice in size since last year. I’m almost sure of it. It feels almost like the arcade section of an amusement park, endlessly shiny and Americanly bright. The cold, autumn sarcasm of England seems a long way off already – but maybe that’s the idea. Stepping through security into a halfway house, a no man’s land of toblerone trenches and swatch watches. There’s a stag party from South London or thereabouts on their way to Punta Cana, Arsenal shields emblazoned on their shirts and an emphatic fam thrown in after every seventh word. The Viennese kids next to me are discussing Pokémon Go in excited voices. I don’t speak German, but Pokémon is pretty international.

12.11am

Cabin crew, boarding completed.

I think there are more Brits on this flight than Spaniards. Pensioners, mostly. Grey hair, kindles and prescription glasses abound. There’s a round-faced girl with a very thick sevillana sway to her Spanish fishing for a book in the overhead locker, whilst her partner offers the usual machine gun suggestions as to where in her bag she might have put it. The woman to my left is reading a book about World War Two Italy featuring a man called Pino; her husband is browsing a Guardian article titled ‘Throw out antisemitic party members, Corbyn urged”. The tense is a little vague – either he’s taken stock of the warnings, or people are still urging him. Newspapers favour passive constructions. English is fiddly like that.

1.04pm

‘I owe you ten euros, we don’t have change. We never have change.’

Decisions, decisions. To buy a six-euro-sandwich on the plane or trek around Seville with my suitcase in search of edibles in three hours’ time? Lunchtime flights are such a pain. I guess that’s why they’re often cheap. There’s always a clicking wave up and down the plane when the seatbelt lights turn off, as though the long-awaited B is a starting gun. I can’t really concentrate on American Gods until I’ve eaten. As the trolley slowly wends it’s way down the aisle, I’m contesting myself with side-glances at the lady’s paper next to me. Apparently psychopaths prefer rap to Beethoven. Who knew?

That was a good sandwich. Worth the six euros? My stomach says yes.

3.47pm

‘Where are going after this?’

‘Oh. Somewhere.’

Alright, don’t listen to my stomach. He doesn’t know Jack shit. That sandwich was good, but not 16€ good. Turns out they really didn’t have any change at all. Serves me right for holding out for the paper brigade, I guess. We live in a plastic world now. No receipt either, so even if I were the arsey complaining type, I have no proof. I sure hope you EasyJet folks sleep easy.

I tried to start a conversation with a train of English tourists who didn’t know where the bus stop was. They were a bit suspicious of my friendliness, I suppose. What is it about the English that we suspect ulterior motives behind every act of kindness? It reminds me of a debate I had with a boy who went on to Oxford who had no faith in ‘genuine altruism’. Balls to that. You have your 16€ croque monsieur and eat it too. One thing’s for sure: there’s money to be made in tourism. If this flight is anything to go by, there’s no end to the line of retirees who’d rather be led around town by the hand for a fee than explore for themselves.

5.41pm

El autocar con destino Santiponce efectúa su salida.

Plaza de Armas hasn’t changed much, though I suspect it’s had a paint job since I’ve been away. Also, the toilets seem to be free now. That’s a major plus. The tannoy still has all the audio quality of a GCSE Spanish cassette tape, so it’s just as well I’ve done this trip a good thirty times before. Once again I’m reminded just how attractive the Spanish are as a people. The first shopping trip to Tescos after a stint in Spain always feels like a bit of a bump back down to earth, for want of a better expression. Here in the bus station, I sit amongst hawk-nosed gods. They’ve almost finished the weird Expo-style building opposite, and I still have no idea what function it’s supposed to serve. Time will tell, I guess, and Spain being Spain, that means a long time. Perhaps years. Fortunately, years is one of those things I happen to have right.

6.52pm

‘Pero, ¡hijo de la puta madre que le parió!’

We just passed a dead eagle owl at the side of the main road. Not your average roadkill. Huge and scruffy it was, with mottled feathers and ear tufts blowing in the wind. There were a few rabbits further ahead, not as common a sight here as they are back home. Almost all the creatures of this earth wear the same dusty, black-flecked coat, from the owls and rabbits to the lynx, fox, mongoose and wolf. It feels so good to be back in a land that does proper wildlife. As I write, a herd of cattle is grazing in the golden dehesa, a small party of cattle egrets following in their wake. Spain does a very good Africa substitute. Goodness, though, how the place is dry. But for the stone pines and wild olive trees, the world is wheat-yellow beneath the clouded sky. The spring greens are long since gone, along with the hat I left on this very bus…

8.17pm

Pasanjeros con destino Santa Marta, Albuera y Badajoz Capital, cambia aquí.’

Fucking hell, the world is upside down. Now the earth is grey and the sky is sheet gold. I’d quite forgotten how breathtaking Extremeño sunsets are. With a sky this open, you can see for miles and miles, and the sunsets seem to stretch into the infinite. The last fiery slivers of light are dipping behind the sierras to the west and the clouds have enough shades of purple and orange in them to keep my old art teacher happy for at least a couple of decades. I’d take a photo, but my camera is in the hold and the girl on the left of the bus is nonchalantly texting and chewing, oblivious to the silent fireworks going on behind her.

What a world. What. A. World. I am so very glad to be back. BB x

The Cycle Repeats

Almost two years to the day, the British Council have given me the go-ahead for the second round of applications once again. I’ve more or less had it sorted up there in my head, but it’s refreshing to see some hard evidence at last. Everybody else has been scurrying about fishing up internships in London, grad schemes in Leeds and MA courses in Edinburgh whilst I’ve been kicking back in the knowledge that I’m returning to a job I know and love, even if it isn’t anywhere near as well-paid as those London-based affairs. Besides a niggling long-term concern for my pension plan (and I’m not entirely sure why I bother, with things as they are), that doesn’t really concern me – if I get to spend another year in Extremadura, I’ll be in seventh heaven.

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La Vera – what Paradise looks like

I’m really looking forward to next year for several reasons, and one of them is my return to regular blogging. I’ve not been out of things to report this year – quite the opposite, in fact – but for some reason I’ve been awful at recording it. I’ve had something on in one way, shape or form every single day, from rehearsals to meetings to deadlines. I’ve never known a year like it, and it’s been a welcome relief after last year’s relative quiet. I may not be working 8am-8pm shifts like I used to, but the few hours I have a day are always demanding and highly rewarding.

Or at least, they were until this term. I have two contact hours this week, as well as a mock Spanish oral on Thursday. Talk about open plan.

What that does mean is that I’ve finally had the time to do a little work on the Mega-Drawing, and consequently it’s very near to completion. That’s something to look forward to.

I mustn’t fall into the trap of making my last few months in Durham a series of looking forward to moments. Time is running out as it is; in less than two months I’ll be out of here, and that saddens me a lot. I’m losing the treasure trove that is the library, the stellar music scene at Durham and, of course, the host of wonderful friends I’ve made here. If I spend too much time looking forward, I’ll end up looking back for most of next year, and that’s no good thing. Better to live in the moment.

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Monasterio de Yuste

I’m making no promises, but now that my British Council go-ahead is in, I’ll try to keep you posted on some of the events coming my way. Coming up:

  • Recording a new single with the Northern Lights
  • A trip to the Farne Islands (finally)
  • A weekend in Dunkeld, Scotland
  • June Ball
  • Graduation
  • The 70th Edinburgh Fringe

If that’s not blog material, I’ll eat my hat. At least, I would, if I hadn’t left it on the ALSA bus to Seville last month. Goodbye, boina. We’ve had some wonderful memories. I can only hope your next owner finds as much joy in you as I did. Like me, it came all the way from County Durham to you, O Sevillano. Treasure it, please. BB x

Veni, Vidi, Victus Eram

And that’s that. My last working day in Villafranca is over. I only just got away with crying out of my final class. 4°A are total angels, the lot of them.

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What other class could handle Hobbes vs. Rousseau in another language?

I should make it clear that it’s my last working day of 2016… because I’ll be back. Sooner than I’d originally planned. The truth is that I’ve had such an amazing time this year, I don’t half wonder whether it would be difficult to top elsewhere. So I’ve burned my boats and taken advantage of the British Council’s four-year cap by deciding to return to Villafranca independently in 2017, leaving me another three years to wander about Extremadura, Spain and/or the rest of the Spanish speaking world if I so choose under the British Council. Maybe then I’ll be ready to train as a real teacher. Don’t call it unadventurousness on my part. Think of it as happiness found. Villafranca has been a wonderful home for the last nine months. And now, I suppose, I’d better do it justice – peppered with photos of some of my favourite moments of the year…

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…starting with this.

The hardest thing here is knowing where to begin. How do I possibly sum up what has been the very best year of my life? Do I start from the beginning – from touchdown in Seville airport? But you know the story from there. And if you wanted to know the details, the entire year is spread out across the blog. Just go back to the 23rd of September and follow on from there. I don’t think I’ve ever been more faithful to a diary in my life.

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Where it all began… under Alicia’s bridge in Seville in September ’15

It took the British Council all of eight months to provide me with the name of my home for the following year. Eight months that would have dragged immensely had it not been for my intense extracurricular existence. Protocol. But I spent a good part of my childhood as an avid birdwatcher, and that taught me that patience – even vain patience – always deals its own rewards. And that’s as good a metaphor as any to begin with.

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Hanging on a few hours in Badajoz and accidentally finding a vulture is a good example

Villafranca de los Barros is not exactly what you might call ‘buzzing’. If you were to tell anybody else that they’d be spending the year in a town of some fourteen thousand inhabitants with no nightlife and a lively farming scene, they’d probably jump ship in less than a week and make a break for the nearest city. That’s what the last applicant assigned to Extremadura did, or so I was told by my concerned supervisor before leaving Durham. But Benjamin has strange triggers, and is nothing more than a simple country boy at heart. I could spend my life traveling the world, but if the truth be told, I want nothing more at the end of the day than to come back to some quiet, village retreat that I can call home. After Amman, anywhere with a pop count below twenty thousand would have done for me. As such, Villafranca could not have been a better place.

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Spain does do some pretty spectacular skies on a regular basis

It’s been a formative year. You do all sorts of growing up when you strike out alone for the first time. Over the course of the year I’ve tried my hand at a whole range of new and crazy experiences, including:

  • Mobile data and WhatsApp. Frankly I don’t know how I’d have managed this year without the tech, as Spain as a whole seems incapable of functioning without it, but it’s proved absolutely invaluable as a last-ditch traveller’s aid. Except HERE Maps, possibly. Deceiving trickster.
  • Drinking. Ron Barceló isn’t so bad after all, but rest assured I’ll be back on the dry wagon when this is all over, if just because it’s a lifestyle I know and love.
  • Skiing. And I discovered that I am singularly useless at it.
  • Flirting. Likewise, useless. Try as I might, I’m just not the casual type.
  • Interpreting. Specifically, interpreting a spiel on Dadaist techniques. Talk about a challenge.
  • Olive-harvesting. Trust me, it’s really quite technical.
  • A (surprise) foam party. God bless Spain’s laissez-faire attitude to risk assessment.
  • Being the person that starts a conversation. Radical.

The last point is probably the most poignant of the lot. When this year began I was the kind of person who happily let others get the engine running first. Striking up a conversation with fellow travellers, calling the waiter in a restaurant, starting an essay… I’ve never been very good at starting things. It’s a running theme in my life. But this year I’ve seen myself talking to strangers on the road, setting up a bank account and even asking for help when a certain primary class got simply too much for me. These basic things were well out of my reach when I got off the plane back in September 2015. By hook or by crook, I’ve made it.

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Proud to say I’ve done my bit for the local cooperativa!

Of course, it’s not all been roses. When I say it’s been the very best year of my life, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was flawless. There have been lows. Getting misdiagnosed with herpes was one. Getting the friend-zoning of the century on the night of what was supposed to be a romantic break in Madrid was another. And I seem to remember spewing my guts out for an entire twenty-four hours in a hotel room in Andorra, manacled by an ever-increasing tab from the mini bar; though it did spare me from more skiing fiascos, that was a definite low point too. And then there’s that primary class, a weekly nightmare that I’ve somehow survived. But my attitude to life is that balance is the most precious thing of all: life would be no fun whatsoever if there wasn’t the occasional crippling blunder to make things interesting. Not that I wouldn’t beg not to be given that lot if I were to go through it all again, but if they’ve done one thing for me, it’s left me in very good stead to be the father of Spanish children. I reckon I know all the necessary vocabulary after a year’s stint with that bunch.

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It’s largely thanks to this little star that my Spanish has come so far this year!

Now comes the most difficult part: listing the highlights. Since each and every one has its own entire blog post somewhere along the line, I’ll be as brief as I can. I’ve forced myself to choose only ten, though I could quite easily go on to make twenty-five. Still, ten it is.

  • A close encounter with a lost griffon vulture in Badajoz
  • Taking time out beneath the stone pines in El Rocio
  • Seeing El Rey León from the best seats in the house, Madrid
  • Accidentally getting the best views of the Semana Santa processions, Seville
  • Olive-harvesting with Ali and the family, Olvera
  • Sitting beneath the Monfragüe cliffs with the vultures flying in overhead
  • Spending the weekend in Cantabria with the wonderful Brocklesby
  • Getting a surprise party from one of my bachillerato classes
  • Discovering that simply speaking Spanish makes me happier
  • Hearing the first bee-eater calls of spring from my own bedroom in Villafranca

Tough call. And yes, I’m aware that two of those ten are vulture-related. If the number really had been twenty-five, there’d have been plenty more feathered highlights.

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Specifically for Cantabria, climbing Watership Down Hill was a high…. geddit?

As for what this year has meant in the grander scheme of things, it’s pretty much laid out the road beneath my feet. I was pretty hooked on this country before I came here. I was even pretty certain already that I’d be living out here someday. Somewhere in the back of my mind I always knew. I guess that’s why I never quite managed to lay down roots with a girlfriend or even a best friend per se. Perhaps I always knew I’d be leaving England behind.

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A ready-made fan club is also a major reason for coming back

Well, now it’s fixed. I won’t be swayed. I’ll be back for another two or three years of this auxiliar life, garnering experience as I go, before throwing myself at the notorious oposiciones and trying to carve a space for myself in the Spanish education system as a fully-qualified English teacher – without robbing the places of my friends and colleagues here, of course.

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Reasons to live abroad: a risk-assessment free foam party courtesy of the fire brigade

It was a remarkably easy decision to make. I’ve enjoyed teaching since I took my first class in pure spite of my flustered English teacher way back in 2007. Despite years of my parents warning me not to follow them into their trade, here I am, teaching, and loving almost every second of it. Being an auxiliar is all of the best parts and none of the bad, granted, but I reckon with another few years under my belt I’ll be ready to take on the homework and the discipline. It’s not like I haven’t been asking to help out all year.

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I also owe Concha Velasco Band for introducing me to Escuela de Calor. Tune!

Just before I go and christen the end of the Spanish stretch with a severe haircut, here’s a few goals for next time:

  • Learn to drive (car or motorbike)
  • Apply to work afternoons at San José
  • Share a flat with people roughly your own age
  • Likewise, find friends your own age in the area
  • Pack less… or buy less books

Just five. That will do. All of which would be a lot easier if I had a clear idea of where I would be living – which is one of the chief deciding factors in Villafranca Part II. And after that… Who knows? As of 2016 the British Council offers teaching placements across Spain, but also in Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Ecuador. I think I could afford to be apart from my grandfather’s country for one year. Especially now that I know I’m coming back – and coming back for good.

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Oh, and one more goal: get inside the goddamn Alhambra again. It’s been too long.

So today it’s neither a ciao, nor goodbye, nor even adios. It’s hasta pronto. Muy, muy pronto. Que te lo pases bien en mi ausencia, España. Y sera breve. Te lo prometo. BB x