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

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

Entitlement

I didn’t make it to Spain.

My bags were packed. I had my lightweight hiking clothes laundered and folded and neatly placed at the top of my rucksack. My flights were booked, hold luggage inclusive, my tent rolled up and my roll-mat tucked in along the side. I’d even learned a couple of lessons from last time, and I had stocked up on plenty of mosquito repellent, sunscreen and up-to-date maps. In short, I was readier than I’ve ever been before. But I still didn’t make it to Spain.

In the end, budgeting was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Five weeks ago, when I’d bought myself a decent tent at last and was eager to put it through its paces, it seemed perfectly logical to book a return flight to Spain and see what happened. I had a tent, so this time I could camp out in the wild for free and have a cheap trip. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, in fact, so much. The more digging I did, the more dangerous a notion it became. Wild camping is a legal grey area – that much is certain – but as the economic situation worsens, those countries hardest hit hit harder. Where there is money to be made, the freebooter and the vagrant are unwelcome. Whilst a local farmer may take no issue to you setting up a tent on the edge of his property, a passing local just might – for a quick buck. For a simple denuncio, one might expect to receive a small cut of the fine meted out by the police which, depending on the whims of the officer in charge, can be hefty. I’ve heard of cases of campers fined up to 600€, which is a good 590€ more than what you might pay in a campsite, if you can find one. If Spain didn’t still cling on to such legacies of the Franco era, it might not be so risky a venture. But as it stands, when a local shepherd stands to make more money by turning you in to the police than in an entire week’s work, it gives him little incentive not to do so.

My girlfriend’s mother passed onto me a keen insight on my last visit: we see a lot less danger when we’re younger. At eighteen, it didn’t occur to me that by setting up camp in the middle of the woods on the slopes of the Guadarrama I might be putting myself at the mercy, not of hungry wolves, but of hungrier shepherds. I just did it and moved on. Now that I’m older and wiser – and more wary – I find myself second-guessing a little more.

It’s just a damned shame that Spain does not have as many campsites as England does. Northumberland, for example, has over a hundred campsites. Extremadura, which is more than eight times the size of Northumberland, has twenty-two, with twelve of them concentrated in one mountain range in the north. Perhaps the Spaniards don’t enjoy camping as much as the English do, but they’re missing a trick. Spain is absolutely stunning, with scenery – in the very biased opinion of this author – second to no other country in Europe. Without campsites, or the option to wild camp, they’re missing out on the chance to reconnect with their supreme natural beauty.

When you can put a name to something you see, it means so much more to you. Your friends matter because you know them by name, just as the pupils whose names you recall stand out in your mind. Neglect to know the world around you and it will never mean as much to you as it will to the naturalist, the tracker or the mountaineer. It’s a natural connection we sorely need as tech takes over the world. Going camping offers that connection to the next generation. Or at least, so I believe.

Part of the reason I so hastily splashed out on flights to Spain which I now can’t make or change without incurring heavy surcharges (thanks a bunch, Easyjet) was a disgusting feeling of entitlement that I just couldn’t shake. Having been up to the Edinburgh Fringe for one last, loud fling with the Lights, I needed to get out. To be myself. To travel. Isn’t that what everybody else does in the summer? Instagram certainly seems to say so, as does Facebook. You can hardly move for photos of Cuba, Malaysia, New York City, the French Riviera, German markets, Polish cafés, Incan ruins and Thai elephant baths. It’s a storm of what-a-wonderful-time-I’m-havings and wish-you-were-heres that build and build until you ask yourself why you aren’t out there seeing the world. A FOMO more potent than any shot, and one that, like a bad drink, leaves a bitter aftertaste. Sooner or later, the travel bug gets to be like any other addiction, and after mowing through the next barrage of Phnom Penh sunrises and Carribean bikini lines you get itchy feet. I want to be there. I want to see that. What about me?

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It’s not the Inca trail, but it’s still bloody gorgeous

Let’s not kid ourselves. Travel is not for everyone. It’s just not. It can be done on the cheap, but it’s never free. Time is money, and if you’re not spending one, you’re spending the other, which means you can afford to spend it. Now that’s a privilege few of us have.

It isn’t often that I feel bitter about the affluence of the world around me, but it’s at times like this that I realise with a nasty jolt that it’s nothing short of madness to expect the same luxuries as one’s contemporaries. Life would be an awful lot easier if we stuck to telling people face-to-face about our adventures rather than bombarding them with photos twenty-four seven, and even then, do we have to yell? The blogger in me says yes. The writer in me isn’t so sure. I’m just a student fresh out of university with a modest job already on the cards, and that’s a luxury I can’t overstate highly enough. It’ll be many, many years before I can afford annual transatlantic summer holidays, and by the time I can, I don’t suppose I’ll want to.

Fringe, I accept, was my holiday. It was expensive, more than any holiday I’ve ever had, and I was a fool to think I could afford another, summer job or no summer job. In the end I was saved by the budget and, more poignantly still, saved by the bell. A couple of friends of mine are getting married in a couple of weeks, and it’s because of them that I had to return from Extremadura before flying back out again. The folly of making two trips to the same place became apparent only once I’d decided not to go.

I still have my dreams. I still dream of South Africa. But I can wait, until such a time as I have the time, the money and the maturity to go and to really make the most of it. For the time being, I’m going to focus on the humbler side of life. I have plenty of books to read and lessons to plan. I, too, am privileged to be where I am and how I am, and I should be grateful for that. Autumn is here, and autumn is always such a beautiful time of year in England. I should be making the most of it. BB x

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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