Losing All Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Mention the Catalans

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

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

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And then Archie and Viresh showed up in Seville.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to next…?

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

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

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

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

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


Andalucía

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

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

Probability: 7/10

Aragón

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

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

Probability: 8/10

Asturias

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

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

Probability: 8/10

Cantabria

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

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

Probability: 5/10

Castilla La Mancha

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

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

Probability: 4/10

Castilla y León

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

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

Probability: 8/10

Cataluña

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

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

Probability: 6/10

Ceuta and Melilla

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

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

Probability: 4/10

Extremadura

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

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

Probability: 7/10

Galicia

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

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

Probability: 9/10

Islas Baleares

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

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

Probability: 2/10

Islas Canarias

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

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

Probability: 3/10

La Rioja

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

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

Probability: 2/10

Madrid

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

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

Probability: 1/10

Murcia

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

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

Probability: 4/10

Navarra

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

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

Probability: 6/10

País Vasco

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

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

Probability: 5/10

Valencia

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

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

Probability: 3/10


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

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

Rainbow’s End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘We’re not in Hornachos anymore…’

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

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

Frost vs Nixon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Smell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flashman’s Lesson

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

George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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