Commuter Vignettes

A collection of observations from London and Madrid.


14.38The Lonely One

A girl gets on the Metro before me. She has that listless look of a twenty-first century child, of a face torn away from the blue glare of her mobile phone. The phone is there, of course – it always is – sitting dormant in her hand but very much alive. Maybe she’s sad because nobody’s messaging her right this instant. There’s something Latin about her look: behind the white Adidas shirt and the pale blue jeans, there’s an arch to her nose that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Montezuma, and she wears bold red lipstick on her thick-lipped pout. It looks a little out of place on her frown. She looks about eighteen, but with that tricksy Latin blood in her veins, she could be anywhere between that and thirty.

The tannoy goes off for Nuevos Ministerios and she leaves.


10.40The Spider

A London micro-manager discusses his six-month leave and coffee with Tom this morning, at a volume just loud enough for the carriage to hear. If the asking price rises into the millions, he suggests waiting for the results to deteriorate, like a bald and very well-dressed spider. Business is the meal of the day. His latest victim, a Gucci exec, writhes in his binds down the line, whilst the shadow on the receiver worries about growth. All of this is, yep, yeh, very good, cheers. The flies will just have to resign themselves to another day of good business.

The tannoy goes off for East Croydon and he leaves.


10.46The Ghost

Could the onboard supervisor contact the driver please.
Could the onboard supervisor contact the driver please.
Could the onboard supervisor contact the driver please.

‘Perhaps he’s not onboard,’ says an old timer. He gets a lot of laughs.
‘Gone AWOL,’ says a glamorous matriarch. She gets a few more.
‘Gone home,’ says a jumper-round-the-neck. The laughing streak dies out. ‘I mean, I haven’t noticed anybody check our tickets, so perhaps there isn’t one.’

Three minutes later, the train pulls out anyway. It doesn’t sound as though the onboard supervisor made contact.
‘Gonna be late now,’ says the matriarch, looking at her phone. ‘Ten minutes delayed.’

The tannoy goes off for Clapham Junction and she leaves.


11.23The Sardine Run

The 10.09 Southern Services train to Redhill is delayed. Apparently this is still newsworthy. Downstairs, the Underground splits at the seams. Giants with sports shorts and mop-tops jostle for standing room with Catalan sightseers, Russian students and a Rastafarian flyerman, dozing silently over his stack of pamphlets. The driver on the tannoy is profusely apologetic about the frozen train, citing an earlier faulty train as the reason for the blown lines ahead. The three-minute delay becomes a five-minute delay, which in turn becomes a ten-minute delay. Five was enough to oust the man in the navy pinstripe suit and the other big fish. I’m only going one stop so I really could have walked, but people-watching isn’t so easy on the move.

The tannoy goes off for Green Park and I leave.


22.52The Platoon

Small talk sweeps Cabin Six. Three late-twenties girls types discuss renting flats, grown-up men and which was the most distressing Harry Potter death, Dobby or Hedwig. One of the three isn’t contributing so much. Another keeps the flow going. Their ringleader dominates the conversation with perfectly formed silences and sentences. Corporal, Captain and Commander. They each tell a tale: the tale of the bright orange Maine Coon and a cactus, the tale of the old lady who fell asleep watching the BBC news and the tale of the silent nurse. The underlying moral of this urban saga? If you live in a flat, you can hear someone go to the toilet. A twenty-first century aphorism if ever there was one.

The tannoy goes off for Redhill, the Corporal gets off, but the Commander’s tales go on.


10.43The Herd

Three stag parties board the plane. Two of them are your standard bunch of square-jawed gym jocks, joking loudly about how muntered Gavin is going to get, how he’ll be flat on his face, gatted, smashed, trolleyed. The other herd follows their oddly-dressed leader down the aisle like a pagan procession, their Chosen One wrapped up in a pink and purple sari with all the bells and whistles – except, of course, the kameez that usually covers a Hindu bride’s modesty. Nip slips are clearly less of an issue for six-foot tall white men. When your average Joe has umpteen problems getting through airport security, it’s frankly ridiculous that he walked through untouched. He’s obviously done his homework if he’s going as an untouchable, though somehow I don’t think that’s the idea his cronies had in mind. The Arabic music crawling out of the speaker in his back pocket would seem to suggest that. At least in Madrid he won’t look out of place. In Gatwick Airport on a Friday morning he just looks like a prat.


15.16The Slaves

Jenny Seville might have painted the scene in front of me. A perfect tableau. Three commuters stand over me with their hands on the rail, facing out across my head, with their eyes glued to their mobile phones. A smart, short-haired man in a blue suit with his earphones in, a disgruntled middle-aged lady in a pink blouse and a professional women with a sharp nose and dark eyes. They stand before me like some grotesque Swiftian pantheon, their smallest features blown up and illuminated in the backlight. To their left and right, lesser gods scroll soundlessly in the blue glare. I feel tiny, sat pressed into the chair at their feet. All along the train, heads are down, faces are blue and conversation is fleeting. There are islands of humanity in the slave ship: a huddle of Latino men talking jovially with no electronic assistance, and a couple of old women discussing train delays in central Madrid. Every time I look around me, I catch the eye of the Green Woman, the only other person in the slave ship who isn’t glued to her phone. She looks like a slightly larger and slightly less airbrushed Anne Hathaway.

The tannoy goes off for Atocha and she pulls her phone from her pocket. I have no binds, so why do I feel so shackled? BB x

Family Reunion: Part One

10:52

It begins in Salamanca. It’s not exactly where I thought it was going to begin, but it’s a more auspicious starting point than Villafranca, I guess. The other passengers around me are reshuffling their seats on the bus. The lady on the seat next to me scrolls blindly through her Instagram feed. Flighty pigeons patrol the bus station roof and a few fluffy clouds pepper the sky. Suitcases roll in, buses roll out and people chat about what they’ll be having for lunch. It’s just another day in Salamanca – but not for me. Today’s the day I find my family.

It’s hard to say exactly how I’m feeling right now. Three days ago, when Rafael called, I was nervous. So nervous I waited until the call went through to my answerphone so I could deal with the matter calmly and indirectly. I’d already gone through the business of psyching myself up a couple of weeks ago, when I first made plans to visit. Spurred on by Coco, and some of Bella’s heartbreaking family stories, I decided I could wait no longer. Then Rafael’s sudden hospitalisation put our reunion on hold and I had to wait.

Now I’m racing across the sunny fields of old Castile with the cathedral of Salamanca shrinking into the distance, and my new quest – perhaps the greatest quest of my life so far – has begun.

12:58

The snows on the highest peaks of the Guadarrama seem as smooth as flour. San Rafael, the quiet town that harboured me once when I came down tired and hungry from a sixty kilometre trek across the mountains, looked warm and unfamiliar in the sunlight. I only remember it in the dark of the night. I have left the granite boulders and high sierras of old Castile behind me. Madrid stretches out across the plain with queer mountains of tower blocks and skyscrapers. The Buddenbrooks film they have playing on the monitor is drawing to its sad and depressing finale, a world away from the hopeful sunshine outside. Nineteenth-century Germany and sunlit Madrid could hardly be further apart.

I see a magpie. I count to ten. A second appears. I breathe again.

14:43

Every quest has a dragon to be slain, and today’s is Atocha Station. On the bus I briefly entertained the idea of a small paseo in the Retiro, should I find my way through the station easily. It’s as well that I didn’t. It took me several bewildered attempts to navigate the terminus. Atocha makes London King’s Cross seem like the Dunkeld and Birnam railway station. Stairs criss-crossing each other in all directions. Media distancia here, larga distancia there, high-speed AVE lines elsewhere. The icing on the cake: the platform is not revealed until minutes before the train arrives, or, in this case, withheld until the thing is just pulling in. I was a bag of nerves back there and I’m not proud of it. I love travel, but I don’t like cities. I never have. And it’ll only be harder on the way back when I have half the time to get from Atocha to Estación Sur. But the dragon is slain, and I’m headed south into New Castile and the immense emptiness of La Mancha.

15:08

Where do I begin? What questions do I ask the only man on Earth who knew my grandfather when he was still alive? It’s hard to know where to start. Rafael may be my first cousin twice removed, and his descendants more distant still, but they’re all that’s left of my family and I have to find them. I have to know. It’s what’s been driving this whole Spanish adventure from the very beginning. My grandfather José… When was he born? What was he like? Is there anything left of him in his hometown, or has he passed, like the Moorish kings, into memory? I can only hope for some small detail, a shred of the faintest of proofs. In truth I do not really know what awaits me in Villarrobledo, but I can wait no longer.

15:40

Some etymologists believe the Roman word “Hispania”, from which we derive the modern name of Spain, came via an old Punic-Hebrew cognate “i-shfania”, meaning “Island of Rabbits”. The rabbits are dying out by degrees – I haven’t seen one in months – so perhaps “Island of Magpies” might be a better term today. The kites and the swallows come and go, but I see magpies wherever I go in this country. I used to associate them with the oak tree that grew on the verge by my house when I was growing up. Nowadays I think of Spain when I see them. I’m not sure where we get the word “magpie” from, but the Spanish urraca is supposedly onomatopoeic, like the Arabic ‘āqāq. There was even a Spanish queen called Urraca once. I wonder why they called her that?

The earth is red. We’re rolling into Alcázar de San Juan. Three stops remain. Just to spite me, a pair of rabbits watched our train pass by from the sleepers on the opposite line. Hispania lives on.

17:29

The first words I heard on entering Villarrobledo were not in Spanish at all, but in American English. I’m not sure whether that marred my first experience or not. Villarrobledo looks like a lot like Villafranca, picked up and dropped in the middle of La Mancha. And I thought Extremadura was flat… I’ve never seen such horizons.

The hotel Rafael arranged for me has everything I need, except the little zing of extra courage I could do with right now. To be fair, there’s probably plenty of courage in the couple of Dueros I brought as presents for my family, but if I can soldier through twenty-two years of teetotal trials, I can manage this one sober. I’ve had a shower, freshened up and put today’s date in my journal. There’s nothing left to do but to step out of the hotel room and finish my quest. Some food wouldn’t go amiss, but as it’s Jueves Santo, I doubt anywhere will be open. Besides, needs must: there’s a greater cause at stake. Grandfather, this is for you. It always has been.

Ps. I’ve forward-dated this post, so by the time you read this, I’ll have met my family already. I’ll keep you posted.

Soundbites II

14:18

Gatwick South Terminal never changes. Every third man and their mother is hunched over their phone/tablet and speechless, lips pouted, eyes disinterested. The rush of noise in the waiting lounge is metallic; a firm ground bass of escalators and flight case wheels is cut through by the soaring soprano of children in the play area and the sparkling SFX of the last-stop speaker shops. A man eats a sandwich out of a yellow-and-brown cardboard box. A mother explains something in Polish to her son with a good deal of clapping, then takes a selfie with him. The advertising screen displays the latest range of Boohoo Man. And my eye itches. I should probably stop rubbing it.

14:34

Gate information is still a good twenty minutes away. But it’s not all about waiting. The longest, coldest month of the year is gone. I’ve never seen a January run its course so quickly. But it has, and here we are halfway through February. Popping home to England for a job interview (and to see my family, whom I haven’t seen since September) was a good idea. I’ve missed England, more than I thought I might. One’s home country exerts a powerful force over the psyche if you leave it behind for so long. Tierra de Barros is not exactly the most spectacular place to be in winter, no matter how much the sun shines. Knowing my luck, however, Spain will put on its spring dress in a couple of weeks and I’ll wonder why I ever dreamed of England, perhaps on the very day I find out whether work will call me home or not. The point remains, however: January was short. I ought to make a habit of spending January with my girlfriend. It’s always dragged on so before.

14:57

I definitely, definitively, undoubtedly heard somebody say acho in the queue for this flight. I also got off on the wrong foot by sitting near the desk; these Spaniards surprised me by forming an orderly queue rather than sitting in the waiting area. Or perhaps they were English tourists with a more generous complexion than mine. Over a decade of practice and all the fluency time can buy will never make me a Spaniard, thanks to blue eyes and blond hair. According to the tannoy, the flight to Seville this afternoon is extremely busy, quite unlike the way out. It remains to be seen whether they’ll slap my rucksack in the hold, but at least if they do, they won’t charge me for it. This is only the second British Airways flight I’ve ever taken and I already prefer it.

15:32

This plane is packed. They’ve just declared that’s there’s no room for large cases in the overhead lockers. I got in just in time. There must be a Valentine’s Day rush to Seville. I saw plenty of roses sticking out of people’s handbags on the way in. A couple of Londoners out in front kept me entertained in the queue: the girl waxed lyrical about using her friend as a source of air-miles and the husband kept trying to read his paper in the gaps in her conversation. It helped to ease the nerves somewhat. Behind the grumbles, the problematic passports and the enormous wheelie-suitcases, the other passengers are only fellow human beings.

At least, that’s what I keep telling myself. It helps.

19:08

We left some twenty-five minutes late and we’re landing only five minutes behind schedule. I’m impressed. It still wouldn’t have been enough time to catch the bus to Plaza de Armas and then onwards to Villafranca, but that doesn’t matter; Fran’s picking me up. Sweet relief. It’s odd, to be going from the plane one night to work the following morning, but that’s adult life, I suppose. I guess it only feels weird because as kids we’re used to the holidays wrapping our trips abroad in precious time. It’s a reason to stay in the education sector, and that’s a fact.

20:21

The Spain I took off from on Thursday is a whole lot greener today. I guess it rained over Carnaval weekend. It always rains over Carnaval weekend. You’d be surprised how much of a difference that makes. I loved being back in England for the green trees, the gentle grassy slopes of the South Downs, the brooks and streams and the sea… I need that. I wasted away in Jordan without it, despite the best efforts of my companions. And Tierra de Barros, it must be said, could be an awful lot greener. But spring is on its way, a good deal earlier than I thought, and I’m about to fall in love again. I think I missed the cranes – they normally take their leave this weekend – but if I hop on my bike this weekend, I might just catch one of the hen harriers I’ve seen ghosting about the fields, though I doubt I’ll be lucky enough to run into the sandgrouse I saw from the bus. If I can’t write authentically about the wildlife here yet, it’s because I’ve yet to have the time to go out and soak in it. This weekend will be my first weekend in months where I have no immediate plans. I intend to make the most of that. I might not make it as far as Hornachos, but I intend to get out. And now that I have my thermals – a Lycra equivalent is apparently essential for cycling out here – I won’t look like a foreign jerk. It’s the details that make the picture. BB x

Five Set Up A Restaurant

Our four-day stay in Lisbon has come to an end. We devoured our final pastéis breakfast in the hotel room as the café was already full. We checked out shortly before twelve and took our leave of Belém for the city. Now Portugal is racing by outside in a grey-green blur of clouds, cork-oaks and tarmac. We have our bolo-rei for the 5th (a large, ring-shaped cake for the celebration of the coming of the Three Wise Men), which is a nice change; I don’t think I’ve had a gateau-de-roix since primary school.

But that’s enough of that. Let me get to the meat of the article.

Lisbon isn’t the easiest place to find a good spot to eat at six o’clock on New Year’s Day (nowhere is, I guess, but it was our lot to be in Lisbon at that time on that day, and Lisbon, it must be said, has a lot more choice than Belém). Or at least, that’s what all the websites said. It turns out that most of that was fake news – a highly appropriate term, whoever coined it first – as there were a fair few establishments open for business. Unfortunately, the local cafés and bars were not among them. Seeking a semblance of affordable quality in the inner city, we took a side street and were instantly set upon by three jockeys, all hustling for our custom. Out of sheer boredom if nothing else, we settled for the woman in the puffy pink coat who asked us ‘just to look’ at the dodgy photograph of a grilled sea-bream she was thrusting before our noses. Typically you can get two results from such establishments: sleazy-greasy service, or a surprisingly satisfying meal. So we went for that one.

I’ll be honest. The food was decent. I’d have been a better judge if I didn’t have the cold of the century, reducing the capabilities of my already abysmal sense of smell to that of a clogged vacuum cleaner, but for a place that offers patatas with every dish and actually serves up potatoes instead of chips, I’ll give them a star for honesty. But it’s not the honesty for which you should visit. It’s the staff.

The staff of Restaurante Cadete are far and away the establishment’s USP. Why? Well, primarily because there’s absolutely no way of knowing that they work there. Everyone has their own look. On the outset they might all be the clientele, and it’s only when they jump you with a notepad that you realise they’re on the job. The lady in pink was Russian and her hustle style was practically Moroccan in its friendly push-push ‘just to look, just to look’ way. One waiter, a charming Asian lad in a striped jumper, delivered our order with a cheery, eloquent manner. Another waitress in a purple turtleneck sweater said not a word as she tidied away our meal. But the cream of the crop was the chirpy chappie dressed in a smart beige coat with white chinos, a blue tie and a small tuft of blond hair. He might have been Polish, or German, or something else, if not Portuguese. I honestly took him for a street performer as he stumbled over to take our order, given his whimsical charm and gauche dress. I haven’t ever seen a waiter bring the card machine and pretend it’s a phone before handing it over before, and I might not again. It seems childish but, at the end of a long day, it was immensely entertaining. Dinner and a show. What more could you ask for?

We never met the chef (one rarely does), though I’m willing to bet he was a character as well. For sheer personality, I’d give the place a 4/5.

Work starts again a week tomorrow. I wonder what adventures the new year will bring? BB x

Custard Resolutions

Three words for the new year: veganism isn’t likely. Not with a start like this.

Lisbon’s famous Pastéis de Belém didn’t fall short of expectations. The street-long queues we walked by yesterday were nowhere to be seen at five minutes past eight in the morning, and I was in there like a shot. It’s just as well our bedroom is literally a hundred metres from the Pastéis de Belém shop. It made that eight a.m. start all the easier. The Despacito alarm was off within four seconds (which, coincidentally, is a great choice for an alarm, since you grow to hate most alarms anyway). I’m normally shamefully bad at taking an interest at things that other people enthuse about, but Bella’s been burning my ear with this particular subject for a while now, and I’m not one to turn down a challenge. Not one that comes filled with warm custard, anyway.

It’s New Year’s Eve here in Lisbon. One and a half hours to go until midnight. The only sounds outside are the occasional early firework, the distant whine of sirens and the low hum of the underground every so often. The table in our hotel room on which I write is cluttered with a variety of treasures and trinkets to ring in the new year: a couple of Fringe flyers from our show this summer; a photo of my mother as an eleven year-old Brownie; my teaching pad; some choreography directions for my Marvin Gaye arrangement; Mary’s letter; my Word-of-the-Day cards (featuring chthonic, morganatic and vespertilian); and, of course, my blue-and-gold notebook, entering its second year. I wonder how much of it I’ll have managed to fill by this time next year?

How to sum up what has been a singularly significant year? I suppose the word All-Star wouldn’t be out of place. And no, I’m not talking about the Smash Mouth memes that were so rife at the start of the year. If my life were a series of films, 2017 was the one where they throw in a host of famous faces to revive a slump in the ratings. Biff turned up again and again like the lucky coin he has always been, from Durham and Edinburgh to Olvera and Ronda. Archie and Viresh appeared in Seville, and Tasha and Miguel were waiting for my return in the spring and in the autumn. I heard from dear Lucy and Emily at last. Mary came shining back into my life and made me smile with her kindness all through December. Collinson and Simmons were there in Scotland to fill me in on years of stories. Teddy and Mina were there at home to wave Maddy goodbye. And then there was that time I ran into Kate at Newcastle Central Station – twice – or the time Aisha drove me to Durham, or the last time any of us saw brave Emmanuel…

In those films filled with famous cameos, there tends to be a supporting cast of new faces, and the brightest of these isn’t always the one you suspect. Except, in this case, she was, and now I’m spending New Year’s Eve with a wonderful little lady who has brought so much light into my life for the best part of a year.

In life, you tend to find whatever it was you were looking for when you stop looking for it. Life’s funny like that. Alright, so it wasn’t exactly the philosophy by which the Portuguese explorers found the way to India, but if it’s a Lego brick, a form that needs signing, or even a loving partner, these things have a funny way of surprising you right when you throw your hands up in the air and throw a Samuel L. Jackson line.

2017 has been a fantastic year. The very best of years. It’ll be a tough one to top, that’s for sure. And the way things stand, who knows what the future holds? When 2017 dawned fresh from Trump’s election, a lot of folks thought the end times were nigh. I stand where I stood before, with some of the same suspicions. War will come, perhaps soon, and we won’t be all that ready when it does. But I’m confident that, whatever the next few months, or even years, will bring, the future will be bright. How can it not be, with so many bright lights shining in my life? That’s what I believe. Hope lies in the little things that people say and do. It just takes a little extra effort every day. I could do with putting in a little more of that, myself. And that’s as good a New Year’s Resolution as I’ve ever had.

All the best in the New Year, compañeros míos. I hope it’s as good to you as this year was to me. Boa sorte. BB x

A New Christmas

I’m back in Villafranca after a five-day sojourn in Córdoba. It was sunny when I left. The skies are grey and heavy with cloud now. There’s a strong wind in the air, and it’s blowing against the blinds, which are rattling all through the house. Olivia Ong’s bossa nova vocals fill the room, and keys click and thump intermittently as I type. Cars pass by. My family are so close and so far away. I find myself wishing I was back in Córdoba.

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There’s something truly special about Córdoba at any time of year. Granada is undeniably beautiful, Málaga has plenty of charm and Seville needs no introduction, but Córdoba is, surely, the jewel in the southern crown. After all, few other cities in Andalusia – or Spain, for that matter – can claim to have been one of the world’s greatest in their heyday. Like Granada, it’s been raped and meddled with over the centuries, but what remains is shadowy and beautiful in its fusion. I still get the shivers when I wander along the winding streets of the Jewish quarter, and if you stand on the Roman bridge after sunset and look towards the city from the south bank, the mosque shines like liquid gold in the river.

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(No weddings this year, I took that one six years ago on a research trip here)

Normally on Christmas Eve I’d go to Midnight Mass with my mother. I could have done so here, but for me, the Great Mosque of Córdoba (or so-called Mosque-Cathedral) is like setting foot in the Holy Land. It’s an intensely emotional experience every time and I could not bring myself to open my heart in a place denied to those for whom it was far more important (have a read of this article to dig a little deeper). So I stayed at home instead, surrounded by a thousand babies on red carpets.

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Christmas Day in Spain came with the ringing of the bells across the city. Clouds drifted in from across the Sierra Morena, but as the day went by, sunlight came streaming down through the odd pocket here and there. I’ve never had a Christmas quite like it, but it was wonderful in a new way, seeing Christmas Day celebrated from start to finish in a very different family. We get glimpses into Christmastime when we visit friends and family, but it isn’t often you get treated to the whole twenty-four hour affair.

Doubly so, perhaps, when the food is also very different, too.

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Roast chicken with fios de ovos –

Córdoba is one of those cities that is well worth a prolonged stay. That’s where AirBnB comes up trumps. For a short time, it’s as though I was living in the former capital of al-Andalus. Like most Spanish flats, the building looked unimpressive and samey on the outside – many of them are so identical as to fool you into thinking they’re carbon copies – but on the inside it was dreamily homey. Just what you need at Christmastime!

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A short distance to the west of Córdoba, perched atop a formidable hill overlooking the Guadalquivir valley, is the castle of Almodóvar del Río. At a half-hour’s drive from town, and just ten minutes beyond the ruins of Medina Azahara, it’s well worth the trip for the day. Lovingly restored at the savvy hands of Adolfo Fernánez Casanova, it makes a welcome change from the rubble of the surrounding ruins. There’s also a fantastic asador at its feet that provides the perfect opportunity to wait out the hours until the sunset. I recommend the brocheta. It’s nothing short of divine.

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And that, of course, is precisely what we did. And we timed it just right to catch the winter sun as it was on its way down over the hills to the west.

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The fields around Almodóvar made Tierra de Barros feel like a barren wasteland. Crag martins zoomed about the castle walls, soaking in the last of the sun’s heat on the buttresses. Egrets and herons stalked the river, a single vulture flapped lazily overhead and I swear I heard the piping trill of a kingfisher. Best of all, within the space of five minutes I saw three black-shouldered kites on the road to the castle, a delicate, stunning little hawk I’ve never laid eyes upon with certainty before. I might just have to come back in search of them one day. In my books, vultures will always be king, but kites are the princes of my feathery kingdom. And what princes they are!

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A couple of trains shuttled back and forth as we waited for the sun to go down. I haven’t travelled much on Spain’s train network. Besides the short trip I took with Kate in Cantabria last time I was here, the only train ride I’ve ever taken here was the one from Ávila to Madrid. I’m told the railroad passes through some truly stunning scenery. Perhaps I should give it a go someday. It’s something that yet to come our way (see the Tren Digno Ya cause for more) but in other parts of Spain, it’s a doozy.

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Winter sunsets. Moorish castles. Mosque-cathedrals. Rolling hills. Night herons, kingfishers and cranes in the cornfields in their hundreds. The entire province of Córdoba is a jewel. If I could say for certain that I’d have a shot at being placed here, I’d be sorely tempted to put Andalucía higher up on my list for next year. But I stand by my beliefs: comfort is dangerous. It’s time I thought about moving on, before I take for granted what I have here. Spain is more than one city. She is more than one province. And, if the last few months have taught us anything, she is, quite clearly, more than one country. The city of Córdoba alone is proof enough of that. Vamos, kid. It’s time to see the rest of this land. BB x

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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!