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.

DSC_0276

And then Archie and Viresh showed up in Seville.

DSC_0279

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.

DSC_0290

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.

DSC_0280

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.

DSC_0301

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

DSC_0306

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!

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?!

DSC_0249

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.

DSC_0262

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.

DSC_0269

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.

DSC_0266

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.

DSC_0270

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…

DSC_0550

‘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.

DSC_0223

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.

DSC_0078

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.

DSC_0119

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.

DSC_0007

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.

The Best Margherita in the World

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

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

That said, here’s one such adventure.


 

 

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

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

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

DSC_1107

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

DSC_0006

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

DSC_0011

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

Rivalling the Spanish tourists in town were the Asians, who had come in great numbers. And upon the battlefield of the bridge, where Spanish and Asian met, selfie-sticks held aloft, it looked as though two armies wielding pikes were set to clash. It was rather difficult to find a good spot without crossing somebody’s line of fire, I can tell you.
DSC_0021

What’s wrong with a good landscape?

We passed the homage to the Romantic Travellers of Ronda where, despite the relatively sparse decoration, the selfie stick brigade was back in force. A little further on, past a curio shop and the Museo de Lara, we stumbled upon another blast from the past: the bandit museum. Had I had half a brain I would have made it priority number one to visit this little establishment whilst writing my TLRP on bandits two years back. I didn’t, and I still nabbed a decent 85% (thank you, Google Books), but boy, do I still wish I had! The place was a gold mine and – to my surprise – it didn’t drive Biff and Rosie out of their minds. On the contrary, they even seemed to enjoy the visit! Which made me happy. Though perhaps not as happy as having the chance to see an entire collection of bandit knives…
DSC_0041

Lunch – at Gastrobar Déjà Vu, directly opposite the museum – was spectacular. I haven’t eaten so well for so little since Amman’s Bab el-Yemen. Twelve euros for ten tapas. And that’s ten home-made, local produce tapas. Insane. England, please look and learn. Tapas shouldn’t cost more than three to four euros a head, if that. Not seven. Please remember that.

DSC_0064

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

DSC_0067

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

DSC_0144

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

DSC_0166

…I could hardly ask for more.

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

DSC_0192

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

DSC_0221

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

So we did.

DSC_0248

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

DSC_0263

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

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

 

 

 

Bulerías and Bananagrams

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

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

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

DSC_1095

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

DSC_0950

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

DSC_0927

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

DSC_1050

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

DSC_1069

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

DSC_1076

I wonder what my next visit will deliver. BB x

 

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