Worldbuilding

I have a confession to make. For a wannabe author, I’ve always been rather guarded about my stories. As a teacher I make no secret about the fact that of my various hobbies I love writing best of all, above drawing, above being out and about in nature – and, yes, even above music. Why? Because writing is one of the few things in the world that you can truly call your own. You can’t compare your voice to somebody else’s any more than you can compare your ability to think. But, for all the show of carrying a journal around and self-consciously dropping into conversation now and then that I write for pleasure, I don’t really talk overmuch about my books.

There’s a couple of reasons for that. The first one is simple self-defence, the fear that somebody could steal your ideas and tell your own stories as though they were their own. Laugh if you will at that idea – what story hasn’t been told and retold a thousand times over since the dawn of time? – but an incident involving my artwork, DeviantArt and an alarming case of identity theft back in my schooldays has left me cautious about putting my work out there. In that case, I was lucky that the thief had been indiscriminate in their robbery: though some of the drawings they claimed as their own were odds and sods from the novel, more than a few were portraits of friends from school, so it wasn’t just my intellectual property on the line. Together with some friends, we kicked up a fuss and had the thief’s account taken down. To their credit, DeviantArt were pretty quick. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know who the culprit was, though reason tells me it could only have been somebody I knew. I learned a valuable lesson, though: art is easy to steal.

The second reason is the simplest one: there’s just too much to say in one sitting. I can see that on those occasions when somebody leafs through one of my journals. There’s so much going on in there and none of it in any particular order, and without a map, you’d never know where to start. Entering into a writer’s world is probably a rather daunting experience, like arriving at a house party and finding you don’t know any of the guests. You could try. You could sum up the Lord of the Rings saga by saying it’s all about a quest to destroy a magical ring, but that leaves out the silent terror of the Mines of Moria, the treachery of Gollum and the mournful autumnal kingdom of the elves; the details that make the world come to life. Story-telling is a necessarily one-sided pastime, and since my day job places such an emphasis on listening, my favourite hobby is something I try to avoid at all costs, because it feels selfishly out of sync.

Today, I’m going to break a habit. I’m going to let you into my world.

We can start where it all began. Where it all began to take shape, I mean. According to my journal, that was at 15.30 on Friday 13th November, 2015, on a rocky outcrop beside the Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Montaña just outside the city of Cáceres. I’d been writing “the book” for about twelve years by then – I can trace the first draft back to 2003 – but it was here in Extremadura that everything suddenly fell into place. As I looked out across the plains of Cáceres and upon the city thrown into shadow by the setting sun, something magical happened. It was as though I was staring at a giant jigsaw puzzle that was suddenly arranging itself into perfect order before my eyes. I wrote myself a note in my journal – “What might this place have looked like in the 1600s?”. Sometime later I pencilled in two words above that line: “it begins!”.

And so it began. The cast of characters I had carried in my head and in my heart for over a decade moved to Spain, and the kingdom of Meridia was born.

Picture a corner of the world where the fields go on forever. A land of immense blue skies and sparsely-populated hill-towns, clustered like barnacles about the few slopes that rise out of the motionless sea of earth, where the merciless sun comes down with unfettered fury in summer, and in winter, chill winds howl unimpeded across the plains. A kingdom that has seen people come and go: Moorish forts atop the limestone crags that the vultures have not claimed for their own; Roman arches and theatres rising out of the earth like the bones of some long-dead giant; and, deep in the mountains that ring this hidden kingdom, the faded artwork of a people so ancient that they have long since faded into oblivion. And such mountains! Look to the north on a clear day and you can see them towering mightily over the fields, vast and blue like the sky above, their peaks scarred with snow well into the spring. That’s where the old forests cling on, fugitives from the axes that carved the Roman Empire from Spanish lumber many centuries ago. And where the forests give way to the water, powerful rivers bubble up from the deep, thundering through the hills and carving sheer ravines through the finger-like ridges that splay across the plains from the Sistema Central.

The best of it is that I don’t have to invent this world at all, because it actually exists, and her name is Extremadura. All I had to do was to imagine her in somebody else’s hands. My hands.

When I first set out to create Meridia – named, of course, for the city of Mérida – I initially wanted to keep the real-world location a secret, until the close of the story, at least. It didn’t take me long to realise just how impossible that was going to be from a worldbuilding perspective, particularly over a saga spanning seven books, but since “big reveals” are and always have been a majorly appealing part of story-telling, I played along for a time. I was also still reluctant to fully transition to the use of Spanish people and place names, so I had a go at creating names of my own.

Casiers. Barosse. Meroon. Looking back now, I’m cringing already at how disgustingly English they sound. But then, few tales come into being in a matter of moments. Worldbuilding takes a long time, longer by far than it takes to tell the story itself. I can only guess at how many hours Tolkien must have poured into the creation of Arda. It’s taken me all of twenty years.

Here’s the same map, drawn about a year later. It’s the eighth of a total of ten maps of the peninsula in the same journal (when students ask me how I can draw a map of Spain from memory… this. This is how). It’s probably the most accurate, and the one I still use today when mapping out the events of the saga, the exception being the retroactive introduction of the “corredor cordobés” that cuts a swathe from Córdoba to the city of Cádiz, separating Meridia from Granada and providing a political flashpoint for the plot. Ringing the map, you can see the history I’ve had to build up around it. I tell you, writing a historical novel is one thing, but writing allohistory – that is, an alternative timeline – is a messy, time-consuming business. If I didn’t keep a journal, I doubt I’d remember all the details. Nevertheless, they’re absolutely essential to giving your world an identity of its own, just as the “Greatest Generation” and the “fight them on the beaches” speech are integral parts of our collective memory.

Creating five hundred years of history for a kingdom which never existed is quite the task. Beginning it is easy, as is the wrapping it all up at the end. It’s what you do in between that’s the trouble. How do you explain away, for example, the men who changed the world who hailed from that corner of the real world? How do you rewrite an essentially Spanish history in a timeline where Granada did not fall until the middle of the seventeenth century, where Seville was in foreign hands for the greater part of the Age of Discoveries, and – perhaps most importantly of all – where almost all of Spain’s conquistadors from Cortés and Pizarro to Francisco de Orellana and Núñez de Balboa hailed from a land that did not carry the flag of Castile?

To be honest, that’s half of the fun, trying to find radically new ways of retelling history. It’s why I wrote my dissertation on the Cronica sarracina, arguably one of the greatest works of fiction ever sold as fact in Spain (or was it fact sold as fiction?). I’m doing the same thing with Meridia: I’m telling the story of Spain through a glass darkly, holding up a devil’s mirror to the country I know best.

And once the world has taken shape in your head, it’s time to set your characters running across its empty plains, so your voice can follow them, painting their footprints with words.

I take my inspiration from the world around me. From books, mostly, but also from photographs, legends, paintings and even conversations with strangers. More than one character has slipped between the pages of the book over the years after a brief encounter with one of those larger-than-life types. In essence, the saga is my paean to my grandfather’s country, so I try to weave as many details in as I can. The madmen of the Hurdes. The seven chairs of Mérida. Goya’s fight with cudgels. The mystery of who really got to the New World first and the Lisbon Earthquake. The odd real person makes a cameo appearance from time to time: Diego Velázquez, Michiel de Ruyter and the lost children of the sack of Baltimore. I get the same satisfaction threading their tales into the narrative as I did from peppering each and every essay I wrote at university with “ursulas” (unnecessarily farfetched sidetracks that somehow relate back to the essay question, named for the sea witch in The Little Mermaid). When you’ve been writing the same story for twenty years, you’ve got to find new ways to keep the game fresh.

And sometimes, it’s not a book or a person that finds its way into the worldbuilding effort, but the real world itself, in real time. Like this little snippet from the journal. I’ll leave you with the date (24/6/2016) and let you guess what it’s referring to.

Worldbuilding is laborious. It takes a bloody long time if you plan to do it right. It took me a matter of seconds to decide to move the fictional kingdom of my childhood into Extremadura, but it’s taken my characters all of five years to finish unpacking. The central characters of the story have only borne their new Spanish names for a little over a year. But it’s easily one of the most entertaining parts of the story-telling business, and it doesn’t half smooth out the writing process when you finally find the time to sit down at the computer and have a solid crack at the next chapter.

So… what would you like to know? Asking for somebody else’s thoughts on what is nothing more or less than the single most precious creation of one’s life is more than a little unnerving – I’m not afraid to admit I got the shivers writing that question – but the purpose of story-telling is to share, and I could do with airing the world inside my head for a change.

Alternatively, if you’re a writer too, does my experience with the worldbuilding process sound familiar? I’d love to hear your thoughts. BB x

Tzompantli: An Ode to Extremadura

On Monday, I kick off my new role as the middle school gifted and talented programme coordinator with a lecture on the Aztecs. It wasn’t the obvious choice, as Mexico is a country I have neither visited nor researched nearly as extensively as my grandfather’s country. As a matter of fact I made a conscious effort to steer well clear of Latin American affairs at university, cleaving to the Iberian modules even when it meant the pickings would be slim. If Durham’s only Cervantes specialist hadn’t been on maternity leave in my final year, I could have stayed quite happily in my fairy-tale world of knights and princesses and Moorish warlords and binged on ballads, and I wouldn’t have had to go anywhere near strap-on wielding Catalans and metaphysical Madrilenians. Oh Quijote, en mala hora me abandonaste!

Ordinarily, for such a school project I would have stuck to my guns and wheeled out some Moorish magic with a talk about Islamic Spain, something that is close to my heart; or El Cid, a man whose legend (and whose 1961 movie) is embedded, thorn-like, a couple of inches deeper. I even briefly considered whipping up something about pirates, but I haven’t read nearly enough to do that one justice. Not yet.

I landed upon the Aztecs for a couple of reasons. One, because the book I have chosen to read with my IB students is Laura Esquivel’s Malinche. Two, because my school – or rather, the people whose money built the house in which I now live and work – has a long history with Mexico, a connection that is plainly carved into the stone in several places.

But I think the main reason I wanted to explore the Mexica was because it ties me back, through the ruthless conquistadors, to a place that is still very dear to me: Extremadura.

My first contact with Spain was with Andalusia, with her jagged crags and whitewashed mountain villages. If I wasn’t spellbound there and then, my mum and dad must have been, because they made the crazy decision to up sticks and move us there in 2006… right on the eve of the financial crisis that was already driving many of Spain’s expats out. It might not have been the wisest move for three out of the four of us, but after a year of weekend hikes in the surrounding sierras, gecko-hunts in the streets by night, Holy Week spectaculars and vulture-chasing in the misty heights of El Gastor, I was absolutely hooked. Andalusia was my polestar for many years to follow, and her light shone brightest on the paradise of the tierras rocieras of Doñana National Park.

(The author, blinded by the light since ’05)

Over the years I braved her jealousy and flirted with her sisters: a school trip took me from Barcelona and the magical Mediterranean town of Tossa de Mar up and into the clouded dales of Cantabria and the foothills of austere Asturias. Legends of the Cid led me to Burgos and the empty plains of Old Castile, the guiding light of my ancestry led me home to la Mancha, and in recent years I’ve swum in the crystal waters of Mallorca and Menorca. Throw in flying visits to Aragon, Alicante, La Rioja and the Basque Country and it’s getting to the stage where there’s hardly a corner of the country I haven’t explored.

But I don’t think I could ever have anticipated the rawness of my obsession with Extremadura. From the moment I set foot on her soil I was lost. It honestly felt like falling in love for the first time. Not the high school crush kind of falling in love, but that kind of mature depth of feeling, that gut-wrenching, iron-tasting jolt in your upper body that tells you something’s starting functioning inside that was only dormant before.

Oh, cut the poetry already, BB. If you’ve been reading this blog as long as I’ve been writing it, you’ll know I didn’t actually talk like that when I arrived in Villafranca de los Barros on that hot September afternoon seven years ago. But hindsight is a wonderful thing, and any corner of the Earth that could convince me to jettison my plans for taking my teaching game over to South America for a second (and very almost a third) time must have an awesome power.

When Hernan Cortes and his men entered Tenochtitlan, one of the greatest cities of the world at the time, one of the things that shocked them most of all were the dreadful tzompantli, wooden scaffolds nearly two metres in height that carried between them the many thousands of impaled skulls of the sacrificial victims of the Aztecs. They came back to Spain telling wild tales of eagle warriors and war priests with matted hair and bleeding knives, and when one reads of the savagery wielded in the name of Castile upon the Mexica, it isn’t hard to understand why it’s been so popular until recently to discount the stories of tzompantli as a myth invented by the conquistadors to justify their actions. Until 2015, the year I moved to their homeland, when the bases of the huey tzompantli were uncovered in Mexico City, complete with row upon row of human skulls, laid out like so many candy calaveras on Dia de los Muertos. The conquistadors, for all their sins, must have had stories worth telling, if only people would listen.

Extremadura is one of those places I will probably write about again and again for the rest of my life. If Andalusia was my first crush, Extremadura was the lady who captured my heart for good. Not even the knowledge I have now that ties my bloodline more closely to Valencia than la Mancha can put a stain (no pun intended) on my devotion to her. Hers is a story I would tell and tell and tell until my tongue split in two.

Tzompantli: an image which struck no small amount of awe and fear. The presence of a God or Gods unknown (and a word that first threatened to split my tongue in two, but is now so satisfying to say that I have rather awkwardly made it the title of this post).

That is my Extremadura. Unknown. Disconnected. Hard to say. Trainless. Abandoned. The conquistadors couldn’t get out fast enough. Malaria festered in her hidden valleys long after it had been extirpated everywhere else, and the Mesta virtually enslaved her very earth to their will, subjecting her people to centuries of poverty. But it is precisely because of these fascinating tales – coupled with her unparalleled natural beauty – that I do believe Extremadura to be the jewel in Spain’s crown.

And oh, look – I started writing about Mexico and here we are, back in Spain. I’m nothing if not predictable. Some of us spend our lives traveling in search of that “something” that is just beyond our reach. I count myself amongst the lucky ones who found what I was looking for and need look no further – at least, no further than the light that shines on Spain’s shores. I can only hope Doña Extremadura forgives my curiosity.

Did Rodrigo, last of the Visigoth kings, truly disappear in her mountains after the fall of Merida? Did an army of ants reduce one of her villages to rubble? Were there really hordes of dwarves in Las Hurdes who descended into the valleys by night to terrify the locals? And what made Carlos, supreme ruler of the Spains, the Americas and all the Hapsburg Empire decide to spend the last years of his life in her wooded hills?

You will only find out if you go. Don’t hold on too tightly to your heart. BB x

P.S. Thinking about sharing some more stories from this part of the world… watch this space.

Screamers

April isn’t normally a mad month. This one has been, though. Since getting back from La Mancha, I’ve been here, there and everywhere. Performing in the school play. Working at a Language Immersion weekend in Burguillos del Cerro with the local EOI. Attending extra Gospel Choir rehearsals in Zafra. Taking additional classes at school, cancelling my private classes (at last) and doing intensive research in the library. For what is supposed to be a twelve-hour working week, I’ve been rather busy. It’s never anything that I can’t handle, though, and with the end in sight now, lesson planning is becoming easier rather than harder. That’s some small relief.

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Parroquia de Santa Maria de la Encina y San Juan Bautista, Burguillos del Cerro

The weather, though… What is with the weather this year? Ignoring the fact that I’m English and that my first blog post in almost a month should naturally be to talk about the weather, it’s been one of the weirdest years for weather I’ve ever seen. First the cold, then the rain – three and a half weeks of it – then a week of glorious sunshine, then hard rain again, and now summer, with high humidity and thunderstorms forecast over the Puente de Mayo. It’s as though Spain just forgot to do Spring this year.

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I’m wondering whether that Star of David tucked away in there was intentional…

Winter was long, dry and freezing cold here in Tierra de Barros. Spanish houses are designed with the long, sweltering summers in mind, and though they’re well-adapted to shutting out the light and heat in August, they’re lamentably bad at keeping it in during the winter months. You basically need the brasero (a flat heater, often kept beneath a covered table) on every night. It’s a long battle between cold hands, feet and everything, and the bimonthly electricity bill, and the latest invoice that’s been lying on the kitchen table for the last fortnight serves as a reminder of the cost of the season’s war crimes. It’s a pity one can’t live in Spain for half the year and England for the other. You could make a killing on the savings.

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Booted Eagle (aguila calzada) from the castle at Burguillos

On a minor note, it’s impossible to get into a comfortable position on this sofa. There. I’ve acknowledged the elephant in the room. We can move on.

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Painted Lady taking a break on the castle top

I’ve been wondering what to write the next blog post about for a while. A couple of weeks ago the bee-eaters arrived, on the very day I’d commented on their absence, and that brought joy to my heart. Later, I had the Language Immersion, which raised some rather disconcerting news concerning my beloved Extremadura, but that wasn’t strictly blog-worthy. I also dug out the local library’s regional encyclopedias, which were filled to the brim with local information I could only dream about before… but at the risk of boring you all senseless, I’ll wait until I’ve properly processed the information before regurgitating it here and now. No, the answer, my friend, was blowing in the wind.

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Or should I say, screaming.

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The swifts have been here for over a month now, hawking overhead on their way north alongside the hundreds of swallows, martins, kites and storks also bound for northern Europe, but the Villafranca contingent only arrived a few weeks ago. How do I know this? Well, it’s quite simple, really. I know this because the screaming only began a few weeks ago. The collective noun for a flock of swifts varies, with some opting for a box of swifts, or the more alliterative swoop of swifts, though in perfect honesty I’m going to tip my hat to the chappie who coined the phrase a ‘screaming frenzy’ of swifts – because anybody who’s familiar with these peculiar creatures will know that they’re not exactly the most inconspicuous of birds, to put it lightly.

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Swifts are odd-looking birds, to say the least. In flight, they’re right out of a kid’s drawing: long, tapering wings with no trailing fingers, a stubby, featureless face and a cigar-shaped body which makes them look more like a fish that grew feathers and took to the sky. At the same time, their large brown eyes and tiny mouths lend something mousy to their appearance, too. They’re not even that closely related to swallows and martins, with which they share the skies. But whatever they are, they’re endlessly fun to watch, as they duck and weave and scream and perform some of nature’s most endearing acrobatics on a summer evening, seemingly for the sheer thrill of it.

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The saying “one swallow does not a summer make” holds more and more weight here in Spain, especially now that in recent years many swallows never leave at all, opting instead to take their chances with the Spanish winter rather than brave the journey across the Sahara and back. Swifts, on the other hand, are die-hard migrants, spending almost their entire lives on the wing. They eat, sleep, mate and collect all the material they need to build their nests in the air. The ancients believed they never came down at all: their scientific name – apus – derives from the Greek for ‘without feet’. Needless to say they do, like all birds, though they’re small and underdeveloped in comparison to their powerful wings. I’ve only ever seen a swift’s feet once, and that was because I found a dead fledgling beneath the eaves of the village church when I was thirteen. I remember Adisham being a haven for rare birds then: spotted flycatchers, yellow wagtails, corn buntings, grey partridges and even local rumours of a lonely corncrake. I wonder how it’s faring now.

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There are five species of swift in Spain: the common swift (above), the larger brown-and-white Alpine swift and the chunkier pallid swift, and the two newcomers from Africa, the white-rumped and little swifts (you’ll see the latter a lot more readily if you take a wander through the streets of Marrakesh, where they make a habit of weaving between the heads of the shoppers on their way to their nests). It’s the common swifts we get here in Villafranca, the same kind we see back home in England, even though theirs is a sound I have come to associate more and more with Spain than England. Like the cuckoo and the turtle dove, the early summer screams of the swift faded into memory as I grew up and they began to disappear. It can’t be easy, sharing our little island with Man.

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Look close and you’ll see the fly that once was

The older I get, the more I appreciate the simpler things. When I was younger, it was all about the bells and whistles: hoopoes with their punk-rocker crests, rollers with their shiny blue jackets and gallinules in their resplendent purple glory. I’m still mad about the gallinules, but a long detox from the serious bird-watching of my teen years has done me wonders. Swifts and starlings are just as worth watching these days as kites and eagles, with the added bonus being that they can be counted on to be outside my window at any given moment… Although, that being said, it’s a rare moment when I look out the window and don’t find myself picking out a kite, stork or eagle in the blue sky. Yesterday I’d popped my head out for just a minute when a raven flew over. My flat seems to be on the flight path, because most everything I see passes right overhead.

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Time for bed, I think. Well, another chapter of Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One and then bed, anyway. There are some authors I just keep coming back to. Bryce Courtenay is one of them. BB x

T-12

The Heavens have given us a temporary respite. The spring rains that began a month ago today are still falling hard, and set to fall harder still over the next week or two, but today the clouds are colourless and clear. I no longer live in a state of quasi-permanence beside the brasero and soon I’ll be able to put my jumpers back in the wardrobe once again. Spring has definitely arrived here: my morning walk to school is a symphony of song from the park, albeit a symphony where every part seems to think they hold the solo, from the strings of the serins and the woodwind of the blackbirds to the kestrel fanfare, stork drumrolls and the uncompromising neither-here-nor-there noise of the starlings. It puts a smile on my face every morning.

I’m conscious, as I often am at this time of year, of my time running out. Where the year seemed to stretch on into the middle distance back in cold, gloomy February, March holds up a mirror as if to remind me how much the cold warps one’s perspective. As it stands, I only have twelve weeks remaining, of which nine and a half are working weeks and only four bring as-of-yet unscheduled weekends. In my desire to be busy once again I’ve burdened myself up with responsibilities that eat into my timetable like caterpillars: a private lesson in Almendralejo, choir rehearsals in Zafra and play rehearsals at 8.15am on a Thursday morning. Combined with commuting time, and those inevitable private lessons that are at the incredibly inconvenient time of six o’clock in the afternoon, my time is slipping through my fingers and the year will be over before I know it. And with a summer job and a proper job at the end of it waiting for me back in England, that’s more than a little disheartening. Something’s got to give.

Reading is keeping me afloat. I finished She the other day and I’m onto another classic, Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. After the insightful but heavy high-Victorian ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ of Haggard’s dialogue, it’s a breath of fresh air to hear people speak in an altogether more human register some twelve years prior. Once again, I’m reminded that, if it weren’t for my all-consuming love for Iberia, I would have followed my grades at gone for a degree in English Literature. I might not have enjoyed reading as much at the time, but I’m certainly making up for lost time here and now, even if that does entail reading two Haggard books per month. Still, I don’t read Haggard for the dialogue: the old adventurer might be unable to tear himself from his medieval register, but there is wisdom scattered in his words like pearls on a stormy beach, and I love mining his books for quotes in such a fashion. I just need to modernise my reading tastes so my own writing doesn’t become quite as jaded. Hardy might be a step backwards in time, but he’s more than a step forwards in modernism. BB x

The Rain in Spain

Snow doesn’t like me. Every time it falls I’m in the wrong country. The last time I remember snow good enough to build a decent snowman was early in 2013, when I was on my abortive gap year and had precious little else to do. Going north to university was supposed to bring better weather; living as close to the coast as I did, pretty much every weather front we got had dissipated by the time it reached us.

Not so. In my first year at Durham we had a light dusting, and second year delivered only a little better. In my third year the powers that be decided to deliver a decent fall… but of course, I was in Spain at the time, and didn’t see any snow whatsoever. The following year I returned to Durham, where it was cold, but not enough for snow. Spain, on the other hand, got a lashing so strong it covered most of Andalusia – one of Spain’s hottest regions – in an impressive layer. And now this Beast from the East lays waste to the UK with snowfall like it hasn’t seen in decades, and here I am in the one part of Europe that was spared.

It’s obvious. Snow and me simply aren’t compatible.

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What are we getting here in Spain? Guess. I’ll give you a clue: they had a fair idea when they wrote My Fair Lady.

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You want the Beast from the East? Try the Pest from the West. It’s supposed to rain for a full fortnight.

There are just over a couple of weeks to go until Semana Santa. I haven’t been blogging much, partly because of the taxing nature of private lessons with under tens, but mainly because any writing I don’t commit to my novels seems like a betrayal, especially with the workload (and the salary) set to treble next year, and by my own hand. I’ll keep you posted. BB x

Slow Clocks and White Socks

Good morning from the staff room. My second 1°ESO class are busy preparing posters on British food for next week’s Semana Cultural this morning, so I’m off the hook for an hour. It’s a shame, really; they’re probably the one class that could have really benefited from a presentation on the UK, seeing as it’s what they’re working on right now. My other 1°ESO class loved it, and I dare say the addition of a Honchkrow to explain ‘honcho’ helped a lot in the ‘foreign words in English’ section. Not that honcho – a Japanese term for ‘big boss’ – is a word you expect to come across all that often, but it makes the language learning process a lot more colourful. Going over the same ‘how much is a ticket’ dialogue every week gets a bit dry, eventually.

I went for a walk in the park yesterday. It’s been so warm and sunny recently, I simply couldn’t justify going straight home from work. Tired as I was, I slapped a small lunch together, downloaded a few In Our Time podcasts and crossed the road into the park. It was a little windier than I’d have liked, so I didn’t stay all that long in the end. Without it, it might have been as warm as 18°C. In February. But here in the plains of Extremadura, we’re ruled by the terrain. The wind that blows across the flats is cold and loud, like something out of the Old West. You half expect a tumbleweed to pass you by. It’s a shame that we think immediately of America when we hear that name: with its wide open plains, rocky cliffs and canyons teeming with bandits, and its historic code of honour and justice, I’d like to think Spain was the real Old West; the Ancient West, if you will.

The swallows are here. I watched a few of them twittering noisily as they careered about the pond, whilst one of the town’s storks soared lazily overhead. The trees were alive with goldfinches, and I saw a huge bat on its way to the park from my flat the other night. It was a lot easier to consider a job in England a month ago, I’m telling you, before Spain started thinking about her Spring clothes. Now that it’s feasible to go to bed without having the heater on for a full hour, and the blue skies are no longer laden with a biting cold air, I find myself in love once again. The saying goes: ‘nueve meses de invierno y tres de infierno’ – nine months of winter and three of Hell – but Spain can be equally unforgiving in the grip of winter.

I spent a little while watching a robin – always one of my favourite birds – and a couple of hoopoes flapping about like oversized butterflies. Symbols of England and Spain, in my head. I should go to the park more often.

It’s hard to see the change in the seasons here in Tierra de Barros, with the park full of evergreens and the surrounding eternity of vineyards and olive trees, but the animals tell you. And where they fail, the town drummers do a pretty good job. Carnaval is over, and I thought that might be the end of their incessant weekly drumming, but I was wrong: last night as I lay dozing in the living room, I heard the unmistakeable march of the Holy Week procession. It’s a good month away, but preparations have begun in earnest. But I’m not complaining: Semana Santa is far and away one of my favourite things in Spain and I never want to be anywhere else when it’s on. Like countless Brits before me, I’m shamelessly enthralled by the primal magic of it.

And, like countless Brits before me, I’m steadily coming to understand that our humour and theirs – or anybody else’s, perhaps – simply don’t mix. My jape about my countrified accent got cut from the play this morning. I guess they didn’t see the funny side. One of my students did point out to me recently that imitating their accent is one of the few things guaranteed to rile an extremeño. As a guiri, perhaps I’m allowed a certain amount of leverage – it’s always funny to see a foreigner having a go, I guess – but patience, in the end, wears thin. Especially when I have to make that same joke at twenty-five minutes past eight every Thursday morning.

A few weeks ago there was an article in The Times titled ‘How to be Spanish‘ that caused uproar on Spanish social media. The Spanish, it seems, don’t like being told how to be Spanish by an Englishman (a puto guiri, to quote various Twitter users). Surprise of the century. Spaniards came out with war flags, claiming the author had no idea what country he was talking about. Whoever these folks were who eat tapas at the bar and never at the tables, swear so liberally and have a slightly more relaxed attitude to time than the hyper-punctual English, they certainly weren’t Spanish.

Shortly afterwards, the Spanish retaliated with an article of their own on how to be British, citing such customs as queuing for everything, wearing white socks, wall-to-wall carpeting and, of course, our penchant for exaggeration. It was a childish exchange, but you have to admit, there were a few cultural nuances both sides got spot-on.

It was a lot of fun to discuss in class, I’ll give you that, but whilst I agree that the original author could have been a little less damning in his exaggerations – a flaw I’m often party to (see the war flags remark) – it seems to me that the problem lies not in the content itself, but in how it was received. Of course not all Spaniards act the way the author describes, but then, he doesn’t go out of his way to make that clear. And, of course, it wouldn’t be so funny if every observation in the article carried a disclaimer. Remember those jokes that your friends make that you didn’t get, and they then had to explain? Yeah… They weren’t funny at all.

As Brits, we read such things with a smile, seeing the irony and the humorous comparisons, because as a nation that’s what we do best: ridicule. We love to laugh, to laugh at others, and (sometimes) to be laughed at in turn. It’s not a universal attitude, but trying to be funny on a regular basis is, I think, an inherently British custom. Most everybody else has a life to be getting on with. Great Britain is cold, rainy and – according to some – has potentially the worst cuisine in the world (the very un-English chicken tikka massala was our most popular dish for years), but we are fantastic at making light of this and everything else, from our politicians and our history to our friends and neighbours, even if the rest of the world looks on in confusion. I gave up trying to introduce my kids to Blackadder and Monty Python a long time ago. It requires too much explanation. By contrast, Mr Bean works like a dream… because there’s no dialogue whatsoever. Which, given that he’s portrayed by easily one of our wisest and wittiest comedians, is a crying shame.

So that’s all it is. The British like being funny. And when our jokes involve people beyond our remit, we get confused when they take offence. Why can’t they see the funny side? The answer is simple: they don’t have to. That’s not to say we shouldn’t make jokes anymore. British humour is, in the humble opinion of this author, king. But we could be try to be a little more aware of what cultural difference means. If the Spanish come across as having a lax approach to time, it’s only because we’re unreasonably pernickety about it. The whole and ungeneralised truth lies somewhere in between.

Jokes are fine. Our problem is that we expect others to take a joke, to know when we’re being funny and when we’re not… and it’s not always easy. Especially in print. BB x

Dust and Ashes

I watched a house being torn down on my way home yesterday. The sun was setting behind, casting beautiful golden rays through the dust as the maw of the digger ripped the walls apart. Destruction is an odd thing to witness. It obviously has its pull; there were some four or five others standing by who, like me, had paused in their perambulations to watch: an old man, a chap in blue overalls, a man and his dog, a mother and her daughter, and me; all of us gathered there to witness the last moments of a 60’s flat block. The walls came down like sand.

I once heard it said that it can be a thrill to watch somebody on a downward spiral. I never did understand what it meant, though I suppose it’s along the same lines as the death of the flat block. It’s a spectacle. We don’t pay to see movies where the hero overcomes every single obstacle and has a wonderful life thank-you-very-much, with no end to his or her wish-you-were-here lifestyle. We want to see suffering. We want to know they’re as vulnerable as us. And if they succeed, and they don’t always succeed, we want to know it came at a cost. Nobody is invincible, but everybody is human to some degree. It’s about what rises out of the ashes, rather than the ashes themselves.

I’ll have to think about that downward spiral case some more.

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Villafranca celebrated Candelas last night. It’s a local festival, similar to the English custom of Bonfire Night only in that the main ingredient is a number of bonfires. Folk were gathered in front of the main bars in town, where a handful of small bonfires had been laid out and set alight. Whatever they were putting on them was coughing up thick smoke and a hellish rain of sparks. Beyond, on the town outskirts, the neon lights of a visiting circus glared through the haze. It looked like something out of a Don Bluth film. I tried to imagine the first candelas, four hundred years ago and more, then the only lights in this dark land. A friendlier festival than Halloween – or, perhaps, what Halloween has become – if only I had somebody around to share it with. That night I wandered the streets alone, knowing once again after a long time how it feels to be on your own.

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Our electricity bill is almost double what it was last term. That’s hardly surprising; since then, we discovered the flat’s heaters – both the presence of and the real need for them. No biggie. I’m keeping my options open on the job front, looking for work in both Spain and England. It may be some time before I have the enviable position of being able to make such a decision from a position of comfortable stability. Until then, I need to put Reinette through her paces (Hornachos is still beckoning), read a few more books, write a few more letters and apply some serious muscle to my novel. Time is in my favour this year, but still it slips through my fingers by the second. Orion watches from the night sky as he has for millennia, and the sight of him comforts me.

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I’ll be back in England in under a week. It’s a nice way round to have it, I’ll grant you, living in Spain and holidaying in England. There’s also talk of an upcoming gig for the Northern Lights which I might feasibly be able to make. The ground beneath my feet is moving. In the meantime, I’m relying on Thomas Hardy, Marvin Gaye and a never-diminishing rota of classroom games to keep my mind at work.

In other words, life goes on. I’ll see you around. BB x

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 third region of Spain I’ve visited the most, as for some reason I ended up there on all three occasions. A marginally less mountainous version of Asturias, Cantabria is a good choice for the British auxiliar who doesn’t want to leave behind too many creature comforts. Quesada pasiega, a local speciality, is unheavenly good (like most of the Iberian peninsula’s takes on the custard tart), and the stereotype is true: I’ve seen more cows and tractors here than in any other part of Spain. It doesn’t have the quasi-African feel of the south, but what it does have is a cheap and reliable train network, which is a huge plus in any world.

Probability: 5/10

Castilla La Mancha

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

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

Probability: 4/10

Castilla y León

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

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

Probability: 8/10

Cataluña

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

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

Probability: 6/10

Ceuta and Melilla

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

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

Probability: 4/10

Extremadura

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

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

Probability: 7/10

Galicia

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

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

Probability: 9/10

Islas Baleares

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

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

Probability: 2/10

Islas Canarias

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

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

Probability: 3/10

La Rioja

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

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

Probability: 2/10

Madrid

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

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

Probability: 1/10

Murcia

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

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

Probability: 4/10

Navarra

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

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

Probability: 6/10

País Vasco

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

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

Probability: 5/10

Valencia

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

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

Probability: 3/10


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

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

Rainbow’s End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘We’re not in Hornachos anymore…’

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

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

Crash and Burn

Galicia’s forests are burning. They suspect foul play. Somebody somewhere truly does like to watch the world burn. Here in Villafranca, we were woken by the long-awaited crash of a thunderstorm, the one that usually rolls around on the second weekend of October. It was late this year, but it came nonetheless, and it came down hard. For just an hour or so, the roads were rivers.

Aeolus had more than the winds of wrath in his bag this morning. Some five or six staff are leaving for Seville tomorrow, perhaps for good. A bag of a very different nature – a bolsa extraordinaria, to be precise – has been opened there, offering the chance for many wayward Andalusians scattered to the far regions of Spain to return home. It’s no guarantee, but as the sudden glut of places for maths and science teachers overrides the need for success in the all-important oposiciones (the national exams that decide the fate of teachers here) there’s everything to fight for. My housemate was one of those called up. He packed his bags and left twenty minutes ago. He left some yoghurts in the fridge and a towel in the bathroom – ‘por si acaso‘.

For a few hours, I was in freefall. I made a stand here when the going was good in Almendralejo, adamant in my decision to improve my Spanish and stay true to Villafranca. It looked as though it had paid off. Two and a half weeks in, the storm broke, the floor vanished and I found myself staring into the abyss. Strong-armed out of the storm by a savvy Argentinian, I’m back on dry ground for the time being. After the ride that the last three days have given me, I’m lucky to be where I am, to know the folks that I do. It could be a lot worse. I could be in Galicia, where the fires rage, or Catalonia, where the cold arm of the state has begun to descend upon the separatists. It’s quite the year to be in Spain.

The storm isn’t over yet. The clouds were building thick and dark over the mountains to the east as I made my way home. We’re due for another night of thunder and lightning, and a lot of rain. Aeolus hasn’t done with us yet. But I’ve got the sails drawn and my hand on the rudder this time and I’m ready to ride it. That’s quite enough being blown about for one month. A handful of the staff were after some ‘Inglés de la calle’ at the staff lunch yesterday. Well, here’s an old classic for you, folks. Aeolus, come at me, bro. BB x