Summer Ramble on a Ha-Ha

Bastille Day. The temperatures hit 26 degrees Celsius this afternoon. The BBC Weather app is predicting a high of 34 on Tuesday. The folks on the radio are starting to use the words ‘ration’ and ‘hosepipe ban’. I sat outside on the south-facing ha-ha and stared out across the Weald towards the South Downs for about an hour. I brought a few books to read – four more than I actually needed, as is my habit – and spent about ten minutes “reading” the mega-drawing, reliving the memories recorded on that gargantuan scroll.

I saw a monk in the quiet garden sitting in silent contemplation and reminded myself how lucky I am to live and work where I do. Isolation does no wonders for the human condition, but there’s a reason enlightenment is rarely sought in the cities. Sometimes the key to more positive thinking is just to get outside for an hour or two, even if there is no destination in mind. I certainly feel a lot happier for it.

Over the forest to the south, I saw a pair of hobbies displaying. I haven’t seen such a thing in a long, long time. I’d forgotten what masters of the air they are. Little wonder they’re among the few predators capable of catching a swallow on the swing. They cut through the air like feathered lightning, making the hovering kestrel nearby look like one of Da Vinci’s clumsy flying machines by comparison.

A few minutes later, the white buzzard flapped into view. It wasn’t around for more than half a minute, before two crows sent it back the way it had come, back into the wooded dark of the Weald. A hat-trick of British birds of prey in as little as five minutes. Reminded me of a sunny June afternoon when I was a kid, when to my disbelief I clocked no fewer than six raptor species circling above the house at once: kestrel, buzzard, sparrowhawk, hobby, two red kites and a peregrine. To this day I have no idea how they all came to be in the same place at the same time. In Gibraltar, maybe, but not in Kent.


The race for Boris’ replacement is picking up momentum. My parents were quick to bat aside my guess that Sunak would take the throne, but the odds seem to be in his favour at the moment. I’m no political pundit, but I feel it’s worth recording these things from time to time. Since reading Philipp Blom’s Nature’s Mutiny last year (a collection of anecdotes documenting the Little Ice Age), I’m all the more convinced it’s important that those of us who spend our free moments writing make a point of logging the everyday. Who knows what it might tell future generations about the way we lived?

I’m getting itchy feet again. I think I might go on just the one *little* adventure before the summer is over, and I’m thinking it ought to be France – not least of all because of the relative ease of getting there by boat. It sounds like nothing less than chaos surrounding airlines at the moment, which are struggling to meet the logjam of two years’ worth of cancelled summer holidays when they haven’t yet recovered from the post-COVID staff shortages. I don’t plan on going far, but I have always wanted to see the Bayeux Tapestry, and one of the better things to come out of 2021/22 has been a rediscovery of my love for French, thanks to an especially heartwarming Year 7 class I had the pleasure to teach this year. I confess I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about going back to teaching two languages at the start of the year (after my experience teaching lower set Year 9 in my PGCE year), but these kids really turned it all around. So… Normandy? I’d better do some research, but… I’ve got to say, the opportunity to spend even a couple of days in a place of such historical importance… It’s dangerously tempting! BB x

Sh!tsh@w: A Recovery Plan for a Rough Year

Sunday 26th June, 12:47pm.
The Flat.

We’ve made it. Blimey, but I thought that year would never end. School years come and go in cycles, and I consider myself an extremely patient man, but this one has been particularly trying. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve come close to questioning my career on more than one occasion, and every time I’ve been pulled back up to the light by the trinity: the kids, the music and the torchlight of my ancestors. I’ve never been overly fond of the yawning hole in the year that is the summer holidays – I have a desperate need to be busy that two months puts a serious strain upon – but I did breathe an almighty sigh of relief when the clock struck twelve on Friday night. It’s just been one of those years.

When I look back, I can’t help but label my third year as a teacher as the year when everything went wrong. The year when all my endeavours came to ruin. Consequently, it’s also the year when hope has been even more important than ever – and hope, shapeless and mysterious, has ever been my polestar.


This year my Gospel Choir was disbanded, cancelled on the grounds that I, as a white man, was not the appropriate choice to run such a group. I conceded without a fight. It hurt, it hurt right down to the core of my soul to be told so openly that my efforts – and even my taste in music – were so wholly inappropriate. It wasn’t an attack on me by any standards, but my word, did I take the issue home! My head was spinning for weeks and I took some time out in Spain with my cousins to heal. What had happened flew in the face of everything I’d been taught by my various Gospel mentors over the years, and everybody I spoke to seemed baffled. For my career’s sake I briefly considered abandoning my attempts to dabble in music absolutely, and would have gone ahead were it not for the discovery that my great-grandparents were both musicians. I cannot let them down. It wouldn’t be right. I also owe it to the kids under my aegis to find a way, so that the last three years of hard work will not be in vain.

Rising from the ashes, my new a cappella group has been fun, and I hope the kids have enjoyed it, even if we’ve never been concert ready when the time came. The simple truth is that Gospel music, as well as being eye-opening and soul-enriching, is easy to learn. It’s meant to be, because it was never written with trained musicians in mind. By contrast, a cappella arrangements are impressive when done right, but hard to pull off, even when you have a group of semi-professionals. It pains me that my efforts to instil a genuine love of performing have yet to bear fruit with my current cohort, but the kids rock up each week with big smiles and they enjoy the music, and I guess that’s good enough for now.


December hit me with a one-two punch that nearly knocked me out cold. I wandered out of a five-year relationship and within twenty-four hours I had a head-cold that left me half-deaf – and later, more excruciatingly, under the maddening influence of diplacusis dysharmonica. The timing could hardly have been worse: first the Gospel fiasco left me questioning almost all my choices in music, and then the mother of all earaches made it physically impossible to listen to any kind of music whatsoever for all of two months. It felt like the world was conspiring to bring me down.

I wasn’t especially keen to admit it, but I’ve been in orbit ever since. I tried a couple of times to kindle the sparks of a relationship with somebody new, but my attempts sputtered and died like the fireworks in the rain, and I confess I’ve probably been too proud to bend the knee in full to the world of online dating purely on principle. So I’ve been a family man to my kids more than ever this year, giving them as much of my time as I can muster of an evening and finding opportunities to praise and guide wherever I can. They give me hope and I try to do the same for them. I’m convinced teaching is the best job in the world.

I’ve tried to be more supportive of my brother this year. He hasn’t chosen the easiest path, and there are few people in the world I look up to more. I’ve also kept up with my youngest cousin through our English classes every week, or at least the weeks where he doesn’t have an exam to revise for. Family means a lot to me, squaring well with my dreams of being the best dad ever someday, which is partly why being out of a relationship has been so disorienting. At least if there’s been one success this year, it’s been a closer connection to my kin. Maybe rediscovering the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness earlier in the year helped.

Finally, I know I can be a better teacher. I’ve done well by my kids this year, but I can improve. I know I can. I think all the knocks I took this year left me on one knee, still standing though not as strong as before. I reckon it’s about time I got up on two feet again.


So it’s time to plan ahead and set things in order. Two months of summer stretch ahead, and I’ve got plenty of things to do, starting today.

I’m going to get fit.
Fitness has never really interested me, but a healthier body can only prop up a healthier state of mind.

I’m going to cook for myself again.
I’ve taken advantage of being fed at school for too long. I used to love cooking when I lived for myself. It’s time to rediscover that joy.

I’m going to learn to drive. Finally.
It’s a milestone that I can’t ignore anymore, and I’m finally at the stage in my life where absolute freedom of mobility is starting to interest me. Even if I don’t pass my test this year, I need to make a start. Starting is always the hardest part.

I’m going to read more. And I mean read, not just say it and buy more books.
I’ve set myself a target of a chapter a day, whatever the book, in addition to at least one article.

I’m going to plan ahead.
I want my teaching to get better and better, so I’m going to dedicate some serious time to planning some fantastic teaching methods this summer.

I’m going to write again. Not just on here, but the book.
My journals have been with me to almost every lesson and on every school outing, but I’ve made little progress on the novel since the real teaching life began. And that’s criminal.

Last but not least, I’m going to get out and see the world.
Not traveling – I can’t justify having more than one holiday per year anymore, and I had my holiday at Easter. But I need to widen my circle of trust. I need to allow myself to meet others, and if I’m guarded about making that connection online, the only way to do it is to get out and about.


I’m no fan of coming up with action plans at work, but my future is counting on me to make this choice now. Melodrama aside, I could do with some change in my life. And that change starts today! BB x

A Taste of Adventure

One of the very best things about my job is my role as the middle school Gifted and Talented Co-Ordinator. As one of the few not on the G&T list in my grammar school days you might jump to the conclusion that there’s a chip on my shoulder there, but that’s not quite right. A more likely excuse is that in my sixth form days I was involved with my school’s Arts and Humanities Society, a pre-university lecture/seminar group run by my history teachers, and it was so pivotal in my development as an academic that I have spent the last few years wanting to set up a society of my own here. The simple fact of the matter is that, four years into my teaching career, I’ve found the niche that allows me to do what I’ve always wanted to do: explore learning for its own sake.

So far, what that has entailed is two after school lectures, one every half term, on subjects that my students might otherwise not encounter in the classroom. I got the ball rolling last term with a talk on the Aztec, where we went on a whirlwind tour of the history of the Mexica, the geography of Mexico and the fierce deities of the Aztec pantheon – as well as the tale of Cortes, la Malinche and the fall of Tenochtitlan. Since I’d much rather the sessions were seminars rather than dialogues, I make a real point of taking questions and posing some of my own as I go so that these talks are more of a journey together than a lesson with me at the front. In the best of all possible worlds – the world I’m trying to create in a Monday afternoon classroom – I’d like to come out of the hour knowing that I haven’t added to their knowledge so much as given them new avenues to explore. That’s why I conclude each session by asking my students what they’d be interested in learning about next time. Today, there were a lot of requests for Chinese history: the Tang Dynasty, the Civil War and the Opium Wars. Perhaps that’s because we took a ride with Zheng He and his treasure fleet this afternoon.

Today’s talk was on Explorers, after one of my students requested a lecture on adventurers like Cook and Lewis & Clark. It was so much fun to research, not least of all because I have been lucky enough to do no small amount of exploring myself in my twenty-eight years on this Earth. I started off with the graphic below and, after we’d agreed Mr Young really doesn’t suit a beard, I picked my students’ brains about the locations in each one. Using the clues of this man’s local dress, and the mountain gorilla, and the facade of the rose city, and the scallop shell, they smashed every single one. Proud teacher moment.

I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing my kids go from strength to strength in the language classroom. But I’d call myself a seeker of knowledge for its own sake long before I call myself a linguist, and this is where somebody like me is in his element. Seeing the electric enthusiasm of my students sparkling like Saint Elmo’s fire from their outstretched fingers as they vie to share their collected wisdom with their peers, answering questions I haven’t yet posed four slides in advance because they read this book here or their parents showed them that thing there… There’s few things like it. It’s one of those “this is why I teach” moments, and the best thing about it is that you’re not having to do an awful lot of teaching. The knowledge is there. All you have to do is open a few doors.

This afternoon, over the space of an hour, we traveled the world. We sailed around China, Africa and the Indian ocean with Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta and Zheng He. We crossed the Atlantic with Leif Eriksson and the Basques and wondered what took Christopher Columbus so long. We learned to navigate by the stars and explored the constellations. We met mild-mannered mountain men, meddling missionaries and bloodthirsty bandeirantes. We searched for Amelia Earhart’s final resting place, climbed the Matterhorn (and fell down the other side) and, saving the best until last, we sat down and had a difficult conversation with that most impressive of adventurers, and one of the greatest linguists (or even, in the opinion of this author, Britons) of all time: Sir Richard Francis Burton. Somehow I managed to cram it all into the space of an hour.

Well. Almost. We ran overtime by about five minutes, but not a single one of my kids reached for their phone, or started to pack up and leave. And that may well have to do with the fact that I chose to end the talk with the personal story of a friend of mine who gives us all a reason to believe in hope again: Luke Grenfell-Shaw, triathlete, fellow Arabist and CanLiver, and champion of the Bristol2Beijing tandem ride across the world. The best thing about that? Once again, I wasn’t even adding to their knowledge. Two of my students lit up at the image alone. They knew this man. They had heard of him.

I can’t tell his story. I won’t. Read about him for yourself – there are few men in this world like Luke. And though I poured my heart and soul into this evening’s talk, I’d like to think that it will be Luke’s story that my kids take home tonight. The world is vast, and explorers and adventurers have already been over so much of it and documented everything. But that doesn’t mean the age of adventure is over. People like Luke are living proof that adventure lies within, in our hearts and in what we choose to do with the world around us.

Godspeed, Luke. We’re rooting for you here.

https://www.bristol2beijing.org/

In the meantime, I’d better find myself an expert on Chinese history! BB x

“…So I Became a Teacher”

Ten years ago, British comedians Ben Miller and Alexander Armstrong ran a cracking comedy show on the BBC. The show has always been one of my standout favourites in British comedy, delivering some truly brilliant sketches including Perfectly Innocent, Kill Them, The Embarrassed Prime Minister and the Polish Plumbers, to name just a few. One running gag that hits close to home but still makes me chuckle is the comedy duo’s Be A Teacher ads, lampooning the common reasons why people “fall into” teaching:

“Failed in the real world? Then why not be a teacher?”
“Quite bright, but lazy? Need a safety net? Be a teacher.”
“Good enough to get a degree but not good enough to get a job? Be a teacher.”
“If your ambitions haven’t quite come off, remember: there’s always teaching.”

It’s a little tragic that one of the most important and time-honoured professions in human history often seems to fall into the category of “one of those jobs you do when you’ve tried all other avenues”. Conversations at school and university often went one of two ways whenever teaching came up: either “I just want to do something more worthwhile with my degree, you know?” or “God, I hate kids. I could never do that”. They’re hardly groundless as arguments go. Who in their right mind would want to get back into the classroom almost as soon as they’d left it? There’s surely something intrinsically sadistic about that kind of decision, and that’s before we even get onto the nitty-gritty of marking, differentiation and pupil management. And as for the hating the kids part… well, they say never work with children or animals – but maybe that’s just because you can’t ever truly predict or control either of them. And it is so very human to want to be able to do just that.

For me, at least, it has never been a question of “lapsing” into the education business. It is, like so many things, a family affair. Both of my parents were teachers. My Spanish great-grandmother was a teacher, and she married a teacher. I’m just continuing with the job. I might have had my wobbles along the way, but I don’t think I’ve ever really doubted that I’d be a teacher someday. Sure, that’s easy to say on a Saturday night, when most of the kids are out and boarding duties have been light, but it really is one of those professions that teaches you all the time, usually in ways you don’t expect.

I’m writing tonight because these last two weeks have been tough. The reality of teaching foreign languages to the English – ever the most stubborn of peoples when it comes to learning foreign languages – is beginning to bite. Not a week goes by when I don’t hear the line “Sir, why do I have to learn a language? Why can’t I just speak English?”, or variations thereof. The Modern Languages and Cultures graduate in me would love to give some solid answers, but these are fourteen-year old kids, for pity’s sake. A university-level argument on the merits of multilingualism pales in comparison to the fact that they have to revise twenty words they may very well never have to use in their lives – besides the end-of-year exam, of course.

So what use is the degree, then? What was the point in spending £9000 a year on the study of French, Spanish and Arabic history and literature if I am to spend the next four years teaching kids how to count up to thirty-one or discuss their plans for the weekend? These are questions I have been asking myself a lot these past two weeks. I came back to England with a mission, to do my part in a desperate campaign to save this country from collapsing into ignorant isolationism, knowing full-well what it would mean. And yes, whilst working in a boarding school does allow me to continue to channel my passion for music – easily the best part of the job by a country mile – the teaching side of it is hardly as scholarly as I’d have liked, sometimes.

At times like these, I do miss university. I miss staying up late with my housemates discussing political or social matters, I miss the excitement of sharing in the knowledge of others, and of sharing your own in turn, and I miss the challenge of stretching my brain. God, I miss that. I’ve been reading like a fiend these last few weeks out of a mad desire to tackle something more intangible than the days of the week. I ordered a book of ancient Spanish poetry off eBay the other day and pored over it during prep one night, something I admittedly would never have done at university. But then, my brain was stimulated in other ways then.

So what’s keeping me here? Why do I go on teaching?

Because I believe it’s nothing more and nothing less than one of the most important jobs in the world. For as long as there have been humans, there has been teaching, and even before then, there was teaching and learning after a kind. In the words of a colleague of mine, “I don’t care how much more you earn in the office, your job could disappear from the face of the earth overnight and nobody would notice. Not so with teaching”. You might see it as giving up on your own hopes and dreams to encourage others to pursue theirs, or that might have been your ambition all along. Teaching is the job that keeps on giving – both in reward and in workload, yes, but the rewards make up for it. I am a far braver, far more tolerant individual thanks to teaching. You don’t go into teaching to share your love with just the kids who love the subject back. That’s neither practical nor necessary. You do it just as much for the kids who don’t listen as for those who do. Teaching the subject you love to children with no love for it whatsoever will sap your zeal, strangle it if it can, but it does encourage you to see things from a different perspective. And, frankly, any job that does that on a regular basis is a job worth pursuing, if the ultimate goal of human existence is to understand each other – which is what I have always supposed it to be.

I still can’t fault Armstrong and Miller, simply because that sketch is bloody hilarious. But if you’re enthusiastic, passionate about your field, patient and have a drive to listen and learn, I cannot encourage you enough: be a teacher. Money might make the world go round, but somebody has to encourage and inspire the next generation (besides, the last thing the world needs is more businessmen). So go on. Be a teacher. BB x

Last Straw

Easter has arrived in Tierra de Barros. True to form, as it does every year, the glorious sunshine lasted only as long as the last week of term: now that the holidays are here, the clouds have returned. I remember reading once that it rains more on weekends than weekdays because of something to do with carbon emissions. I never did go down the rabbit hole, so to speak, but given the current state of affairs, it seems plausible.

I’ve made the decision to cancel all of my private classes as of this evening. It’s been on a slow-burner for the best part of a term (I might have considered it more carefully back in first term, were it not such a lucrative source of income). It’s going to be a financial dent, but it’s for the best. Had things panned out differently, I wouldn’t be so keen, but it’s beginning to take its toll on both me and my flatmate.

Making the decision to come to Villafranca de los Barros for a second time was, in part, a financial move, as I knew I had at least two potential second jobs waiting for me here and a healthy spread of contacts. Life, however, is seldom predictable, and as it turned out, I lost out on all three counts: my old job in a local concertado turned out to be in the hands of a local teacher this year; the spare auxiliar post at the prestigious private school across the road was streamlined into the wider auxiliar programme, cutting that option off as well; and, rather than granting me a healthy group of older students, my contacts this year inundated me with requests for classes for their under-10’s. And, like the fool I was, and without the financial security of the two second jobs I’d been holding out for, I took up the latter without thinking.

Since October, I’ve spent an hour every night from Monday to Friday dealing with raucous three-year olds, who have little to no interest in history, literature or current events, and would much prefer to yank the curtain pulls until they snap, or mangle my pencils, chalk my floor and otherwise wreak havoc in my flat. Were the flat mine I might be able to laugh it off, but it’s not, and the circle cannot hold. I moved most of the breakable materials into the storeroom within a couple of weeks, after the inquisitive little monsters found it in them to touch everything in sight, up to and including my flatmate’s school things, which despite my warnings he continued to leave in the line of fire on his return from work every day. And now, on the last day, the line has snapped: we found his satchel this morning with a broken strap.

It’s a shame that this had to come up on the last day, but I guess I shouldn’t have expected anything different. In his shoes, I’d have simply shrugged and gone to work with a broken satchel, taking it as part of the fruits of life, but then, it takes an awful lot to provoke me. Complaining and provoking slows life down and sullies the waters so, and I don’t hold by it; as long as you’re still breathing at the end of the day, there’s really no use crying over spilt milk. But he’s an Andalusian, and the six o’clock noise – bang in the middle of his siesta time – was going to drive him to the brink sooner or later. And I have myself to think of, too; my novel has ground to a slow trudge since taking on these lessons. Back in October, I was writing a chapter and a half a week. Since then, I’ve penned one a month. And isn’t that what this year was all about – to be here in Spain and to have the time to write? Next year I won’t have that luxury, mark my words.

So that’s that. The buck stops here.

It’s not all doom and gloom. The clouds are still here, and they say there’s more rain on the way, but the worst of the storm is over. The birds seem to know it, too: I’ve been lucky enough to see quite a lot of migration from the comfort of my own flat in the post-private lesson lull this week. On Monday I saw seven black kites heading in a straight line right over the flat, as though following the camino de plata in their northward journey. On the bus back from touring with the school play in Elvas on Tuesday, I saw several swifts racing overhead. And yesterday, circling high on the thermals, an enormous phalanx of storks filled the sky before reaching the perfect height and soaring on to the north on outstretched wings.

DSC_0009

One year, I’d love to be in Gibraltar when they come. I hear it’s quite the thing to see. 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

Walk Before You Run

Today was just one of those days when I got to the last five minutes of my last class of the day and found myself disappointed it was already over. It’s the last week of term, and whereas in England that would mean an entire week (or two) of ‘Sir, can we have a fun lesson?’ and other such pleas, there’s none of that here. It’s not that the kids aren’t vocal – they’ve been clamouring for their exam marks for weeks – it’s just that they’re less whiny. Maybe that’s a good thing that comes out of the absence of Christmas fever.

We’ve been playing Jeopardy today. I forgot how long the game can take, leaving it – as usual – to the last twenty-five minutes of the lesson. ESL Jeopardy can take as long as forty minutes, if not an hour, if the questions are stimulating enough. And it is immensely entertaining to see them show off both what they’ve learned and what they know. Though I’ve yet to have a class crack the $500 Cities question (namely: Game of Thrones’ House Lannister is based on the English House of Lancaster. House Stark is based on what northern English city?). It’s a toughie, but there’s an imaginary $500 riding on it. And it’s fun to be the game-master for a week… or even a year.

DSC_0307

Reinette did me proud on her first spin. I wish I could say the same about me! Suffice to say that after two months of reading and writing (and let’s not even count the university years), I was probably getting ahead of myself to expect to do 45km over rough terrain on my first attempt. Not for want of trying, though! I had three alarms set within ten minutes of each other around six thirty in the morning, wolfed down a breakfast, geared up and rode out into the frozen morning.

I got as far as Ribera del Fresno, the next town, in time to watch the rising sun shine golden upon the mist. It’s easy to think that we’re in a total flatzone here in Tierra de Barros, but once you’re out in the sticks on a bike, you learn very quickly that looks are deceiving: the terrain is as marbled in elevation as it is in colour. There and back again was a good 21km, which isn’t a bad first attempt for a guy who hasn’t done any decent exercise in the best part of a year or two (give or take the odd run).

DSC_0309

The Lycra is real, though. I think I encountered five or six other cyclists that morning, and only one wasn’t clad from head to foot in skin-tight branding. And he happened to be an old-timer in grubby blue overalls and a thick campo coat. I must have looked a little odd, riding off into the countryside in a worn Valecuatro jacket and denims. I suppose I was committing a major cycling faux-pas. Ever keen to fit in, I guess I’ll have to invest in one of those nightmarish sports-suits at some point in the near future. When I’m good enough at cycling to justify the expense, that is.

DSC_0311

It’s been a frosty last couple of weeks. Not frost as I know it back in England – the crystalline, sparkling frost that brings out the kettles and car-scrapers – but a hard, dry frost that you only find out in the shadows of the countryside.

I stopped outside of Ribera to take a breather. I’ve become less dependent on my camera of late to record my memories, and also of my journal. I’m trying to train my memory instead. It’s such an easy thing to lose, especially when everything is at the touch of a button these days. So let me show you what I saw. Mist in the valley. A tatty sign with the word veneno daubed in big red letters. A couple of plastic bottles frozen stiff above the ground, and the white lid of a chemical tub, half filled with ice. Ravens calling somewhere far away. A kite on the wind. Cars racing down the road. A campesino stood by his van, looking out across the valley with thoughts probably not too dissimilar to my own.

This is why I cycle. Not to get fit. Not to get from A to B. It’s to get out there and see the little things. And long may it be that way. BB x

Losing All Control

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

img_6840

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

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

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

img_6899

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

img_6902

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

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

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

DSC_0208

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

DSC_0201

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

DSC_0546

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

DSC_0341

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

A Waiting Game

Teaching’s going fine. It’s been a misty last few days here in Tierra de Barros. After a hearty Thanksgiving Party in Almendralejo and a decent slog at the karaoke for afters (via Tom Jones and Lionel Richie under my karaoke alter ego, Bem), it’s back to business as usual for the last three weeks of term (the fourth is always anybody’s guess). My old rule – never repeat a game – is holding fast. Amongst the games I’ve played with my classes are:

  • Psychiatrist
  • The Triangle Game
  • I’m Going on a Trip
  • Chain Word Advance (Noun, Adjective and Verb)
  • Never Have I Ever
  • Kim’s Game
  • Mafia
  • Twenty-One

I’ve still got a few more in the bag before I run out of my set, but when I do, it’s only a matter of invention and re-invention. This teaching assistant malarkey is simply a case of giving the kids an incentive to speak in English, and what better way is there than giving them games they can enjoy in their own language once we’re done? Psychiatrist went down a storm – the kids play it at break-times, they tell me – and this week’s Twenty-One (courtesy of Tasha, an old hand at this game) has proven itself to be more popular yet. The Triangle Game left a good many of them boggled and more than a little frustrated, but my older classes found it immensely entertaining.

The key, I suppose, is not to think of these games as ESL activities in their own right, but as the kind of games you’d have enjoyed playing with your friends at school, or at university, or in any other setting. Parlour games are prime material, such as Psychiatrist (for which I am indebted to the French animateurs at my first summer job who rendered it Pussycat, after the French psychiatre). Campfire games are also a wonder here, and I find myself wishing that the younger me had been more sociable; an upbringing in the Scouts or Guides might have armed me with a good deal more material in this field. Last, but not least, drinking games are an unexpectedly rewarding resource, if modified correctly – especially as many of them are already corrupted games in their own right. Remove the element of drink and place a greater emphasis on speech and you have plenty of ideas at your disposal.

Of course, I have to keep this up for a full academic year. That’s thirty-one weeks of games; twenty-one, if we’re counting down (that’s as many days of games as Emperor Commodus declared in Gladiator…). As a point of pride, I will never resort to Hangman. Thus, the search continues. So help me God.

IMG_2599-1


 

Meanwhile, I’m finding myself drawn to the attractions of home more keenly than usual. Perhaps it’s because my old friend Biff is bound for South Africa in the new year (KwaZulu-Natal no less, the lucky so-and-so), or perhaps because it’s Christmas and – being in Spain – you’d never know it, or perhaps it’s the simple fact that, unlike the last time I was working here, I haven’t got the surety of returning home at the end of the year. The fact that this will also be my first Christmas away from home does factor into it, too.

Skyscanner went from a casual browsing affair to my most visited webpage overnight. By the end of the night I’d searched for flights to Gatwick and to Newcastle; to Stansted, Luton and even Durham Tees; and then to Durban and Cape Town; Paris, Toulouse and Berlin… With the Northern Lights’ annual Christmas Concert next week and several old friends due to return to watch, I found myself tempted to wing my way over if I could. But between an 8am flight from Málaga, a midnight bus ride from Durham to London and the knowledge that I’d have to take two days off work for it to be even possible, I decided to save the 180€ it would have cost me towards more worthwhile ventures (I could buy a decent bike for that kind of money – or even pay for two return trips to Gatwick in low season).

I still miss music, and I’ve been pouring my heart and soul into my a cappella arrangement of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, as well as tinkering with arrangements of Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love, The Sugababes’ Red Dress and an Afrobeat mashup of Thriller and Fela Kuti’s Zombie and Opposite People. The musical energy within me still needs siphoning off somehow, and even if the Lights have enough material for years already, all these arrangements are, at least, a temporary solution for my own frustration.

Gala Show (35)


 

To keep my writing muscles flexed, I’ve been building my vocabulary daily on the sly. Whether I’ll use my learning as part of a Pasapalabra-style test for the kids remains to be seen, as some of the words are downright impossible to divine without the right knowledge, but as a writer I’m hoping it’ll do me some good. Here’s a few of my recent findings:

umbrageous (adjective): (of a person) inclined to take offense easily

nonbook (noun): a book without literary or artistic merit

earthshine (noun): the dim light on the unlit surface of the Moon caused by the Earth

A good many of them are much too specific to wend their way into everyday conversation (see bombinate), but I’m hoping it’ll increase my vocabulary in the long run. Polygon and Scrabble would be a lot easier, for one thing. And, of course, Bananagrams. Until the next time. BB x

DSC_1095