Blood and Clay

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‘Excuse me, is this the bus to Valladolid?’
‘Good. Does it pass through Villafranca de los Barros?’
‘Villafranca de los Barros? No.’
‘What about Merida?’
‘Merida? Not this bus. You want the next one.’
‘But they told me at the ticket office to get the 14:15 to Valladolid…’
‘The next one.’

‘This is the one you want. Don’t listen to him.’

That’s Spain in a nutshell. Unhelpful people on the job, super helpful people on the sidelines. That’s what you get in a nation where everybody loves to know everybody else’s business over their own.

The time has finally rolled around, some eleven months after I first sent off my application for a post with the British Council. Now here I am, holed up in an empty youth hostel in Villafranca de los Barros before work begins. No, seriously, it really is empty. I’m probably the only one in the building right now. Wikipedia lied when they said this place had a population of some 14,000. It’s barely 4,000. Where everybody went when that last estimate was drawn up is anyone’s guess. Perhaps they arrived in the middle of the afternoon, like I did, made a sweeping judgement and moved on to livelier grounds, like the other assistants. Not me. No, I’m going to stand my ground here and stick it out for the next eight months. I’m still riding on the buzz of independence and I intend to keep it going for some time – I’ll need it to wade through the swamp of paperwork headed my way over the coming week.

Now, where to begin? I should start by laying down the chiefest and greatest of all aspects of the year abroad: learning to stand on your own two feet. I’m sure I’ve had a reasonably closeted experience here, as most other students will have done stints in summer jobs and weekend shifts for years. I’ve had two jobs to my name, both teaching positions, one in Uganda and one in Sussex. But neither of those was on this level. And by that I mean neither Uganda nor Sussex landed me on my own two feet. There was always a support net of other English comrades about me. I discussed this with Kate whilst we were in Jordan and we came to the conclusion that the main drawback of being sent out to Ali Baba as a team of five was that it was difficult not to take advantage of English conversation. I’m as guilty as the rest of them; come to think of it, I relied on Andrew for so much. For things that, out here, I wouldn’t dream of not doing myself. Simple things like asking for directions, striking up a conversation with locals, even saying good morning to everybody I meet. It comes naturally to me in Spanish. Perhaps that’s my grandfather’s blood running in my veins, but I’d like to think it has more to do with being on my own. You learn a lot about yourself on the year abroad, and something I’ve come to terms with is the sad fact of the matter that I really am better off alone. Given the chance, I find myself relying on others, wilfully or no. Out here, it’s a different story. Fingers crossed, this is the start of something new.

But enough about me! I’m supposed to be telling you about Clayland, or in the local lingo, la Tierra de los Barros, the area to which I’ve been assigned: specifically Villafranca de los Barros. If you’ve been following this blog for a year or more, it’s the next town along from Zafra, where fellow linguist Megan Hill was posted (you can read more about her experience here). It’s a lovely little neck-of-the-woods sat right in the middle of a large plain stretching from the Sierra Morena in the south to the Montes de Toledo in the north. Right about now it’s slowly cooling down from an aggressively hot summer. Apparently it hit a vicious 51 degrees back in August. Slowly, though. It was still a solid 30 degrees this afternoon. It’s a cyclist’s paradise, with flat, open terrain stretching in all directions and next to no traffic. Consequently, a decent bike is one of the first things I’m splashing out on when I get my first payment. To be in a place like this without a bike… well, it just seems criminal. Besides, the mountains over Hornachos to the east look devilishly inviting, and they’re not within walking distance. I need to get myself a good pair of wheels.

But before the wheels must come the teaching, and that’s still a good week and more away. For the time being, I’m going to busy myself getting ahead with lesson observations, tackling the two-headed administrative monster that is the EX-15 and EX-18 form-filling exercise and setting up a Spanish bank account. There’s a set order in which all of these must be carried out, as a bank account requires an NIE (numero de identidad de extranjero), and the NIE requires going to the Oficina de Extranjera (the nearest is in Badajoz) and wrangling with the bureaucrats there for several hours… and before that, you need to have an address. Fortunately, thanks to a little meet-and-greet in the staff room, and no shortage of Andalou, I’ve already got several offers on the table. I’m forgoing one freedom in forking out for a single apartment for the chance to flatshare with one of my colleagues, for the sake of my Spanish if not for the pleasure of company in this quiet little town. I swore to myself that I wouldn’t leave this country before I was as fluent as the grandfather I never knew, and I’m not missing out on any opportunity to make that happen. I guess this is still some kind of leftover Jordan angst I’m running on, but it’s served me well over the last forty-eight hours. I love Arabic, but I’m a Spaniard at heart, and even if there’s only a quarter Manchego blood left in me, it’s coming right out to the fore right now. I’m where I’m supposed to be.

Pretty sickening, right? I’ll get my comeuppance in a couple of days, of course. I haven’t even started teaching yet. Fourteen-year olds. Little horrors, I’m sure. But right now I feel I could tackle them.

Just so long as they don’t throw any tables at me, of course. BB x

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