The revelation that Benjamín has a social life that is separate from Villafranca de los Barros didn’t go down too well in class this morning. I probably should have seen it coming, because I was unfairly popular amongst the girls when it was revealed that I didn’t have a girlfriend (or, as my colleagues amongst the English department so helpfully put it, “he’s single, girls, so you’re in luck”). I don’t know how they thought I spent my weekends – probably planning lessons or traveling or what-have-you – but yours truly was most definitely doing neither this time around.
“Ok class, let’s revise the past tenses,” says Mari Angeles. “There are three: the past simple, the past continuous, and the past perfect, and Benjamin is going to ask you questions, and you have to answer using one of the three.” Easy enough, I suppose. A simple ‘what did you do over the weekend?’ would suffice. Which, of course, you have to say in that specific format, as attempts at deviations like ‘what did you get up to?’ and ‘how did your weekend go?’ usually draw blanks. There’s another puente coming up this weekend, as it’s Todos Santos (or Halloween, for the Americanised amongst you). That means a four-day weekend for me and three days for everybody else, and that’s as good an excuse for a party as any Spaniard could ask for. So now that we’re all of a month in and they all know me quite well, some of my bachillerato students thought they’d invite me to a party this weekend. A botellón, I don’t doubt. Evidently they still don’t see me as a teacher, even if I take entire classes on my own, which is fair enough; ever since I shaved off the Year Abroad beard, I’ve de-aged by about five years and I could just as easily be seventeen as twenty-one. Such is the curse of having a baby-face. Protocol aside, I might have been tempted by such an offer – ain’t no party like a Spanish party – but I’m already booked for the puente by my former classmates in Olvera, my old home, so I had to say no. The reaction was pure mutiny. Bligh had it easier from Fletcher Christian.
It seemed a good opportunity to give them a vital life lesson, so I took it: always keep your professional life and your social life separate. I’m lucky enough to have two bases out here to do just that: one where I spend the week working, the other where I have a ready-made group of friends and a house that we never managed to sell, all to myself. One is in Badajoz, the other in Cadiz, and there’s the entirety of the province of Seville between the two, which is a healthy distance. It’s like somebody wound the clocks back and Sevilla is a frontier province once again, as it was in the time of the Moorish kingdom of Al-Andalus. In a village like Villafranca, where I’m told the people are even more fond of gossip than is normal in Spain (which, if you know Spain at all, you’ll understand is a very dangerous situation indeed), it would be nearly impossible to maintain the respect of my students on a professional level in the week if I was out partying with them at the weekend. I’m sure they don’t see it that way, but it’s the truth, plain and simple. I’ve already been out on the town once with my students, and it’s not an easy feeling. That was slightly different, because they were from the other school at which I work, and – though it pains me to say it – they’re from well-off families and are consequently a great deal more mature. My state-school kids are great fun, of course, but they’re also a lot more volatile, and I wouldn’t trust the survival of my status as a sub-teacher on a night out with them.
That’s where Olvera comes in. The hardest thing about moving abroad in any situation is settling into a new group of friends. In a country where most people don’t speak your language, that’s a barrier that knocks a lot of people down. You only need to look at the Erasmus groups in most universities. A common language means comfort, and be it English (as it so often is) or anything else, it’s all too easy to get sucked into a close-knit group of ‘outsiders’. I saw that much at Durham. I heard as much in woeful tales from last year’s year abroaders. It put me off applying to spend a year at the University of Seville for good. I look around me here and I see that so many auxiliares have done just that: electing to live with other English-speakers, both British and American, for the sake of comfort. Yours truly is an utter loon, because he was violently against that idea from the outset, but it’s working wonders for my Spanish. And though I don’t have the luxury of a group of friends around me during the week, when the weekends roll around, I feel like the luckiest guy in the world to have a whole cavalcade waiting for me in my old hometown of Olvera.
Friendship is a funny thing. I’ve often wondered whether it’s possible to have as strong a friendship with somebody from a very different part of the world as the one you grew up in. It’s especially tough when you encounter people far more sincere than the British, people who mean everything they say and put heart into everything they do. I’m thinking of Morocco, Uganda and parts of Spain, such as I have seen for myself. For an example, though I was expecting a merry little gathering when I returned to Olvera last weekend after over nine years’ absence, I had no idea just how happy they’d all be to see me. These are people I haven’t spoken to since we were children. That they should make such a celebration of my return went straight to my heart. It’s always been my dream to go back home, and though it’s taken me all of nine years to find them, it was all the sweeter for the final success.
Everybody will make new friends on their year abroad, and a lucky few will make friends for life. It seems that the powers that be have decided that I should have friends for life already waiting for me here. It’s a dream come true. My Villafranca lot don’t like it at all. There will be blood, I shouldn’t wonder (in a figurative sense, of course). But if it perfects my Spanish, gives me a wild social life (those Andalusians sure know how to party, Barcecola, bachata and all the rest) and allows me to be with people who genuinely appreciate my company, I’ll come out fighting. BB x