Reflection

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BB here. I’ve gone AWOL for the best part of a month, if not for want of things to report (there’s a routine to work here, even with teaching) then for the simple fact that I try to keep my feelings tempered here, compared to the emotional splurge over at Barnabas Abroad. Consequently, the past month has been heavy on the heart, so now would be a good time to look back and give you some reflections of everything I’ve got up to since then.

Where did I leave you? With my living a double life? Well, things have continued more or less much in the same vein. There were a few more administrative blips this month, as one might expect in a school, some of them more pressing than others. As one of my jobs out here is as a fully-qualified teacher (only, without the qualifications part…) I’m expected to teach the full material contained in Spain’s ever-popular and notorious Cambridge English course, from the plasticine-peddling six-year olds to the bright minds in the upper sixth, who would be much better off discussing the Syrian crisis with their English level than what they do at the weekends. (Nope, still not entirely clear on the legality of that…)

This has come with several problems… most notably the one I’ve already pointed out: that I’m not a fully-qualified teacher. That they expected me to start work right away, with the pay and status of a part-time teacher, but all the duties of a licenciado, struck me as mighty unfair to begin with, especially when I got my wrist slapped early on for not being firm enough with the students; for lacking the disciplinary techniques that my colleagues use. The ones they learned, I guess, when they trained as teachers. Well, I’m certainly learning them here, and I’m being paid for it, so I suppose it’s not a bad thing. But it’s tough. Especially when, in the lower levels, discipline amounts to a system known as ‘apuntar’, where miscreants have their names written in chalk on the board. Apparently the system works, though don’t take my word for it; no sooner as your back is turned, one of them is up on his or her feet and rubbing out the apuntados, and then somebody else gets up to write them again, adding as they see fit. Repeat as necessary. Ideally, they wouldn’t be up at the board at all, but there’s no stopping them. Whilst you’re busy holding one down, two more wriggle out between your fingers. And then, with five minutes to go, one of them has the cheek to complain that they’ve only done three exercises with me, whereas with their other teacher they get through three pages. And I’ll probably get in trouble myself for that. It’s a nightmare.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why you state your capabilities very clearly before signing yourself up for something. I thought they were employing me as a language assistant. How very wrong I was!

Second is Erasmus+. Oh, Erasmus+. I suppose I should be thankful that it’s the only pen-and-paper administrative blip this month, but it’s still a pain in the neck. How, for instance, am I supposed to obtain a signature from the Sending Institution up in Durham, to confirm that I have arrived at the Receiving Institution here in Villafranca (which also needs a signature, by the way), and then scan them (in a school with no scanning facilities) together with two other pages into a multiple-page document to be passed on to the International Office? Piet Retief, but it’s a nightmare of a different kind. All it means is that in the time it takes to send a paper copy of my form to Durham and back, it’ll be some months before I see my Erasmus grant. Which, in the current state of things, is not a travesty. But it’s an annoyance, at the very least. Future year abroaders, take note: you would be far better served obtaining said signature from the International Office long before you go. Trust me, I’m not the only one touting this advice. Get several copies, even; Spain and France do so love their paperwork.

Lessons continue to surprise me. If I’d known I’d have been working in more of a teacher role, I’d have spent the summer (or rather, the few weeks I had between leaving Jordan and coming here) planning the year’s lessons. As it stands, each weeks’ lessons have been rather touch-and-go, but this week takes the biscuit. I had a lesson planned on stereotypes, but after everything that happened over the weekend – Lebanon, Iraq, Paris… the full works – I decided to risk it and test the waters with a liberal approach to Islamic State, Islamism and the War on Terror… in my Monday morning class of fourteen-year olds. When I say liberal, I mean asking them to be as open as they liked about how they felt about what they’d heard, and then discussing some of the views that came out. To my relief, some of them were ahead of the game, and quick to correct their peers (‘Muslims’ to ‘Islamists’ etc.), but better still were those who, at the end, said they were shocked that they had no idea what had happened in Lebanon, and thought it was unfair that Paris got so much attention. I managed to rein in my liberalism for the most part, but if I can open a few eyes in my time as a teacher, I’ve done my job; or rather, that’s the way I see it.

On a final reflection, I think I’ll debunk the British Council curse; that is, the warning you get from Durham (or any other University, for that matter) on what happens to your second language when you necessarily prioritise your first in an eight-month British Council assistantship. You have to study. I foolishly left my al-Kitaab behind when I came out here (for pity’s sake, the thing weighs a ton) and consequently my Arabic level – or at least, my confidence in it – has plummeted. I noticed as much when I tried to talk to a Moroccan stall-holder at the Fiesta de las Tres Culturas in Caceres this weekend, and found that all I could say was that “it had been a long time since I’d spoken much Arabic”. That’s both the fault of spending so little time – comparatively – in Jordan this summer… and too much. I’m spending twice as much time in a Spanish-speaking country compared to an Arab-speaking country this year, which is counter-productive in several senses; not only was my Spanish already near-fluent before I came here, but my Arabic could really benefit from more immersion. The two should, in all likelihood, have been swapped. But since I’m not the wealthiest kid on the block (to put it lightly) and as the current global climate forbids us from working in an Arab country, I was limited to summering in Jordan this year.

And that, in retrospect, was little more than a death sentence for my Arabic.

Looking back, I suppose it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. The school was top-notch and the company was fantastic, at the very least. I’d like to use the rule of three to list one more good thing, but… I can’t. The truth is, I look back on those two months in Amman as one of the lowest points of my life. I’m not a pessimist, but Amman made me one. Going for a British Council Assistantship left me with little choice, so you might say I brought it upon my own head, but I can safely say that if my interest in Arabic took a knock at any point, it was out there, long before I came here and Spanish took over my life.

And there’s the biggest boon of the British Council Assistantship. You will be completely engulfed by that country, its language and its people for all of those eight months. Before I came here, I adored Spain. I worshipped it. Now, I’m actually seriously toying with the idea of living and working here. It’s done wonders for my self-confidence, my self-esteem, my health and my well-being in general. If Amman was sapping the life-force out of me day by day, Spain has me on a constant overcharge. Seriously, it’s as though there are sparks coming out of my fingers. I truly believe I’m where I’m supposed to be: in a village, in rustic countryside Spain, where new characters leap out of every door and balcony and into the pages of my books. It’s the typical Year Abroad gamble; you could end up hating it, or you could end up falling in love. I’ve had both.

So now I’m just wishing that Morocco delivers the goods in 2016 and re-inspires me, as my Arabic could really do with a boost!

I think that will do for now. Until the next time, don’t let the events of the weekend get you down, keep smiling, and remember; when you learn to laugh at something, it’s not scary any more. To that end, I suggest you give Four Lions a watch if you get the opportunity. BB x

Double Life

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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. Continue reading

As Crazy as a Loon

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Somebody told me once that you know you’re really fluent when you’re using words in a foreign language that not even a native speaker understands. Let me throw that old wives’ tale down. It doesn’t mean you’re necessarily fluent. It just means you’re (say it in Alan Rickman’s voice) an insufferable know-it-all about something niche. Like me and birds. Continue reading

¡First week of school done and dusted!

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I know it’s a cliché, but this week has just flown by! After the first day, it was easy to settle into a routine of getting up, walking (the incredibly scenic route, might I add) to school and showing a presentation explaining where I’m from. Needless to say I’m a bit sick of trying to remember what year Durham cathedral was built and listening to the first 30 seconds of Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud… Continue reading

Blood and Clay

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‘Excuse me, is this the bus to Valladolid?’
‘Yes.’
‘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.’

‘Merida?’
‘Yes…?’
‘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. Continue reading

And then he threw a table at me

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There’s a line in Tolkein’s The Fellowship of the Ring when Gandalf returns from his first encounter with the Balrog and tells his companions that he has ‘never felt so spent’. Well, I just got back from an hour spent looking after nine Iraqi children, and I think I have a fair idea of what it must have been like to face said fire demon.

But don’t get me wrong. I signed up for this. Willingly, even. Continue reading