ciento volando

travel, stories, and other flights of fancy


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to the beach and back – a semi significant juncture

This post is taking forever to get started, because I’m compulsively eating olives and wiping my fingers on a serviette so as not to get the vinegary goodness on my keyboard. Every second word (many of which end up deleted), it seems it’s time to reach for another one… I can’t stop, I’m in Andalucía, resistance is futile! I also keep pausing to dreamily contemplate my setting – one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever sat down to write. I’m sitting at a little mosaic table in the outdoor bar at the top of the Alcazaba, a Moorish fortress in the centre of Malaga (on the southeast coast of Spain). The bar overlooks the city, cathedral and port, and is surrounded by the fabulous rambling Alcazaba walls and a curious mix of vegetation – tall pencil pines, orange trees, palms, and something similar to a willow, which give the gardens an exotic Arab, tropical, and European flavour all at once. It’s all very sun dappled and tranquil – apologies to anyone who happens to be reading this in a claustrophobic office with artificial lighting…

So, olives (I’ve finished them now). That’s my latest excuse for the radio silence. It’s been a while since I last posted. I probably made some kind of disclaimer then too; “excuses excuses, etc”. 2015 has been a bit of a slow year, as far as reportable adventure writing is concerned. Looking back, I wonder how I managed to post so regularly in the past. There were a good couple of years in which I seemed to wonder at, and want to write about, everything – even on quiet weekends at home. I suppose this might have had something to do with living in Segovia at the time. There, daily life was a little more magical than it is now in big city Madrid.

This year has been about knuckling down, attempting to get my finances and future under control (by making ‘sensible’ decisions), studying (for the C2 DELE exam, still waiting on results), training (for a marathon, with ambiguous results), a period of panicked emergency job hunting (a long story), and a time, money, and patience draining visa application process (another long story). Needless to say, I haven’t had many positive or entertaining anecdotes to share and so (rather astutely, I thought) have chosen to remain silent, rather than add to the frightening volume of first world problems complaint literature already swamping the blogosphere. Not that I’m above the occasional whining drivel slipping out… it is so awfully tempting… we’ll see.

Malaga, from the road to Gibralfaro - not taken with an iPhone :-P
 
Anyway, apologies for the lull. Here I am again, chipper and optimistic, Eat Pray Love style on the Mediterranean Coast. Glamorising ‘simple’ pleasures and suddenly finding meaning to my existence. Not that I was previously suffering any kind of existential crisis – my life is trundling in pretty much the direction I’d hoped it would (just a little slower than I’d like). But there were a couple of reasons for this impromptu trip to Malaga. The first being what I’ve now come to recognise as my annual (ok biannual) “I need to see sea” panic. Anyone who grew up in a coastal town or city, but now lives inland, will no doubt understand this.

The second reason being the welcome, but rather unexpected fact that I’m starting my new job much sooner than anticipated, before even finishing up (some of) my other work (I have many works). Meaning uh oh I’d better take a break stat or there won’t be another opportunity until goodness knows when.

aw, thanks Cloe! (but why the goat?)I came to the end of my main job contract (in a government school) at the end of June. I wasn’t sorry to say goodbye to commuting two hours per day, to teach spoilt, spoon fed children (it was a wealthy area), in an institution crippled by corrupt management and the most appalling, restrictive, and poorly written set of text books I’ve ever encountered (the writers must have been high, it’s the only explanation). However, I was sorry to say goodbye to a decent base income, a valid visa, and a relatively easy visa renewal process. I know this makes me sound cynical and materialistic, but I’d be lying if I said I’d formed any special bond with the school during my time there. There was a handful (just a handful) of genuinely lovely and competent teachers, trapped in a system that sadly hampered their potential. It was pretty soul destroying work. As for the children, they can’t be blamed for being spoilt (it’s not their fault their parents buy them tablets when they lose a tooth, or take them to Disneyland for their first communion), and there were of course some fantastic characters among them. Although my natural preference as a teacher is for adult students, part of me is going to miss being with kids; especially their contagious laughter and excitement, the circus spectacle that sometimes made me forget that I was working, and the affection they showed me in the form of hugs (hundreds of hugs! it would be so frowned upon in Australia), disatrous homemade biscuits, random portraits, and cards with astonishingly creative mispellings of my name (Jim, Yian, Llin, Jeams…  far more interesting than the old Jean/Jane confusion I get with Anglos).

July was opened by a long weekend of partying, tourist-ing, and reminiscing with an Aussie friend who was in Madrid. But after she left, the month dissolved into a blur of new and complicated private classes (it’s slim pickings in summer in terms of teaching work), and vain efforts to muster up some kind of creativity during the inconvenient timetable gaps, long commutes, and extreme heat. Mostly I was just trying to stay cool. I’ll take too hot over too cold any day, but even I found this July tough. The thermometer hovered around (often above) 40° for the whole month (it’s even hotter in the south of Spain, but I swear you feel it more in big, sticky cities). Our flat is on the top floor, gets sun at every hour of the day, has no air con, and is right next to a whole lot of busy highways (I’m not sure if the cars are responsible for more heat, or it’s just the idea of them). ‘Heat management’ became time consuming. It involved a lot of cold showers, opening/shutting blinds and windows at specific times, mopping floors with cold water (everything counts), spraying plants, rotating frozen water bottles etc. Despite the lack of sleep, if I wasn’t teaching, I usually chose to forsake the siesta (you can’t siesta in an oven) in favour of going to an air conditioned café (or the library) to write or plan classes. There, with climate control, caffeine, and my tablet (my deskbound laptop kept overheating, I named it the wrist-roaster), I could usually squeeze out a few hours of productivity. After that I’d kill a bit more time by aimlessly wandering supermarkets, to make sure I didn’t get home until the sun had left our building (around 10pm) and we could open all the windows.

And there went July.

My plan for August, as the majority of my private students and all of my friends would be leaving Madrid, was simple: hold tight, don’t spend any money, and write. I was kind of looking forward to the austerity, and a clean, distraction free break in which to get some proper writing underway. I wasn’t sure what the outcome of my visa application would be (it was a complicated case, with a technicality I could easily have been rejected on), and while this was in progress I couldn’t leave the country without a permit. Not that I would have risked travelling, with potential unemployment and expensive life relocation on the horizon. But I was happily resigned to just hang on in there, in limbo, trying to make the most of the time creatively. When I found out the definitive answer in September I’d adapt my plans accordingly.

maybe I could just wait around on rooftops, like this guy
 
However, much to my (and my new employer’s) surprise, my visa was approved almost instantly – well over two months earlier than expected. My first reaction was relief – I have a job, I don’t need to get a last minute peak season ticket to Australia, I know where I’m going to be the next year, and, as I posted on facebook, I can now invest in things like a gym membership, pot plants and tabasco sauce… But in a way it was hard to take the definite news that I’ll be away from home for at least another year, something which isn’t getting any easier. And I was really looking forward to being an August hermit, spending all my time writing (going a bit feral… perhaps developing a tic). Now, everything has changed, and I have to start my new job and be professional, like, immediately. I had my orientation last week, and we have a staff meeting this Sunday evening where I’ll get my timetable for August’s summer intensive courses, starting…Monday. I’m really not psychologically prepared to be starting this soon, but that’s the way it is, and it’s definitely better than the alternative.

So the ‘emergency’ 3 day break to Malaga is more of a symbolic interval rather than a real holiday. I’ve had more than enough extended time off over the past few years – I can, should and will survive a little longer without it this time round.

Thinking.

What was initially intended to be a travel post has again, inevitably ended up another ‘about me’ update. I suppose I should add something more about Malaga, to balance it out a bit.

Here are a some things I learnt/realised during my three days away, and a few travel tips for anyone heading to the Costa del Sol. All cunningly organised into lists, as is now the rage, to give a false sense of readability…

  • On ‘on the road’ entertainment: It’s a good idea to finish the addictive series you’re watching before going on holiday, or at least time it to finish on the bus. Nothing worse than your first night in a new destination, in a hostel with a good vibe and a beautiful terrace bar, when you’re sharing a room with a lovely, chatty German girl who’s just got back from a yoga retreat in the country (that you’d really like to pick her brains about) and she’s travelling solo as well so this would be a good time to make friends… but really, secretly, you’re tired of making friends and just want to watch the season finale of Orange is the New Black, with a mojito, by yourself. But you don’t want to be that antisocial loser glued to their tablet, especially if someone happens to walk by during a scene with unbridled violence or prison sex, it might seem a little weird, even though the acting’s really quality, at least that’s what you’re telling yourself. This is definitely the last time, the last time, you’re getting into a series, especially as you always complain you never have enough time to write or study! Well there’s an easy chunk of hours (you don’t want to know how many but the maths is pretty simple) you could’ve spent on much worthier tasks! (Now, get up off yer bum and go for a walk! there’s a city to see!)
  • On navigation: despite having markedly improved since I left the motherland, my sense of direction is still lamentable. Even when my accomodation was across the street from Picasso’s house, one of Malaga’s most signposted landmarks, I managed to get lost every time I tried to find it.
  • On getting lost: extensive experience in this department has led me to believe that this is by far the best way to explore a city. Malaga’s old town (mostly revamped with swanky shops and great bars) is a joy to wander.
  • On Gelati: At the mature age of 30, I’ve finally come to the sad realisation that my two favourite frozen flavours (pistachio, and mint) are not only incompatible, but their colours clash awfully. This, in some small way, aids my reluctant acceptance of the fact that gelati, no matter how delicious, is something I always end up regretting. The end of an era? I fear so, cruel world!
  • On travelling alone: I’m a big fan of solo travel, but then again my ‘loneliness threshold’ is probably higher than most – in fact it probably puts me on par with all kinds of antisocial freaks. However I am actually quite a social person. When not hooked on the final chapters of a book or series, I’m generally open to conversation with just about anyone, and have no trouble making friends (I’ve started from 0 enough times now). But I like solitude, and I consider the ability to be comfortable in my own presence as a blessing. It must be awful to be one of those needy people who can’t be by themselves. These days, and I think this is due partly to having a job which requires constant social energy and patient conversation, as well as maintaining friendships both in the ‘real world’ (the here and now) and in my ‘other’ life (my ‘real’ life back home) – the “socialness” often gets a bit draining, and I need my alone time regularly. So in Malaga I had one night in a hostel (not to meet people but because it’s what was available when I made my last minute reservations), and then two in a budget ‘hotel’ (I think it was some kind of disused University residence, and the weird thing was that upon arrival I realised that I’d actually stayed there before, years ago when I passed through Malaga on my way from Hinojosa to Morocco). Anyway, I wanted to have my own quiet space to go back to in the evenings (after barely talking to a soul all day as well). That was a mistake. There’s a time and a place for solo travel, but Malaga, in high summer, on a weekend, is not it. The streets are literally overflowing with people enjoying the balmy air and delicious looking food and drink in a myriad of fantastic bars… it’s such a lively city, and going there alone, surprise surprise, can make you feel really lonely.

That’s enough unabashed personal word churning – now for some recommendations:

  • Torremolinos: is the town just outside of Malaga where I stayed on my first ever trip to Spain, about ten years ago, with my friend Bec, who was living abroad at the time. I remember it for great nightlife, chiringuitos (beach bars) pumping music all day long, fantastic walks along the waterfront, and life being so so good. It was surreal to be back there, re-navigating the winding streets, walking past Playa Miguel (our favourite chiringuito), thinking all kinds of profound thoughts about time and friendship and ice cream.
  • I wish I could say this was me!  Other person gliding, NerjaNerja: another beachside town, over an hour’s drive from Malaga but well worth it for the beautiful coves, which were accessible by winding staircases, and had much fresher water and atmosphere than the larger city beaches.
  • The Alcazaba and Gilbralfaro Castle: are both Moorish castle-fortresses, the latter being an extension of the former. Construction of the conjoined fortress complex began in the 10th century, and was continued for a few more hundred years, until Malaga was conquered by the Catholic Monarchs in 1487. The siege of Malaga took four months, and not unusually for that period of history, the local population ended up being forced into capitulation by starvation. What was interesting about this particular conflict is that it’s been credited as the first, in history, in which they made use of dedicated transport for the wounded – that is, ambulances.
    If you decide to visit the fortresses, I recommend you not doing as I did, which was to scale the hill in the midday heat on my last day, after checking out of my accommodation and therefore having no opportunity to shower before the long bus ride home. Instead, aim to get there at either sunrise or sunset, for cooler air and more spectacular views, and also to avoid the likelihood of having to share Gibralfaro’s narrow walkways with hundreds of Italian teenagers on summer camp. They are way too cool for school to step aside.
  • El Vegetariano de la Alcazabilla: a fantastic restaurant, with the best moussaka (meat or vego) I’ve ever had. Really friendly, helpful service, and great location just next to the Alcazaba and the Roman Theatre.
  • Did I mention there was a Roman Theatre? But of course there is, this is Spain! It’s just below the ancient Moorish castle-fortresses, about a 3 minute walk from the super Baroque/Gothic/Renaissance all-in-one (yet curiously unfinished) cathedral, and probably within a stone’s throw of countless other ancient buildings of varying historical significance.
    The theatre is pretty cool, it’s nice to walk by at twilight and spot the napping cats…

And, that’s all. I could add olives to that last list of recommendations, just to bring this round in a full circle, but that would be a little contrived. Besides, I’m not really sure the olives are any better in Malaga than in other parts of Spain, or whether it’s something psychological. I seem to remember thinking they were the best I’d ever tasted in Cordoba, and Jaen… I guess most things are pretty fabulous when you’re on holiday and they’re accompanied by a cold drink after a long walk up a big hill.

As for full circles – if only I could ever write a neatly rounded post in one sitting! I got back from Malaga a few days ago. It’s now Friday evening, and I’ve just finished my first week at the new job.

So? So far so good. Most academies get a bad rap amongst the ex-pat ESL teaching population, but I seem to have landed on my feet with this one. It is more work, more responsibility, and less pay than the Auxiliare program, which I suppose means that I’m an idiot or a masochist or both… but to be honest, and despite my exhaustion, I’m loving it. I now have more autonomy, significantly smaller class sizes, an opportunity for creativity, better materials, training and support, a much shorter commute, and a whole host of other little perks… it really feels like the decision to stay here was a good one, and the time, stress and money invested in making it happen will all be worth it. Here’s hoping!

So, now that I’ve got the beach trip out of the way (that was hard work!), bring on 2015 knuckling down part two!

olives


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Chapter ???

School’s out for this academic year, and I find myself once again in limbo. Whilst the kids have finished exams and are clearly on their long summer break, I’m in a slightly confusing no man’s land between three cities, some random work/life/bureaucratic ‘to-dos’, and a deceptive amount of free time (which sometimes feels like too little, sometimes too much, but mostly just never fully presents itself).

Having 3.5 months school ‘holidays’ is definitely a blessing and a curse. At the moment I’m holding on desperately to a dwindling number of private classes, to see how far I can stretch them in to the summer. Unfortunately not many people have ‘ganas’ to study once the term wraps up and the heat kicks in. But fortunately I do have just enough students to get me through the next few weeks, and whilst these classes get in the way of most other plans, they also break up the day and give me a good reason to keep myself showered and sober :-P

So other than sitting in the sun and staring longingly at frosty beer taps, how else am I planning on filling this idle, gaping, gap in commitments? And what’s on the other side of it?

On the other side of it is Madrid, where I’m due to start work in a primary school next October. I know little about the school, other than that it’s conveniently located just inside the Zone A metro perimeter, the website is pretty, the students look to be suspiciously non-diverse (did they pick out all the blond ones for the photo shoot?), and they’re terrible at responding to emails (which is not surprising). Despite my initial preference being to work in a secondary school, now that I’ve received my placement I’m starting to get pretty excited about teaching kids again, and I’m hoping that infantíl (pre-primary) will be included in the bilingual program. I wouldn’t mind another year of finger painting red apples and yellow bananas with three year olds – I’ve missed the little ones!

But October is a long way away. At the moment I’m hanging tight in Segovia for as long as my private classes continue, whilst sorting out the move to Madrid (find a flat, renew visa, start carting stuff eastward). Other projects include trying to get the sticky blu-tack residue off my walls, finding creative ways to use up all my dry goods and condiments, and filling any other down-time with creative writing (not self-indulgent blog posts). Kayaking with a big group of 14 year olds is also on the cards.

In early July an Australian friend is coming to visit in Segovia and help me polish off all the alcohol, because glass is just too heavy to move house with. (Books are also heavy, if only she could help me quickly read them all!)

Then in mid July, providing I don’t get cold feet/chicken out/acojonarse, I’m setting off on the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage/series of walking routes which start all over Spain and Europe and finish in Santiago de Compostela, in the North West corner of Spain. I’ll be doing the Northern route, starting from Irún and walking some 800km along the coast, via places like San Sebastian and Guernica… hopefully all the way to Santiago, and hopefully at a fast enough pace to make it home in time for my flight to Australia in late August.

Most of September will be spent in Melbourne, where my little brother is getting married, and lots of people are turning 30, and I will be undoing six weeks of wholesome hiking with just over 3 weeks of solid socialising (if my last trip home was anything to go by).

And then it’s back to Madrid for the next chapter (or has that started already?)…and continuing the continuous cycle of constant movement but no real progress in any direction. Perhaps I will take another Spanish exam in November, providing that the trauma of the last one was worth it (still no news).

So, friends, family and random readers, that is the short term plan for the moment. It’s pretty much my long term plan as well, and of course, subject to change. I might experience an epiphany on the Camino and decide to become a nun of the cloister, or swim to Canada, or study economics. Stranger things have happened. But for now, if you are in Melbourne, keep warm, and I look forward to seeing you in August/September.

Everyone else, Madrid is a great meeting place from October onwards!


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SPAIN

To: People on the old mailing list
Subject: SPAIN
From: jean

Greetings from Hinojosa del Duque (the pretty fennel of The Duke?!)

I hope you’re all well!

I’ve been here for about two months now, and thought it time to send an update on my life in the middle of nowhere. Except that it no longer feels like the middle of nowhere, it feels like home! Not in the way that Melbourne feels like home (nothing can compete), but in that I feel very comfortable here, I’m enjoying myself and I’m looking forward to the next few months, and hoping they don’t go too quickly.

Except for the weather. That couldn’t change soon enough. When I first arrived it was scorching, and being a reptile, I was loving it. But a few weeks ago someone flicked a switch somewhere, and suddenly we were in winter (it’s technically Autumn, but the seasons here are so extreme, the in-between ones don’t really happen). It’ll stay cold (bitterly) until the next time someone decides to flick the switch back, which won’t be for months. My flat is an icebox, the ‘heater’ is useless, the windowpanes are like tissue paper, and I’m pathetic, so it’s going to be a long long winter.

The kids have changed a bit too. They used to love me, but now I’m just plain old boring Jeans, and they talk over me just as much as the other teachers. Perhaps I’m blending in, or they’ve finally cottoned on that I can’t discipline them in Spanish.

Anyway, before I get stuck into the wonderful world of Hinojosa, I really should back track to my first week in Spain, and tell you about an amazing program I participated in…

VAUGHAN TOWN: is an intensive English program, run specifically for Spaniards in Spain. It involves an equal number of Spaniards and ‘Anglos’ living together for a week of English immersion, in an isolated (but luxurious) country hotel. We had hours upon hours of one on one conversation, theatre and music every evening, group activities, telephone interviews, and public speaking presentations. At every meal we sat with two Anglos and two Spaniards to a table, to keep the flow of English going. All food (buffet breakfast, and three course lunch and dinner with unlimited wine) and accommodation was provided. For Anglos, the entire experience is free, from the welcome drinks on Saturday night to the moment the bus drops you back in Madrid on Friday evening. The Spaniards paid a small fortune to attend, but it was no doubt worth the trouble, as over the week the improvement in their English was incredible. With so much talking, we got to know each other pretty well, and it was a great way to meet some very interesting people. We had everything from nuclear scientists and civil guards, to masters’ students and full-time nomads. The Anglos were a deliberate mix of accents and nationalities, and the Spaniards were from all over Spain (though the majority lived in Madrid). I learnt so much about Spain, the regions and the customs, and had such a beautiful introduction to the people – it was the perfect way to begin my stay here. If I have the time I’ll do it again, and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s interested. You just need to be friendly, talkative, and a native English speaker.

If any of you are interested in participating, check out the vaughan town website. The application process is easy, and there are many dates and locations to choose from…

Back to my little village.

MI PUEBLO: According to Wikipedia, Hinojosa del Duque is a town of 7,000 people, in an area known as La Valle de los Pedroches, in the north of Cordoba province, which is in the northwest of Andalucia, which is the southernmost region of Spain (of tapas and flamenco fame). So I’m more or less in the North bit of the South.

During Vaughan Town, I tried to find out as much as I could about Hinojosa, to little avail. The only people who had ever heard of it were nuclear-something-physicists, who occasionally do tests on a nearby waste facility. Excellent.

The only other information I could gauge about the region was

  • The accent is horrible
  • The people are backward, but lovely
  • The women are very beautiful, and feminine, and curvy, and take great care over their appearance. Great.

 
This last point came to mind when I finally arrived in Hinojosa, late on a Saturday night. I was sweaty and sleep deprived (and hungover from Vaughan Town festivities), and had to lug my backpack from end to end of what appeared to be a very dusty, industrial, and unattractive town. But I passed a number of people milling around the streets. They were in formal attire, impeccably groomed, and totally incongruous with the landscape. The women were really dressed up, with professional hair styling and make up, high heels and little clutches, and everything sparkling and matching and expensive looking. All I could think was that if this is how the townsfolk dress for a regular Saturday night, then I will surely be a fish out of water. Then I noticed a few little girls in matching frocks, and realised (to my relief) there was a wedding on. Unfortunately, the reception was in the restaurant below my hotel. There went my reception. That night the staff were run off their feet, so they just shoved a key in my hand and left me to my airless room, to listen to everybody else having fun for a few hours. At 5am I heard the sound of tables being dragged across the floor, and thought ‘oh good, they’re finally packing up’. But of course they were just making room to dance.

Sunday, worse for wear, I stepped out to explore my new surroundings. The town was totally dead. I walked and walked through lanes of whitewashed concrete houses. Nothing was open, the air smelt of burnt rubbish and dirty livestock, and there was not a speck of green to be seen. Even the flowers in the flower shop window were plastic. The fountains were empty and marked ‘undrinkable’, and dead oranges were scattered about the footpaths. I could hear hoons on dirt-bikes burning through distant streets, and occasionally passed bars where seedy looking men stared at me from the doorways. The snatches of conversation I overheard were unintelligible. I felt like I’d moved to the end of the earth, and started to despair at the eight months looming ominously in front of me, and felt a bit silly about the decisions I’d made over the past few years, and a bit sorry for myself and having got myself into a situation where I’d be wasting eight more months of my dwindling youth in such a forsaken place. It all felt very melodramatic. I probably just needed a good night’s sleep and some vegetables.

But then, after a bit more walking, I came to meet Pepi, the owner of the refreshment stall in the central ‘park’. We started talking, and I managed to convey that I was here to teach English at the primary school, and of course it just so happened that her daughter is a student there. She closed her shop to show me the way to the school, so I wouldn’t get lost on my first day of work. This made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, and from that moment I knew everything would be all right :-)

Being a city girl, the ‘small town’ culture shock has been more of a shock than moving to the other side of the world, but every day I’m getting better at it, and loving it more. It is weird walking into a bar at 3am and running into my boss and my students, but aside from that aspect, this ‘small town’ doesn’t seem so small anymore. It keeps opening up for me, I’m still finding shops and streets that weren’t there before, and there are parts that I haven’t even been to yet. For the size of the town, I’m pretty impressed with the nightlife. It’s nothing fancy in terms of music/decor, but there are plenty of bars and discotheques which are open til about 6am (maybe even later, I haven’t pushed it further yet!).  From the outside they’re closed shopfronts with roller doors, but inside, they’re packed! And smokey, unfortunately Spain’s new No-Smoking law doesn’t apply to isolated towns.

The houses are colourless and unadorned from the outside, but inside, they’re full of life and beautiful courtyards and exquisite Arabic tiles and patterns all over the walls. I want one.

The streets are spotless. Every morning there are women out sweeping, and literally on their hands and knees scrubbing the pavement, curbs, doorsteps, and the fronts of their houses, with their hair in rollers and dressed in a comic mix of pyjamas, scarves and winter jackets. A little bit weird if you ask me.

LA GENTE: The best thing about living in a small town is the people. They’re friendly, welcoming, generous, and just. so. laid. back. If I had a euro for every time some told me ‘tranquila’ (relax, slow down…), I’d be able to fly home to Australia for Christmas! And the warm fuzzy acts of generosity just keep on coming…

  • Whilst house hunting, the owner of one property gave me a lift to the next inspection
  • My real estate agent (who is also the insurance broker, travel agent, tax collector, and local photographer) picked me up from the hotel and helped me move into my flat, and bought me cake from his sister’s birthday
  • My land lady (who’s about eighty) bought me milk, biscuits and a watermelon when I moved in. (I would have preferred functioning amenities but that’s another story).
  • The hotel I originally stayed at served as my address for visa purposes (months ago when I was in Melbourne), my business hours delivery address, and twice paid my customs fees out of the til (I did pay them back), weeks after I’d checked out.
  • I asked a teacher in the staff room for a plastic pocket, and left the school carrying an assortment of folders big enough to open a shop. Ditto with every other request for stationery, and all my trivial enquiries are met with the same overwhelming helpfulness, to the point where I’m almost afraid to ask for a post-it note, lest they saddle me with a roll of poster paper.
  • The bartender at my WiFi pub spent ages searching online for flights for me
  • One of my students brought her older sister to come and meet me and take me out for coffee, because she was concerned I might not know anyone the same age in town. I’ve had a number of similar offers, to the point where it’s a bit much meeting everyone, and the truth is I’ve got plenty to do and no shortage of people to speak to
  • So many people, ranging from my students to the supermarket check-out chicks, have said to me very seriously, ‘if you ever need anything, anything at all, you can come to me…’
  •  A random little old man gave me a detailed lesson on the stonework of the church, and then invited me to his house to introduce me to his wife and grandkids. I don’t usually follow strange men into houses, but, what the hell! His (twin) grandchildren were adorable, and he gave me a stack of pamphlets on the history of the monuments about the town, and two copies of a map – one for me, and one to send to my family… apparently I have a friend in him, if I ever need anything, anything at all. and his business card states Rafael Gil, Gentleman. Love it.

 
As for my social life, when I’m not busy with work and weekend holidays, I mostly hang out with other teachers. There are two more language assistants (a Scottish and an American girl) at the secondary school, who live one street away from me, which is really nice. The teachers from the secondary school are a younger crowd, from all over Spain (something to do with credit points and the way teachers are allocated to Government Schools), which is great except that many of them go back home on weekends. So it’s all about Thursday nights now. We had a massive Thanksgiving dinner last night (my first), and of about 20 people, only 3 were from Hinojosa. In contrast, many of the teachers from my school have lived in Hinojosa their whole lives, went to the same school, and have now taught there for 10, 20, 30 years… So they’re a wealth of knowledge when it comes to local customs and Spanish history, and they keep me in the loop with all the cultural stuff that’s going on (such as free theatre on Friday nights). It’s a good life.

LA ESCUELA: Looks like a military bunker from the outside, with concrete playgrounds and no grass. The classrooms sometimes smell of jamon, depending on which way the wind is blowing. But of course, once full of students, the place comes alive and has a warm and welcoming feel to it. Now that there’s been some rain, the little courtyard is looking gorgeous, thanks to the four and five year olds who have been planting flowers and vegies, and lugging around watering cans as big as themselves.

Technically it’s a bilingual school, but in reality everything is taught in Spanish, with dribs and drabs of English vocab thrown in, depending on the whims and ability of each teacher. The students are between 3 and 12 years old, and I have an hour per week with every year level. Having had little experience with kids or teaching, I was apprehensive to begin with, but the moment I entered the classroom it was fine. Although I feel like a giant, the kids are so entertaining that I forget I’m standing in front of a class and just enjoy the spectacle that is everyday life in a primary school.

  • The toddlers are absolutely adorable, and class usually consists of colouring in, acting like a fool with puppets, and playing with plasticine. At first I was dubious about the use of teaching English to kids who’re still learning to speak their first language and can’t yet read or write, but after nearly two months, ‘red’, ‘yellow’, ‘apple’ and ‘thank you’ seem to have stuck. We’re getting somewhere.
  • The kids (from age 5 upwards) aren’t allowed to go to the toilet unless they ask in English – but usually desperation gets the better of them and they stammer ‘Ca I…ca I… puedohacerpee-pee? Preas!’ before darting out the door. Well I can hardly stop them.
  • The middle sized ones (6-8) are my favourites. Every day is a drama. The teacher will spend half an hour reprimanding them, yelling at them to sit still, and explaining very clearly that for the next activity they need to work in silence and under no conditions is anyone to get out of their seat. For a minute or two they appear to understand and sit there like little angels, diligently copying the blackboard. But then someone will spontaneously fall off their chair, another will bursts into tears because their writing doesn’t fit on the same line, and three or four will have jumped out of their chairs to ask if they can sharpen their pencil, show me their wobbly tooth, or invite me to their sisters birthday party in December. A pencil case tower comes tumbling down and suddenly the whole class is AWOL. This is ritually followed by another half hour of castigation. You are bad! What do you think Maestra Jeans thinks, coming all the way from Australia to waste her time with such naughty children?! (she thinks it’s pretty funny)
  • Despite the silliness, they are actually learning, and it’s a fascinating process to observe. I’m jealous of their ability to mimic and form totally foreign sounds (that older students just can’t get their mouths around). Hopefully by the end of May, Hinojosa will be full of kids speaking English with cute little Aussie accents… and nothing like my disastrous Spanish with it’s bizarre Australian/Hinojosa accent
  • As a language assistant, my job is merely to help out. I’m not expected to supervise or plan lessons, I only ‘work’ 15 hours per week at the school, and I rarely have any extra ‘work’ to take home with me (except for making posters on Halloween, Australia, Christmas etc). Which is all very wonderful, but not particularly challenging, and I feel quite underutilized in terms of the amount of speaking we do in class (there’s a lot of colouring in and copying from the blackboard going on). I’m trying to slowly push for changes, as diplomatically as possible!

 
So to crank things up a notch, I put the word out for private students. I also printed some posters, which proved totally unnecessary.

CLASES PARTICULARES: are now the bane and joy of my existence. It’s great being able to do things my way, have some adult students for variety, teach smaller groups, have some extra cash, and feel like I’m running my own little (booming!) business… but the lesson planning eats up the bulk of my spare time, and the enquiries keep on coming, and it’s so hard to say no, and it’s all getting a bit intense! Especially with ‘emergency’ situations like ‘I know you’re fully booked but my daughter needs to learn English for her very important speaking exam next Tuesday could you possibly squeeze her in for five hours this weekend’ (true story). Especially when the student in question has been learning English for 13 years of schooling and has never had speaking practice in class. I’ve also got two groups of students that have a mixed bag of learning disabilities, which is proving to be a challenging but no doubt character building experience. Originally I was to be helping them with their homework after school, with the assistance of a Spanish supervisor. But often the kids ‘forget’ their homework, and the supervisor seemingly ‘forgets’ to come, and I’m left trying to teach/control a class of mostly hyperactive kids, in Spanish, whilst simultaneously tutoring those who did bring their homework and genuinely need help. I’ve never had to multitask this much since waitressing… but, I’m getting better at it, and none of them are actually bad.  And I know that once I get into a groove, the lesson planning won’t take so long, and I’ll be able to reclaim my siesta time…

MI PISO: my little apartment. It’s been my dream for ages to have my own apartment in Spain, and now I do! Admittedly, I imagined something a little closer to the seaside, or the hills or Granada, and a little less bloody freezing in winter (actually winter didn’t factor into my dream), and perhaps owning, rather than renting from an eccentric landlady. But, I love it! Now that I’ve figured out how to light the hot water system and boil water without a kettle (who’da thunk it could be done?), I’m feeling very happy in my own space, cooking in my own kitchen, and not having to share a bathroom with twenty other smelly backpackers. I know it would be better for my Spanish if I lived with a Spaniard, but it doesn’t seem to be the done thing here. (But if I ever want to talk to one, I just have to step outside, and they’re everywhere!)

LA POLITICA: Well, the elections have been and gone, and there’s been a change of government… but I don’t really understand what’s going on (I don’t think many people do). From what I can gauge, things aren’t looking too good for Spain. Unemployment is a huge problem. Most people are fed up with the old party but don’t have any faith in the new one either (like most countries I suppose). Fortunately Hinojosa is miles away from all the drama and protesting, and although it’s not a wealthy town, I think the industry is fairly robust, so we’re buffered from the major ups and downs. But really, I don’t know what I’m talking about, and I should probably keep my mouth shut on the topic of politics, it makes most Spaniards look like they’ve eaten something rancid.

EL FIN DE SEMANA: This weekend is a big one in Hinojosa! It’s the inaugural Ruta de la Tapa competition, and everybody is very, very excited. Every restaurant in the town is entering 3 tapas, and it’s up to los Hinojoseños to decide the winner. All participating tapas are 1€ (or 2€ tapa y bebida), and you have to go to at least five different restaurant before you can submit a vote. I’m thinking of voting twice.

So that pretty much sums up where I’m at! I’ve done a little bit of travel (to Cadiz and Cordoba, and I’m going to Granada next weekend), but I’ll save that for another day, you probably all have work to do!

I’ve also uploaded some pictures of Hinojosa and the school. I’m the girl with the scarf, in desperate need of a haircut. I took a lot more, but these were the best of a bad lot, as I’ve broken my camera and can’t actually see what I’m taking pictures of…

Anyhow, I hope you are all well! Believe or not, I do really miss Melbourne, and all of you, so give yourselves a big hug from me, and send me news!

Xx jean