Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Passage to Pamplona

In this year of great change I have finally come to stationary in Northern Spain. 

I found Andalucía an inspiring place, but it wasn't not somewhere that I really connected with. I moved to Spain to get back to the 'normality' of city life - socialising, amenities, business, and have finally accomplished my goal of actually being in a city!

I moved here to work in an academy with adults (just when I was getting the hang of teaching ten year olds). So far all is well, classes are small, mostly exam preparation, and the academy is 5 minutes from my front door - although I'm sure working with adults will have its pitfalls too!

I am sharing a flat with Javier - a secondary school teacher from Zaragoza with a love of whiskey, rock music, mullets and Wales for some reason. It's good to live with a Spanish speaker, I hope it gives me the impetus to improve - maybe we'll find a third amigo too.

City of parks - just two minutes from my front door

Pamplona really is the polar opposite of Andalucía. It's the coldest place in Spain and rainy too. It's a city with one foot in Spain, and one foot in the Basque country, I actually flew to France to get here!

The people are tall, with Gallic noses and a penchant for rowing, rugby and cycling. It's a place of business (Basque tax breaks), and a place of study (two big Universities).

It's green and high rise all at once.

And it has just as many weird traditions as anywhere else in Spain, such as Saint's days (next weekend is San Fermín Chiqui - a practice run and mini version of Pamplona's main festival). I have already seen a cardboard bull dance with drums and a brass band second line a la New Orleans.


Pamplona facts:

  • Pamplona is capital of Navarra province, one of the smallest and least know regions of Spain.
  • The St. James way - or Camino de Santiago runs through the centre of the city. This means you see a lot of North Face clad oldies, cycle enthusiasts and pilgrims - all with their Camino de Santiago booklets open, ready to get the Pamplona stamp.

  • Ideas Peregrinos (pilgrim ideas) is an expression which means to be stupid here in Pamplona.
  • Pamplona was a birthplace of the disposable nappy with worldwide brand Pampers naming its product of the site of the invention. Exactly where the baby diapers where designed remains a bone of contention with residents of nearby Logroño claiming the invention. When Proctor & Gamble bought naming rights to Pamplona's Stadium, Logroño began a permanent boycott of their products leading to it being known by the nickname of Huggies.
  • Every Thursday bars in the old town run a promotion where a drink and snack together cost two Euros. Juevintxo (a mixture of the words for Thursday and Snack foods) brings all the punters to the city centre (especially the students) resulting in a pub crawl atmosphere. With all that food getting eaten, it's a lot less drunken though.
Pintxos in Pamplona
  • Patron saint of Pamplona, San Fermín was known as protector of cattle and was dead against Bull Fighting. During the festival given in his honour, city restaurants take any beef dishes off the menu and one bull is saved from the sword and named as king of the city for one day (crown included).
  • Ben Affleck gained inspiration for his Oscar winning screenplay Argo, whilst on holiday in Spain when he took a barge down the river of the same name which flows through Pamplona.
  • Blocks are known as manzanas here and are built as estates with a central space for gardens, sports pitches or seats.
  • Pamplona's premier football team Osasuna are one of five Basque teams now in La Liga. The word means 'health' in Basque, although they currently reside in the sickly position of 18th in the table.
Disclaimer - more than one of these facts may not in fact be factually correct.


Pamplona is a multi layered city in more ways than one.

San Jorge and Rochapea, lie to the north of the river, in the lower part of Pamplona. The city walls and difference in altitude give pretty impressive views when you look to the north, and make it easy to navigate. In fact the city is small enough to walk around, which is quite an achievement for a place that is so green, and has almost 200,000 residents.

Well, that's my introduction to this rather complex city in which I now reside. I'll bring you more titbits (or pintxos) as I receive them.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

A journey in words

This year I have decided to focus on my writing and it's already been quite an adventure. I have always had a creative outlet through music and blogging, but to be honest, before this year, I had not devoted any serious time to writing. So what's changed?

Well, moving to Spain in January allowed me to take stock and appreciate that I have the lifestyle that allows for a more time consuming (and hopefully rewarding) hobby. There is no right time to start writing, no shortcuts to learning, and no magic formula for success, so really the sooner you get started, the better.

It takes plenty of time effort to improve your writing, and there are plenty of obstacles to overcome. One has to be realistic.

"Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that's where it should stay."                                                             Christopher Hitchens

With the rise of the Internet, the eBook and self publishing, anyone can do it, but with great opportunity, comes a lesser reward. Forget the glamorous book tours, as an author you are more likely to be scrabbling around for the pennies on Amazon and shouting about your book for 12 hours a day on Twitter.

I'm not going to lie, 'being a writer' holds a certain allure, I too post writing quotes on Twitter and drink too much coffee, but I have reached the point where I am willing to embrace the grind, and just write in order to improve my efforts.


The write plan:

Christopher Hitchens need not worry, I'm not planning on rushing out a novel just yet. That would be a bit like taking up boxing to keep fit and being thrown in with Mike Tyson for three rounds of heavy sparring.

These things take time, and so I have a rough plan:

Year one - Write one story per month, improve work through feedback, submit my best work, and take an online writing course.

Year two - Take a 'live' writing course or attend a writing festival, achieve publication for short story, and join stable writing circle.

Year three - Develop a professional network, consider a qualification, and start writing longer works of fiction.

This is not just writing about being a writer, it gives me something to work towards. If I do end up doing this professionally (or even semi-professionally), I will probably look back on this naive learning phase with fond memories.


Learning to write:

So what have I actually done to learn my craft?

1. Seeking technical advice

There are a thousands of books and websites to help budding authors, too many in fact. The industry is insular - writers writing about how to be a writer, and writers reading other writers' efforts. Learning the trade whilst remembering that a world outside of literature exists is a surprisingly difficult task.

Being the impatient fellow that I am, I am now subscribed to newsletters, forums and writing magazines galore to make sure that I am given a kick every day to pick up a pen or at least read something constructive.

2. Connecting with writers

Living abroad makes meeting other English language writers a challenge. I have tried to connect with writers online, through Twitter, Reddit and Critique Circle (a place to get opinion and improve your work). The number of novice writers out there can make finding trusted and valuable connections difficult. There are too many people shouting, and not enough listening. I plan to keep using Critique Circle to sharpen my stories although you need to subscribe to really get the best out of the site.

3. Reading reading reading

My Kindle has been on fire this year, burning through book after book. Short Stories are much undervalued in my opinion and should be more popular. We only have 30 minutes to read on a busy commuter train, or a quarter of an hour before sleep, so why aren't we gorging on bite-sized fiction?

For those with an e-reader, Instapaper offers a great way to store web pages for later reading. A quick Internet search will throw up hundreds of great shorts to get started with. Added to that, many classic collections are available for free on Project Gutenberg and competition compendiums usually cost just a few pounds.

4. Going back to school

I had the good fortune to win a place on a short fiction course through entering a competition. The PWA runs a 16 week course with 6 units of online learning, group discussion of work, and the tutor feedback. I'm halfway through the course and loving it.

On completion of this course I plan to whizz through a free course offered offered by the Open University on the excellent Future Learn platform.


Get writing!

Enough talk. It's important to get cracking and start creating. The end goal after all, is for others to enjoy your stories. While some of my work remains under wraps as it's submitted for publication or to competitions, I regularly post my poems and stories for the world to see.

For this I use Scriggler - a writing, blogging and debating platform. It's a place where you can share all types of writing from opinion or research to stories and poetry.

Essentially it's a free and simple way to publish your work on the web, but most importantly it's a place where others will find it and read. If you have ever wondered what people would think of your high-school love poem collection or your idea for a children's story, this is place to find out!

Most writers use Scriggler as place to build a portfolio of their work, some use it to jot down thoughts and ideas. You can add pictures, videos, widgets, audio, searchable tags, and have posts promoted through Scriggler's Twitter feeds (which are around 200,000 followers strong).

As you post your scribblings, it's quite normal to wrack up a couple of hundred reads in the days after publication. Popular posts run into the thousands. This might not sound like much, but it's quite exciting that hundreds of other writers have chosen to take a look at your work. You can even find out who your readers are, as the platform provides in depth stats on your readership.

Scriggler clubs are interest groups (e.g. flash fiction, horror writing) where you can interact with others using the site. These groups give you the chance to follow and connect with authors of similar styles and genres.

Although you can search for the most popular pieces, the platform has a points based system to keep everybody coming back - even the 'small timers'. The points are based on the number of publications, comments and likes you submit and receive. This rewards the most active users with a better chance of being promoted in the site's news letters and highlighted content.

The platform is not an all in one solution for writers. It's not the ideal place to construct your prose or to receive detailed critiques. However, it has so many plus points that it's a wonder more authors aren't using it as a way to publish promote and connect. It's free, has no annoying adverts, and comments are moderated to ensure that it remains a positive environment for authors.

In addition, creator Dmitry Selemir is seemingly always on hand to answer questions and help authors get the best out of Scriggler by publishing research, and streamlined 'how-to' articles.

I will be continuing to 'Scriggle' and hope to get the best out of it in the future.


Taking the plunge:

While I accept that I am no Hemingway or Chekhov quite yet, my progress is still something to shout about. If work remains locked in a box (or more likely on a server), you're never going to be proud of it. It's not finished until you press send, so, it's important to enter competitions and submit your work where you can. How else are you going to get published?

This year I have entered competitions with Henshaw Press, The Bath Short Story Award, Bath Flash Fiction Award, Writer's Forum magazine, Writing Magazine, The Short Story, and submitted poetry and prose to a host of small publications.

If you would like to see some examples of my work, click on the link to my Scriggler page on the right of the screen, or follow my Twitter feed for updates.
You'll be the first to know when my name is in print!

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

How I survived my first Summer School

I’m coming to the end of my very first Summer School . . . and I have survived. I even managed to do this on my own, without the help of the ‘Survival Skills’ camp that is sharing the school facilities!

In case you are unfamiliar with the format of SS (Summer School), kids from 6-18 come from all over the world to stay for a couple of weeks, experience British culture and improve their English. The courses are normally based at residential private schools with the students having a mix of English classes and high energy activities and excursions to tire them out.

Information overload, 70 hour weeks and feeling institutionalised come with the territory, so five weeks has been a long stretch, but overall it’s been very rewarding. If you have ever considered working in a summer program, or you are just plain nosey, read on.


1. Irksome Induction:

The induction was made up of ten hours of presentations and talks for all of the new staff. Talk about too much information. This was in addition to several interviews and hours and hours of paperwork, just to get the job. All of this for a job that might only last two weeks!

We suffered through the first few hours of Principle's Market Statistics and 'Don't get drunk' talks and guzzled coffee after coffee in the breaks. It seemed like everyone I met was going to work at a different centre so I wouldn't see them again anyway.

A terse Welsh woman gave a disturbing presentation on child abuse and fired a series of questions at us that we had no way of knowing the answers. "Do you know who my hero is? George Alagiah. Why? Because he starts the news on time. On time at 6pm. 6pm Everyday, OK? SO DON'T BE LATE!"

We were introduced to school dinners and I quickly realised that eating what you want might be a bad idea - fish and chips, burgers, beans, bread, potatoes, and custard puddings are the staple diet.

After a day of head spinning, I was transferred to my centre, and told that I would be sleeping in a classroom on camp beds with four other staff members. At least I arrived just in time to catch the crowd headed to the village pub.


Varied visitors:

I arrived during the peak weak at a smaller centre, so although it was easy enough to get to know everyone, it was all hands to the pump. Every space, mealtime and second was occupied with students and staff bustling about.

The majority of students stay for two weeks, although some stay longer. Different centres cater for different age groups, ours were 10-14 year olds. We had kids from all over Europe, some from China, Japan and even someone from Uzbekistan.

A two week stay costs thousands including flights, excursions and that all important pocket money, so it can be no surprise that the kids come from very rich families. They are the wealthy elite, the pampered Princes and Princesses of their countries, and are used to getting their own way. I had one particularly awkward car journey with a Russian dad who booked a weekend in London just to see his child safely to the centre and insisted on showing me pictures of his collection of BMWs. "Oh . . . great," I cooed, feigning interest.

While some of the kids had their quirks (obsessions with blobfish, and incubating chicken eggs),
we didn't have any that were really badly behaved. Even the moody teenagers came around in the end. It was nice to see that through tireless enthusiasm and input from the staff, those that arrived with a face like thunder, didn't want to leave at the end.

Everything is done to empower the kids and boost their self confidence. Fun classes, tons of games and activities, excursions to cool places, and a Friday night award ceremony where the majority of them win certificates and prizes. I'm sure that many of the certificates fell into the ‘please don’t complain to your parents’ category.

Some of my highlights with the kids were the Friday class projects where we re-enacted the Battle of Hastings (my class conquered the Saxons), created Olympic presentations (gold medals for my lot) and made paper maché volcanoes for a Science Fair (where my class was robbed of first prize).


The staff:

SS staff fall into three categories: Activity Leaders (graduate P.E. teachers), English Teachers (returning for the summer payday), and Managers (experienced SS pros) - in a nutshell, the jocks, the nerds and the parents.

Whilst people come from different backgrounds, everybody is shoved in together from the start so you get to know the family pretty quickly. Living, eating and working on site means that you might spend the majority of the day in the company of another staff member.

With all of that time on the clock, talking to the kids and about the kids, it is no wonder that things can get a little weird down the pub. In a tiny Sussex town, the pub locals are overrun by thirsty Summer School staff who have just clocked off and ordered a triple round because it is closing time already. There are plenty of issues and hormones flying around between staff members too.  I've played an inordinate amount of drinking games, and even practiced a beat boxing version of Billie Jean for an hour. At least it stopped us talking about work.

I have to say I think I was pretty lucky at my centre as the my colleagues were fun and easy to get on with, but also good at their jobs.


The job:

Four classes a day doesn't sound like much, but add in the reports, the paperwork, the lesson planning, and all of the supervision duties, and it is a loooong week. Teachers also work one day of the weekend to help with airport transfers.

Lesson plans have to be signed off and lessons are observed every week, so you have to bring your A game. The benefit is that you give the most fun interactive classes you can and the kids enjoy it. All that prep and idea sharing is good for your professional development too. Yet of course, the nature of SS is that everything is done on the fly, so what you are supposed to teach is often unclear and resources scarce. This means that it can take hours just to prep one class.

We had to give three different types of lesson and taught different students in the afternoons so there wasn't much chance to repeat classes (without dramatically adjusting them).

We did some bigger project style classes which involved extra prep and work on our part, (hours spent making medals and paper maché volcanoes). I also became well acquainted with Kahoot, mafia and other new classroom games. Books, flashcards ready made games weren't readily available, but the kids could use Chromebooks in class which was a useful tool.

My other duties included break rota (pouring endless cups of water), dinner duty (no running, get back in line!) and my personal favourite - taking their mobile phones away.

One little oddity was referred to as 'Mr. Phil' at all times. The children had to call all staff Mr. or Miss “first name”. This took a while to get used to but to be honest I never got tired of the joke of referring to other staff members by their ‘SS title’ even when off site.

Tips for survival:

Ask don't assume: On arrival, gather all the information you can. Ask questions about everything . You will be expected to know about what is and isn't permitted, what everyone is supposed to be doing, and how to work effectively within days. I arrived one week after the start of school and thankfully everything was set up and running smoothly.

Daily grind: Getting into a routine isn't the problem. Meal times were 8, 12:30 and 6 on the dot. However, managing what you eat is important to keep your energy levels up. I tried to stay away from stodgy options to avoid the post meal slump. It took me a week or so to figure out how much I needed to eat though. It certainly is strange not being in control of when you eat, so you have to get it right at lunch. If you are a coffee drinker, bring your own. Sometimes 12 hour stewed Nescafe does not do the job. Exercise was another difficulty because of our limited facilities and shower times. Early morning exercise has never been too popular with me, so I ran on days off and went swimming in the time allotted for teachers.

Bring the kitchen sink: Without much control of your schedule, location, diet and clothing choice, it can feel a bit like working in an open prison. Commissary and contraband can make a huge difference! When you pack for SS, bring fewer clothes and more personal items like books, toiletries and snacks. They can make you feel a little less like a number and more like a person.

Get out of Dodge: Getting off site whenever possible is a must. Taking a trip to the shop for a drink, or going for a pint in the local pub help you to appreciate that there is a world outside of the school walls. The schools are often situated in small villages with little or no public transport. It might be tempting to stick around on your day off, but if you do you will just feel like you had a lazy day at work. I managed to grab a ride on the excursion busses headed to London and went off on my own.

Take the positives: There are many great things about Summer School. You'll have great fun and see amazing changes with the kids, you'll become a better teacher, and the money is good too (you don't need to spend anything whilst your there). You'll also make a lot of contacts and friends, always useful for the future.

Go all in: You only get out what you put in. Everyone needs time alone and personal space, but I think the more you get involved with activities and hanging out with the kids, the more you'll get back. Try to be visible and approachable at meal times and even when you are 'off duty'. This is your life for a month, so just deal with it.


Well that's it for the summer, I'll bring you more news about my move to Pamplona in the next few weeks.

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