Tuesday, 27 December 2016

The year in numbers

Another busy year is coming to and end, but instead of bombarding you with a lengthy review of 2016, I thought I'd give you a few numbers to consider.

20  - The number of Tall Travels blog posts this year.

This is significantly less than in previous years due to other commitments and a generally frantic year. I will endeavour to keep you better informed next year.

- Re-locations

In the first part of the year, I worked with kids in Andalucía, then a Summer School in West Sussex, before moving to Pamplona to work with adults in September.

I would not recommend three moves in a year to anyone. The paperwork, transport, and reams of information that come with new jobs and cities is tough to process in such a short space of time. However, Spain is starting to feel a little more like home, and I'm looking forward to year 2.

7 - Short stories written.

This year I decided to focus on writing fiction and have dedicated time to learning the craft and putting pen to paper. I would have liked to complete one story per month, but have been writing songs, poetry, blogs, children's stories, diaries and flash fiction pieces too.

I had this short piece published in Flash Fiction Magazine, and have a short story scheduled for publication in January.

My writing goal for 2017 is to achieve success in a short story or flash fiction competition, and hopefully see one of my stories in physical print.

- The number of years I have been teaching and travelling.

You can read May's post I wrote reflecting on that milestone here. This Christmas is the fifth in six that I have been away, although I am lucky to be with the family enjoying the weather in South East Asia.

290 - An estimate of the number of students I have taught this year.

It has been an extraordinary mix of ages and stages from around the world. They always keep me on my toes and make sure I am motivated to help everybody communicate well (in English).

I like to think I am good with names, although I have gotten them wrong (very occasionally). At least most of my students this year know my name. Gone is the ubiquitous cry of 'teeeeaaaaccchhhheeerrrrrr'.

11 - Countries visited

I've been in UK, France, Spain, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Hong Kong, Gibraltar, Vietnam, Netherlands.

I've seen a few new parts of Spain. I'll be updating the photo page of the blog with some shots from my current trip.

Next year my travel plans include Portugal, Morocco and Eastern Europe.

1000+ Kilometers driven.

After ten years of car free living, I now drive to some businesses out of town to teach. Re-learning how to operate a motor vehicle was just another one of this years challenges conquered.

That's it for this year. All that remains for me to say is have a great New Year!

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Weekend Wayfarer 3

Since moving to Pamplona in September, I have been settling back in to life in Spain. I've kick started my exercise (kick boxing), upped my output of Spanish (Castellano) and even penned a few thoughts (2016 writing focus). What with the new job, there hasn't been a huge amount of time for exploring the north of the country. However, due to some public holidays and expertly planned trips, this multi purpose blog space once again turns to Travel.


Walking the walk

A couple of weeks ago I arranged to meet some friends in Burgos, a small city steeped in history and also situated on the Camino de Santiago.

Burgos is famous for . . . you have guessed it . . .  a cathedral. Pilgrims, pilgrims everywhere. I have visited a lot of cathedrals (Sienna being my personal favourite), so I just looked at the outside of the one in Burgos.

The city's famous son El Cid (Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar) is buried inside. He lived about 1,000 years ago and helped whichever King paid him the most to defeat Muslims, or other kings, depending on who they wanted to fight. He apparently died in the siege of a city and all he got to show for it was a for Charlton Heston to play him in a film. Poor guy.

We went to a monastery on the outskirts of town and blagged a free tour due to being teachers (we get the occasional win). The bodies of Alfonso XII and Eleanor are buried there among a few other treasures. Eleanor was an English royal sold off to the highest Spanish bidder and they were the monarchs who helped in the reconquest of the peninsula.

Burgos is similar in feel to Pamplona or Germany (depending if you agree with me, or my friend). It's not a showstopper, but there is plenty to see (castles / museums) and eat (blood sausage, cheeses and roast lamb). All in all, it was a good weekend.


Pretty Pilar

Every October, the city of Zaragoza puts on a week long party under the guise of you've guessed it . . . religious fervour. Nobody could give me too many straight answers about what the festival was about - The city, Cristopher Colombus, Music, or some virgin saint - I went along for the ride with my flatmate who's from there anyway.

On top of El Pilar in the cathedral (Cathedrals!!!), sits a tiny statue of Spain's patron saint. People from the city donate ornate dresses to drape over it for some reason. The cathedral is a little like the world biggest jukebox. It has slots every five meters where you can put money in to turn on the lights for that section of the church. They've moved on from the wax candle business anyway.

Like many festivals here, there was a kind of uniform - a black and red neckerchief, and groups adorned themselves in face paint and festival t-shirts in order to go drinking.

Zaragoza itself is not particularly striking, it is a mid sized industrial city in the middle of windy arid desert. However, the city puts on a good old show, splashing for concerts, parades and performances. Rather than see any of that, I decided to go to a rock tribute show (Metallica, ACDC and more). Tribute bands are something of a big business in Spain, especially in the cities that aren't big enough to warrant the bands actually visiting.


On the outskirts

There are 20 or so small villages on the outskirts of Pamplona which are little known, but pretty nonetheless.

I am not the explorer that my cycle enthusiast of a flatmate is, but the Navarra autumn views certainly out inspire you to get out of the city.

The Camino is not the only well marked trail in the province, cycle lanes, river paths and country routes lead you out into natural beauty of Spain's most sparsely populated province.

Along the way, I have encountered mountain views, old water mills, abandoned 18th century factories, ramshackle houses and multiple foragers. That's right, people digging around for mushrooms, chestnuts and any other edible floor matter.

The people of Navarra are very connected with the land. Most of my students tell me they went walking in the 'monteins' (mountains) at the weekend. And yes, I have tried teaching the word for hiking. There are a lot of eco-food and organic festivals in the city, one of which is the celebration of fungus pictured. The lads in the back with funny hats look like they've had a few magic ones.

One particularly nice little village, is that of Sorauren, about 12km for Pamplona. It was a mercifully flat cycle ride following the river and the views were well worth it.

A short drive away is Lekunberri, a traditional little town surrounded by forest and hills. People here are more likely to greet you with Epa (Euskera) than Hola. I'm not sure they took too kindly to English tourists ordering fancy coffees though, we had a distinctly grumpy barman serve us.

Lekunberri is just one of the numerous old villages with pathways into the mountains, small farms and 'casas rurales' for people to rent and have a weekend away. Sounds like a good idea for my impending birthday.


Basque Brilliance

During a long public holiday weekend, I made my way to the Bay of Biscay - the only place in Spain where people have heard of Portsmouth (the ferry goes there).

Spain's fourth city is a multicultural mix of art, business, transport and Basque nationalism. It's a city with quite a lot to offer - good links, beaches and a music scene. There were a good number of different nationalities visiting too, it didn't have a connection with only one type of tourist. I guess an internationally famous museum will do that for a city.

Speaking of the Guggenheim, I finally visited, 17 years after my last attempt. It has become a bit of a running joke in my family that when we came to Cantabria and drove back towards Biarritz, we tried to visit the museum. It was Monday. It was closed. Our plans were scuppered.

The exhibits were not spectacular to be honest (although this one was interesting), but being inside the building was better than being trapped outside it. The flowy shape of the structure does interact with people outside on the promenade, the river and the infrastructure of the city.

With the land sloping down into the river, views of the city were pretty good. - hills everywhere. At least my fellow hostel dwellers never skipped leg day hiking back up from Casco Viejo each night.

The next day I headed onto Donostía (that's San Sebastian to you). Many Basque towns have a name in Euskera and in Castellano, but for some reason, almost everybody uses the Basque name for this one. Anyway, it is a town famous for its film festival, Michelin starred restaurants, high rolling sun seekers, rain, and David Moyes.

If you don't know what a pintxo (pronounced pincho) is, then you might find yourself going hungry in the Basque Country. Small, beautifully prepared little bites - snacking and drinking is the favourite pass time of people here. It is a great way to while away the hours with friends or family.

However, I am someone who is used to eating big meals, so I just can't get into the mindset of pintxos. It is like naps - I don't get it. When I sleep, I want to sleep for 6-8 hours, not for 45 minutes. I just wake up feel groggy and deprived.

If I'm hungry, I want 5 pintxos, 10 pinxtos, and more. And I don't always want 5-10 tiny drinks to go along with it. Then again, if I go for a pinxto just before a meal it feels like an extra, just adding to the waistline. That said, for 30 Euros, you can eat and drink all day, so it's not a bad price for the entertainment of it.

Anyway, the city is very nice, especially when the weather in December is 15 degrees, and it doesn't rain. It has a French riviera vibe, and is a town that has had glories past and present. The food wasn't bad either! I returned to Pamplona feeling festive and ready for another holiday.

There is still plenty in Navarra and the surrounds for me to explore (La Rioja, Forests, Hiking and more food). Here's to the next instalment of Weekend Wayfarer.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

How do solve a problem like Spanish?

One problem with TEFL is that working in English all day, can make it difficult to improve your own language skills.

After a long day of classes, you might want to unwind by watching TV, reading a book or listening to music. The only Spanish you might use all day is to order a coffee, or to say hello or goodbye. I am not against taking classes, but it can be difficult to fit them into your schedule, when you also teach evenings.

One problem I have found in Spain, is that people refuse to accept that you can speak in their language, and anyway, they want to practice their English. Conversely, some people spend a whole conversation congratulating you on your smattering of words and phrases. Either way, you don't get much chance to practice and improve.

Another curse of teaching language, is that you become a good communicator. You learn to avoid the language that you don't know, and to work your way around it. You find a different route to understanding. This really puts the kai bosch on you increasing range and cutting out errors.

To ensure that I improve my Spanish at least a little, here are some steps I have taken since moving to Pamplona:


Bilingual living

Living with Spanish speakers (native and non native), is one way to ensure you get some conversation. We don't have a strict schedule for speaking English or Spanish, it depends on who feels like speaking what, and when. The important thing is that the topics you cover vary from the usual.

Whilst language exchange events can be useful, you tend to introduce yourself a lot, so getting deeper into a conversation can be more difficult. There are certain topics that I'm sick to the back teeth of discussing:

The monarchy
The difference between England, Great Britain, and the UK
Bad British food
The weather

Please no more!

Hosting travellers and couch surfers can be another way to connect with Spanish speakers. It is not every day you meet Costa Rican cyclists who want to tell you about getting their first tattoo (of their wife's names), but that happened recently!


Escucha a la musica:

While I have opened my music tastes a little, I'll be honest, I don't know a whole lot of songs or artists who sing in Spanish. I listen to the radio in Spanish (Radio 3 is my favourite), but there is a difference between passively understanding the sentiment of lyrics, and really understanding them.

For music groups that people recommend, I make sure to look them up on the website Lyrics Training. Lyrics training is a kind of game where you have to listen and type in the words which appear in sync with the music. It really helps you to understand every line, and after five attempts or so, the song is definitely stuck in your head! If they don't have a song, you can add it quite easily yourself.

Another point on music that I must make is to share my bad experience with a music shop here. Please indulge me some blog space to badmouth Unión Musicál. I realise most readers live outside of Pamplona, but anything logged on the internet to hurt there business is good in my book.

Do not use Unión Musicál UME music shop / no utilize Unión Musicál UME tienda de musica
They give bad service and will trick you / Dan muy mal servicio y se engañarán

If you are genuinely interested in my tale of woe, you can see my review here. Spread the word.


On the sofa

I must admit, that the videos I watch are mostly in English. Spanish TV is mostly news, and reality shows. I have switched on Spanish subtitles on our TV though, which helps to distinguish between the acronyms of the 15 or so political parties.

Some TV shows I have enjoyed are Club de Cuervos (Mexican football comedy), El Principe (Spanish police drama), TUF Latin America (reality fighting show) and Narcos (only half in Spanish and Escobar has a funky Brazilian accent).

TV is OK, but Spanish and Latin American cinema is a much better way to learn Spanish. I've written before about some Latin American films worth watching, and after a few more months here, I will have some more to recommend.


Practice what you preach

Some other ways I have been trying to improve a little include setting aside three hours a week for boring grammar exercises and by reading books I've already read in English. With stories you know, you can focus less on the characters and events, and more on the words!

I have also been contacting one friend per day in Spanish on Facebook. The amount of practice you get from this method tends to depend on how much they like you.

I am trying to arrange another interchange of classes. Conversation and some book style learning. I have done this before, and it can be beneficial if both parties put in the effort. At the very least, it is more time dedicated to the subject, and a weekly reminder for the need to improve. I am not sure if my goal with Spanish is to take an exam, to sound more natural or to reach a certain level, but I think weekly classes will help me figure it out.

To fit in extra work like this, you often have to sacrifice something, and my weekly Juevinxos hangover might have to be it! I am by no means making leaps and bounds with Spanish, but without making time for it I run the risk of being another TEFL hypocrite, preaching about the need to learn language all day, while speaking only one. English.

and now to translate all of this into Spanish . . .

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