Thursday, 21 January 2016

Arrival in Andalucía

I have arrived in Baena and have been mostly trying to avoid the cold!

Buildings here are obviously designed to combat the hot weather, so the tiled floors certainly don't store heat.

If you touch the floor without shoes on, your whole body starts to go into hypothermic shock. Instead of 'the floor is lava', it is more like 'the floor is ice'.

First thoughts on the town:

Baena is a small town of around 20,000 located among brown hills covered by olive groves. The whole town is pretty much dedicated to olive oil production, and there's even and olive museum one block from my house. I can't wait to check that one out!

It may not be the most exciting place to live, but small Spanish towns certainly are a change from . . . er . . . well, small Mexican towns. It has a cinema, a sports centre with swimming pool, four big supermarkets and lots of olive oil shops. Did I mention the olive oil yet?

I imagine it is very similar to a lot of small towns in Andalucía. Most of the young residents want to go to the bigger cities around to look for more excitement, and the older residents don't want anything apart from more flat caps and to play petanque on Sundays.

The town definitely likes its 'quiet time' with shops closing from 2pm until later and everything closing on Sundays. I found one bar open on Sunday (which I haven't seen open since) and it was full of people thankful just to be able to get a coffee somewhere!

First thoughts on living in Andalucía:

It's definitely easier here. I moved straight into an apartment, was giving keys to the office, shown around, and set up an Internet connection in one day. I got a phone yesterday and it only took me about 45 minutes. Here's to hoping that administration and bureaucracy continues in this manner.

I'm starting to miss Mexico for how difficult it was.

My apartment is in the centre of town, right next to the academy where I work, giving me a 20 second commute. It is the top floor of a town house and has two lounges, three bedrooms and a roof terrace. It also has a a host of weird religious ornaments and pictures as well as a heated table from the 1970s. Not bad for 250 Euros plus bills.

Prices in general here a pretty low. I saw a guy buy four litres of beer and two litres of wine in the supermarket for 4 Euros. A beer in a bar, or a coffee cost about 1 Euro, the cinema was 5 and the swimming pool is 3 Euros.

First thoughts on the job:

I work from 4pm to 9pm. This is pretty great as I have plenty of time for things like Spanish lessons, rediscovering the guitar and more writing.

I have to plan classes outside of these times, but the not doing a split shift was one of the main draws of the job. Now I just have to adjust my sleeping and eating patterns to match it!

6 teachers work at the institute which mainly functions as an after school club to help the kids pass certain English exams.

We teach five straight classes with the kids bustling in and out every hour - needless to say, you have to be pretty organised. The kids are definitely different to my last job. They are confident, have decent English, are loud and can't sit still for more than two minutes. And they're loud. Taking a photo with the students would have been too exciting for them, so you'll have to wait for that one.

Most students attend three times a week with classes from two different teachers. We teach mostly from books and smart-boards loaded with the materials from the books.

I've been covering classes and I'm shadowing a teacher for the next week before she goes on maternity leave. It's a strange situation as I have to hover at the back of class looking like a nervous trainee. It is nice to have a chance to get to know the students before starting proper though.

Well, that's my opening thoughts, I'll write to you when I've been to that olive oil museum!

Monday, 11 January 2016

A short story

I've had lots of time off recently, and after much procrastination, actually managed to put some of it to good use by writing. I might have envisaged exercising every day and mastering the ukulele between Christmas my new job starting, but the reality has mainly seen me Internet shopping and finishing up the endless Christmas desserts.

The last time I spent some time at home with my parents was in 2012. It was then that we were invited to a rather strange dinner party, that has always stuck in my mind. This isn't the usual post for Tall Travels (although I may write more). I hope you enjoy reading my short story.


Dinner with Morris

We entered the warm cottage kitchen as Morris was attempting to flatten the pastry lid of that night's dinner using only his hands. After a few seconds pressing his thumbs into the dough, he looked up at us, fashioning his teeth into a grin.
“Hello there . . . ah, yes, haven’t got a rolling pin you see?” he offered, whilst looking down at uneven pastry on the counter. “Maybe you could use this” I said, holding out a cheap bottle of Argentinian red I had brought. At least it could be used as a link to talk about the last year I had spent in South America. “Oh thank you, you must be the traveller I suppose” he said taking the bottle and shaking my hand vigorously. I glanced down at the flour that he had rubbed onto my black coat sleeve, brushing it off discretely.
“Yes, he’s back with us for a while” interjected my mother with a smile, attempting to hide her slight worry about a jobless son returning to the nest.
We removed our coats and shuffled over to the table to look for somewhere to put them but couldn't find even a square foot of empty space. Everywhere you looked in the kitchen, there were signs of aborted construction. There were drills on all of the chairs. There were little heaps of cement dust all over the flagstone floor. Pieces of picture frames had been left half made, and a host of other hardware items were strewn around. My parents looked around in horror taking in the scene.
This was not in keeping with their neat and organised ideals of rural Sussex living.
Morris left the pie he had been working on to help us find seats. He flew over to the table, clearing electrical cables and power tools as he went. We sat and prepared ourselves for what was going to be a long wait for our food.
Hedgehog Hall (as the house was named), may conjure up images of an expansive country estate with vaulted ceilings and Gainsborough paintings adorning the stucco walls. In reality, Morris’s house was a large old stone cottage, with the usual array of confusingly arranged rooms, inconveniently angled roofs and uneven floors. It also boasted an impressive garden with a large fish pond that hadn’t been filled in years. Being close neighbours, my parents had been invited over to a farewell dinner of sorts, as the prospective buyer of the house would be joining us. With so much at stake, most people would have tidied up, and would be on their best behaviour. Not Morris. He was still excitedly explaining his home improvement projects to my father when the buyer entered. He listened to Morris’s domestic visions with scepticism, offering the occasional “hmm”, and managing to hold his tongue. It seemed to me that these projects mostly consisted of taking things apart and then forgetting how to put them together again.
David Dudlyke, the buyer, was portly and energetic. As a successful geologist from London, he was looking for a holiday home to provide a bit of coastal fresh air to his young family. ”Ah, there you are David, lovely to see you again” said Morris enthusiastically. Perhaps he was on his best behaviour after all, I thought. Our host wandered off to look for a seat for the new guest and we introduced ourselves. My parents cast early assessment of their prospective neighbour.
Morris soon returned with a large white porcelain ‘butler’ sink. He turned to David said “I’m afraid you’ll have to sit on this old boy. The other chair’s not so strong and you’ve got a bit of a tum you see?”. The guest registered a look of surprise at being denied a normal chair and stammered something about ‘making the best of it’.
I was searching for a means to open the wine and Morris came over brandishing a corkscrew. “The trick is to oxygenate the wine” he stated confidently. “You unlock the full flavour of the tannins in the grapes”.
We watched intently as Morris pulled the cork out and transported the bottle towards the dining table with a large carafe clasped in one hand. He set the container on the floor and from above his head, began to attempt to pour the contents in. As I dumbly watched the liquid splash over the rim of the glass onto the floor, my father rushed over to save the drink by raising the carafe to meet the flow of wine.
Morris had spilled malbec onto his top. He had one of those thick white shirts made from rough cotton that sailing enthusiasts who don’t actually own a boat wear. He was a tall wiry man of around 60 and was wearing worn brown shoes, paint spattered trousers and a navy blue neckerchief. His eyes contained a manic intensity and became wider and even more animated as he regaled us with the latest instalments of his divorce saga. It was as if they were burning in constant vigilance behind his messy outcrop of white hair and the grey stubble. He was a man of constant movement who rarely sat still or listened intently. During a conversation he could shoot off on unrelated new tangents like a miss-firing cannon.
“My doctor told me I need to put on more weight so I should eat more fat and butter” he informed us. “Trouble is I don’t care for the stuff, so I’ve started putting double cream into my bacon sandwiches. Not bad eh?”
We waited silently for the pie over which Morris had laboured for hours, so he decided to bridge the gap in conversation with some music. Soon the formal sounds of a curt, clipped military march were heard. “Rousing stuff this” said Morris “I find it perfect for work around house”. The blast of trumpets and the low thumps of a bass drum didn’t seem the ideal background for a friendly dinner party to me. I noticed David looking wistfully through the back window, dreaming of escaping to the Napoleonic wars, or some other historical battle. Even my father, who was a military man, mentioned how odd it was to accompany a meal with Trooping the Colour.
Eventually, the dinner arrived, and with it every guest was given a different set of crockery. David Dudlyke received a serving platter to eat from, my father got a children’s fork with a steak knife, I had a small terracotta plate and Morris was still scouring the cupboards to find his own cutlery. As if double cream sandwiches and the high-diving wine was not strange enough, we were served a bizarre array of side dishes to accompany the steak pie.
“What did you cook with the mushrooms in Morris?” my mother asked. “I simply cooked them in blackberry jam.” he replied. “Had loads of the stuff leftover from last year and I thought I’d try something a bit different”. “Well that’s certainly a novel idea” she said smiling, as she forced a few more onto her fork.
My mind began to wander. This man was like a real life Willy Wonka. He was someone completely at odds with normal society and the people around him - the very people that he had invited over. I felt like I was watching these events happen through a lens, or looking in unseen through a two way mirror as the guests failed to realise that it was all some big hoax. I felt as if I was in a dream, and my place at the table was actually empty. I was brought back to reality by the sharp contrast of a mouthful of courgettes, with a strong alcoholic taste. They had been flambéed in Limoncello, another of Morris’s clever improvisations.
With the military brass band still blaring away on the stereo, David and my father took solace in the normality of ‘homeowners’ discussions’. They considered the problems with the flood defences in the local rife, the correct way to wire underfloor heating, and the peak traffic periods for holiday makers heading to the beaches. My mother made sympathetic noises to Morris’s stories of marital misfortune and business partners who had stabbed him in the back.
“I’ve got a marvellous business idea!” he exclaimed, suddenly raising his eyebrows and turning to me. “Put more charging points in airports, you always need them”.
“A lot of airports do have them . . .” I replied timidly. “Some of them you even have to pay for”.
“Yes, yes. More power sockets is what they need” he continued, rubbing the stubble on his chin, “I could put more in without a problem and charge to use them. I’m always having these little ideas”.
We moved on to a dessert which consisted of a hot mystery fruit served with Morris’s favourite -  double cream. We later discovered the fruit to be persimmon. I declined the offer of coffee fearing that juniper berries or caviar might be added in one of the host’s inspirational culinary moments.
The rest of the evening passed without much incident, and after a shaky start David began to warm towards Morris’s eccentricities. I’m sure they had plenty more interaction throughout the course of their property transaction. The strangest thing about that night was how normal it seemed to my parents. As we walked home they discussed the price of wheat and the Radio 4 schedule as if we hadn’t just been to the Mad Hatter’s house for tea.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

New Year, new job

As you may have guessed from the new header I'm moving somewhere new for 2016 . . . Spain. Here are the answers to the many questions that I'm sure you have.

Where will you be living? 

I've accepted a job in Baena, a small town in the province of Andalucia. It is right in the centre of the map. Baena is around 60km from the bigger city of Cordoba, is famous for olive oil, and is pronounced in the same way as 'whale' in Spainsh. It is an hour or so from Malaga airport's budget airlines and within range of Andalucia's famous destinations such as Sevilla and Granada.

Why are you moving to Spain?

I have written extensively about Mexico and how I enjoyed my time there, but wished to move to another warm Spanish speaking country to continue my progress with the language. Spain is much more accessible for family and friends, and gives me the chance to travel in Europe again. I can't say that I've always been enthralled with Spanish culture, but travelling so much in Latin America has made me realise that I don't know my own continent very well.

Previous trips to Spain included a rather quiet weekend in Barcelona, and a family holiday where I cheated death (and have the scar to prove it). With a little more time to explore and settle in this time, I hope to get a bit deeper into Iberian culture, sample some new food and maybe fight some bulls of something. What with the nation's greatest historical leader and I sharing a name, it seems like a good idea.

When will you be there?

I'll be in Baena for 16th January, until the term finishes at the end of May. School starts again in September, so I'll have time to work or travel during the summer months. I like to think that I'll stay a while in Spain (I certainly did in Mexico), but you can only really plan one step ahead before life deals you a new hand. I don't have any long term expectations although I hope I will be happy there.

Who will you teach? 

I'll be teaching 25 hours a week (afternoons) in an institute which caters for kids, adults and anyone inbetween. Most of the classes will be exam preparation for teenagers after school. They might not be as angelic or as easily pleased as my previous university students, but I expect them to be more switched on and a good new challenge. My world famous Adventures from the Classroom series shall continue apace in 2016.

What can we expect from Tall Travels?

Hopefully the same mix of sarcasm, insight, bad photography, jokes and questionable philosophy that I've been churning out for the past few years.

I'll be writing about small town life, teaching English, Spanish culture, the people I meet and the places I go.


My New Years' Resolutions (or general life goals really) include finding a good work-life balance, improving my teaching, meeting new people through and outside of work, a completing a Spanish Language qualification.

Wish me luck in my new life and as always, keep reading.

Philip II

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