Saturday, 10 October 2009


"Morning, Beautiful! Sleep well?"

Sanya stirred and groaned as his body slowly and gradually came back to life. Still too tired to open his eyes, he felt the light from a window tickling and enticing his face. He could hear the twittering of birds and the faint sound of children skipping and laughing while on their way to school. It could only mean one thing: he would have to get up. No matter how much he hated it, no matter how little he felt like facing the world and carrying on as if everything would be OK and work itself out, he knew that if he just lay there - even for one moment longer - it would only serve to prolong the sense of impending doom he felt during his waking hours. He couldn't yet put his finger on it, but this morning somehow didn't feel right.

He opened his eyes: he wasn't surprised by what he saw; and yet, for a brief moment, it felt like the strangest place on earth. He was in his room: he recognised it. Nothing new or particularly odd about waking up in his room. However, it wasn't his room. It had never been his room. Regardless of everything being undoubtedly his, indisputably placed in his style, and with decorations only he could have picked out and arranged scattered over the walls and furnishings of the place, it was not his room; and yet it was his room. He blinked, looked around, and stretched. Or, rather, his body moved for him. The routine was familiar to his shell, but the indefinable mass within continued to slosh about in a confused mess. He got up, put on his slippers (slippers? He hadn't worn slippers for months, surely?), and slowly undressed. His hand reached out for the towel lying on the radiator by the door. Once decent, he left the room, and turned for the bathroom.

After his shower, he wiped his face, and looked out of the window. Ah, England! His beautiful country. Sanya smiled, and felt reassured: Spain had, indeed, been just a dream...

So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Adios

What better way to express my feelings than by song?

I honestly don't know why. Perhaps it is because Julie Andrews was my grandmother's favourite film star (Deborah Kerr came a close second, since she was indistinguishable from the former - in my grandmother's eyes, anyway - in The King and I). Perhaps it is because it has seven singing Austrians in it. Perhaps it is because the songs are so damn catchy. Whatever the reason, The Sound of Music has never left the special place in my heart it has always occupied for as long as I can remember. Which is another slightly irksome fact of my existence, but what can we do?

When pondering over my penultimate post, I couldn't help but think of So Long, Farewell, sung by the Von Trapp children as they bid goodnight to their guests. Well, this is Sanya in España, after all. It wouldn't be one of my blog posts without some kitsch conceit being used as a tenuous introduction, would it. Anyway, on to the subtance.

Today, while sitting in my bedroom, I have been singing songs from The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, wondering why it has taken me so long to finally wrap this crazy blog up. The reason is simple: I haven't yet wanted to close the capsule and bury it for all time. Despite having been back for a month (yes, that's right, Sanya is no longer in España, but you had probably already guessed that), and having more-or-less readjusted to life in the UK, I didn't want to make it real by saying goodbye to the beloved blog.

All good things, though (as someone must have said for a first time), must come to an end. I had the best time, in Madrid. Really, the absolute best. Friendships were made, good experiences were had, and I even managed to adjust my figure (I won't tell you which way, though). How I will possibly live on elsewhere can only be decided by time. In any case, as the Von Trapp children sang:

"I hate to go and leave this pretty sight"

Goodbye, my dears; Goodbye...

PS: Since you asked, my favourite song is The Lonely Goatherd: it's a brilliant breathing and enunciation excercise. That's the official excuse, anyway.


Part Six
July and August 2009
Flying the Flag - Madrid Pride 2009

The Summer vacation turned out to be my busiest period of the entire year; more stressful, even, than both exam periods put together! Right from July the 1st, my life changed dramatically and took about a month to settle.

First came Orgullo '09. As some of my readers may already know, Madrid is a party city, and Gay Pride is no exception. In fact, it is one of the busiest events of the city's calendar (although, unlike Ken Livingstone, the City's officials never turn up in support of the event). Festivities began on the 1st of July and went on right up until the 6th. Out of those six days, I went to bed on one of them: the last day, and even then I wasn't alone...

I also started a new job in the Village of the Damned, or Pozuelo de Alarcón, as it is locally known. It wasn't so much that I didn't like the place, I just couldn't believe how suburban it was. Everything so perfectly planned, and everyone smiling so pleasantly. I desperately wanted to discover that the residents were all members of some pagan god-worshipping cult, or at least in the thrall of an alien overlord. No such luck; they were just all boring middle-class professionals. Work consisted of recapping the basics of English grammar for the benefit of local teenagers who couldn't be bothered to pass their end-of-year exams, despite being both intelligent and willing to learn. After a couple of weeks working at this school, I knew who to blame for this colossal failure. Based on what I had gathered over the previous months from spanish people of all ages and from all backgrounds, the spanish education system doesn't actually seem to be the best in the world. No one I ever spoke to had anything good to say about it, least of all the methods employed by spanish teachers of English - that is, go over rules, repeat them, get the students to copy them down, and never apply them in speech, since everything is explained in spanish. Luckily for the kids of Pozuelo, Sanya had come to their rescue. I actually really enjoyed being a teacher, there, despite the hour-long journey from home, and the less-than-satisfactory pay. I've always had the utmost respect for teaching, but even more so, now.

When I wasn't working, I even managed to have some sort of holiday. Summer Excursions to Cádiz, Salamanca and Segovia were timely breaks from Madrid life. Speaking of which, home life was not as peachy as I had hoped, for various reasons, none of which I will go into here. I share the blame, of course, but at least some sort of peace was finally made between my housemates and I before going our separate ways. If you want the gossip, tough*.

And so, as the summer months sped by, I was forced to come to terms with the inevitable truth of the impending doom. Preparations were made, plane tickets were bought, goodbyes were made, and I was soon to be on my way "home". Life would never be the same again...

Indeed, nothing will ever be the same for me, now that I have concluded my musings on my Year Abroad. The story ends here. Only a few more chapters to be read before the book can be closed, the light switched off, and you can go to bed. It was a good one, don't you think?

Reflections Series

Part One: Summer and September 2008

Part Two: October and November 2008

Part Three: Winter 2008-09

Part Four: March and April 2009

Part Five: May and June 2009

*I'll send you an email , if you ask really nicely.

Book Review: The Immoralist

The Immoralist (L'Immoraliste), by André Gide

Here's a marginally amusing little anecdote. When I was smugly telling any French person I met that I would be, was, or had just finished reading André Gide, I was greeted with blank faces. "How uncultured," I told myself, "one of the greatest exports of French literature, and they don't even know who he is. It would be like me never having heard of EM Forster."

It turns out, though, that the fault lay not with my interlocutors, but rather with my oh-so-clever-and-cultured self, who was pronouncing the name horribly incorrectly, as to render it absolutely unrecogniseable to the natives. Rather than saying " ɑ̃dʁe ʒid" ("aundray zhide"), I was saying "ɑ̃dʁe ɡiid" ("aunzhrey geed"), and probably coming across as the linguistic fraud I must be. Serves me right for such a shameless display of hubris.

Anyway, on to the review.

According to the introduction, Gide's publisher noted the saleability of the book based on its title. The title seems to be the most saleable aspect of the work, in my opinion. Don't get me wrong, it is very well written, and an engaging, intelligent piece, but I don't feel the immorality. Now, you may say that is because I am reading an early 20th Century novel from an early 21st Century perspective. Wrong: as far as I can see, when compared with Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, this is tame to the point of acceptable in the drawing room.

The main issue is the focus on the eponymous protaginist, Michel, and his "illness". A Queer reading (capital for emphasis on literary criticism, not just saying a queer is doing the criticising) might lead one to conclude that this is some sort of physical manifestation of the character's burgeoning sexuality, offset at first by the physical displacement from "civilised" Paris. However, reading on, there doesn't seem to be such a strong thematic link to connect these elements of the story. In fact, there is so much suggestion that vagueness becomes the overarching feel of the novel. Having said this, Michel's characterisation is strong and well presented, the piece as a whole subscribing to the early tradition of the first-person narrative novel, which allows for more subjective writing, and therefore a more interesting objective reading experience. While Michel is unsure of what his illness actually is, the reader - especially the 21st Century reader - is all too aware.

All in all, it is a good (but not a great) read.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Book Review: By the Waters of Babylon

By the Waters of Babylon, by Stephen Vincent Benét

Here's one for you: do 25 pages make for a long short story, a novella, or a really short novel? Since I just cant decide, I'm going to stick with the appropriate-for-an-essay-but-horribly-pretentious-in-a-blog-post word "text". That way, I can't go wrong.

Also, I can't resist thinking about Boney M or the Bible, whenever the name of this text is written, spoken or read aloud. I suspect this is intentional, though the association is more likely to be with the latter. I'd love it if it were an allegory of Jamaican pop music, but alas, Benét was no such visionary.

Set in a type of post-apocalyptic United States, in a world which has forgotten its past, a young man undergoes a rite-of-passage, during which he ventures into the forbidden lands, where he discovers the truth but decides not to divulge it to his people, but rather encourage the rebuilding of a new civilisation. Sorry if I've spoilt it for you, but there you go: it is a risk which comes with reading book reviews.

There isn't really much more to say than that, really, apart from the fact that it is well-written, with the revelations coming at the end as not a surprise but a well-prepared-for and satisfying conclusion.

That is all.

Book Review: La chica del trombón

La chica del trombón (The Trombone Girl), by Antonio Skármeta

I have previously professed my love for the Chilean author Antonio Skármeta in this blog. Now, like a true devotee, I will prove my love for him, despite it being put to the test with this, one of his later novels (published in 2001). Who said love was blind?

Let me just start by saying I did actually enjoy reading this. In many ways, it is similar to El cartero de Neruda. Set in the pre-Pinochet era, a view of provincial Chile is provided through the experiences of an ordinary character, a marginalised individual who touches and interacts with real historical figures, but ultimately has little historical influence. As a novel, it was perfectly readable, with a decent structure, credible language, and a good plot. Nevertheless, I felt disappointed by it for a number of reasons.

First, Skármeta's choice of protagonist, the titular trombone girl, is nowhere near as likeable as Mario Jiménez or Pablo Neruda. Written in the first person, it is interesting to read the thoughts and feelings of a female character through the pen of a male author, but it is also worth noting the way Alia Emar speaks about the other few female characters in the story. he first is her unlikeable step-grandmother, Jovana, a cynical prude who turns socialist upon meeting Salvador Allende. Charged with taking care of Alia after the death of her grandfather, Jovana reluctantly provides her ward with food and a roof, yet spitefully attempts to destroy the legacy left to her by her adored grandfather. The women Alia admires are the film stars of Holloywood's Golden Age, while her own childhood friend grows into a beautiful aspiring film actress who is duped into the "meeting a film director" trap, and ends up pregnant and married.

Next, is the issue of Alia's own sense of displacement. The story of her heritage is complex, to say the least, given that she does not know anything about her parents and instead grows up with her grandfather, a relationship which is heavily hinted to not be one based more on love than blood. This blend of bildungsroman and tabula rasa works perfectly for the purposes of enforcing the "nurture over nature" debate, since Alia creates her identity; an identity which develops and evolves over the course of the novel. Even her name is questionable: Magdalena is the name her grandfather uses, and with which she is registered, while she chooses to call herself Alia Emar in honour of her deceased grandmother, yet both names are of ambiguous origin. The novel also takes place in Skármeta's own home city of Antofagasta, and knowing as I do that his parents are of Chezch origin, the idea of immigration and displacement is clearly one which concerns the writer on a more personal level. However, although it is dealt with very well, I'm not sure Skármeta needed to include it, or rather, he should have made more of it. There is a very funny scene in which Alia is denied a tourist visa for the United States due to her murky family history, but it feels like a half-effort.

Finally, we have the historical and political context of the novel. Judging by the short stories I have read and El cartero de Neruda, it is pretty clear that pre-Pinochet and the coup d'etat of 1973 is Skármeta's main forte, but it would be nice to read about another time period in Chile's history, or maybe even - and wouldn't this be a revolucionary idea - set in Chile's stable present. This time, the novel ends with Allende's eventual election in 1970, but the story ends happily. This ironic ending, full of hope is masterfully written, but it feels like more of the same, rather than something new or interesting.

I'll repeat: I like this book, but I don't love it; certainly not to the same level as El cartero de Neruda, and maybe it's wrong of me to compare. They were written twenty years apart, for a start, and are two different creations. However, the former novel is so witty, so ngaging, andso life-affirming, despite its tragic end, that once one has read Skármeta's best, one can only think "could do better" after reading this work. Good, but not good enough, I say.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

The Countdown Continues...

One Weekend

Oh, how I'd love to divulge the secrets that lie amongst the memories of this beloved blog. How many stories I could recount! I won't, though, because that would be telling. All I will say is that, for a final weekend, plenty of fun has been planned, and plenty of fun has already been had. I'm hungover as I write.

Oh, Madrid, I will miss you...

That is all.


Part Five
May and June 2009

A view of Madrid from the cable car which runs over the west part of the city. The river is called the Manzanares

Back in March, a classmate taught me a phrase she claimed was sometimes used for early good weather in Madrid: Cuando en marzo mayea, en mayo marcea. It roughly translates to: "When you have May weather in March, you'll get March weather in May." I was a little wary of this phrase, to be honest, and my suspicions were confirmed once May came around. What rubbish: the weather only improved over the next few months!

The good weather made my university experience even more enjoyable, especially as the year was beginning to wind down and exams were on their way. Unusually for me, I had done my reading, and was prepared for the few exams I actually had: I had chosen my classes wisely, since most of them were coursework-assessed, meaning that I was able to hone my essay-writing skills (albeit mostly during all-night writing sessions the day before deadline). The results showed, and when I look back over my academic experience, the second semester far outweighs the first. Despite my complaints about the system and certain methods employed by the university in handling its students, I really enjoyed studying at the Complutense and will miss it.

Meanwhile, back at home, everything was runningly smoothly. As housemates, we were all getting along swimmingly together, socialising outside of the home as well as having friends over regularly. Everything was going so well, even the bureaucratic fiasco I had been suffering ever since I arrived in the country was solved. I felt so settled in Madrid, I began to wonder how I would cope with leaving. As the end of the year was drawing nearer, I needed to think about my plans for the summer and beyond.

I eventually found work in two schools, one starting in July, the other immediately, alongside teaching my faithful private students. While the classes would see that I wouldn't end up on the street, I also planned to go on a few weekend excursions and spend the extra time reading and doing some writing. I'd have to move to a cheaper flat for summer, though, since my term-time money from the government and my UK university would stop flowing.

With everything running along smoothly, these months turned out to be my most peaceful and stable, and were probably the happiest of my time, here. Which was a shame, because with my imminent return to the UK coming closer, it was bound not to last. Although I hadn't ever reached the lows of Autumn or Easter, Summer would turn out to be a fun, yet tiring experience...

Reflections Series

Part One: Summer and September 2008

Part Two: October and November 2008

Part Three: Winter 2008-09

Part Four: March and April 2009

Video Nice, Video Nasty

This Week: Doctor Who in Spanish!

The last Video Nice, Video Nasty post, was always going to be something a little special, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd get the chance to see the glorious mixture of two of my favourite things: the programme which will never die, and the language of passion (sorry French, but Spanish does more for me). If I were a believer, or even superstitious, I'd say it was a sign.

Whatever it is, it's just another temptation to say "go hang" to my degree and life in the UK, and just stay here forever. Well, it would be were it not for the fact that I don't like the voice given to David Tennant. He deserved better.


Farewell Feature

And so it's goodbye to Video Nice, Video Nasty. It hasn't been one of the long-running features, but it's been a little favourite of mine. No doubt it will pop up again in the next blogging epoch of my life, but for now, you can go look for your own interesting YouTube videos, you lazy b*stards!

Thursday, 27 August 2009


Part Four
March and April 2009

Meet the New Family - My housemates from March onwards

Sometimes, I feel like a bear cub. Surviving Winter is something of a relief, since I'm never quite sure I'll be able to make it. Unlike bears, though, I am unable to hibernate for three months (more's the pity), and so sitting it out or committing suicide are my only options. I can forsee a day when I eventually choose the latter, but it wasn't to be this year. Things, as D:ream and New Labour promised, could only get better.

Unusually, the promises were kept, and things really did get better; and how! Firstly, the two guys Lauren and I were living with left to live in some filthy paradise of their own making and were replaced by a lovely German girl, Christina, and an Argentine called Hernán. It was, put simply, a little bit of heaven on earth. Not only were they clean, but were nice people. We all got along swimmingly, and it was the beginning of possibly the best flatshare I've ever been in.

Along with the domestic bliss came a happier semester at the shop, too. All but one of my new classes were engaging and - more importanly - were being taught by likeable people. Added to that, the sun began to shine and even more friends were made. In april, I also had the good fortune to meet writer Antonio Skármeta, which was a lovely experience, and though not exactly life-changing, certainly one of the most memorable events of my time, here.

I also managed to go on a couple of weekend breaks. I visited Barcelona with my friends from university, while jetting off to Santander with a big group of Spanish friends and acquaintances. Santander went down as one of the best trips of my time in Spain, since the weather was good, the company was excellent, and I finally felt able to relax for a weekend. The trip to Barcelona was almost as good, considering I was among some of my best new friends from university, but the city itself disappointed me. Sure, the sights were very impressive, but it was the attitude of the Catalans which made me feel less than welcome. I'm certain that not all Catalans are like that, and this will probably upset any Catalan reader who stumbles across the blog, but hey-ho; my blog, my opinion.

Then came Easter, or Semana Santa, as it is called here. It literally means "Holy Week", since celebrations start with the domingo de ramos on the sunday before Good Friday, and end on the Sunday after. Processions, parades, parties and pointed hoods á la Ku Klux Klan (who actually stole the look from the nazareno processioners) are the order of the week, with street activity reaching maximum. I had been eagerly awaiting the arrival of two of my best friends from home, with whom I'd planned a week-long road trip around Spain, starting in Madrid, going through Seville and Granada in the south, up to Valencia on the east coast, and finishing in Barcelona, from where we would go our separate ways. The holiday would be a brilliant way to show my friends why I love the country so much, as well as a chance to see them after so long apart.

However, things didn't quite go to plan. The first part, Madrid and Seville, went well and we all had a very good time. Problems began in Granada, and in the space of 24 hours, I managed to single-handedly destroy two longstanding friendships in one fell swoop. As far as my achievements have been, that has been one of the greatest with a negative effect on my life.

I subsequently spent pretty much all of April upset with myself, and vowing never to repeat such a mistake. It was probably the lowest point of my entire year, which is a shame, and though I have picked myself up, and maybe even improved a little, I'm still not quite over it. Time will tell.

In any case, if things had gotten better over March and April, the pattern wouldn't stop there for the following months...

Reflections Series

Part One: Summer and September 2008

Part Two: October and November 2008

Part Three: Winter 2008-09