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

Monday, 24 August 2009

The Countdown Continues...

Only One Full Week Left in Spain...

Today is a special day. Not only have I just received an unexpected and very much needed little boost to my bank account thanks to the Erasmus Grant (money given for free to Year Abroad students within the EU, for those of you who don't know), but it marks my penultimate Monday in Madrid. Obviously, the ultimate Monday would probably have made for a better conceit for a blog post, but I'm leaving on a Thursday, so this is my actual Final Full Week living in Spain. What should I do with myself?

Well, I'm certainly not wandering around the place looking for stuff to do. I'm so busy, you probably won't read anything here until the end of the week. None of my activities are that interesting, though, so I'll leave you to your sordid imaginations to come up wth something more exciting.

That is all.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Summer Holiday: Segovia

The Roman Aqueduct in the centre of the Historical City

I really can't complain about my Summer. I've been living in Madrid, working (which is more than 17% of the Spanish population can say for itself), and reading anything I can get my hands on. In between all of that strenous activity, I have been on three day trips. I would have liked it to have been four (beach, two Historical Heritage Cities, and another beach), but one can't have it all. To top it up, this time I was accompanied by Tim: you know the one.

Most of the day was spent walking around looking at old buildings - and discovering my love of particularly interesting doors, see below - and fanning ourselves in the shade, talking politics and bitching about certain people who shall not be named here. As an aside, I feel really sorry for Tim: this week was not one of my best, and he had to put up with my moaning as I offloaded all of my frustration on him while he was supposed to be on holiday. In any case, we did have a nice day out, compounded by the timely and exquisite lunch (cuts of roast suckling pig: mmm) and the good old laugh at Spanish tourists jostling for a good photo position at the top of the aqueduct dating back to the Roman occupation. That and the genereous helpings of self-made clara con limón (that's beer and lemonade; shandy to those of you who want to lower the tone).

As per usual, photos follow.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Video Nice, Video Nasty

This Week: Serious(ly Cool) Time-Wasting

I doubt this was created as a tribute, since it was posted long before Michael Jackson died, but I couldn't help finding this when searching for the Thriller video on YouTube.

I don't know whether to be disgusted at the amount of time which must have been wasted, or in awe of the kitsch genius. I'll go for the latter. Enjoy.

Monday, 17 August 2009

"Well, isn't this fun..."

An Artist's representation of how I feel, right now...

After having virtually no sleep, a full day of work on my feet, and being diagnosed with conjunctivitis, I now have no internet, because Jazztel (named and shamed) have cut off out internet early, and I'm not the named bill-payer, so as much as I huff and puff, nothing will be done. I'm writing this in a locutorio (downmarket internet café); so unless I can find another source of world wide wonder, expect a lot fewer blog posts in my final weeks.

I hate to say it, but I'm starting to look forward to leaving Spain...

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Persona Non Grata

A Spanish Policeman, yesterday

I've been desperately trying to avoid this issue for two reasons: 1) everybody knows Sanya in España is a fun blog, which deals with anything and everything to do with anywhere but Spain; and 2) the issue of race and racism in Spanish society is a very complex and somewhat blurred one (then again, show me a place where racism isn't a complex issue). Nevertheless, I feel the time has come for the blog to grow up. Particularly because of what happened to me a few days ago.

Since the beginning of July, I have been teaching English part-time at an academy for secondary school-age children in Pozuelo de Alarcón, which is a small suburban city in the region of Madrid. It is one of those perfectly-planned, creepy little places which reminds me of Village of the Damned, or The Prisoner. You know the kind: everyone is supposedly happy and relaxed in their idyllic little world, cut off from the rest of civilisation; but something dark and terrifying is behind the serenity. Well, fortunately for me, I have access to the outside world, via a half-hour bus journey from Madrid city.

On Wednesday morning, I was running late. I belted it down the road to the Moncloa bus station, ran to the closest entrance to my bus stand, and rushed down the escalator. Out of the corner of my eye, for about a second, I noticed two police officers at the foot of the escalator speaking to a woman. The woman was black. I paid no attention to it - I had my own business to attend to - but as soon as I had reached the bottom of the escalator, and was already on my way to the bus stand, I heard a call: "Oye, chico. Ven aquí." Maybe my brain had worked faster than I realised, but since I was the only person around who was likely to have been called, I turned around. The two policemen were standing in the same spot, facing me. I walked back up to them. What you read next is not an exact reproducion, but as close to what I can remember of the exchange.

Me: Yes? Is there a problem?

Officer 1 (tall, thin, in his thirties; non-threatening face): Do you have any documentation on you?

Me: I'm sorry?

Officer 1: Do you have your ID card?

Me: Err, yes.

I quickly reach into my pocket, pull out my wallet, and extract my Tarjeta de estudiante. OFFICER 1 takes it, and has good long stare. I respectfully take off my sunglasses and have a quick peek at OFFICER 2. He is much less kind-looking. Short, stocky and bald, he is clearly the "heavy". OFFICER 2 speaks to me, in an officious tone.

Officer 2: What are you doing in Spain?

Me: I'm a student. I've been studying my Year Abroad in the Complutense university.

Officer 2: It's summer, now.

Me: I decided to stay on for a little while and work as an English teacher. I'm actually on my way to work, now.

OFFICER 1 says something to his colleague. I don't hear it, since I'm thinking, "why on Earth are they asking me questions? They've seen my ID, and they can see I'm in a hurry." I quickly peek at the black woman, who is presumably waiting to be released, herself. She looks slightly anxious. The officers are talking, and writing things down, but I'm not paying attention, thinking in English, since I'm still tired from recently waking up and rushing to catch the bus I have now missed. OFFICER 1 then continues to speak to me.

Officer 1: Where are you from?

Me: The UK.

Officer 1: (Looking at the card) This says Nigeria.

Me: I was born in Nigeria, which is why you'll see "Nigerian" as my nationality on the card, but I have lived in the UK since I was a toddler.

Officer 1: You're under arrest.

Me: I beg your pardon? Why am I under arrest?

The officers laugh. I have misunderstood.

Officer 2: He said "Have you ever been under arrest?" Either in Spain or anywhere else.

Me: Ah, sorry. No. (The officers continue chuckling to themselves) It's just that I'm running late, and I'm not concentrating very well.

Officer 1: When are you leaving Spain?

Me: At the end of the month. I know my card runs out in mid-September, but I was only ever going to be living in Spain for one year.

Officer 1: What do you study?

Me: Hispanic literature. Which is how I can speak Spanish.

Officer 1: (Handing me back my card) OK, then. You can go.

Me: (Not without a considerable measure of restraint) Thank you very much. Goodbye.

I walked off to my bus stand, and fortunately caught the next bus. I noticed they had let the woman go, too.

It was quite clear from the beginning that these officers were not simply regular police. Their uniforms were neither the standard colour of the police nor were they Guardia Civil. They must have been working for the Immigration department. When I got on the bus, and was on my way, I glanced at the area, and they had gone. Clearly no-one else looked like they needed to be checked.

Why did I feel so indignant after that incident? After all, I'm not Spanish, and I'm not in possession of an EU passport. There was every possibility I could have been an illegal african immigrant, either living in Spain, or using the country as a route to the rest of Europe, as several hundred arabic and sub-saharan africans do every year. In any case, they let me go, once they were satisfied I was clearly no such person. Yet, even thinking about it now, I still feel really annoyed at the fact that I was stopped, in the midst of going about my business in a place I now call home; and that the legality of my presence was questioned. Why was I stopped? Because I'm black.

Before I go on, I must point out that I hate the Race Card. Honestly, I do. My dad used to use it as a means of winding people up, in order to get his way. I would cringe if I ever heard other black people - in London, one of the most multicultural cities in the world, of all places - complain about being racially discriminated against. By the time I was a teenager, the "it's because I'm black" whine had become so commonly-used, most of all by badly-behaved young black people being publicly reproached by older white people, that it was used as a catchphrase for satirist Sacha Baron Cohen's creation Ali G.

I think the general debate about racism is too generic. It focuses on the supposed "black vs white" dichotomy, which pushes all other forms of racism aside. When, in 2004, right-wing tabloid papers called the day of EU-expansion a day on which "floods" of Eastern European people desperate to enter the UK, looking for work, would arrive on Britain's shores and create a massive problem of immigration, I thought that was racist. When I read about two Egyptian teenagers, studying English in Brighton, being attacked by a racially-mixed group of boys for not speaking English to each other, I thought that was racist. When I hear Yoruba nigerians talk derogatively about their Igbo countrymen, simply for belonging to a different ethnicity, engaging in an age-old rivalry between both groups, I find that to be racist.

Recently, Prof. Henry Luis Gates Jr of Harvard University was arrested and the case became public, due to Prof Gates' insistence on his being treated by the police in a certain manner as racist because the officer was white and he is black. According to him, it was an indication of the vulnerability of "all black men [...] to caprice's forces". As far as I could tell, he was arrested for shooting his mouth off to the police.

What really annoys me about Prof. Gates is that he had no claim to the racism charge, yet I feel I do. I don't think the policemen themselves were racist - they were doing their jobs, carrying out a task they were sent to do. The problem is, when you are told "go get anyone who may look like an illegal immigrant" in a country which has very few legal black immigrants in it, you are going to single out the blacks. I can only guess this was the case, but my claim is slightly strengthened by the fact that the only other person I saw them detain was also black. If it is the case, then in my opinion, that's wrong, for two reasons.

Firstly, although the majority of black people you will see in Spain are illegal immigrants, that is not to say that all of them are. Most illegal african immigrants are out on the streets all day, selling bootleg DVDs, jewelry, sunglasses, or bags, trying to get by. They do pretty well, those street vendors, too: they always go to the same spots, and have a reliable customer base. If he isn't selling black market wares, he'll be standing outside a supermarket, peddling La Farola - a street newspaper which supports people by giving them a certain amount of copies to sell, the profits of which they keep. Think The Big Issue, but for african immigrants, rather than the homeless. However, I do not dress, look, sound or even carry myself like one of these people. Let me make it clear: I'm not saying I'm above or better than them, just that I am different. Since I have grown up in a Western culture and society, I reflect this in my behaviour, my attitude and the way I present myself to others. Furthermore, I was dressed to teach a morning of classes, with my satchel-bag at my hip, checking the time on my phone, in a busy bus station. Does that fit with the image of someone trying to sell knock-off jewelry or pirate DVDs?

Also, not all illegal immigrants in Spain are black. Aside from the blacks and latinos, who clearly do not "look Spanish", there are white immigrants who have entered and are living in the country via "unconventional" means. What about the Romanians and other Eastern Europeans who are here? I'm not saying they are all illegal, either; far from it. Rather, why were they not being stopped in the street, or on their way to work? Was it because they might get away with "looking Spanish"? I had a friend, here, who I still find hard to believe is Serbian: she's spent her life in Spain since she was a little girl, and has a very mediterranean look. Then again, Serbia is a Baltic country, and it borders with Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania, all of which have a Mediterranean coast, so she looks mediterranean because she is mediterranean. She just isn't Spanish.

I'm worried that I may actually start to sound racist in this post, myself, but I don't think I am. I'm just indignant at the way I was treated. The real point I want to make, though, is not that I consider myself special because I know I'm not an illegal immigrant. Nor am I saying I was victimised because I'm black, even though I I do feel it was the reason for me being stopped and questioned. Nor do I even think Spain is a racist country. I've lived here for nearly an entire year, and I had previously visited at various stages in my life and for differing lengths of time. Spain is no longer a strange country to me, but a familiar home-from-home. In the seven years since I first came to the country, I have barely experienced anything which I would call even remotely racist. None of them were even incidents which would not have occurred anywhere else: I was either dealing with bigots, stupid or thoughtless people who spoke before processing their words. We all know they exist everywhere.

No, my problem is with the institution of the Immigration Police, and its far from progressive guidelines. There are now black teenagers, walking the streets with their friends, chatting and gossiping with their friends in thick Madrid accents. In ten years' time, why should any of them be stopped, as they go about their business, and have their validity to be in the country in which they were born, raised, and now whose workforce and economy they contribute to questioned? That is why I am angry that this happened to me, and that is why I thought I could no longer hold my tongue on the issue.

Now, tell me: have I become a Race Card Player?

Africa Lives! Some promotional material for the week-long festival, held in Spain, celebrating Africa's diversity and it's presence in the country. Read more about it here (if you speak Spanish, that is).


Part Three
Winter 2008-09

The El Corte Inglés, just by my house, over Christmas 2008-9

I have always hated Christmas. I never felt the spirit of it, not just because of the "commercial holiday which has lost its true meaning" aspect, but mainly because of the pretense. Going to all that trouble for a few days of forced fun and internal depression sickens me.

Before a picture of some bitter old Scrooge pops into your head (too late?), I'll point out the fact that I'm not completely against Christmas. It does provide a welcome break. At Sixth Form (for the international readers: post school, pre-university) we had three weeks off, and this was increased to an entire month when I began studying my degree. I love the Christmas break at uni: everyone is frozen stiff and no-one can afford anything, so there is a real community spirit. That is, everyone gets together to share body heat, and the inevitable phenomenon of human interaction begins. My first Christmas at university was, unfortunately, spent at home in London with my family, and I soon decided that would never happen again. My second university-year Christmas was spent in the house where I lived during term time, in Brighton, and it was the best Christmas I ever had. Most of the time I spent with my housemates, and when they went off to do the special day with their families, I was left to my own devices. I cooked a massive meal for myself, did some reading, listened to music and watched the TV. It was bliss.

This time round, it would be different. Firstly, different country, different traditions. Spain is a very good place for families, and Christmas is the ultimate time to be with them, but not so great for us single units. Furthermore, in a different university, one has a different term timetable: the Complutense only gives its students two weeks for Christmas and New Year, since the semester goes from October until January, with exams in February. Lauren, my only friend in the house, had gone back to London. The other two, an antisocial spaniard and a frenchman with the mental age of about six, were working by day and out of the house at night. So, I was pretty much on my own, which I was happy with. Unfortunately, I had a mountain of reading and exam preparation to do, and Madrid had become very wet and very cold. I had always known that, weather-wise, the city went from extreme to extreme, but I still wasn't prepared for just how cold it had become. Tired, homesick, and overworked, it didn't look as though this year's Christmas would be any better than most of the ones I'd had before.

However, with those few Spanish friends of mine who had stayed in Madrid over the period, I fought off my annual depression. With Mamen, parties and bar-hopping excursions were still on the table, and thanks to Paloma and her boyfriend Emilio I actually spent both Christmas Day and New Year's Eve in the company of a family, as it should be. Although I was hardly the happiest person on the planet, what was threatening to be an entirely unpleasant situation became a bearable one; and all with a little help from my friends.

Out went 2008, in came 2009, and with it some new hope. Most of it centred around my dismal academic status. Let's just say that for someone who had previously excelled in his Spanish classes before actually moving to Spain, I had become very depressed at being unable to match such prowess here. As the weeks went by, I became more and more stressed. Added to that, I had been having some issues with my immigration situation which only seemed to get worse as the months went by. My student visa ran out in December, as expected and planned for, but my appointment for further documentation wasn't until the end of February. I had been given a justificante (a piece of paper acting as a reciept, if you like, of my appointment date) which I was told would serve as something granting me the legal right to remain in the country, but I was sceptical. After all, we all know immigration people can be bastards, if they want to.

Then came the exams. A friend of mine at my home university wrote to me, at the time, saying that exams have no redeeming features other than their being over. Ain't that the truth. Of the five modules I was studying, I would have to sit for four of them. I'd never taken an exam in Spain, before, and although the basic elements were in place - answer a certain number of questions on your own, in silence, to the best of your ability and in a set amount of time - I still didn't know what to expect. Put simply, with the exception of one (which I completely lucked out on) they were a disaster. I turned up ten minutes late to one, failed another, and finally got so distraught with my first four months' experience of Spanish university, I lost my senses for the other. Unsurprisingly, then, the results were hardly glowing.

2008 had been an unpleasant year, and the start of 2009 was not proving to produce better results. I was cold, I was tired, I was stressed and I was miserable. Had I hit rock bottom? Probably. Would things get any better? I'd just have to wait and find out...

Reflections Series

Part One: Summer and September 2008

Part Two: October and November 2008

Friday, 14 August 2009

Video Nice, Video Nasty

This Week: True Blues

B.B King. 'Nuff Said. Love the Jacket, too.

Monday, 10 August 2009

We Are Published

I've lost my virginity. And taken one, too.

Of course, I'm not talking about that virginity. Rather, I'm speaking of an online variety: that of the Guest Blog.

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article for my good friend Garçon Stupide, and it was not only the first time I'd written for a blog which wasn't my own, but also his first Guest Spot. Assuming it doesn't go down like a lead baloon, followers of his blog will see more articles from other bloggers; and maybe (if I'm a really good boy) something more from yours truly. Otherwise, it was a nice, fun experiment, and I'm glad I took part it in, nonetheless.

You can read the article, titled "The Gayest City on Earth", here. It's more of my usual rubbish, but someone might like it. In any case, check out Garçon's blog.

That is all.

Book Review: If on a Winter's Night a Traveller

If on a Winter's Night a Traveller (Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore), by Italo Calvino

"You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler [sic]. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, "No, I don't want to watch TV!" Raise your voice - they won't hear you otherwise - "I'm reading! I don't want to be disturbed!" Maybe they haven't heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: "I'm beginning to read Italo Calvino's new novel!" Or if you prefer, don't say anything; just hope they'll leave you alone." And so begins Italo Calvino's novel If on a Winter's Night a Traveller.

From that point on, I was hooked. This book is primarily about the processes which occur when engaging in reading and writing, as well as the relationship between author and text, text and reader, and the supposed relationship between the author and reader. Basically, it is about everything to do with literature, aside from thematic debates and secondary "issues" which arise from the text. Immediately, the reader of the text merges with the reader in the text, and the plot progresses from there.

Apart from this meta-literary ingenuity, Calvino's greatest strength is his sense of humour. Because the plots - yes, there are more than one; each concerning a different narrative encountered by the reader in the text - vary radically from the parodic to the satirical to the downright nonsensical, the author cannot take himself or anything else concerning the book too seriously, allowing for it to be an engaging and surprisingly easy reading experience. Despite this ease, the continual debate about what constitutes literature, and how to identify it as differing from commentary, journalism, philosophy and/or pornography - or, indeed, if it encompasses all and any other forms of writing - is the very basis of the entire work. As I said, the book deals with literature as both a recreational and an academic pursuit, and therefore all possible arguments concerning the activity of reading and writing are presented.

I don't want to turn this review into an essay, since I had to read the novel for my next term at university and I'll be writing 3000 words in December; and the fact that this is the place for value judgements, so I can get all of my initial joy out of the way. In my meagre "research" (a brief glance at his Wikipedia page), I discovered that Calvino was the most widely translated italian writer of his time, and I can see why. If more of his work is like If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, it isn't hard to understand his popularity.

If you're at all interested in books beyond the simple pleasure of reading them, buy yourself a copy of this novel. In fact, scratch that. If you even enjoy the simple pleasure of reading, then buy a copy. It really is worth it.

Italo Calvino: He's very, very good...

Summer Holiday: Salamanca

The Plaza Mayor (Grand Square) in Salamanca

I had always imagined Salamanca to be like the Spanish equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge. I wasn't far off. All of these cities have a large university student body; all have their own unique history stretching back centuries; all are full to the brim with beautiful and inspiring architecture; and all are cities whose univeristies I wish I were clever enough to have been able to study at.

Once again, I was only there for a day trip, but I had a lovely time, nonetheless. Here are some scenic snaps. Enjoy.

PS: To Eduardo. After ten minutes looking, and starting to look suspicious, I didn't even find the frog. Tell me, it doesn't really exist, does it? Didn't have any pinchos, either...

Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Daniel Radcliffe as the eponymous hero

So, in my desperate and pathetic attempt to get this year's installment of the Harry Potter saga over and done with, I feel like an entire week and two-and-a-half hours of my life have been lost to the franchise, with no returns.

As far as the story goes, it's your typical HP sauce: a little bit exciting in parts, plenty of fluff, and cringeworthily bad "teen drama". Hollyoaks at Hogwarts; or perhaps the Magic world's version of Grange Hill (post Mr Bronson-era). Maybe it's because I've outgrown the target age-group, but I find myself caring so much less about who-fancies-whom at Hogwarts, and bored with the recurring theme/cliché of "love is more powerful than the most powerful magic" which not only stinks of the most sugary sentimentalism but is about as interesting as listening to Gordon Brown reeling off the most thigh-slapping anecdotes of his career.

I won't concenrate on too many of the differences between the book and the film adaptation, mainly because most of the cuts and changes made are economically beneficial and gratefully acknowledged. Two-and-a-half hours is quite long enough without another unnecessary display of Richard Griffiths and Fiona Shaw being resentful and nasty. I'd have to say I probably enjoyed the film more, since I went "oh come on!" a lot less during the experience of watching it than I did while reading. Since I hadn't read a Harry Potter book since I was about 15, I was shocked to discover just how bad a writer JK Rowling really is. Actually, that's unfair: she isn't a bad writer, just mediocre. Although she doesn't patronise, one gets the sense she is trying to "get with the kids", with her use of characters' language and certain phrases she trots out. The typical trap of Children's Fiction, which easily makes it one of the most difficult sub-genres to attempt. Maybe she should write for adults, in future.

In any case, "mediocre" seems to be the word for the whole experience. Seven instalments, eight, if you count the final book being split into two films, are just two many, with books/films five and six feeling more like exercises in plot exposition than anything else. After all, what have we really learnt? Voldemort is bad; Harry is good; Snape is ambiguous. Right then. There is the final twist, at the end of the story, but far be it from me to reveal it (hint: someone dies).

As for the acting, it has markedly improved. All three of the "child" stars, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, are more comfortable in their roles, while Grint remains the strongest, most talented of the three. As usual, the adult actors are all superb but underused, since the only real adults who matter in the Harry Potter universe are Dumbledore, Snape and Voldemort. That said, it's always nice to see the cream of the British crop messing about in a kids' flick.

I suppose I'll have to read the last one, and wait for the apparently "necessary" two films, now. Just so it can all be over and done with...

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Video Nice, Video Nasty

This Week: Charming and Engaging Children's Television

"In a dark, dark town, there a was a dark, dark street.
And in the dark, dark street, there was a dark, dark house.
And in the dark, dark house, there were some dark, dark stairs.
And down the dark, dark stairs, there was a dark, dark cellar.
And in the dark, dark cellar, some skeletons lived..."

What do you get when you take Griff Rhys Jones' voice, some nifty animation, and simple repetition of an unconventional theme (namely, the lives of skeletons in a parallel universe inwhich everyone is skeletal)? Funnybones, that's what.

I could have chosen a number of programmes I remember enjoying as a child, but for some reason, Funnybones stuck in my mind, purely for it's originality. No patronising, no moralising, just some good old-fashioned adventures.


Thursday, 6 August 2009

Media Madness

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly News


Well, it's been all go in North Korea, this week. Ex-President Bill Clinton seems to be the modern-day Julius Caesar. He came, he saw, he charmed and conquered, and he returned with the goods. Now they wonder if relations will improve. The Guardian Online's editor has an interesting take on the whole situation. Sobering, no?

Meanwhile, back on home soil (for me, at least), Henry Porter reminds us to wake up and smell the coffee. Whether there will be an independent inquiry is up to the Tories, apparently. Yeah, because they'd never collude in torture... And while we're at it, the inquiry into the events from September 11th to the War in Iraq has finally begun. No wonder Brown's off on holiday: he just can't seem to stop working, especially if it is for publicity... err, I mean, public good. For all Gordo's faults, I'm not sure I'd be too keen on some of the alternatives, one in particular. With a political system crashing around their ears, many jump ship, while the House of Lords finds a handy solution...

Crossing the Channel, flying over France and the Alps, taking a southward turn, and landing in Rome, we realise we've never had it so good. Expenses and torture are nothing compared to Signor Berlusconi's antics. While politics - with respect to women, in particular - seems to pale into insignificance in Sudan; and the Aung San Suu Kyi debacle continues in Burma. Speaking of democracy, the corrupt cheat is sworn in by the theocratic dictator: lovely. Though he may not be the only president who lacks support, as Obama's healthcare reform bill continues its troublesome course through Congress. What is it with the US? They get a good thing, and they reject it!

Finally, ETA claim responsiblity for two terrorist attacks in Burgos and Durangi, in Northern Spain. Yeah, still no-one's told them that killing people doesn't help their cause...


Even more pressure on us poor university students. It isnt good enough to get a First, you see, since apparently, it's all being dumbed down. Here's an idea, perhaps more people are benefitting from the opportunities of Higher Education, and the mean intellectual level of the country's youth is improving? No? Ah, well, just an idea.

Having said that, though I'm all for students fighting back, this is a little too much. Stop blaming, and spend your time looking for a job. It's called a recession for a reason.

In any case, the supposed problem may not last much longer, since fewer UK children can read and write, or do simple arithmetic, by the age of 11! That's a real crisis, people. Perhaps if we stop treating our children like criminals, and get on with teaching them, results may improve. This initiative from the US could be a good start.

Arts and Culture

I cannot wait to see this, when I get back to London. Sounds like a decent English production of Tennessee Williams, at last. Speaking of which, I'm quivering at the thought of an all-black version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, later on in the year.

An interview with Paul McGann, star of Withnail and I and the BBC and Fox's 1996 Doctor Who collaboration.

Lets bring classical music back to the people, and away from the stuffy concert halls, says this man. Quite right! And Cuba agrees with him, when it comes to ballet.


Straight homophobe cries over his punishment: is this what it takes to get people to stop it? Apparently so. I'm not complaining.

Same-sex couples in Wisconsin, USA line up to get something close to legal status; and still the haters complain.

Oscar-winner and Gay rights activist Dustin Lance Black sues over the release of some salacious photos. Quite right. PS, the article loses all integrity with the final dig. Quite wrong.

"I'm not gay, I just like dyeing my hair!" Alright, love, calm down. The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

Financial Crisis

The UK is pulling out of the recession this early, eh? Don't believe that one for a second, especially, based on this evidence. Nevertheless, it does mean Poundland finally gets the recognition and respect it deserves: for the record, I was a fan before it was popular, so there.

One for the "they come here and take our jobs" lot. Actually, they give them back after ashort while. Maybe they don't feel welcome? Our loss.

Everything Else

Charlie Brooker Says: Here are some even more ideas for stupid films.

Real Madrid insures Cristiano Ronaldo's legs for $144 million. Good God, this world is destined to eternal destruction.

I might try this for my return flight to the UK.

Oldies latch on to Facebook; Young people get put off. So, what's new?

Buried Alive to find oneself? I'll pass, thanks.

I never thought this was a real problem. Suddenly The 40-Year-Old Virgin feels like a documentary...

...While this old story never dies: "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned."

What is it with Humanity and mass hysteria?. THIS is why we need to get a grip and STOP fretting!

The Week in Pictures (courtesy of BBC News)

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Happy Birthday, Mr President

What a lovely photo (op): 48-year-old President Barack Obama and 89-year-old veteran White House Reporter Helen Thomas share their birthday, today