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Thursday, December 31, 2009

News from the Charnel House!



Life is moving at the rate of the slowest camel.

The fluctuating state of Toni’s health is the clock which determines our movements. I have only left the house to get essential supplies, so as a holiday I do not think that Christmas 2009 is going to go down in the annals of my festive life as one of the high points!

Never let it be said that I couldn’t scrape significance out of misery. Yesterday was a day in history. I now have all my books within easy reach. Not individual volumes you understand; the chaotic order in which they have been placed on the shelves is almost a work of art that the long lamented ERNIE – that wonder random number generator – would have been proud to claim as its own!

To say nothing of the books which remain in boxes OUTSIDE. Poor things, braving the elements because there was not room at the inn. Before I depart I will have to ensure that they are slightly more protected, even if they cannot be unpacked.

The books inside fare little better than their climate hardened brothers. I now have constructed two rickety piles of books which look as though they have been set up for some sort of Heath Robinson drawing – and the Twin Piles are not going to be the only book orientated construction that is going to be a future feature of the house.

There is one space which could harbour another bookcase which could make a semi-significant difference, but I will have to work on Toni to countenance yet another bibliophilic intrusion into the living room!

The most obvious things which occasion panic just before departure I have dealt with. I have found my passport (valid until 2015) and have printed out the ticket. I have found my UK wallet stuffed with little cash but multitudes of store cards. Even Toni (bless him!) has urged me to add John Lewis Partnership to the deck!

This will be my third trip back to the UK since I moved to Spain: one trip for what turned out to be a death and one for a momentous birthday. This visit is just for me and I am looking forward to it immensely.

As usual my typing is displacement activity: those boxes of books are really heavy and they have to be carried to the third floor.

And there is washing to do!

I shall spend the rest of the time in Castelldefels lazily remembering (r trying to remember) those essential things which one shouldn’t forget for a holiday to be a success.

The one thing that I am determined to remember is to try and find a little serrated edge Kitchen Devil knife. Everyone who uses a kitchen has his own favourite item. For the effete it may be one of the latest capsule coffee machines. For those who can`t be bothered to buy them ready peeled it might be that ancestral yellow plastic peeler, which, in spite of buying newer and more expensive versions still remains the one best suited to purpose (if you haven`t mislaid it as I have) or there may be those neophyte culinary professionals who know that the ‘useful’ knife is the true measure of the person who is at home in the food producing room.

I name no names and I cast no aspersions, but The Knife, my favourite tool (please! Leave those sorts of jokes to Woody Allen!) has been used for more industrial purposes as witness the dented and misaligned serrations. Its replacement is my Quest during my time in Britain. And if I find one then I am going to follow the advice and practice of my mother and buy six. And that is only because even I feel that buying twelve is excessive!

Meanwhile to work!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

When in doubt: chicken!




The emergency chicken (with home-made stuffing, bay leaves, garlic and jamon) has now served for three meals –very tasty it was too. But enough chicken already!

Spain appears to be following Britain in starting the January sales on Boxing Day in spite of the possibilities of extended sales with the giving of presents for Kings on the 6th of January. They must be desperate!

I am looking forward to real sales in Britain in the new shops in the centre of Cardiff. I feel the urge to demonstrate clearly that I am my mother’s son and trawl shops in the determined and thorough way that she did. I will clutch my British cheque book (as long as the rapacious bankers allow us to own one) firmly in my hand, make sure my credit card is within reach and get some real cash from a hole in the wall. I will then be fully prepared to ‘go shopping’ in my mother’s sense of the word.

For my mother, buying something was not the be-all and end-all of shopping – the ability to buy something was. She would have regarded going ‘down town’ with no spendable money as an offence against decency: who knows when the un-passable bargain might present itself?

I grew up with the story of the Wedgewood Venetian coffee set which could have been bought for some trifling sum but which had to be spurned because of lack of cash. This was in the days before the carrying of cards was second nature and in the days when a cheque book was kept at home.

The ‘loss’ of this unnecessary but desirable coffee set was held up as an example of the horror that might befall an unprepared shopper. In the shopping area this image keeps me on the straight and narrow and often the comforting presence of money in my pocket ensures that I buy nothing with an easy conscience!

Toni is not a shopper. He is more a “Need something - Find it - Buy it - Home” sort of person. The only things he looks at in shops are the things he wants to buy! For me such people are like those who do not enjoy reading; I know they exist and I have a sort of intellectual sympathy for their condition – but understand? Never!

We now seem to be in a flip-flop weather situation where a day of rain is compensated for by a day of sun. Today is sunny – and hot as long as you are not in the breeze. Through a copse of trees I can see the golden glint of the sparkling sea and tomorrow I do not have to go in to school. Who could seriously ask for more?

I am now gradually being forced to look at my book collection and start reading those books which I have ignored up until now. I used to say that I would read at least one world famous text (that I had previously pretended to have read) each year. As I am in Spain it would surely be appropriate for me to read Don Quixote. This would be a good idea but the edition I have is on thin paper, has tiny print and is a paperback. I think I will wait until I get a two volume hardback edition on good quality paper and with good size print.

Perhaps I might find one in a bookshop in Britain – at least it gives me an excuse to go into bookshops to look for something specific.

And in English.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Back to the rain


My name day was marked with a bottle of Pierre’s latest fragrance and two hysterical telephone calls to wish me felicitations on my Santo. The phone calls were only hysterical on my part as they were conducted in Spanish and without the linguistic reinforcement of Toni who was languishing in bed at the time!

The bloody rain has returned and Castelldefels is brightly dull.

I am continuing to read Gombritch’s “A little history of the world” which has been loaned to me by one of my colleagues. This is a “child’s” history and is written with all the inclusiveness of Gombritch’s much more famous “Story of Art.”

This is in every way a popular history and I am beginning to see the assumptions which underpin the ethos behind the story telling.

The most intimidating aspect of the reading is the physical nature of the book itself. My colleague has read it, but the spine is pristine, unbroken, unnatural.

The world is divided into three: those people who read a paperback and don’t break the spine; those people who attempt not to break the spine, but leave the book looking as though it has been read – and those like me who break the spine of the book deliberately to ensure that the pages lie flat.

It seems both impossible and deliberately perverse not to break the spine. Unbroken spines in books make them into clips waiting to close; makes reading into a chore rather than a pleasure. All the time I am reading my colleague’s book I have to remember not to spread out the pages. As I read on and the angle at which I am reading gets ever more sharp the more the temptation there is to snap!

The hotel in Benidorm is now cancelled and so the unlikely triangle of visitation from Castelldefels to Terrassa to Benidorm to Cardiff has now settled down into the much more prosaic Catalonia to Cardiff and back again!

Well, time to start planning Toni’s next sandwich – a real test of my culinary skills!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Ho! Ho! Ho!




Let’s start with the positive.

Today was sunny. Cold, but sunny.

Toni’s Christmas meal was an orange and two ham sandwiches: one Spanish and the other York.

Determined not to share this Spartan, utilitarian fare (and not being ill) I stuffed the emergency chicken that I bought yesterday with home-made stuffing; put slices of garlic into the flesh; laid bay leaves on the skin and lay slices of Spanish ham over the bird. I didn’t add the trimmings that I had also purchased as it seemed a little unfeeling to the prone character on the sofa!

I accompanied the unaccompanied chicken with a glass of dark Dutch beer. Not quite the meal that we had been expecting but needs must when the flu bug drives!

I have decided not to go to Benidorm: visiting Brian will have to wait for a more auspicious and healthy time.

Something that I have enjoyed doing today is finishing off “The Children’s Book” by A S Byatt. In many ways this is an intimidating book. The confidence with which Byatt creates the world of the second half of the nineteenth century is remarkable, and her grasp of the family saga she has chosen to tell up to the end of the First World War is not only intriguing as history but also is fascinating in the way in which she has chosen to concentrate on certain aspects of life: pottery, The Victoria and Albert Museum; Fabianism; the Women’s Movement. She has the Dickensian technique of recognizing the power of lists; from pottery glazes to artifacts in the museum to types of cloth she weaves a picture which is truly seductive.

This story of interconnected families is as fascinating in its detail as it is sometimes frustrating in its use of coincidence.

One of the central elements of this story is the making of a series of individual stories for her children by one of the central characters. Everything is an inspiration for a story and it is through story that she comes to terms with (or avoids) life. The use of a writer as a character also gives Byatt the opportunity to write what the writer writes. This conceit gives a multi-layered texture to the novel. The facility with which she writes is astonishing and it is a privilege to read a book like this.

The ‘gained’ days in Castelldefels will have to be spent doing something about the books that I am at present liberating from their storage. The basic problems is that there is no room to put them in the house and I am having to double stack shelves and let gravity defying stacks of books accumulate in all odd corners and alcoves. And still there are boxes of books in storage and three boxes lurking outside the front door.

It is something of a curse being a bibliophile. But I’m prepared to put up with it!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Bring it on!


There is nothing more irritating than someone with a gaping head wound pulling rank and jumping the queue when you have been waiting patiently to see the doctor.

Not me waiting, you understand, but Toni sitting beside me wearing a surgical mask and looking very sorry for himself. When eventually he was seen, the doctor confirmed that he had some sort of flu. If it gets any worse, then his microbes will be interrogated to see if he has the porcine variety.

And the rain continues its relentless falling.

Terrassa has been cancelled. No beating the log for it to shit your presents (Don’t ask; it’s Catalan and traditional and it wears a little hat) and no Christmas meal at the restaurant. It makes a change for Toni to be ill rather than my good self. I was building up a sort of tradition of being ill on Christmas Day, but all good things come to an end and I was in rude health last year. Perhaps Toni is starting a tradition all of his own.

This illness has meant that I have had to do a certain amount of panic buying for Noche buena and Navidad even if much of the food is going to be for myself. Christmas will be Christmas no matter how ad hoc the preparations!

Toni’s illness has also put a question mark over our proposed visit to Benidorm to visit a warmer part of Spain and to catch up with Brian.

At long last I have sent off the e-mail Christmas card. Taking the photograph proved to be the easiest part of the enterprise and I had to go no further than our garden for the augmented plant. Putting the photograph on a page which was capable of being opened as a file on an email was altogether more difficult and that took three attempts. And I’m still not sure why it worked the third time and not the first – but that, of course, is one of the joys of working with computers. Allegedly.

Dinner was two sandwiches: Spanish ham for Toni and smoked salmon for me. I must start planning the Christmas lunch now.

What have I got in the fridge?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Countdown continues


Only those unfortunates who get up at a quarter past six in the morning can really appreciate a lie in until nine o’clock: two and three-quarters hours of oblivion. Or rather an extended period of vivid dreams - a legacy, I think of the lingering effects of the medication to make sure that my single day off school remained as a single day!

The only thing that made the last two useless days of school supportable was the knowledge that today I was going to Barcelona to search for interesting wines to tickle the taste-buds of our little group of wine snobs (unfair!) in Stages in the New Year.

As the colleague who was going to accompany me had to go to hospital for emergency treatment at the weekend it seemed that she would be unable to wander about in Barcelona. Luckily the two ridiculous school days were so obnoxious that we were both determined to wash the memory away with a day out as soon as the term was ended.

We met, as is traditional for me, outside Habitat and, as if on cue, the rains started. What should have been a pleasant ramble around the elegant streets of Barcelona turned into a damp grumble, dodging puddles. This weather is most uncharacteristic and should have the good grace to bugger off to a country where it is more typical.

However depressing the conditions, we did not allow ourselves to be depressed: we were, after all, free on a Wednesday!

One of our first stops was in a superb chocolate shop where the elegant displays of boxed delights were almost too much to resist – until you noticed the price! I was much taken with a box of thirty-six chocolates set out in regulated lines and the top of each chocolate was decorated with a design composed of repeated numbers. The chocolates were grouped into nine batches of four and their flavours were, to say the least, experimental including such delights as curry chocolate and stout chocolate!

As I was looking for a present I had to tell myself that my somewhat eclectic taste might not be shared by the recipient, so I played (fairly) safe and chose more conventional confections.

This shop also has a coffee/chocolate shop and so we were able to have a flavoursome cup of rich, dark coffee and we also chose a single chocolate (packed in its own little box) to accompany the drink.

Thus refreshed we ventured out into the gallery area of Barcelona and saw the usual mixture of the urbane and the insulting. One ‘exhibition’ comprised the wall of the gallery being roughly painted in strips of colour with the paint pots lying around and a fringe of sports’ newspapers at the bottom of the walls to catch the drips. We almost didn’t go in because we couldn’t tell from a casual look if the gallery was being prepared for an exhibition or if it was the exhibition itself!

We looked at Greek classical sculpture; Egyptian artefacts; child-like coloured scribbles; prints by Victor Vaserely (a name from the past); an amazingly various collection of generally figurative artists; spectacularly well taken photographs; a childish take-off of something that Roy Lichtenstein did better and last, but certainly not least an exhibition of Ramon Casas.

We were on our way to lunch when through torrential rain I saw the unmistakable style of the artist that I regard as the finest that Catalonia has produced.

The exhibition was small and had pieces of dubious quality including some fugitive pieces that should surely be in a museum for experts to study and not stuck in some sort of totally inappropriate ornate frame simply because of the same. However, there was a Casas portrait sketch which stood out from everything else for me. And it was for sale. And therefore could be mine!

For only €45,000!

I will have to wait for El Niño and hope that I am successful in that draw.

Though if anyone has forty-five thousand lying around doing nothing . . .

Lunch was a chatty delight with mushroom risotto and a beautiful piece of salmon, followed by pear in chocolate sauce – and a bottle of wine. This, surely, is how all Wednesdays should be spent – apart from the rain of course!

Toni has returned from the frozen wastes of Terrassa, chilled to the bone and with the start of a cold. He is urging me to pile on the clothing when we go up to participate in the seasonal celebrations!

And I still haven’t wrapped the presents!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A break in the clouds?


The damp grey misery of yesterday is now forgotten as sun illuminates a blue sky artistically arranged with fragmented clouds. Unfortunately this means that I will have to do my stint as a referee.

This is somewhat intimidating as my colleagues have told me that in previous years there have been fisticuffs over some of the decisions of the poor old ref. Well, I hope that they are a little more flexible with someone who has no real idea of the rules apart from the necessity of getting the ball in the back of the net to make some sort of point.

The day is shaping up well to be a thorough horror. As I type this in the staff room there is a sound track emanating from one of the computers of two childish voices singing the winning numbers of El Gordo (The Fat One) the National Lottery for Christmas. Due to circumstances which I find difficult to understand I have ended up with three tickets for this celebration of greed. The most important one was bought in Sort (Luck) in the mountains of deepest darkest Catalonia; one of the others was bought as part of the school purchase of a number, and the third was a mistake. You might think that the numbers of tickets would be a general irrelevance until I tell you that each ticket represents a decimo (a tenth of the actual number) and each one cost €20! I have never spent so much on a lottery but, as I think any reasonable person would agree that it would be insupportable for a group of colleagues to win anything and to find oneself left outside the money. It would make working with them or with their memory if they had left on a tide of Cava and hysteria, totally impossible – so the purchase is a sort of fear acquisition! The third ticket I can’t really explain and therefore I hope it’s a winner. I really, truly, sincerely hope it’s a winner.

The rain has cruelly kept off and therefore the football matches seem to be a real possibility and therefore my ineptitude as a ref. is about to be demonstrated to the world! Ah well, I am sure that it is character building.

The rain held off long enough for me to do both my stints on the ‘pitch’ and then the elements became so inclement that the head of secondary stopped the competition (to much annoyance) and caused yet more chaos in a school that wasn’t prepared for pupils suddenly going back to classrooms.

Ad hoc provisions (or films as they are known) are now being shown to all and sundry. Since this school is not a neighbourhood establishment we cannot send the children forth to their homes; we have to contain them until the normal end time when parents descend in droves and completely clog all approach roads.

I now park as near to the main escape route from school as possible. By the time that I emerge and attempt to get to the motorway, parents have usually assembled into the slow moving snake that judders forward in impulsive strikes as the population of the world makes its way home.

I rely on the fact that I am a teacher in the school to shame parents into letting me out; or rather I rely on the kids in the back informing their parents that I am teacher. Yesterday I got into my car and started up using my indicator to inform the stationary landscape of cars that filled the narrow road that I intended (with their kind acquiescence) to make my way into the metallic train.

As usual the flashing indicator and slow edging out appeared to have achieved its result and a car dutifully held back while the traffic in front went forward a car length. With a cheery wave of the hand I moved out only to have the car that I thought was being courteous suddenly lurch forward using part of the pavement to ensure that it stayed in front of me!

Luckily it was at the end of the day, and so I could afford to laugh at the petty minded vindictiveness and grotesque possessiveness of a single car space that this driver displayed. I thought of the child (whose head was just visible) and the agony of embarrassment that it must be suffering. My laugh was not exactly light as I did consider noting the registration number and . . . doing something; though what did not really form itself into anything definite from the nebulous clouds of gentle hatred. I will just let it remain as a memory to be placed next to so many others in the continuing story of Iberian driving!

The day is dragging itself along with my having unexpected periods of freedom spoilt by trying to keep control of pupils who (together with their teachers) quite patently do not want to be here. As far as I can tell the rest of my day is going to be taken up with looking after (yet again) Year 9 and the assisting with the Invisible Friend distribution of presents in Year 7.

As one of my cold colleagues (physically not emotionally) said while getting damper watching desultory football played by inadequately dressed girls, “I’d rather be at home!”

I think he spoke for us all!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Bitter bunny!


As the ludicrous two day week which marks the end of term is turning out to be a disaster on many levels, I will not dwell too closely on the flaccid chaos which characterized today and which looks as though it is going to be a continuing theme for tomorrow.

Instead I will concentrate on the more mellow chaos which is at present all around me in the living room.

With Toni safely in the bosom of his family preparing for my arrival with wrapped presents and nowhere near the Room of Chaos, I have popped into my storage facility and liberated more boxes of books. The number of boxes left in the little room near the airport is rapidly approaching single figures and I will soon be able to cancel my contract with the storage people.

When I find somewhere to put the books which are at present piled up on the stairs, on the sofa, the coffee table and the dinner table. Oh yes, and the floor.

All shelves are full and some are double stacked, but I have to have my books.

Take the recent releases. Beardsley drawings; Tom Sharpe novels; my old paperback version of ‘Catch-22’; Dickens, Coleridge, Ronald Searle, Tolstoy, Martin Amis, Goya, Brangwyn, Lowry drawings, ‘The Way of the Sufi’, all my Douglas Adams novels; Hardy; an amazing number of John Arden plays; Dannie Abse; my copy of ‘Spring Awakening’ from which I learned the lines to play Professor Corona Radiator; traitor Blunt’s book on Italian art and hundreds of others – all of which I have to have around me. 'Where' is the only problem.

Still I have a couple of days before I go up to Terrassa and join in the festive fun and I am sure that I will think of something and find some nook or cranny to fit a few hundred books. Possibly.

Today it has rained. Rained with the sullen determination that I know so well from British weather at its most spiteful. It created problems for the planned jollifications for the kids today and the threat of rain tomorrow threatens the arrangements for the last day of term.

As the last day stands at present: the day opens with my having to take a class for a colleague. This imposition is then followed by my being a referee in a football contest (!) and then normal teaching. I can’t tell you how much I am looking forward to these delights. Because to do so would be to lie.

Thank god for my books!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

How many days to what?


I cannot remember a less Christmas-like build up to Christmas than this one.

I will leave aside the unseasonal and careful sunbathing inside the house but with the French windows open. It is more the complete lack of ‘atmosphere’ I sense where I am at the moment. Many of the houses and flat by which we are surrounded are at present unoccupied so the number of windows with any decoration is limited. Only a few gardens have outside lights and our municipality had generously succumbed to the mood of festivity by stringing a single bedraggled twinkling message over one main road.

I suppose that the air of concentrated panic which characterizes the UK at this date is partly because there are so few shopping days left to Christmas Day. In Catalonia there are plenty of days left to The Kings on the 6th of January which is some households is the more traditional time for the exchange of presents. This also means that The January Sales get off to a slow start in these parts - and certainly not on Boxing Day, which is of course much better known as my Saint’s Day, ahem!

I have at least found my Christmas ties which, by a strange kink of quirky fate number two: just the same number of days that we have to work in the last week before Christmas! Talk about coincidences! My ties have now taken on a legendary life of their own in the life of the school with pupils keen to know exactly how many I have. To hide the fact that I have no idea how many I possess, I always answer “Seven” to this question when it is raised. To which the bemused pupils say, “No, that’s not right because there is the one with the Simpsons; the one with the mouse; the cartoon one; The Big Ben (the definite article is always used); the one with the man; the flower one – and so on. To all of which I give an enigmatic smile and disappear into the staff room for a cup of tea.

Our tea bags are supplied, but they are of the sort that would never sell in the UK. They are of such insistent insipidity that it takes two bags to make one halfway respectable cuppa. Lipton’s tea is very popular here and the stuff we have is Horniman’s: the names have a distant historical tinge to them and put me in mind of the worst excesses of Watney’s Draught Red Barrel. All of them have (or in the case of Red Barrel, had) a sort of zombie after-death-life in the coastal fringes of Spain. The sooner they are consigned to the dustbin they deserve and are replaced with Brains SA and PG Tips the better.

The next two days are going to be intolerable because no-one (surely) wants to be in school. The kids will all be there as their parents will not want them cluttering up their homes. The most we can hope for is that there is a mass exodus from the city as our well healed parents depart for their skiing lodges or ice hotels or wherever the rich go to celebrate a stable birth.

Talking of stable birth, I have now finished reading ‘Jesus’ by A N Wilson. In a revealing quotation Wilson writes, “Luke never states that Mary and Joseph were staying at an inn, still less at an inn where there was no room for them, still less that they were therefore obliged to sleep that night in a stable. He merely says that the particular room in which Jesus was born did not have a cradle in it.” What is truth asks jesting Pilate! Still my Belen is replete with all the traditional trimmings including the obtrusive (and typically Catalan) caganar.

It has been another gloriously sunny though cold day and the nights illustrate how good these houses are at staying relatively cool in summer but how bad they are at being able to be heated up in the winter. There is central heating, but it is pathetically inadequate. Monday will see me going out to buy a moveable radiator so that the future winter months are not too severe.

Toni who is with his family in Terrassa has told me to dress in many layers when I join him on Christmas Eve as it is bitterly cold there. Even though it didn’t settle, it had a good go at snowing there as well!

The Christmas meal has been booked and soon my tripartite holiday will commence: Terrassa, Benidorm and Cardiff. Not many others will be following that pattern I reckon!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Grow up!


Why is it that driving brings out the sadist in us all?

Returning home today I have to negotiate a turning which leads on to a dual carriageway one of whose lanes leads to a slip road for the motorway to Barcelona and the other leads me home. Although there is a single white line painted on the road to discourage lane switching, many Catalan drivers regard such ornamentation as mere road decoration having nothing to do with driving restrictions.

As I was proceeding in the correct (outside) lane in heavy traffic I noticed that next to me in the inside lane was a young man in a car which looked as though someone had inserted a pump in some vehicular orifice and blown it up to resemble a giant Tonka toy. We had both stopped at a traffic light controlled zebra crossing which was a couple of hundred yards from the turning to Barcelona. The turning which I did not want to take, but from which the young man assumed I was going to nip in to steal a march on him and sail away to the Catalan capital in front of him. He therefore inched forward to give himself the advantage when the lights changed to green.

I pride myself that I have always been a smooth and speedy getter away from stationary. I remember with affection the time that I bought (perhaps unadvisedly) some sort of boy racer Ford car, whose name escapes me at the moment but I am sure it will reappear before I end. I had bought it because it had electric windows (as good a reason to buy a car as any other in my view) and not because of its speed. Perhaps what I later discovered to be called a ‘spoiler’ on the back should have given me a hint of what the car was, but such things passed me by in those days. Might it have been an XR5? That does sound familiar.

It did mean however that when I was waiting at traffic lights by attention would be drawn to spotty youths revving up their engines at my side and looking at me in what I could only call a challenging manner. The lights would change to green and I would pull away in a sedate, yet purposeful manner ahead of spotty youth who would respond to being left by hurtling past me at some ludicrous speed with a determined look on his face.

So I went back to those days today when the car next to be edged forward with exclusive hope towards his part of the road. I edged forward as well, just enough to encourage his belief that I wanted to get into that inside lane to go to Barcelona as well. And, just as he triumphantly swerved his way ahead of me into the slip road that I didn’t want to take I rode majestically onwards in the outside lane towards my destination. I do hope that his petty triumph was not curtailed too abruptly!

It does set one up for a relaxing Friday evening!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

It's the thought that counts


Toni’s present is going to be far more difficult to find that I had anticipated. His request seemed, on the face of it, not unreasonable – a little archaic perhaps but something which one of the more established stores should be able to provide without too much fuss. No such luck! My complacency on visiting and outer suburban El Corte Ingles was destroyed by two urbane assistants telling me that not only did they not stock it but also I would be disappointed in any proposed visit to the central version of that august shop.

Time to rethink and rapidly scan through my memory of old fashioned shops that I might have encountered on my peregrinations around Castelldefels and environs.

At one time I was almost as good as my mother at zeroing in on likely shops in my area no matter how bizarre the item might be. Defeat in one line of attack would only prompt me into more rarefied excursions into the more esoteric shops which were part of my consumer map of the city.

Here in Castelldefels I am much more limited and my knowledge of where to get things only extends to a few shopping centres and a sketchy knowledge of the town itself. It was such a paucity of knowledge in depth that sent me to the one-stop solution of a pricy department store like El Corte Ingles. Serious thought will have to be given if the item is to be found – and I’ve probably left it too late to ensure delivery via the Internet stores. However, I will not be defeated: I regard it as a challenge – even if the present may actually be presented in the New Year rather than the old one.

Our departmental meeting today outlined the next series of examinations with which we will enliven the academic existence of our pupils in the next few weeks. Grammar seems to have been thrown to the dogs and long lists of ‘Things to Learn’ have taken its place. Over the past few days I have had to explain things a range of things including ‘have to’. ‘must do’. ‘could do’, ‘should do’. ‘I’ve got it on the tip of my tongue’; ‘reality shows’ the passive, reported speech and ‘Of Mice and Men.’ Never a dull moment. And yes, that is irony.

Three more days to go!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Moral lessons




The lord giveth and the lord taketh away.

There is nothing like a school for giving a practical demonstration to many of the teachings of the bible. There is an equilibrium to school life which could be taken as a pattern for life if anyone cared to look. The Old Testament “an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth” is very much the guiding principle in many of the doings of an educational institution.

For example, the day before yesterday I was absent. My classes had to be covered. When I got into school the next day after my absence the first thing that I saw was my name down to cover a colleague. Lessons (for teachers) are swift in our school!

The weather has been foul with the only bright spot being that the suicidal motor cyclists were driven to obey the basic rules of the road and to limit their death welcoming antics to a minimum. The ride to school was therefore more uplifting than soul destroying and I count that as a major plus as the tedious day begins to unfold.

Already there are changes to the timetable and I was treated to a compressed but impressively controlled rant against the powers that be that had dared take away an almost gained free period. As there is virtually no leeway to the staffing in our school and no possibility of supply staff to make good any deficiencies it does mean that any member of staff who is away causes a disproportionate amount of chaos and disorder in the efforts to insure that the classes are covered. I have now reached the stage in this school where I sincerely believe that worrying about how the school is going to deal with absence is not something that I should seriously consider!

A new teaching imperative has just been explained to me which means that there is a different set of photocopied priorities to teach to some of the classes. I have been rapidly increasing my somewhat limited repertoire of grammatical explanations and I now possess a sweepingly impressive variety of recognizable verb descriptors. Indeed in a lesson this morning I used the term ‘past perfect’ with a confidence bordering on convincingness! How time have changed - and in that instance had changed!

In spite of the Christmas tree gleaming in the corner and the tried and tested star jelly lights twinkling (in a static sort of way) along the top of the bookcases, I find it very difficult to believe that Christmas is less than ten days away. It is also a sign of how much I have changed that I instantly thought that my previous sentence gave an illustration of an acceptable use of ‘less’ even though it was linked to ‘days’ which is of course a countable noun and should take ‘fewer’. O god!

I am, of course, entirely unprepared for the festive season and am relying fairly heavily on Toni to organize the necessary purchases to ensure a pleasurable experience.

Toni has decamped to Terrassa for participation in retirement dinners and Children’s Pageants while I have been left in Castelldefels to bring some order to the library which is gradually being swamped in a drift of clothing which needs ironing.

I have spent this evening drifting from desultory forays into the pile of clothing and reading the latest school book which has come my way. Each book I have read recently has had ‘The Number One Best Seller’ emblazoned across its cover and each one has owed its published existence to the excellent spade work done by the author of the Harry Potter books. There must be a whole coven of writers who prance around Druidic stones at propitious times thanking the Old Gods for allowing Ms Rowling to pen to paper in that Scottish café.

The present volume is ‘Septimus Heap – Book One – Magyk’ by Angie Sage. It has the customary simple but effective map in the front of the book with interesting places prettily drawn.

It is, as are they all, derivative but it is engagingly written and I am thoroughly enjoying it – yet another guilty pleasure!

Meanwhile the preparations for the end of term are being voiced and I realize with unalloyed pleasure that there are only three or four teaching days left in this term!

Hallelujah!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Normal Service Resumed!


Today a day off school.

The weekend was something of a health disaster with me rapidly getting more and more hoarse and throaty. Sunday evening did not really exist as by that time I had taken to my bed which I didn’t leave in any convincing manner for the next day.

Illness has not, however limited my reading and I have completed the perusal of a bewildering series of books including, “Magic for Beginners” by Kelly Link; “Triskellion” by Will Peterson and “Jesus” by A N Wilson. Trying to link these three books will either be an exercise in intellectual trickiness or self indulgent pretention – so, resisting the impulse built on years of previous activity, I will do neither. I will merely quote my favourite extract (in my least favourite book) found on page 190 of “Magic for Beginners” and in the title story: “. . . one of his father’s pet couches; oversized and reupholstered in an orange-juice-coloured corduroy that makes it appear as if the couch has just escaped from a maximum security prison for criminally insane furniture. This couch looks as if its hobby is devouring interior decorators.” The stories owe much to the magic realism of the Borges variety and believe me the debt is not repaid!

A N Wilson, in this famous book, is as readable and persuasive as you would expect and he seems to have the same interest in things theological even if he no longer believes in the spiritual ‘truth’ underpinning it. He believes in the personal truth that motivates belief and his destruction of belief is a curiously benign activity! It is a captivating book of the sort that you wish that you could have written yourself!

The Christmas holidays are getting nearer by the day and I look forward with increasing impatience to their arrival because they lead into the magical year of 2010 and United Nations Day of that Year. O Joy!

The Christmas tree has been brought out of its incarceration and is now fullyish decked out and decked with only three sets of lights (or maybe four) the rest of the decorations and lights will go to Toni’s sister to allow her to make her tree more impressive – and to give me the extra space to buy new decorations on my January Sales expedition to Cardiff!

In Catalonia and Spain generally kids have two opportunities to rake in the regales: not only at Christmas time but also for Kings on the 6th January. This gives the Iberians a greater stretch of money making from the long suffering public than in the UK when they do at least reduce their extortionate prices for those who still have money left in January!

Now to wash my trousers. Never let it be said that my life was ever one devoid of excitement!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Reality hits!



I suppose that the built-in frustration that comes with the inevitable traffic jams prepare one emotionally for the reality of school after a short break.

Every break from school is appreciated, but a weekend plus two days is in many ways neither fish nor fowl. It is too short to be a real holiday but is too long to be considered merely an occasional day. The fact that I spent more than eight hours of it on the road also detracts from the relaxing quality of the experience.

However parts of the break are going to stay with me for a long time; especially the hysteria of the GPS – which is much more unsettling that one might expect. You suddenly feel deserted, isolated in a unfamiliar location and the Voice of Reason and Calmness not even vouchsafing a reassuring “Re-calculating!” to comfort you by suggesting that there is another way which will be given in a few seconds. A bad moment for all!

But that is nothing compared with being back in school mid-week and knowing that there is a Presentation Evening tomorrow which will mean that I will have to stay in school after the teaching has ended because it is not really worth my while making the effort to go home and then return and spending an inordinate time in a traffic jam. And on Monday is another pointless exercise in the wilful waste of our time when one of the marathon meetings to ‘discuss’ pupil progress takes place. All in all not something to look forward to. For days!

On a far more positive note one of my colleagues has pointed out that there are ten more teaching days before the holidays and to back up this good news she also gave me a present.

She said, “I saw this; thought of you, and bought it!” She then produced a bar of dark chocolate with chilli. This was because I have been singing the delights of Lidl’s dark chocolate with red pepper (which has been singularly absent from the shelves for many a long month) and she thought (correctly) that I would be interested in another unlikely combination. As it happened another colleague was watching this little transaction and said, “I saw it as well; thought of you, and didn’t buy it.” Ah well, one out of two doing the right thing is a fair proportion!

As if to emphasise the moment, when I called into Lidl on the way back from school there, on a display by the tills was the whole selection of quality chocolate bars including the elusive dark chocolate and pepper. I bought half a dozen bars and I only hope that you can freeze them. Not to preserve them from corruption you understand, but just to keep them from being eaten by me in one fell swoop!

I will take one in tomorrow to repay my debt.

Perhaps we can eat it while waiting for the Presentation Evening to kick off later in the day. And yes, that was ironic.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Where's Luck?




If anyone tells you that I drove for three hours to go to a small hole-in-the-mountain out of season skiing resort (with no snow) and then queued for an hour to buy a Spanish Christmas Lottery number in a ‘lucky’ lottery shop – I will of course deny it.

It just so happens that the Catalan word for lucky is ‘sort’ and Sort (with a capital ‘S’) is a real place in the Pyrenees not far from Andorra. It also just so happens that we have had a ‘puente’ a two day holidays which links to the weekend to give the impression of a four day holiday. And we went to Sort.

It was a bloody sight further away from good old Castelldefels than we had ever thought or feared. When we were fully surrounded by deepest, darkest Catalonia and felt that we were within spitting distance of the place, a signpost informing us that we were 50 kilometres away was the last thing we wanted to see. If we had known that those last 50 kilometres were over one lane, windy, precipitous roads we would have been a damn sight more depressed.

And we got the traditional little old man driver who slowed down to walking pace when confronted with anything other than a straight road.

When we finally got to Sort our GPS had a nervous breakdown. The Voice had behaved impeccably and guided us from Castelldefels to the tiny mountain enclave with her modulated accents giving a certain tone to the whole experience.

But, just as we were rounding the final hairpin bend to enter the town The Voice suddenly urged us to turn into an unmade country lane and then, when we didn’t do as She had requested She suddenly broke into a chanted litany of “Make a U turn! Make a U turn!” and wouldn’t stop!

There aren’t enough streets in Sort to get convincingly lost but we just about managed it and it was only the complete absence of parking spaces that kept us moving and indeed arguing. At my suggestion, as I slowly circled around the streets of Sort like some sort of extremely obvious sexual prowler, Toni reset the GPS to allow The Voice to recompose Herself.

Reset, She spoke with her accustomed gravitas and directed us into a car part (which we ignored) and left and right around various streets in a w2ay which indicated that She had regained Her composure and was now back in control.

She got us onto a straight stretch of road and it was only when She said, “Continue for 27 kilometres!” that we suspected that She was still a little unwell.

We returned to Sort (which we had momentarily left) and decided to find any parking space and ask a human.

On one of my previous circumnavigations of Sort I had noticed space in front of a shop within an enclosure just off the ‘main’ road. This I headed for and having ‘parked’ there urged Toni to get out and ask someone, anyone where our hotel might be.

In the way of real life, though not of literature, we were actually parked within twenty foot of the place!

Our room was perfectly acceptable and we were soon settled in and took all of ten minutes to explore the resort in which we found ourselves. A church, a river, a few shops and restaurants and flats. Job done!

It was surrounded by mountains and there was a rim of patchy snow on one visible ridge and it must be impressive in the depths of a snowy winter.

Lunch we had in a rather off-hand restaurant: perfectly respectable and unpretentious but overpriced and shoddy service. Dinner was a much more expensive experience but with a little more panache and with the sort of service which makes eating in Spain such a delight.

The Buying of the Lottery Ticket for the world famous El Gordo (The Fat One) was an absurd experience. La Bruja de Oro /The Golden Witch) is the name of a lottery office which has had a disproportionate allocation of ‘luck’ over the past years when it comes to winners of the major lottery. The result is that people from all over come to buy a ticket in this unpretentious place. The owner of the office has become a multi-millionaire on the strength of the superstition of the gullible.

Including, of course, us. We now have our tickets safely inside the little printed pockets that the office gives with each ticket purchased.

Inside this otherwise entirely unremarkable office is a large plastic three dimensional representation of a cartoon witch on a broom. As each person bought a ticket they pressed it against some part of the plastic statue. Her elongated nose was a favourite, closely followed by her hat and then her broom. No part of this representation was immune from the desperate pressing of the hopeful and I even saw one ticket holder wiping her plastic bum!

Our drive back was a delight right up until we reached the zone of the Cadí tunnel. This lengthy tunnel is something like the gateway to the Pyrenees and going through it would take us into the general area of Catalonia.

There was traffic chaos at the entrance to the tunnel which then stretched into one long, long traffic jam. At first we thought it was the result of an accident but it was merely the weight of traffic on one lane roads. What had been a pleasant open drive now turned into the soul wastingly frustrating extended wait in static traffic.

To break the journey up we called into Terrassa and were duly fed and watered before the final trip back home.

This has been an odd break, but another facet of Catalan life has been ticked off.

Bring on the next!

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Let's get away


If you had been in the office of our school on Friday afternoon then you would have had to put up with a succession of parents all explaining to the office staff that they had been lucky enough to get a late appointment for their child at the dentist so could the child be got so they could go to the appointment.

This was all a tissue of lies of course. Friday was the start of the ‘puente’ the bridge which was going to link the weekend to two days of holidays. The parents merely wanted to steal a march on all the other people who were going to be leaving Barcelona to go to holiday homes and skiing!

The true irony of this lying approach to getting the family together for a quick get-away is that I have developed toothache. Some time ago I had some work done on a wisdom tooth, done I suspect in a very inexpert way, which had left me with a niggling discomfort which has now developed into outright pain. There is no way that I am going to get a dentist on a Sunday and there is little chance of finding one on a Monday because it is Fiesta. And we are off to Sort on Monday and won’t be back until Tuesday and then on Wednesday it’s back to school. I suppose toothache is the one infirmity where it is allowable, necessary, and traditional to hope that the pain will simply ‘go away.’ As I have little choice over the next few days I am going to adopt this approach with whatever enthusiasm I can muster.

Yesterday saw the second of our wine tasting experiences. The first was of Champagne and this one was of red wine. The tasting was held in Sitges not far from The School That Sacked Me. The one feature that was common to both tastings was that the television was on showing the Come Dancing Celebrity Thingie which everyone sneered at and watched with rabid intensity. The art teacher from the school who does not have a television in the house watched this British cultural institution with open mouthed amazement!

When we finally got down to the tasting (after the boy of the household had shown shocked recognition of me as The History Teacher during a short sojourn in his school before my present position) we in our turn were shocked to discover that we had ten wines to taste!

Our little group comprises people whose jobs are still something of a mystery to me but I am gradually working out their back histories. I am the latest and newest member of the group which has been a functioning group of friends for some time. All but one member are British – though it has to be said that everyone (with one glaring exception) speaks Spanish fluently!

Our tasting (or drinking) is serious fun. We do comment and we even write out our notes so that we can make some sort of educated assessment at the end of the tasting and we decide what we actually want to drink.

The high point of my contribution to the discussion was to suggest that the nose of one wine was reminiscent of the smell of warm dryer fluff. This gave a number of those present to give the impression that they personally had never come into contact with dryer fluff in their lives. I half expected to hear the famous rejoinder that, “It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different!" A good time was had by all.

The next meeting of our little group will be in Sitges again, but this time I will be deciding the theme of the tasting and buying the wine.

Any ideas will be gratefully received!

Saturday, December 05, 2009

How much is that in days?




I had a three and a half hour lie-in and still got up just before 10 am! It was a delight to get up in daylight and not the darkness as usual. The sun is now struggling through patchy cloud and a four day break (one cannot really say ‘holiday’) is stretching before me.

I need the time to try and evaluate my approach to school. People in my school work themselves into frenzies as if their very livelihood depended upon in. Which of course it does! But I imagine that they are hoping to be in the institution a little longer than the ten months (tops) that I envisage as my future stay. United Nations Day 2010 seems a very distant prospect at the moment but as soon as the calendar shows the first of January 2010 then the goal is very much in sight.

Our school can easily be compare to a junkie. We exist for exams. If there isn’t a mark that ‘counts’ then whatever you are doing, by definition, isn’t important and can be safely ignored. We teach packets of knowledge which are spewed back by pupils in the form of test answers and then are promptly forgotten.

Every so often the school has its fix of exams when the entire places is turned into a corral of jumpy, nervous, wide-eyed punters looking for their next fix. As soon as they are given their drug of choice, neatly stapled in the left hand corner and they can start filling in the gaps then they settle down and get on with life as they know it.

Every topic you introduce, every aspect you explain is questioned by one voice or other asking, “Will this be in the exam?” I, of course say yes to everything because I know that most of the pupils have the attention span of a retarded goldfish and the only ‘things’ that they give any importance to concern the number and design of my ties. Ask them to retain a passing knowledge of the phrasal verbs that I have painstakingly explained with examples and vivid anecdote and you are onto a looser. Ask them to describe the last twenty ties that I have worn and you will have a catalogue accurate to the last detail, texture and colour!

So our school lurches from exam to exam like a dog going from lamp-post to lamp-post with teachers frantically building the next lamp-post so that the dogs can . . . well, you can see where this image is heading!

The knowledge that we have to teach is contained in cataclysmically boring (but colourful) text books which are treated with all the reverence which is not accorded to The Bible in western society. To deviate from The Book is a crime more heinous in this part of Catalonia than saying that fuet (an absurdly popular Catalan sausage shaped assemblage of congealed animal products) is composed almost entirely of tasteless fat!

Unit by unit, with grammar of increasing incomprehensibility, and exercises of growing fatuity in the workbooks, the relentless succession of fairly meaningless exercises and the insistence on the retention of a remarkably archaic vocabulary continues until they take their series of external examinations.

So far so tedious. The real question is how I am going to cope with the remaining months in the school. The idea of teaching English as a Foreign Language with the text books that we have for the next ten months is something akin to a nightmare. Any deviation from the course outlined in the texts is greeted by the kids with absolute panic and plaintive cries to get back on course.

I think that I will have to turn to technology to keep my sanity. I have attempted to get the school to link my laptop into the whiteboard system program so that I can prepare stuff on the computer and show it in class. I have now been provided with a long lead that should, in theory allow me to link up my machine to the board. After the break I should be able to try it all out and that may be one of the ways in which I survive the tedium of language teaching.

There is of course the money. That should keep my mind focused!

Friday, December 04, 2009

There is always a golden lining


A cloudy morning. Heavy traffic. Sullen drivers. Resentful travellers. Bad driving. Another day in work.

Then turning the last corner to go to my accustomed parking space outside the main gate of the school I caught a glimpse of the panorama of Barcelona that our elevated position gives us. We see the whole of the city down to the Mediterranean and today the city was illuminated by the misty reflections of the cloud base bathed in the golden light of the rising sun. Cynic as I am I couldn’t actually refrain from a little squeak of delight! And then the expensive villas of the very, very rich closed around me and the vision was gone.

Now the sun is rapidly rising into the clear azure sky which makes one wonder if the tourist board of Barcelona has a celestial vacuum cleaner to make the skies flawless!

In spite of the fact that we only have two days holiday next week, there is a distinct end of term feel to the staff room. In one way this is good because it heightens the keen expectations of the holiday but the consequence of this wilful self delusion about what actually constitutes an ‘official’ (i.e. long) holiday is that we will have a very rude awakening when we suddenly have to start teaching midweek, And midweek next week! For me the horror is lessened because I can take the Thursday afternoon off as my final compensation for giving up my free periods on previous Thursday afternoon accompanying the PE teacher and our sailor kids to the Olympic Port.

When I mentioned on the bus going down to the port that I might be going to Sort she instantly reached for her bag asking me to get her a decimo. A decimo is the tenth part of a lottery number. You ay €20 and you have a tenth stake in one of the numbers entered in the lottery at Christmas time. To buy the entire number for yourself you have to pay €200 which gives you the whole number but of only one series. God alone knows how much it would cost to buy the number for all the available series. Some people do buy quantities of the same number and then distribute the tickets around the family so that the entire group can participate in the winnings.

After the draw for this massive lottery has been made the TV programmes show the winners: groups of customers at local bars spray each other with Cava as the tickets they bought over the counter come up; people are workplaces smirk at the camera and the entire workforce looks as though they are about to retire – well, you get the idea.

Our school has bought a number or selection of numbers and this seems counterproductive as a winning number will mean that a whole slew of teachers will suddenly leave with much festivity and jollifications. I know in Britain that some firms have actually taken out insurance to cover a syndicate in their organization winning a big prize and the employees leaving en mass. I wonder if our school has copied them.

Who knows who might be in the staff room next January!

Though I could make a shrewd guess!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Sail away!





A tranquil day today which saw the last visit to the Olympic Port for our budding sailors in Year 9.

The tranquillity was not, however the primary starting position of our pupils when they arrived in the sailing school and were given their marked theory papers back.

I do not know if this is normal in other schools in Catalonia, but in ours everything that the kids value has to have a mark out of 10 on it. If it does not have a mark then, by definition it does not matter. And if it does have a mark out of 10 and therefore matters then it is worth moving heaven and earth to get a higher mark than the one you were given.

I have never known a school in which cheating is such an institutionalized part of the curriculum. The kids cheat as easily as breathing and think no more about it that they think about getting oxygen into their lungs.

I was shown a Tippex bottle which had had its label exchanged for a downloaded version from the internet which was the same in every detail as the commercial one except that where ingredients or contents should have been listed there was, instead, a selection of mathematical formulae printed to ‘help’ students in their testing examinations!

Kids lift up their papers as if perusing them, but actually allowing those pupils behind them to copy. They drape their copies over the side of the desk allowing pupils to the side of them to see their answers. And so it goes on.

If cheating fails then there is also the budding lawyer approach which questions every mark and every correction on their papers. Calculators at the ready and hurried conferences to compare and contrast papers ensure that the handing back of test papers is a moral and legal free for all!

The poor instructors at the sailing centre were assailed by hordes of pupils who were not satisfied with their marks and demanded recounts and full explanations about why marks had been denied them. Almost a quarter of their ‘sailing’ time was taken up with the justification of their marks by increasingly flustered looking sailors!

I must admit that I took the opportunity of my enforced presence in the Olympic Port during my free afternoon to start reading one of the reading books that is used as part of one of the English courses.

I have read all the spare books on the course and was left with one that I had previously rejected because of its totally uninspiring cover photograph.

The book was ‘Ironman’ by Chris Crutcher. This takes the usual dysfunctional American family with a remarkable sibling with an outstanding ability coming to terms with life, the universe and everything.

I approached this book with something approaching dread and was pleasantly surprised to find it nothing like as depressingly anodyne as its cover but rather an engaging and witty, hard hitting and thoughtful depiction of teenage angst with not one, but two philosophically inclined mentors to help our hero on his way to fulfilment.

The action of the story charts the rocky relationship of Bo Brewster with his father and his training for a Triathlon which may or may not resolve some of the issues which he faces.

This is superior writing with a confident exploration of the territory not only of a troubled teenager but also of the more worrying world of physical obsession.

This is a highly structured story with what amounts to an emotional and psychological commentary on the action provided by the ‘mentor’ characters. But if this novel is moralistic, then it at least has the positive quality of providing morality in a readable and convincing form.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and I am inclined to search out ‘King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography’ by the same author. It should be revealing.

Tomorrow is not only the end of the week (with no meeting on Saturday) but also the start of a four day break.

O Joy!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


Apart from the utterly conventional death-seeking motorcyclists the trip to school today was enlivened by a few other motoristic horrors.

One young lady obviously assumed that the use of her right indicator automatically caused all the traffic in the lane she was entering to cease to exist. This assumption was rapidly refuted by the horn-sounding, lights-flashing, rapidly swerving cars which had retained their reality in spite of the winking indicator!


Another motorist kept to the middle lane at a more than sedate pace and ignored drivers swerving to right and left around him. He must either have been very sure of himself or a complete idiot as he did not seem to realise that drivers in the morning are not the most forgiving of god's creatures!



Our school is built on a site which has virtually a 1-in-1 slope; the surrounding streets are correspondingly steep and to simplify (or complicate) matters we have a one way system encircling the school. When parents bring their spawn to school in their 4-by-4s they have to deposit them (no matter how old they are) at the gates of the school. It is of course unthinkable that they might. At the bottom entrance to the school there is a T junction whose long arm is almost laughably steep. The top of the T, approaching the school there is only a right turn (except for motorcyclists of course) which leads away from the gate. There is no parking space at the top of the T.

I think that you can tell where I am going from here. The lack of a parking space means nothing to our parents; so they stop and park, just after a sheer slope and an almost blind turn. Two parents’ cars were parked today with the second car which was travelling up the hill in front of me simply partially turning and stopping with no indication whatsoever. Luckily, I am beginning to develop the sixth sense which is essential when driving on Spanish roads and double guess what the persons around you might do and, sometimes more importantly, might not do!

I feel that such challenges set one up for the day. But I would still prefer to do without them. Oh for a job in the British School of Barcelona in Castelldefels and no more getting up at 6,20 in the morning, rising to the sound of the rubbish men noisily arriving to empty the bins and even more exuberantly noisily emptying the bloody things!

Fond hope!

Today is the day when I have my second Spanish lesson of the week. I think that the one-to-one lessons that I am having are an expensive luxury and I will have to suffer the indignity of downgrading to the membership of a group and suffer the horrors of the loving attention that Iberians give to Grammar with a capital G! Perhaps I am a little more prepared for this unhealthy preoccupation now that I have been forced to consider my own language in a little more specifically grammatical detail.

I think that the basic problem that I face is that I want to be able to speak with some degree of fluency and read so that it doesn’t hurt to peruse a match report in one of the intellectual papers which litter the news-stands and I do not want to be able to write with the same degree of fluency. I really need conversation, but that is the very expensive option and I don’t think that the school will cough up for that.

I will have to speak to John in the language school today and try and work something out.

If the examinations were stressful then the returning of the exam papers is cardiac arrest time. When papers are returned, calculators appear and all maths is checked and double checked. All marks are queried and all decisions made by mere teachers are called into question. It is a nightmare.

You can see what sort of adults they are going to be by their fussy, possessive and arrogant behaviour at this particular time. The head of English tells me that it is the same and has been the same and will be the same until the end of time; the trick, I was told is not to take it too seriously as the kids have the sort of attention span that makes Homer Simpson look like one of those medieval hermit scholars who devote their lives to the study of some obscure grammatical form in the later books of Deuteronomy!

And to cap it all I have been hoist by my own computer. In an excess of organization I created a table for my results and started filling them in before I had finished marking. The end result of all this is that I used an old copy of the processed results which were lacking the marks from one question. This omission creased panic, despair and something approaching real emotion in my class who had to be placated with assurances that normal results would be continued as soon as I had massaged them!

Nothing is ever simple!

I have now discovered that the mini-holiday is not surrounding the weekend but on Monday and Tuesday. I do not see why we should not make a sortie to Sort to buy a ticket for the Christmas Lottery. This may not be instantly explicable to non Catalans.

Sort is an actual place in Catalonia, but in Catalan it means ‘luck’ so it is traditional to buy lottery tickets in Sort (Luck) for reasons which should be obvious. As so many people buy, it is hardly surprising that there are a great number of winners who bought their tickets in the place – but logic does not extend to games of chance in these parts!

It’s worth a try!

I have now had three highly expensive lessons in Spanish in a local language school. They are delightful and it is wonderful to have personal attention and have one’s elementary problems pointed out and corrected with gentle indulgence! But it can’t continue at the price that I am paying. The school is not going to fork out for individual lessons for me just so I can take part in their interminable meetings in a foreign tongue!

John, the teacher in charge of the school, will try and find a group that I can join and that will make the cost a little more bearable.

Tomorrow is the last time that I will accompany the PE teacher down to the sea so the kids of the 3ESO can go yachting. Although this means a long, long day for me, it does have the advantage that it gives me an afternoon ‘off’ every two weeks.

Once you are in school you are not expected to leave. Lunch is provided and you are expected to take it in school and stay. It gets a little claustrophobic and I sometimes yearn to get out and sit somewhere not surrounded by students and staff. There is, in fact a convent within walking distance which has a cloister and quadrangle with convent garden which is an oasis of tranquillity in the expensively crowded hill that we and a host of other institutions occupy.

We are all ready for our little mini holiday and we are counting down the days to the start of the Christmas holidays.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Time passes.


The school is undergoing one of its periodic, self-inflicted spasms of examination. Children and teachers are wandering around with the vacant expression of the exhausted and trying to deal with a vague, yet nagging sense of dread. Both students and teachers are clutching sheaves of papers which both sets of suffers look at with pained indignation.

After a period of controlled hysteria I have managed to get the brunt of the hated marking out of the way and have even, in a moment of inexplicable generosity extended help to a colleague who is getting snowed under! I am still disturbed by such a lunatic gesture!

As far as I am aware the examination lunacy ends tomorrow and we can get back to what we laughingly term ‘normality.’

The only good thing about this week is that it is shorter than normal. We are taking two of our occasional days or maybe it is some sort of National Holiday, frankly I don’t care because what it means is that we have a four day break with the Friday and Monday extending our weekend. Which this week is not marred by my having to go into school for some bloody meeting!

This little break will be the last time off before the Christmas holidays and our trip to Benidorm and my trip to the UK.

The Christmas holidays represent two-and-a-bit weeks without teaching which also take me that bit closer to United Nations Day 2010!

The weather has become markedly colder and the Spanish are getting every moment of enjoyment out of their climate. Their obsession with the weather puts the British preoccupation with the climate into perspective. For the Spanish we British have a passing interest in the weather whereas they talk about the weather with the same passion with which they talk about football!

Each snowflake is lovingly catalogued; the trajectory of each rain drop traced; the effect of each crashing wave photographed from every conceivable angle and the sun worshipped with a devotion that the Roman Church can only hope for in its most exalted moments of self delusion! There is a nightly programme devoted to aspects of the weather with a weatherman who has made it from an insert on a news programme to his own feature. We Brits are, I’m afraid, mere amateurs when it comes to contemplating climacteric climatic conditions; Catalans consider climate closely constantly!

I was just wondering when the last time that I read a book was. As a teacher of English this should be in the very recent past with a ‘book on the go’ as well. There is my book on the Civil War (in small print) but I can’t remember the last time I dipped into that weighty tome.

Perhaps the mini-holiday will provide me with some valuable reading time.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Have pen will tick




With the resentment that is becoming second nature to me I continued my marking of the 3ESO’s examination papers. With the help of numerous cups of tea and boiling indignation at completing the week with school work on EVERY day I eventually came to a natural halt. I had not completed the examination papers, but I had reached a point of some complexity.

If you speak to grammatical experts (though why you would do that baffles me) they start becoming a little shifty eyed when you start talking about the future tense in English. We tend to press other tenses into operation to cover up this woeful lack of linguistic latitude and have numerous cunning little plans to give an idea of something which is going to happen in the times ahead.

The last question in the 3ESO examination was devoted to the elusive future tense and was asked in an original form which the kids had not experienced before. The question took the form of a table which was drawn up in three sections the middle section gave a description of what the tense covered; the kids had to write in the name of the tense on one side of this description and then write out a sentence to illustrate the tense on the other. Perhaps an example will make things clearer.

The description given for one of the uses of one type of future tense was, "An activity in progress for a period up to a specific time in the future." The students had to identify the verb form and then write a sentence to illustrate the form. Go on, have a go, see if you can do what any normal (!) 13 year old in Catalonia can do! Good luck!

If you are able to provide a convincing answer then please forward me your name and address and I can send you my outstanding students' questions which need to be corrected!

I have given up marking this exercise because it is fairly obvious that some of the kids know far more (and far more convincingly) than I do about how this bloody tense was, is and can be formed. I have marked two questions and have had doubts about both. I think I will leave it for the moment and go onto safer ground in the other paper I have to mark – that of 1ESO.

Tomorrow I will gain a mock exam from the sixth form and the paper from the kids in 2ESO. A week to look forward to!

Just back from our visit to a local café with a reserved table for two to watch on a large screen TV the victory of Barça against their perennial enemies Real Madrid! The game was exciting, especially the last five minutes which for me were literally nail bitingly tense.

Toni, who is not the most unbiased football commentator in the world, has just informed me as he peruses the internet and looks at the Madrid supporting press (i.e. everywhere else except for saintly Catalonia) that they have obviously been watching a different match to the one that we saw!

As we walked back to the bus stop we heard explosions as rockets and bangers were set off to celebrate the victory and we were passed by hooting cars in another traditional response to a Barça success.

¡Força Barça!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Ths Day Will Live in Infamy


Arising from a night of troubled sleep, I found that I had, during the night been transformed into a creature filled with cold fury.

I heard the rubbish truck arrive at its customary time of 6.15 am and turned over determined to try and adopt some of sleep related stance until an hour later which was my predetermined time to rise to GO TO SCHOOL ON A SATURDAY.

This meeting about the sixth form in my school was of two and a half hours duration during which I spoke for about three minutes! In English!

I truly fail to see why this meeting was held on a Saturday. I am perfectly sure that the part time members of staff could have made this meeting on a work day. In fact I am sure that the only reason that this meeting was held on a Saturday was because it could be; and if the management of the school ever decided not to have the meeting on a Saturday they would NEVER be able to get it back.

Already this school has the longest daily timetable that I have every worked with: a day that can stretch from 8.15 am to 4.45 pm! Given this expanse of time it should not really be difficult to timetable a meeting!

I think my expression spoke more eloquently for freedom from Saturday school than any words that I could have spoken. Though such an obvious attitude of opposition can work against my continued presence in the school. Management has almost limitless opportunities to sack – as long as they pay the right money.

To take away the memory of a regression to god knows what level of management oppression at a salary that I would have to go back a decade and a half to match we went out for lunch as the little bar we patronize on the ‘Rambla’ of Castelldefels.

Toni is still suffering the end effects of a gastric illness so he had a very uninspiring meal but I had the menu del dia. This comprised an excellently presented paella, followed by merluza in the Basque style. The sweet was a sort of chocolate sponge box filled with fruit compote and chocolate and topped by a medallion of vanilla. All was delicious and at a reasonable price too.

My best intentions of doing some marking today have been lost in an orgy of not doing the marking.

Tomorrow we return to the bar in which we had lunch for The Match. The Barça – Real Madrid match is an event and it is far better to see it surrounded by the fanatical supporters of the team than merely to watch it in the comfort of your own home.

Of course watching it in your own home is impossible unless you have purchased the game as it is not free-to-view and we haven’t done that so our choices were limited to going to a cinema (all sold out) and a bar. Since the people in the bar suggested our going there it seemed like too good an offer to refuse.

There is still time to do my single script to ensure that I do some work tomorrow before we go out to watch The Game, but I can feel myself weakening even as I type.

The flesh is weak and the spirit ain’t willing!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The torture begins!


My first Spanish lesson for a long time was conducted on a one-to-one basis in the director’s room in a local school of languages in Castelldefels.

I suppose it was quite an intensive experience but I must admit that I did not know that I was capable of carrying on a (fairly stilted) conversation in Spanish for an hour. As one might have expected I did not let the poor woman teaching me get much of a look-in and I rabbited on quite happily from her fairly basic stimulus questions.

The adrenaline flow from the experience also allowed me to dredge out more words of Spanish than I would normally have been able to use in normal circumstances and I even managed to surprise myself my some of my more daring linguistic excavations. I also had a few happy guesses at Spanish words that I assumed must have a Latin base in the English word that I knew and so used them with a suitable accent and ending!

In my initial conversation (in Spanish) with a teacher in the centre I was noted down as a False Beginner to Low Intermediate. The ‘False Beginner’ makes me sound like a member of an early Christian sect with heretical ideas about the book of Genesis, while ‘Low Intermediate’ put me in mind of some modest section of Cromwell’s New Model Army.

I am sure that this designation comes down to my marked reluctance to use Spanish verbs. They are notoriously difficult to master so I treat them as I would an enraged bull in Pamplona and stay on the higher levels in the surrounding houses speaking through the medium of nouns and watching other more valiant linguists than I battle with rarefied grammar.

My homework, however, while concentrating on the acquisition of vocabulary also leads me gently into the murky paths of gender assignation via definite and indefinite articles arriving at the incomprehensibility of the Spanish approach to the verb to be. Much like New York, the Spanish liked the verb so much they named it twice. There are two verb forms to express which is perfectly well contained by our single verb ‘to be.’

It gives hours of honest delight to the Spanish as they watch foreigners struggle with the concept and hours of unrelieved miser to the foreigners as they attempt to use the verbs without copious weeping.

I think that my brain is in a better place to accept the hard graft involved in learning another language and my school, more than anything, shows the necessity of being in command of a second language.

I was reading the newspaper that the school takes (well, mostly looking at the pictures) when I attempted to read an account of the Madrid game that was on the box last night.

Madrid were playing a team from Zurich whose game was woefully low but Madrid, with their multimillion pound players seemed incapable of wrapping the game up with the finality that should have been on display. It is very much to the credit of Catalonia that they do not have newspapers of the ‘Sun’, ‘Star’ and ‘Daily Mail’ type, but it makes it damn sight more difficult for me when I have to read a very literate account of a football match in the prose equivalent of the Daily Telegraph. Words like flagstone, snowed under, anguished and labyrinth all occur in the first dozen lines of the report; so it takes me a little time to work out that the writing is saying that Madrid were crap!

I am going to have to take a much more measured and systematic approach to my acquisition of language and make lists (remembering to add the sentences in which the words occur) to help speed the process whereby I can read a match report with some degree of fluency!

Although I was told that today was going to be the day when the season finally managed to impose itself on the absurdly good weather we are having at the moment, I have to report that I had my cup of tea on the wide expanse of the balcony outside the staff room in Building 4 and sat lazily in the sunshine and gazed at the sun with shut eyes (if that is possible) hoping that the melanin in my skin would get working and transform me from the pasty individual that I have become now to the bronzed individual that needs to impress the people back home with the wealth of sunshine that we regularly enjoy.

Even I am getting a little jumpy with the continued refulgence of the sun and continue to wait for the pay-back time!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

It's all too much!


As if to compound the dread associated with the lurking horror of having to go into school on a Saturday (which I may have mentioned before) I now find that I have lost a free period.

It is always true in schools that the more you give the more they take. My kind acquiescence in accompanying the physical education teacher to the sailing classes in the Olympic Port in Barcelona with the loss of two free periods and a much later finish are now past history and are in no way taken into consideration when colleagues are absent and have to be covered. I think that they suppose that the ‘time off in lieu’ that I take every other Thursday when I have can actually take my free periods is compensation enough to load extra cover on me.

At the wage that I am given I resent every single second that I give to this school to nurture the privileged children of the very rich.

It is by the way that free periods are treated by an institution that you can tell its professional worth.

Our school makes little or no attempt to find supply teachers. I now see that my first employment by the school was a sign of total desperation to cope with a situation of chaotic proportions and not a perfectly normal response to a long term absence. It perhaps explains why my presence was regarded with shock when they found out that I was taking the place of an absent colleague!

Colleagues collude in the penny-pinching attitude of the school. We in the English department have collapsed classes and gone through a form of internal cover to compensate for a week’s absence known in advance. And then we were asked to cover for other colleagues as well during the time that we were trying to cope with a person missing in the department.

Don’t get me wrong: I was hardly surprised by this response on the part of the management of the school, but I was shocked by my colleagues’ attitude of helplessness to perceived injustice.

Change in this place does not come about because it should. There is a long period of time when ‘discussions’ with people who have been here some time take place in some undefined way. It puts me in mind of the old way in which the leader of the Conservative Party was elected when grandees made soundings and a leader ‘emerged’ by some sort of mystical process.

The lack of an effective union, not only in schools, but, as far as I can see in the whole of Spain means that workers’ opinions can be readily ignored. The fact that we are in a financial crisis which Spain’s membership of the EU and the Euro has managed to mask from the general public to a large extent also means that the element of fear is always present in the way that people deal with management.

As someone who has been in a union all his working life and regards union participation as a normal part of the working environment, working in Catalonia has been a largely frustrating experience. The ‘lone voice’ syndrome is a commonplace: if you as an individual say anything then there is every chance that it will get back to management and there is no real support (apart from pious resolutions from your colleagues) in a professional sense to strengthen your position.

The fundamental flaw, as I see it, in the way that unions are organized in this country is that they are determined on a workplace by workplace basis and representation is of all the workers in a site regardless of their professional status. A raft of representatives will be elected by the whole of the staff and for teachers that will include the office staff, the caretaking staff and the kitchen workers. My own union membership is with a Catalan union which has a section for teachers; I am not a member of a professional body which had negotiating rights for my job as a teacher specifically.

It is a deeply flawed system and one which limits the free communication within an institution.

I am lucky that I have made contact with an excellent official in the union and he has been invaluable in offering advice and support.

On top of losing the last free period of the day I also have a Spanish lesson later this evening. The two things are not really linked, but in my mind they have a similar value in that I end up doing something which is not my first choice of activity in my life.

I dread the sheer learning involved in getting to the standard that I need to achieve to allow me to carry on a worry-free conversation with any member of staff. Finally coming to terms with the two verbs for ‘to be’ in Spanish; actually using verbs rather than the Tarzan-like manner of communication I presently adopt using well chosen nouns; actually being able to read a newspaper without the feeling that a dictionary is an essential component of my reading experience.

Truly my cup runneth over!