December: the final push

It’s December. Christmas is coming. And this term’s exams are finally over. 

I had three weeks of exams this year, as the Advanced exams are longer than those for the lower levels, and so take more lessons to complete. The first week was a strange mix of Advanced exams and normal classes. For the other two weeks, it was exams all the way.

If I’m honest, the exam weeks themselves aren’t too stressful. There is, at least, nothing much to prepare (just the odd exercise for fast finishers) as the exam papers are all provided by the academy. The reading and listening exams are multiple choice and can be marked – for the most part, anyway – during the following exam. There were even some lessons where I had no marking to do and could just sit and listen and keep an eye on the kids. And sometimes you need to. Because sometimes, despite thinking they understand what’s going on, they can surprise you.

Take one of the listening exams, for example.

The learners came in and sat down at their desks, upon which I had placed a question paper and an answer paper. They’re a pretty good bunch of kids, so they quickly settled down for the exam.

‘Write your name at the top of the answer paper,’ I said, holding up the paper to show them where. ‘Choose your answers for in parts 1, 3, 4 and 5.’ I pointed to the appropriate sections. ‘And in part 2, write your answers clearly.’

Much nodding of heads.

‘Please don’t write anything on the question paper.’

And then I played the audio, pausing to check that the volume was loud enough. All seemed to be going well. The learners got down to their listening. I got down to my marking. As each audio track ended, I played the next. And then, at the end of the exam, I stood to collect the papers in.

Image by F1 Digitals from Pixabay 

One of the girls gave me the answer paper and not the question paper. ‘Can I have the other part, please?’ I said. ‘The other paper?’

She looked at me, confused.

‘The question paper?’

‘Question paper?’ 

It was then I realised she had completed the entire exam without reading the questions. I laughed. How could that have happened? But it soon became apparent it wasn’t just her. Suddenly, I felt like crying.

Goodness only knows how they had chosen their answers – completely randomly I guess. I still find it amazing that nobody put their hand up and asked how they were supposed to know what the answers were when they didn’t know the questions. But, that’s children for you.

Fortunately, it’s their first year studying at that level and these exams are just a benchmarking exercise, so other than losing half an hour of class time, there was no real harm done.

I explained again, super clearly this time. ‘Read the questions on the question paper. Mark your answers on the answer sheet. Let’s listen again.’

Hopefully, if nothing else, they will have learnt how the exam works. And I’ve learnt that no explanation is too simple, no instruction too obvious.

So, yes, the exams can be challenging. And the most exhausting element has to be the young learners’ speaking exams. I pretty much know the script for the particular Flyers paper we were using off by heart now (and this almost a week after I last used it). Back-to-back classes on Wednesday saw to that. By Thursday’s class, I had it off pat.

But although it takes a lot of stamina and concentration to have the same conversation with almost 20 kids in a row, all while listening out for grammar, vocab and fluency of response, at least that marking is done in the moment. It’s the writing that takes the time to correct – and Advanced writing more so than the other levels.

I’ve definitely got faster over the years, and hopefully this morning I’ll get the last of it done and dusted. It’s helpful that we have enjoyed an extra long weekend – a whole five days! – thanks to the Spanish Constitution Day yesterday and Immaculate Conception Day tomorrow. It would have been nice to have been able to take the time off and completely relax, but it was not to be. Still, I have managed to fit in a Body Balance class, a visit to a Thai restaurant, to watch a whole Christmas mini-series on Netflix and bake some scones, so it hasn’t been work all the way.

Today is the final push.

And then I’ll be able to properly look forward to Christmas.

Getting back to me

It’s been a while since I last wrote anything here. I was going to apologise but to whom and for what? I suspect the person who cares the most is me and I understand. I’ve had stuff going on, in more ways than one.

Term started again on 6th September, so we’re now eight weeks in and halfway to Christmas. My timetable this year is quite different from last year’s. My youngest learners now are in theory 10 years old, although in practice that isn’t quite the case. And whereas previously my highest level (in my core academy hours) was PET (B1), I now have four Advanced (C1) classes, including one teen intensive course with no course book. All of which means LOTS of prep.

In the meantime, I’ve been trying to keep on with the writing. I actually submitted a piece to (and had it rejected by) a literary journal outside of the writing group, which feels like a step forward and only half a step back.

Over the summer, I also managed to finalise a handful of short stories. I’ve two more awaiting second crits – in other words, I’m really hoping not to have to make any further drastic changes to them, but that depends on the feedback I get – and one more that needs some further major work doing to it, but that’s gone on the back burner now as my attention has turned to rewriting my novella.

Another fairly major win for the summer was completing (or near as damn it) the first draft. This is a piece I started writing back in 2018 in the UK, then abandoned when I moved to Spain. But it kept nagging away at me, and eventually I decided to pull it out, dust it down and see what I found. And what I found was a good idea, some interesting characters, and some gaping holes. So I set about plugging them.

The problem with the resulting piece is not that it’s dreadful (I don’t think) nor that I don’t feel very comfortable writing from the point of view of the character I chose to be central to the story. Rewriting from a different character’s point of view simply wouldn’t be enough. No, the problem is that the story is about an Indian girl and her experiences of life in the UK and in India. And the thing is, I’m not Indian and I’ve never been to India. And despite friends encouraging me and saying that of course you can write about characters who are different from you (and I believe you can), the story I was trying to tell, and the way I was trying to tell it felt awfully akin to cultural appropriation. And I realised that if I ever wanted to have any hope, even any dream of publication, both the characters and the plot would have to change quite dramatically.

Fortunately, my inner writing circle helped me to see that the heart of the plot didn’t have to change, that I could rewrite the story from the point of view of an English girl who travels between the UK and Spain. After all, that’s exactly what I’ve done. And so, rewriting it in that way is exactly what I’ve set about doing.

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay 

So far, I haven’t got much further than planning out the new, improved (and somewhat lengthened) plot. But this morning I wrote the first 288 words. Just 35,000 to go.

So, yes, both work and writing have been keeping me busy. And all this against the backdrop of increasing Brexit stress (fortunately no longer from a personal point of view, having secured my TIE) and rising anxiety about the COVID situation in the UK, and the seeming blindness of the authorities to what’s going on. I haven’t been back for over two years and the way things are going, I wonder when I’ll ever be able to get back again. (Fortunately, for the most part, the situation here seems to be relatively stable.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly (or perhaps completely unrelatedly, who knows?) I’ve been dealing with some health issues over the last couple of months, and this has led in turn to some rather challenging encounters with the health service. It’s not that they don’t want to help me, or that I’m not entitled to help, or that they’re actually doing things badly (as far as I know). It is that some of the systems are baffling, especially for someone from elsewhere, who’s used to things being done in a different way. It’s that they expect you to know how things work without having to ask a hundred questions. And it’s that they’re all so overworked that they don’t want to have to explain everything in detail – oh, and sometimes they forget to pass the paperwork on, so that the next person you speak to has no idea what you’re talking about.

I had to submit a whole load of samples for tests at the end of last week and should get the results next week, if and when the doctor phones me. (She’s not keen on office visits – another thing that makes the whole situation even less comfortable for me. I don’t like talking on the phone in English, for goodness sake, let alone Spanish!)

All of which has left me feeling rather stressed and rather drained. Thank goodness we have a bank holiday on Monday, although as both my Monday classes are repeated during the week, it won’t actually save me any prep.

I have to admit that all of this has started to take its toll on my mood, and as someone who has experienced anxiety and depression, I’m conscious of being at the top of a slippery slope. It’s so senseless – I live in a wonderful place with a wonderful person, doing a job that I love and writing (which I also love) in my free time. And yet I know that if I don’t take care of myself, I could end up losing my footing and starting to slide down again. And I really don’t want that.

The first time I went for counselling, more than ten years ago, the counsellor asked me to tell him about my childhood. I resisted. “Why do you want to know about that?” I asked. “It’s not about my childhood. It’s about what’s going on now.”

The second time I went for counselling, some three years ago, I told the counsellor flat out that I didn’t want to talk about my childhood. But this time, with a bit of probing and encouragement, he helped me to see that there were echoes of the past in my current situation and in my current behaviour and attitudes.

This week, various experiences I’ve had, from watching TV shows to conversations with friends to reading opening lines of short stories, have highlighted for me certain issues that still resonate through the years.

Anne Lamott famously said, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

Whether I agree with that or not, I’m not sure that here and now is the right time to delve into what those issues are, or how they came about. Perhaps one day I’ll be ready to explore them, whether head on or obliquely, through my fiction.

In the meantime, I’m aware that there is a need in me for fairness, for love, for affection and for order in my life. I have grown a lot over the last three years and I know now just how strong I am. But I know also that sometimes I need to lay down my load – mentally, emotionally – and give myself some space to get back to who I really am.

Now is one of those times. 

The challenge is in knowing what to let go of and what to hold on to, what is keeping me afloat and what is dragging me down. I’ve started by letting go of the need to stay at the top of the Duolingo leagues – it seems like such a silly thing but the relief at no longer having that particular mental burden has been immense. Perhaps next to go will be the Apple Watch rings. Maybe then I should stop reading the UK news, or doomscrolling on Twitter. And from there, who knows?

The mission to get back to where I need to be has begun. Wish me luck.

Summer, seven weeks in…

Where has the summer gone?

There are still three weeks left before I return to teaching, but it has been almost seven since I last taught. I find that absolutely incredible. It has felt like no time at all.

For the first few weeks I was my usual busy self, cramming my calendar full of activities and self-imposed deadlines. I’m not going to apologise for that. It made for a productive few weeks. I edited half a dozen stories, wrote two new ones, and picked up on the novella I’ve been meaning to come back to for way too long. I started an online Norwegian course. I completed half of the exercises in a C1-C2 Spanish vocabulary book (which was hugely helpful for building my confidence). And I did a few Catalan and even French exercises too.

But then we went on holiday.

View from the Alcazaba at the Alhambra

Eight days felt like about the right length of time to be away. After a long but uneventful car journey, we spent five nights in Granada. We had plenty of time to relax, unwind, swim in the pool, visit the Alhambra twice (once by night and once by day) and wander round the town. Then on to Córdoba for a further three nights, which again felt about right. 

The Roman Bridge in Córdoba. Overheard tour guide: ‘The only remaining ‘Roman’ elements are the foundations and the name.’

My comment to D at the end of the trip was that I liked Córdoba with its bustling narrow streets and open, green spaces more than the steep, cobbled streets and busy modern centre of Granada, but the Alhambra was more impressive than the Mosque / Cathedral in Córdoba. I’m not sure that actually does a service to either place. The truth is that I’d recommend visiting both if you haven’t already. And if you’re veggie or vegan, we found some great places to eat in both.

Córdoba city wall.

As for the heat, well, let’s be honest, yes, it was hot but not so hot that we couldn’t enjoy our stay. The air conditioning in Granada could have been more effective and there were a couple of nights where I didn’t sleep brilliantly, but the pool was a definite bonus there (as indeed was the terrace).

The greatest surprise was the apartment in Córdoba. I wish I’d taken a photo to show the thickness of the walls. It is no exaggeration to say they were at least 50cm thick, and probably more. The result? We didn’t put the air con on once. And this in August.

The other notable feature of the Córdoba apartment was the lack of bathroom door. The sink was actually in the bedroom. The shower was through an arch from the bedroom, the toilet tucked behind a little wall alongside the shower. There was a screen you could put up to avoid a direct line of sight, but still, it was certainly an interesting feature! To be honest, it was a great little apartment and I’d have no hesitation in recommending it for established couples – but maybe not for a first weekend away together!

Anyway, usually when a holiday is over I get a little melancholy but this time there was none of that. It’s not that I wanted to go home exactly but I most definitely didn’t mind heading back to Valencia, or indeed to the flat. In fact, I was actually quite excited about it. You see, while we were away, my flatmate moved out. Now, I mean no offence to her – we seem to have rubbed along together quite happily for the year she was here – but this meant that D and I now had the place to ourselves and could rearrange it to suit us. And that’s just what we did.

Home sweet home

It is amazing what a difference moving a few pieces of furniture around can make. (It’s also amazing how easily you can fill a spare room with unwanted furniture and other stuff accumulated over the years. And I’ve only been in Spain less than three.)

We finally finished the job of moving him in yesterday, when we collected his bed from his old flat – yes, on one of the hottest days of the year. Maybe not the brightest idea ever, but we wanted to get it done before he went back to work – which he did today. Not as a Covid Auxiliary this time – whether or not they’ll be reintroduced remains to be seen – but in a new job in a supermarket. And that means that I’ve time once again for all the activities that have taken a back seat over the last few weeks while he was off.

I have still been writing and doing Spanish and Catalan and Norwegian exercises over the last couple of weeks since we got back, but it’s definitely easier for me to motivate myself when I’m here by myself. So I’m trying to gently pick up the pace a bit over the next week or two, before I have to knuckle down to the serious work of preparing for the new term. It’ll come around soon enough – and I still have a few writing projects left to tick off (not to mention the language exercises I haven’t yet got to).

The summer’s not over yet.

Summer holidays

So, it’s summer again and that means it’s nearly time for holidays. And this year, with Fallas having been postponed until the beginning of September, we have almost ten weeks of (unpaid) holidays to look forward to.

How am I feeling? A strange mixture of expectation and trepidation, actually.

I’ve been counting down to this holiday for weeks, looking forward to finally having some time off and a chance to relax and get stuck into some other projects, because teaching is exhausting. But now, as it’s almost here, I also feel slightly anxious – not so much about the financial situation as how I’m going to adapt to having nothing to do.

My lesson planning today took much less time than usual. (I only have five classes this week.) I found myself finished earlier than expected. It’s a strange feeling, having time on my hands and I immediately looked for a way to fill it. Et voilà! This was the result.

Of course, it is nonsense to say I will have nothing to do. I am one of those people who always has a list of things I want to do – and usually don’t find time for. I have already planned activities I want to do to maintain / improve my language skills in French, Spanish, Norwegian and Catalan. I also have a list of writing and editing goals. And I’ve plenty of reading and ukulele playing to catch up on, too.

I will be fine. But it will take me a few days to adapt, to relax into a different schedule, a different set of pressures.

I’ve also booked a holiday with the young man when his work as a Covid Auxiliary comes to an end, although I’m convinced they’ll soon be on the phone asking him to come back, particularly if they continue to let overseas visitors in without requiring tests. He doesn’t seem so sure, but maybe that’s because he’s had enough of the job now, and who can blame him? Six months of 6.30am starts is more than I could manage.

Anyway, the last three cities on my list of essential places to visit in Spain are Granada, Córdoba and Toledo (although I might have to add Salamanca – a place I very nearly visited when I lived in León, but ended up going to Segovia instead. I don’t regret that decision at all, but it does leave Salamanca unchecked). We’ve decided to leave Toledo for another time – perhaps combined with a trip to Madrid, where he keeps telling me I have to sing in a piano karaoke bar with no screen. ‘Would you do it?’ he asks me, as if it’s some great ordeal. Yes, yes I absolutely would!

Alhambra, Granada. Image by Manuel Mariscal from Pixabay 

So, this summer, our itinerary consists of Granada and Córdoba. Everyone keeps saying we’re mad, that it’ll be really hot there, but actually the night-time average temperatures are lower than in Valencia, and D keeps telling me it’s a drier heat than here, too, so fingers crossed we’ll be ok. Anyway, we’ve AC in both apartments and access to a pool at the apartment in Granada. How hot can it be?

I’d have liked to visit the UK this summer, as it’s now almost two years since I was last there (where does the time go?) but the COVID situation seems to be against us. I’m fully jabbed (Janssen) and D will be on Friday (Pfizer), but even if the rules change in August, from what I’ve read it may only be UK residents who benefit from not having to quarantine. So, it looks like we’ll be staying here.

But, as I’ve said before, there are worse places to be. And soon we’ll have a spare room, too.

Form an orderly queue.

What’s your superpower?

I didn’t have an unhappy childhood. I have fond memories of holidays at the beach, playing out in the street, growing flowers, fruit and vegetables in the back garden. But I also have some discordant memories.

I was close to my mum. I’m sure she never meant to hurt me. But looking back, I wonder whether it was necessary to be referred to as ‘the fat one of the family’. It was done cheerfully, jokily, lovingly even. And the thing is, I wasn’t fat. If I had been, it would probably never have been said. But it was, more than once, and it stuck with me. 

What stung more at the time, though, was my lack of sporting ability. All my sisters had their ‘thing’. For my older sister and my middle sister it was running. For my little sister, it was swimming. They basked in the glow of praise as they scooped up medals, broke PBs. I used to run too, but only to make up the numbers. Week after week, the team manager would fill up the entry form with other girls’ names, then slot me into the free spaces. One week it was shot putt and 80 metre hurdles, the next long jump and 800m. I was a stop-gap, a place-filler. Running was not my ‘thing’.

I was once picked for the swimming squad, but only because they thought I was two years younger than I really was. Once my true age was revealed, I was out.

It’s a cruel world.

‘I’m not good at anything,’ I said to my mum.

‘Yes, you are!’ 

‘What?’ I said, jutting my chin out. Maybe she could have said pool, or ping-pong (I could beat my sisters at those, at least some of the time), but no. ‘You’re good at spelling,’ she said.

And it was true. I was good at spelling. I’d gone through a whole year of school without getting a single word wrong in any of the spelling tests. But before that conversation, it had just been something I did. Suddenly, it became my superpower.

So, I was gutted when I was found to be fallible. I remember crying on the teacher’s shoulder because I got a single word wrong – the only word in the next school year. 

‘There, there,’ she said, no doubt wondering what all the fuss was about. ‘It doesn’t matter. You’ll remember it next time.’

And I’m sure I did. But still, it mattered to me. I doubled down. This was my thing. It was important.

Later, after the spelling test streak had been forgotten – a teacher wrote the word ‘raspberry’ on the board. Except she didn’t. What she actually wrote was ‘rasberry’. Something had to be done.

‘Miss,’ I said, putting my hand up. ‘Miss, you’ve spelt raspberry wrong.’

She looked at me, glanced at the board. ‘No, I haven’t,’ she said.

I should have left it there, but no. ‘You have, Miss, you have. Raspberry has a ‘p’ in it.’

‘Raspberry?’ She looked at me, the annoyance clear on her face. ‘No it doesn’t.’

‘It does, Miss. It’s r-a-s-p-‘

‘Enough.’ She flung a dictionary at me. ‘Look it up,’ she said.

So I did. And two minutes later, my hand was back in the air again.

‘What is it?’ she said, her glasses swinging against her chest.

‘It’s raspberry, Miss. It’s here: r-a-s-p-berry.’

‘Show me,’ she said, her certainty starting to waver.

So I did. And of course, I was right. It was my superpower. So why did it feel like a bad thing?

I hope I don’t treat my students like that. I hope my students feel able to challenge me, to ask questions, to probe when my explanations are inadequate, and I hope I’ve the grace to admit when I don’t have the answers. Teaching isn’t easy. But neither is being a kid.

Looking back, I was probably pretty insufferable back then. I didn’t mean to be. I was insecure. My superpower was my strength.

These days, I’m not quite so convinced of my spelling ability. There are certain words like ‘broccoli’ that catch me out every time (is it two c’s or two l’s?) but once I’ve written them down, I can usually see where I’ve gone wrong. And in the world of auto-correct, spelling no longer seems so important, anyway.

As for my sporting ability, it hasn’t really improved but I’ve learnt to live with it. I’ve learnt that we all just do the best we can, and there is a challenge to be had in that. I ran a marathon, for goodness sake. I doubt I’ll be running another one – I haven’t run in over a year and although my leg is now much better after my January injury, I still don’t trust it enough to train for a race – but it doesn’t matter. Running isn’t all there is.

My latest obsessions (and yes, I think I do get a little bit obsessed) are Body Balance and ping-pong.

Ping-pong practice in the living room

Ping-pong seems a strange one, given my lack of hand-eye co-ordination, but I’ve been practising for a couple of weeks now and my reflexes are much improved. I can hit the ball most of the time (my partner does have a mean smash which he deploys on occasion to keep my feet on the ground). The main question is whether or not I can actually hit it back onto the table. But often, I do. And when I don’t, I burn calories running after the ball. Because that amount of running, I can do – and I’m usually laughing as I do it.

I’ve put on weight over the last year. He says I haven’t, but I have, More cake, less exercise, more contentment. It’s okay. I’m no longer the fat one of the family, but I’m plumper than I was a year ago. It doesn’t matter. 

How long the ping-pong will last, nobody knows. It’ll probably never be my superpower. But it is a new addition to my toolkit for squeezing the joy out of life. And maybe, just maybe, that is.

Writing our Roots

I’ve been thinking about the differences between my writing group in the UK and my writing group here in Spain. There are several, but one of the most noticeable is the difference in the participants. 

What do I mean? Well, the members of this writing group are bound by more than just a love of writing. We have also all moved to another country, are living our lives in a country other than that of our birth. We bring with us a shared experience  that unites – and divides – us.

Image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay 

If you take the wider writing group, this isn’t quite true, but even those who are native to Spain must have their reasons for wishing to connect with a group of English speakers and to write in English. I have a degree in Spanish, have been living in Spain for two and a half years now (where did the time go?) and spend my weekends with a Spanish speaker. We communicate predominantly in Spanish (with a little Norwegian, English and Catalan thrown in, just because). The point is that my Spanish is not terrible, and yet I would not dare to write a story in Spanish.

I am full of admiration for those who do write in a language that is not their mother tongue. (I was going to say that is not their own, but who really owns a language? Those who have been brought up speaking it or those who choose to make it their own?) I’d like to think one day I might join them. And sure, I must have written stories in Spanish when I was at school, but I’m not sure they contained any of the nuance we now aim for.

Anyway, to get back to my original point, my writing group in the UK was full of people of different ages and from different backgrounds and here that is the same. But here, we are also connected – and divided – by our shared experience of moving from another country.

Divided how? Well, it’s easy to assume that all native English speakers speak the same language, and to an extent we do. But there are things that divide us – and I’m not just talking about words like sidewalk or diaper, which still sound odd to my very British ear. No, I’m talking about cultural differences. I’m talking about how different it is to grow up in a thriving cosmopolitan city like New York or a quaint Irish village. I’m talking about the differences in family relationships, in attitudes to life, in attitudes to other people.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing. I’m saying it is eye-opening. I’m saying it can become evident in surprising ways. Of course, some of these differences exist within a country such as the UK. But I think it’s fair to say that they are more concentrated in a group of writers from around the world.

I’ve also noticed that despite living here for well over two years, I continue to set my stories in the UK. It’s not intentional at all. I guess it’s just what I know. And from what I see, I’m not the only one who regularly goes back to my roots in terms of setting.

In my latest story, a pair of characters move to Spain. It is the second time I’ve written a story about somebody moving here. Maybe it’s the first step towards writing a story that is actually set in the city. If I ever do, I can only imagine it would be the story of someone who had settled here from abroad, just like me – probably someone who had settled here from Britain. What can I say? It’s what I know.

Maybe one day, that’ll change. But for now, despite fighting against it, despite my longing to become more Spanish, despite having no intention of moving back to the UK, despite the UK drifting further and further away from me politically and culturally, somewhere deep inside I still feel stubbornly, desperately, hopelessly British.

Looking for the light

It’s May and the sun is finally here. It really does make a huge difference.

After a bright start to April, much of the month was spent under grey skies, with the occasional shower bringing Saharan sand to dirty the streets (and the saddle of my bicycle). It didn’t stop us getting out and about – including going to two (socially distanced) concerts on the last weekend of the month – but it was good to keep moving as the cool wind brought a chill when the sun was in hiding.

But it’s out and shining now.

April’s also been a bit of a tough month for me writing-wise. I’ve been trying to juggle too many pieces at the same time. I currently have about five (longer) short stories at various stages of completion. I’m desperately trying to finish the one I’m currently writing so I can get back to the ones that need editing. And yet I’ve been distracted for the last week or so trying to get a piece in for publication with Blue Sea Writers. It’s done now. But it’s taken a lot of sweat and – quite literally – tears to get there.

Why do I find it so hard? I watch other people submit pieces, breeze through the editing process and press send without a backward glance. I agonise over each change, and then read through the finished piece and ultimately feel dissatisfied with the result. And so I agonise over changing it back again, or taking it in a different direction. At times it seems I can no longer see what I’m trying to achieve, or whether I’ve done enough.

The pain is real.

But then the clouds lift and the light shines through.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

If you’d like to read the finished piece – and please do! – it’s now available on

Now it’s time for me to get back to another piece, another world, another woman dealing with another loss. Will I never write about anything else? I hope one day I will. But maybe I need to drink in the beauty and wonder of my life here in Valencia first. Because there is so much beauty. There is so much wonder. 

I had been planning to revisit my half-finished novella this summer. Maybe I still will. But I think I need to find a balance, to avoid falling into the pit of writerly despair when there is so much love and beauty around me, if only I open my eyes to it.

To those who’ve had to put up with my frustrations this last week or two, thank you for hanging in there.

The summer is on its way. Time to follow the light.

Holidays again

So, we went back to work for a week and a half. We finished off marking projects. We had our 1:1 meetings for the spring term. And now the Easter holidays are here. 

I’m certainly not complaining.

After Easter, I might well find myself incredibly busy again. It looks like the Advanced Intensive course might restart, taking up two of my mornings and dramatically increasing the amount of marking I have to get through each week. But I’m not complaining about that either. It’s a valuable source of extra income – and that’s vital when you’re facing two months of summer with no pay. 

I tried looking for summer jobs the other day but – just as last year – there’s pretty much nothing in terms of summer schools, which makes sense given the ongoing restrictions. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d want to spend two weeks (or more) working from morning to night in such close contact with a large group of children right now anyway.

Filling the time is not a problem. I’m currently doing yet another Norwegian MOOC, continuing with my Duolingo habit (I’m now up to 542 days), continuing to write (and edit!) short stories and doing an online course about Teaching Primary Learners Communicatively.  And in the afternoons we’ve been getting out and about on our bicycles, exploring the parks, villages and huertas in and around the city.

Huerta near Godella

These holidays will go in a flash – five days already have! – and the summer, I’m sure, will be no different. I’ve barely even looked at my Catalan course this year, although regular contact with Valencian speakers is giving me plenty of listening practice.

Speaking of which, we spent the last two days walking with friends (and friends of friends) in and around Almenara. The first day was overcast. We walked some 12 kilometres along the seafront and back, stopping for lunch at a campsite, ending up at a beach front bar for G&Ts. 

The second day was a huge contrast – clear blue skies and the bluest of seas (though there was still a cool wind blowing). We walked from the seafront to a nature reserve, where we were lucky enough to see herons and flamingos. Then we headed back to the seafront for lunch, and back to the bar to finish. 

Lunch by the beach

It made a nice change to get out of the city – the first time we’ve done so in ages. For a long time there was a restriction on leaving the city at the weekends. Fortunately, that’s now been relaxed, although we’re still limited to travel within the Valencian Community, which is a little bit galling when there are tourists pouring in from abroad. But the Valencian Community is plenty big enough to be going on with, and certainly has its charm. I chose to live here, and I don’t regret it one bit.

As for summer holidays, we shall have to see. It may be that restrictions are eased by then – although it wouldn’t surprise me to see them tightening up a bit after Easter. But if we end up just taking day trips out of the city, there’s no shortage of places to go.  

In the meantime, we have just over eleven weeks to work before the summer starts again. And before that, I’ve a week of holidays left to enjoy. 

Time to Write

Last time I posted, I said that I was short of ideas for my writing. How times change.

I think I have the write-togethers to thank for this new surge of ideas. It’s not that we particularly discuss ideas – some people actually reveal very little about what they are writing (although I’m not one of them). But somehow, the act of writing inspires you to do more. And the ideas really have been flowing over the last month.

Having finally got my latest short piece, Bonfire Night, out into the world, I’ve now got four works in progress – one very much on the back burner, one I’d love to come back to but don’t quite know how to tackle, one I’m intending to return to as soon as I get some feedback from the critique circle, and the one I’m writing now. They’re all slightly longer pieces – we’ve been encouraged to start working on 2,500 to 3,750 word stories and that’s what seems to be flowing out of me at the moment. 

The problem is that longer pieces take more work, and more work takes more time, and right now, I simply don’t have enough time to keep up with myself. 

But I will have some time next week.

Image by TaniaRose from Pixabay 

At this time of year, the Fallas festival should be well underway (although it really gets into full swing from 15-19 March) but of course, this year, there is nothing. In a way, it is a relief not to have to be on guard for teenagers (and even small children) throwing firecrackers in the street at any given moment. But Fallas also brings a lot of life to the city. This year, things are, by comparison, extraordinarily quiet.

It’s not that there won’t be anything happening at all. Apparently there will be some ‘mini-castillos’ (firework displays) taking place around the city, although the authorities are being deliberately evasive as to when or where – and it has been made clear that they will be within curfew hours to avoid crowds forming. So there will be an element of luck as to who gets to see them.

There’s still hope of the festival being held properly later in the year, Coronavirus allowing… but as with all things Coronavirus-related, we’ll have to see how that works out.

In the meantime, there was a decision to be made re whether to allow the Fallas school holidays to go ahead. The Consejo Escolar had already voted on this once at the beginning of Feb and decided to proceed, but given the situation with Coronavirus and the wish to avoid any kind of celebrations that might involve people mixing with others outside their normal circle, they were asked to reconsider the question last week.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) the Consejo stuck to its guns. I think perhaps, if the issue had been raised earlier, the outcome might have been different, perhaps rightly so. But having voted once already, with no substantial change of circumstance, and with the risk of causing upheaval to so many at such short notice, they decided to let the children – and the teachers – have their break.

For me, it’s very welcome. We may only have worked 8 and a bit weeks so far this term (half the length of time we worked before the Christmas hols) but I definitely feel ready for a breather. And yes, Easter comes shortly after, and yes, I could certainly have carried on through until then without too much trouble, but I’m not going to complain about a few extra days off.

And with no Fallas to distract me, perhaps I’ll finally get these stories whipped into shape.

On restrictions, writing and not running

I’ve been struggling to find things to write about since my last post on 18th December.

I was going to say that nothing’s changed but that’s not remotely true. Things are changing all the time. For example, I’ve just spent the last two weeks working from home, only returning to the academy yesterday. The COVID rules have changed at least twice in the last few weeks. But these days it’s hard to keep up with how much they’ve changed and frankly, it no longer seems the most interesting thing to write about.

For the record, we now have a curfew from 10pm to 6am, are only allowed to meet with one person outside and have nobody visit us at home (with exceptions, including one that allows people who live alone to visit their partners, thank goodness). We have to wear masks basically everywhere outside the house, including most recently when running or doing similar exercise (although bizarrely only from 10am – 7pm). Businesses must shut at 6pm (but academies are excluded). And at weekends, large municipalities (like Valencia) are sealed off and nobody may enter or leave except for justified purposes.

The rules vary by autonomous community, so the situation in Madrid or Málaga may be completely different, but this is the way things are around here.

Sunshine in Valencia

So, basically we’re at home except when we’re at work, exercising or at the shops. It’s not lockdown by a long stretch – or should I say, it’s nothing like last year’s Spanish lockdown – but it’s pretty restrictive. 

Fortunately, the young man is still able to come and visit me. I simply don’t know how I’d cope if we had to go back to twice-weekly WhatsApp video calls, however long. 

For family and friends in the UK, on the other hand, WhatsApp will have to do. I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that I won’t be able to visit the UK again this summer. It may be too early to make that call, and it may be that I’m proved wrong, but right now it feels like I need to come to terms with not seeing them in person until next year – by which time it will have been 3 years in most cases.

That said, the year is flying by. I write the week number on all my lesson plans and we’re now on week 22 so (excluding holidays) we’re now more than halfway through the academic year. And it’s almost my birthday again, which means it’s almost a year since all this started. I don’t quite know how that’s happened. Time seems to be crawling and flying at the same time.

But in spite of the COVID restrictions, life goes on. We may no longer be able to meet up for our regular BeBalanced sessions in the park but Belinda has returned to offering them online. It’s not quite the same – there’s no substitute for feeling the sun on your face during the relaxation – but on the plus side you don’t have to get up quite so early when the class takes place in the living room!

As for the writing group, it’s going from strength to strength. Not only are the weekly writing workshops continuing online, but there are now also two write-togethers each week (one of them hosted by yours truly). These involve a fifteen-minute meet and greet, an hour and a half offline to get on with some writing and then a final 15-minute debrief in which we tell each other what we have (or haven’t) achieved. It seems a bit daft, because you could quite easily get pulled into a Facebook rabbit hole or similar during that hour and a half, but somehow having stated your intentions for the time, and knowing that you’re going to have to admit what you actually did, there is a motivation to stay on track.

It’s not just the online events, either. We now have a monthly online magazine via Medium and a website, both of which feature selected stories written by members of the group. It’s all motivation to keep writing, even if sometimes it’s a struggle to find ideas.

That’s pretty much it right now. I work, I bake, I write, I do BeBalanced, I watch Netflix / HBO and I try not to spend too long on social media or reading the news (and fail on both counts). Having injured my leg in January, running is out (not that I’ve run for about a year anyway) but walking is very much in. And the weather has been very kind over the last week or two. While it was snowing in England on Sunday, I was walking in the park in short sleeves – yes, me, in February. 

So, yes, I’m feeling a bit ground down by the ongoing situation, I’m feeling a bit short of inspiration for writing (both fiction and for my blog) and I’d love to have just a little more freedom to get out and about at the weekends – suddenly, I realise how important it is to have something to look forward to. But for now, we just have to keep on keeping on – and if I have to be in a near-lockdown situation, I can think of far worse places to be.