Monday, 28 February 2011

Sevilla: My year abroad experience as a language assistant

Returning to Sevilla recently, I was struck by how little has changed since I first arrived there as a year abroad student in 2004. Yes, the main thoroughfare of the Avenida de la Constitucion is now pedestrianized (a welcome improvement) and the city is now better connected by means of a metro, some swanky new tapas bars and shops have sprung up; but so much has stayed the same. Las Columnas on Calle Mateos Gago is still providing local workers with their morning tostada, the 'lazy beggars' are still haunting Calle Tetuán with their pleas for cash to buy beer or whisky, Calle Betis is still alive with young party-goers until the early hours of Saturday and Sunday mornings. Stepping off the bus from the airport, I could easily have stepped back in time by seven years: the city's grand beauty and my feelings towards it are unchanged.

My first visit to Sevilla was in September 2004, shortly after installing myself in the nearby town of Alcalá de Guadaíra, my home for the academic year. The first time I heard of Alcalá was when my mum read its name to me over the telephone, breaking the news of where the British Council had posted me as an English Language Assistant. Her slightly creative spelling meant that my internet search brought up nothing more than a photo of the local firemen: nevermind population, attractions and such trivial statistics, at least I knew I'd be safe in the event of being engulfed by flames. Fast-forward a few months, and I arrived in Alcalá accompanied by my parents, understandably concerned at the prospect of sending their twenty-year old daughter to live in a town inhabited entirely by firemen. Finding my place of work was the first challenge: Alcalá's streets are notoriously difficult to navigate, and all the shopkeepers and passers-by I quizzed as to the location of the high school claimed ignorance (or at least, I think that's what they were saying: the local accent took more than a little getting used to). Resorting to abandoning the car and taking a taxi, we eventually pulled up at the IES Cristobal de Monroy to meet my new boss, the friendly head of the English department. My dad was a little puzzled as to why the chic Spanish lady professed to be from Cardiff, until I later enlightened him that she was from a very different coastal city, Cádiz. A couple of hours later, with her assistance, I had found a rather ramshackle three-bedroom apartment, all dark wood and crucifixes above the bed, and my mother had decided that Alcalá was just like Salford and that she had no desire to return. Sadly, there were no firemen in evidence.

Welcome to Alcala

Flat found, there was just the signing of the contract to get out of the way. Arriving at the estate agents', someone's brother's cousin's boyfriends' friend greeted us in enthusiastic English. 'I am pastry chef', he beamed. Was this some kind of local tradition, I wondered? Or a 'rent a flat, get a free cake' promotion? No, after meeting me the estate agents had simply decided I spoke no Spanish and plumbed their contacts for someone who did. It quickly became apparent that pastry chef's English was inferior to his abilities with a filo parcel, and I was left to do the talking. He did offer me his phone number 'in case I needed help' though, which my dad declined on my behalf. Ordeal over, I had the keys to my first ever flat in my hand.

Before I had time to settle in to my surroundings or get used to the searing September heat, my parents were back in the UK and it was my first day at work. In class just ten hours a week, it was my duty to assist the English department at one of the town's high schools with the teaching of English. This experience did nothing to alter my conviction that I didn't want to be a teacher, but it did make me into something of a local celebrity among the town's teenagers. They started most lessons by telling me where they had seen me during the past week and cheerfully greeted me everytime they spotted me out doing my shopping. Assigned mostly 14-15 year olds to teach, I had my work cut out for me: class sizes were large, motivation was generally minimal. I can't pretend I didn't enjoy my role as human dictionary though: having 30 Spanish teenagers repeat 'bath' and 'bus' back to me in a northern accent felt like a minor personal victory over the tyranny of the RP lady on the tape. However, my flat vowels were allegedly the reason that one teacher declared she no longer wanted me in her classes, claiming that she 'spoke better English than me'. I feel the truth was probably the opposite: she realised I was exposing her limited language skills.

With some of my favourite students

It wasn't just my accent that proved problematic. The andalus accent is famously difficult for foreigners to understand, with locals dropping the 's' at the end or in the middle of words, and contracting -ado and -ada endings into 'ao' and 'a'. To say I was tired in an Alcalá accent, for example, I would say 'Toy cansa' instead of 'Estoy cansada'. Even though my spoken Spanish was of a reasonable standard after 8 years' study, the language barrier was significant for the first few months. Making friends was difficult too: even the younger teachers were much older than me, and my background and first language only hindered matters when we went out for a post-work drink. Fortunately, I did have one friend in a similar situation: another Language Assistant posted in a town on the other side of Sevilla. My weekends were spent with her, or wandering the centre of Sevilla, visiting sights such as the cathedral or Alcazar, spending my grant in the city's shops and enjoying a thick hot chocolate in one of Sevilla's many cafes. For the first few months, Alcalá's proximity to Sevilla (a half-hour bus ride) was its main selling point: although most nearby towns pale in comparison to Sevilla's grandeur, Alcalá certainly wouldn't win any beauty prizes.

Trying to make friends in Sevilla

But I wasn't destined to remain a friendless wanderer. My saviour arrived in the form of Macarena: no, not the dodgy song, but one of my older students, taking night classes in order to pass her Bachillerato (the equivalent of A Levels). In a Q & A session one evening, her class quizzed me on whether I preferred going out in the UK or in Spain. At the risk of sounding terminally uncool, I confessed I hadn't actually been 'out' in Spain. 'You'll have to come out with me and my friends!' cried Macarena, and a friendship was born. Soon I had a group of Spanish friends to spend my weekends with. Keen to introduce me to their area and to Spanish culture, they took me to restaurants, bars, ferias (local festivals based around eating, drinking and dancing, one of my favourite things about Andalusia) and as far afield as Cádiz, the beaches of Huelva and the sierra (mountains) of Málaga. In time, the accent ceased to be a problem, and without realising it, I acquired one too: visiting a friend in another part of the country, her Spanish friends almost fell over backwards when they heard the little blonde guiri's thick Sevilla drawl.

Success at last: with friends at a feria

Alcalá may not be as charming as one of Andalusia's famous pueblos blancos or as appealing as its great cities, but Salford it is not. After a few months, it felt like home, thanks largely to the people who went out of their way to make me feel welcome. And so, in this most unlikely place, my love affair with Spain and my life as a Brit abroad began.

  • You may also be interested in the recent article I wrote about the sights of Sevilla for The Travel Belles. You can find it here.

Photo of sign by koggaccio/Flickr.

    Sunday, 20 February 2011

    A Brit abroad in the Czech Republic

    This month's guest post comes from Zoe Brooks, who divides her time between the UK and South Bohemia in the Czech Republic.

    As an expat I feel a bit of a fraud. Why? Because I never exactly moved to the Czech Republic. It sort of grew on me. It is possible as a Brit, thanks to cheap flights, to have one foot in the UK and another in my (new) homeland. In fact it is cheaper to travel from the Cotswolds (where I was born) in England to my house in South Bohemia, than it is to travel by train from the Cotswolds to London. Weird eh? 

    So how did it happen that I am sitting in a farmhouse in a South Bohemian village? I started coming here shortly after the Velvet Revolution and immediately I felt an affinity with Czech culture – I have a great love of puppets and fairytales, which the Czechs take very seriously. A dear friend  moved back to her home town of Prague and invited me over. I started to visit regularly. I think if she had stayed in Prague, however, I would never have bought a property over here. But she moved  to the fairytale town of Cesky Krumlov.

    Cesky Krumlov

     Of course I came to visit and was simply blown away by the place. The town is a perfectly preserved Medieval and Renaissance jewel, with a Gormenghast castle set on a cliff overlooking two ox-bows in the River Vltava. In the summer it understandably is busy with tourists, but out of season, especially on one of those magical misty winter nights, when the light from the streetlamps is suffused by woodsmoke and ice particles hanging in the air, the past is present.

    But it was the countryside of South Bohemia, the walks in the forests, the mountain streams, the lakes that led me to persuade my husband that we should buy a Czech hut in the woods. Instead of a hut I fell in love with a five-bedroomed farmhouse in need of some serious tender loving care and my husband, being faced with a fait accomplis, put his hands in the air and said 'Okay, but you're managing the project'. And what a project! It meant dealing with Czech builders, electricians and plumbers - I have learned never believe a Czech when they say 'yes, no problem' and negotiating my way through the Czech bureaucracy – where they seem to enjoy saying 'no'.

    The builders

    I was full of ideas at the beginning about what I might do with the property: we could retire there perhaps, I could rent it out as a holiday property. But always I saw it as somewhere I hoped I would write. The house has fulfilled that last promise. In 2007 I started my blog 'Adventures in the Czech Republic.' At the time I wasn't sure whether I would have sufficient material to sustain it, but here I am in 2011 and the house, the countryside and the Czech people continue to supply me with enough material to blog at least once a week.

    About two years ago, a personal crisis had me questioning why I was working so hard in England at great cost to myself, when really what I wanted to do was be in my Czech farmhouse writing. My stays here lengthened until last year I was spending as much time here as I was in the UK. But I couldn't sustain myself with my writing. Almost by accident another door opened to me. I am a member of a local archaeological society in the UK, which every year goes on a foreign trip. The usual organisers had to pull out, I stepped in and the society came to South Bohemia and loved it. And I loved organising their trip and sharing my passion for this part of the world. I have a background in heritage and cultural management and a degree in History from Oxford University. I bit the bullet and set up Czech Tours Ltd. offering holidays and guided tours to South Bohemia. My time is still split between the UK and the Czech Republic, but inevitably as the business grows the percentage of my time spent in the Czech Republic also grows and grows. 

    Of course there are challenges, not the least being I still have family and elderly parents in the UK. I have chosen to make my company a British one – not for tax purposes, but because of Czech red tape. Setting up a company here is a complex affair, there are issues over my not being a Czech citizen. Even for Czechs it is not easy – my friends here could not believe that a) I registered my British company online, b) it took half an hour, c) I can trade in whatever business I like. The converse side of this is how the Czechs deal with bureaucracy, which I still haven't got used to, which is very simply to find a way round it or even ignore it. Every Czech seems have a little book, in which they have the contact details of friends, and friends of friends, whom they call if they have a problem. I, of course, don't have such a thing. And I can't – my language skills are not up to the task – and I probably never will have, because I'm not Czech.

    Being an expat feels strange – I am not Czech, I am the weird English woman who bought the farmhouse no one wanted; I am alien. The funny thing is when I'm in England I am homesick for Bohemia. In fact being an expat with a foot in each country I am homesick wherever I am. But I love both countries and I can't give up on either of them.  

    The nearby countryside

     Zoe Brooks runs Czech Tours Ltd and blogs at Adventures in the Czech Republic.

    Thursday, 10 February 2011

    Express Marrakech: 48 hours in Morocco

    Dodge the donkey and cart, step out of the way of the family teetering past on a scooter, apologise for bumping into a passer by, ogle the sticky pastries in the street-side cabinet, ignore the restaurant tout and... you're in the Djemaa el Fna. If we thought the collision course of Derb el Bacha (the road leading from our riad to the main square) was a whirl of sound and motion, it was only a gentle introduction to the assault on the senses that is Marrakech's main square.

    The name Djemaa el Fna apparently means 'Assembly of the dead', but there's nothing dead about the medina's hub at any hour of the day. As the morning sun warms the square, stalls serve up freshly-squeezed orange juice and dried fruits, while snake-charmers and monkey handlers prowl around hoping to slip their charges onto the shoulders of snap-happy tourists. Come late afternoon, food vendors begin the daily assembly of their sit-in stalls, offering up salads, cous cous and barbecued meat and fish to diners. Towards sunset, the soul of the square takes over: musicians and story-tellers congregate against the backdrop of smoke from the stalls' grills. Our first experience of the square was early on Friday evening, just as it was coming to life. Wandering past the stalls, we were soon enticed to dine by promises that '117 will take you to heaven' from the tout (my 'brother from another mother', apparently), having resisted such lines as 'Cheaper than Primark, better than Marks and Spencer' and invitations to 'have a butchers' at other stalls' fresh produce. Satellite TV has clearly made its mark on the locals' lingo. Once seated in the al-fresco dining area, we were presented with dishes of flatbread, tomato dips, salads and grilled aubergines, before the mains of meat and fish arrived. Most stalls offer similar fare, largely Moroccan dishes aimed at the tourist market, although some offer more local delicacies such as harira (a spicy chickpea and lentil soup) and lambs' brains. There's also a row of stalls offering a mysterious cake (possibly ginger, was our expert verdict after trying some) washed down with a glass of spicy tea. I have to say we didn't make it through the pearly gates after our dinner as promised, but it was certainly a lively dining experience.

    Mint tea

    On most Friday nights, a glass of wine or two would be on the agenda, but as a Muslim country, alcohol isn't supposed to be sold in the sight of mosques in Morocco - which should rule out almost all bars. However, more upmarket establishments do tend to serve the hard stuff. If you're looking to soak up the atmosphere of the square though, you'll find that you're much more likely to find mint tea than G & T in the surrounding bars. Several have panoramic terraces, offering a calm vantage point over the buzz of activity below. Back on ground level, it's worth taking a stroll around the square to get a flavour of the various performances that contributed to making the Djemaa el Fna a UNESCO World Heritage site: story-tellers (sadly their words are incomprehensible unless your Moroccan Arabic is up to scratch, but their dramatic arm gestures and the enthralled crowds suggest they've mastered their craft) and musicians of all kinds fill the square, along with a number of over-enthusiastic henna tattoo artists who'll start the first flourishes of a flower design on your hand if you so much as hesitate when walking past.
    Koutoubia minaret

    After an evening checking out the square and the nearby minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque, one of the city's most prominent landmarks, we headed back to Riad Splash for some much-needed rest. Run by friendly Scot Andy, who also has an adventure tours company, the relaxed riad is in the heart of the medina, tucked away in a quiet sidestreet. Just steps away from the chaotic whirl of Derb el Bacha, hardly a sound penetrated the riad's walls. The next morning as we sat in the courtyard under the gorgeous January sun, eating our substantial breakfast of fresh orange juice brought from the square and thick honey-soaked local pancakes, toast and cereal, my friends and I felt relaxed and ready to step into the the maze of Marrakech's souks (markets). Partially covered streets which wind away from the Djemaa el Fna, the souks sell everything from leather goods to lanterns to chickens, and it's still possible to catch sight of craftsmen at work as you wander through. Difficult to navigate (unless you're an expert map-reader, like one of our party), the best way to enjoy the souks is to dive in, wander through and not worry about where you emerge, hopefully with a bargain or two in tow. Haggling is essential here, so be sure to unleash your best bargaining lines before parting with your dirhams.

    Ali ben Youssef Medersa

    Although more famous for its atmosphere than its sights, those seeking an itinerary offering more than food, shopping and wandering the medina's alleyways won't be disappointed by Marrakech. Historical sights include the Ali ben Youssef Medersa, a former Quranic school set around a beautiful central courtyard featuring intricate plasterwork and colourful mosaics. Upstairs, you can step inside the students' quarters and marvel at the fact that 900 students were once housed in its 132 tiny dormitories. In addition to the King's Marrakech residence, the city has two other palaces which are open to the public: Bahia and the ruined El Badi. We chose to visit the latter on a sunny Sunday morning, and were charmed by the beauty contained within its red walls. A ruined shell may not sound worth your time, but the once-glorious sixteenth-century structure is now a welcome slice of calm in the midst of the medina. Large pools lie in the centre, with palm trees and shrubberies around the edges. Visitors can join the families of storks on the ramparts, which offer a wide-reaching view over the city's rooftops and to the Atlas mountains beyond. For those looking for something a bit more modern, Yves Saint Laurent's Jardin Majorelle, a taxi ride from the medina, is a riot of colour and fun, while contemporary art can be found at a number of galleries including Matisse Art Gallery on Passage Ghandouri.

    El Badi Palace

    Surprisingly, 48 hours gave us enough time to explore the medina at a relaxed pace, although the ville nouvelle (new town) and outlying sights will have to wait until our return visit. It also proved sufficient to delve into Marrakech's culinary scene, although again, the modern trendy restaurants of the new town remained unexplored. Our dining spectrum ranged from the street food of the Djemaa el Fna and the delicious cous cous in no frills Cafe Toubkal (also on the square), to the decidedly more elegant experience on offer at Cafe Arabe on the Rue el-Mouassine close to the souks. Spread over three floors, this upmarket but laid-back restaurant is a lovely spot to while away an afternoon or an evening. Fashion designer Matthew Williamson clearly thinks so too, as he was enjoying a drink there on our visit (my excitement at this celebrity spot was only slightly dampened by my friends' chorus of 'Who?') We made for the upstairs roof terrace, sprawled on the cushion-covered benches and tucked into tagines, cous cous and pastilla washed down by white wine. For around £10 per head, this was the most pricey meal of the weekend, but well worth it for the superior setting.

    Despite the constant chaotic motion of the medina, Marrakech is a relaxing destination for a weekend break. Unlike modern metropolises such as some European capitals, the hurry and bustle of Marrakech never feels stressful, and visitors can easily sit back and observe (from a safe, scooter-free vantage point, of course). Out of season, it's also an excellent value city: food is a purse-friendly commodity, and for 2 nights' bed & breakfast accommodation, we paid just £50 each. And as it's just a three and a half hour flight from London, it's not quite as far flung and inaccessible a destination as you might think.

    Sunday, 6 February 2011

    Malaysia and Singapore IV: Photo journal of a journey

    In November 2010, I spent 2 weeks travelling around Singapore and Malaysia. As this was my first visit to Southeast Asia, my camera and my trigger finger became well acquainted as I sought to capture the area's beauty and diversity on film.

    First impressions: Singapore
    My first glimpse of Singapore lived up to the stereotypical image of a high-rise financial paradise. This vista of the Central Business District, Singapore's financial core, shows the city's modern, commercial side, with a tourist boat hinting at another source of revenue for the island state.

    Another side of the island: Bukit Timah Nature Reserve

    And here's an image I didn't expect to see: monkeys roaming free in the rainforest at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. Singapore certainly isn't all skyscrapers are shopping malls; protected pockets such as Bukit Timah and the MacRitchie Reservoir offer oases of escape from city life. The 7am wake-up call may have been a struggle on a Saturday morning, but arriving early meant that we were able to beat the worst of the heat. The nature reserve offers a number of signposted trails, suitable even for the unfit (well, if C and I could do it...), but we found the smaller ones which cut through the rainforest itself, rather than following a concreted path, to be the best, as they were less choked with human traffic and gave us a closer glimpse of nature. A bit too close for some though: one Singaporean couple had to fend off a monkey attack with their hiking stick, but C and I had no such trouble with our simian friends.

    The very picture of tranquility, pre-attack
    Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, Singapore
    Religiously diverse Singapore is speckled with Buddhist and Hindu temples, mosques and even the odd church, making for a varied landscape. In the heart of Chinatown, the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple opened in 2008 and has almost as many features as one of the island's beloved malls: the aforementioned tooth said to belong to Buddha, encased in gold-and-glass splendour, prayer spaces aplenty, a museum, a tea room, a roof terrace and even an underground car park. What more could a worshipper want?

    The Singapore Flyer at sunset
    Whether it will live up to its marketing team's hype of becoming 'Asia's premier tourist attraction' remains to be seen, but as the world's largest observation wheel, the Singapore Flyer certainly gives an unrivalled view over the city and out to sea.

    Jonker Walk, Melaka

    With its Portuguese, Dutch and British heritage, Melaka is culturally diverse even by Malaysian standards. A relaxed riverside town in the south of the country, it comes to life at the weekends when the Jonker Walk Night Market hits town.

    Chinatown, Melaka

    Trishaw ride, Melaka

    It may be as tacky as a night out in Blackpool, but a ride on a trishaw is a quintessential Melaka experience and a surprisingly good way to get up close to the sights - if you can stomach the embarrassment of your parade through the streets being accompanied by Shaggy's Greatest Hits booming on the trishaw's sound system. Unique to Melaka, these cycle rickshaws are decked out as garishly as possible, featuring fairy lights, tinsel, fake flowers and even Barbie dolls. Mock it or embrace it and let someone else do the leg work while you tour the town; it's your choice.

    Petronas Towers, KL

    As KL's most distinctive landmark, the twin Petronas Towers feature highly on most visitors' itineraries. But the best view of these 451.9 metre high beauties sometimes comes when you least expect it. Up close, trying to see the spires topping the towers gives you a definite crick in the neck, but when wandering around the city, sudden glimpses of the skyline-dominating skyscrapers suddenly appear around corners, like this view from Little India.

    Getting a henna tattoo, Little India
    Searching for a fitting souvenir from my trip on the last day, I decided on a henna tattoo drawn by this artist in Little India. For the equivalent of £1, I gave her free rein to draw 'something small' on my left arm. Twenty minutes later, my hand and arm were transformed by the addition of an intricate pattern of swirling leaves and flowers. I almost wished it was permanent, although I'm sure my dad will be glad it wasn't...

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