Suzanne Furstner Foundation Scholarship 2011: Shortlisted Entry Number 1

Six weeks in Barcelona

Click! Click, click! Click! A hundred seat belts are being unfastened. “Good luck with the course!”

“Thanks. It was nice talking to you.”

We have landed: Barcelona Airport, “La Prat” apparently, and the adventure is about to begin.

Emotions, memories and images are all chasing around inside my head. My stomach is tight with excitement and apprehension.

I remember the first time I climbed down from a plane in Spain, the hot air hitting us like a physical blow.

Torremolinos, 1969. The start of the package holiday phenomenon. A barely finished hotel surrounded by a dozen building sites of other hastily thrown up, multi-storey concrete cubes. Sand too hot to walk on bare foot, but dirty brown and despoiled with litter. A rotting carcass. Buying mini Toledo swords in a ‘gift shop’, that, even in 10 year old eyes, screamed “Tat’. Watneys’ Pubs. Fish and Chip Shops. Stunning views of looming mountains and the iridescent Mediterranean.

I have always thought that at the right time and, if circumstances allowed, I would head boldly off, split an infinitive or two, and seek out new lands in search of adventure. I had to close my catering business a couple of years ago. It had been building nicely for a number of years: I had managed to secure contracts with many of the leading financial institutions in Guernsey, had expanded and taken on more staff and the future looked good. Arrive the collapse of Lehmann’s, the ‘Credit Crunch’, the slashing of finance company budgets; my business is devastated almost overnight.  I tried to continue for a couple of years, looking for new sources of income, but was eventually forced to close and lost everything. Life turned into a soul sapping limbo, but now I have the chance to fulfil a dream: six weeks in Barcelona and the start of a new chapter.

An experiment. A crash two year Spanish ‘O’ Level course. The teacher more exotic than the subject: lanky, greasily long-haired, John Lennon glasses. Excitement at learning the first sentence: “Ramon tiene un burro”. A phrase that has helped in many a sticky situation since! Being taught colloquial terms for women’s body parts and boys being given ‘girly’ magazines as end of term prizes. Thankfully, sacking avoided until the end of the course.

Here is my chance to exorcise the ghost of the engagingly inappropriate Mr. Gillespie and time to build on the most solid foundation of Ramon’s burro.  My own experience of formal language learning, then, was no template for good teaching practice. As well as Spanish and German, I learnt French at school, but my ability only became passable when I set up a study and activity centre. We had a high proportion of French school groups staying and I soon learned that for them to use the centre as I wished I had to learn a whole new vocabulary. This related to domestic tasks and rotas, outlining programmes and timetables and not throwing Gauloises’ butts into the neighbours’ gardens. One might say that, as far as vocabulary goes, ‘necessity was the mother of retention’. An important lesson for the classroom: make it relevant to the lives of the students and it will stick so much quicker.

Before the disaster of the catering business I had many years teaching and training. As I sit waiting for my turn to disembark an image pops up of a group of muddied, blindfolded ‘brown owls’, mostly plumpish and middle aged. I am taking them through some confidence building exercises. They are dutifully following a rope through a wood, giggling and shrieking like the brownies that they would put through the same ordeal the following week. Another lesson to take with me: make it fun and you carry the most unbiddable student with you.

My mind is all over the place: flashes of a different me in a different Spain force themselves into my consciousness.

Eating sardines on the grubby wooden deck of a fishing boat. The fish glimmering in the evening rays, plucked from the still flapping, waiting-to-be-unloaded catch and tossed on a long-blackened cast-iron brazier. Licking oily, fishy, smoky fingers and tossing the cartoon skeletons over the gunwale as a huge orange globe dips inexorably below the horizon.

Apprehension comes flooding in again: tightness, pulse quickening, palms moistening. My anxiety demon is whispering in my ear: “It’s so long time since you did any proper studying. You’re going to fail. You’re too old- they’re going to laugh at you, Grandad. They’re going to think you’re an old f….”“STOP!” Ok, so I am worried about the studying. And I am anxious about being older than the other students.

I try to bolster myself with a line from Paul Coelho: “People need not fear the unknown if they are capable of achieving what they need and want”.

“You may be an old dog”, I tell myself, trying to brush the demon off my shoulder, and wondering when I started sounding so corny, “but you’ve always loved learning new tricks”. Age is an issue though. I always have a shock the rare times I look in the mirror. Who’s that old bloke looking back? When did I stop being 20? Back home I prefer to be with my children and their friends, than friends of my own age. Is that strange? It never feels it. They accept me as ‘one of the boys’ or, more disconcertingly, ‘one of the girls’. I am used to it and so are they. I had something of an epiphany a few years back when I took my son to start university. We found ourselves in the union bar. I felt right at home until I looked around. It was full of very young looking ‘freshers’ and old-looking parents. I was one of the latter. I wasn’t one of the boys. I was an old dad.

So, how will I get on with my new course mates? Will I feel like one the boys/ girls or will I feel like a dad in a bar full of rosy cheeked freshers?

It’s nearly time to disembark. Stop worrying. Think of something else. I wonder if I’ll have a chance to go and see Andy and Pauline in Ronda.

“You’ve bought a hotel in Rhondda?” “No, Ronda!” So, not scrubbed and besuited miners belting out Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau in beautiful harmonies, nor leeks, coal, rain and the veneration of Sts. Gareth, JJ, JPR and Barry; but vertiginous cliffs, awesome bridges, Hemingway, bleating goats, sausage factories, the energy sapping heat of a searing sun bounced off a thousand naked rock surfaces and the blissfully reviving chill of a spring-fed swimming pool.

“Thank you. Bye-bye”, I say to the stewardess, thinking “I should really have tried that in Spanish”, as I pass through the door hatch and place my foot on the top of the boarding steps. Six weeks in Barcelona. The adventure is about to begin.

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