Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Que Comienzen las Despedidas...

The time has arrived. Here I am, sitting in my living room in Liverpool – the first time I’ve been back since Christmas – having left Spain for good. I say ‘for good’ with a certain reluctance, because I suspect that one day I’ll be back; I can’t imagine leaving Cuenca, and all the people with whom I’ve forged close bonds, completely in my past.

Since my last post, life has been a whirl of goodbyes and tying up loose ends, and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. While I was very much ready to wave a hearty goodbye to my teaching career (let’s face it, I was never under the impression that it was something I’d want to do in the long-term, and my experience at San José, while brilliant in its way, has done nothing to change that), I was rather less enchanted with the idea of parting with all the lovely people I’d met and, indeed, with Cuenca itself.

But there’s little time for being forlorn, particularly as I have just two weeks of quality time in England before jetting off on my Australian adventure. So, what did I get up to during the last couple of weeks in Spain? Needless to say, they were physically and emotionally exhausting but I feel I saw out my time in Spain in style. In spite of the frankly volatile weather, which was quite regularly lurching indecisively between excessive humid heat and dramatic storms with torrential rain (I was told repeatedly that this sort of climatic behaviour is ‘not normal’ for May – just my luck when all I wanted was a few days of uninterrupted sunbathing!), I’ve managed to squeeze in a fair bit of socialising.

Me with some of the teachers I worked with. From left to right: Elena,
me, Yolanda, Ana, Raquel and Alicia.
In my second to last week at school, all the teachers from the English department and I went up to the old town for a few drinks and tapas to mark my imminent departure. While it was my idea for all of us to get together before I left – it didn’t seem right to do  nothing at all – I still felt a bit awkward as I didn’t quite know how to deal with being the one for whom the get-together had been arranged. Although I’d worked with many of these teachers for several months and felt more than comfortable with them in a working environment, going for drinks with a whole group of people (all of them older than me and speaking a different language) was still a mildly intimidating prospect. However, I needn’t have worried because they were as laid-back and friendly as ever, and the conversation flowed quite naturally, even if I did do rather more listening than speaking! After two rounds of drinks and some delicious food, I was already feeling very fortunate that I’d had the pleasure to work with such genuine people, when all of a sudden they presented me with a bag containing a present from all of them. It was a total surprise and I was very touched (if a little self-conscious) as I opened my package to reveal a purple bangle and bracelet (my favourite colour!) and a beautiful handmade sculpture of a Menina (Maid of Honour) which is based on the very famous painting by Diego Velázquez, the leading artist of the Spanish Golden Age. It’s nice to take a piece of history and something that’s so typically Spanish home with me!
Corinna's birthday picnic in the countryside
That Saturday, Jaclyn, Corinna and I set off for the countryside in Corinna’s flatmate’s car. We went to the Serranía de Cuenca, just a short drive from the city itself, to an idyllic riverside picnic spot with tables, benches and barbecues. The place was packed with families, couples and groups of friends relaxing, enjoying the sunshine, kicking footballs about and of course, eating and drinking. Between us, Corinna’s flatmates and their friends, there must’ve been about 10 of us, yet in true Spanish style there would’ve been enough food for about double that. Our table was covered with a spread of 
homemade Spanish omelettes, big wedges 
Jaclyn and I having a
spontaneous (and
bracing!) dip in the river
of cheese, pasta salads, tomatoes dressed in olive oil and salt, crisps, wine, beer, soft drinks and just about every type of meat you can think of (freshly barbecued on the premises, of course). After feasting all afternoon, we sat around in the pleasant, hazy warmth feeling like beached whales until Jaclyn and I thought it would be a good idea to go for a dip in the river. As we hadn’t thought to bring swimsuits, we decided to strip down to our smalls and brave the icy water. Once we’d got past the squealing and hyperventilating stage there was something very liberating and refreshing about being the only two people in the river, with no one around to see us except Corinna, who was having great fun taking photos! That is, until we heard the distant voices of a group of kayakers, panicked and scarpered for the woods. At least that’s what Jaclyn did, but for some reason I thought I’d be safer hiding behind a nearby tree. Big mistake. Of course, the tree was not wide enough to protect my modesty and within a few seconds the kayakers had come round the bend and into sight, spotted me and began wolf-whistling and cheering. Mortified, I made a beeline for the woods where Jaclyn was hiding. With hindsight I probably would’ve been better off staying where I was, as I’d forgotten the water had made my white knickers go see-through and by running away from the kayakers I was actually giving them even more of an eyeful, but such are the joys of wild swimming...

Me with one of my classes at San José
who threw me a little leaving party
The following week was my last week at San José, which was both lovely and slightly anti-climactic at times. What with exams, school trips and leaving dinners for the older students, it seemed there was so much going on that some teachers hadn’t realised it was my last week. In that vein, my last classes with some groups were just like any other classes, and it was strange to go without saying goodbye. However, I can’t complain because two of my classes threw me surprise parties, bringing in bagfuls of crisps, sweets and fizzy drinks. Although I don’t feel I had a special bond with any of my classes in particular, I do think I got on with all of them well and hope that they’ve at least learnt something from me over the past eight months.

That week was probably my most hectic yet, because as well as it being my last week at school it was, of course, my last week of private classes and the week when both my parents and my lovely friend Anna were arriving for a visit. My parents arrived on Wednesday, bearing a suitcase full to the brim with boxes of chocolates, cards and other presents, all of which I intended to give as thank you and goodbye presents. It all went surprisingly smoothly, and everyone seemed delighted with their gifts, especially the English department for whom my mum had bought the biggest box of chocolates in the whole of Thornton’s (containing 80 chocolates and weighing over 1 kilo – apparently she misunderstood my request for a ‘fairly big box for the English department’ and instead thought I wanted a box big enough for the entire staff of the school)!

A proud moment: one of my classes being interviewed for
TV before performing my rendition of
'An Inspector Calls'
The other big highlight of the week was seeing the students of one of my British Council classes finally perform their rendition of the play ‘An Inspector Calls’ in English. It was something which was close to my heart, as I’d not only suggested they do that play, but had subsequently put in a lot of time and effort more or less re-writing it. My task was to shorten it down from a full-length play to something which could be performed in 20 minutes or less and simplify the language, without losing any significant parts of the play or altering the story too much. Unsurprisingly, it was no mean feat, but it was worth it for the glow of pride I felt as I watched them glide through the performance without a hitch. Although they’re only 13 and 14 years old, they have a good level of English thanks to following the British Council’s ‘bilingual programme’, so while it was always going to be a challenge it was definitely within their grasp. A journalist and cameraman from new channel CNC even turned up to cover the event, their arrival received by lots of nervous giggling. Of everything I did at San José, I think the success of the play was probably my biggest achievement, something I feel I can be proud of and hopefully remembered for.

Me with sisters Irene and Ana, one
of my private classes on a Wednesday
Saying goodbye to all my private students was very emotional, especially when it came to Ana and Irene, the daughters of a teacher at San José. They are 12 and 13 and extremely sweet, very talented girls. I really enjoyed having classes with them and I think they did too. At the end of our last class they gave me a notebook and pen, and when I opened the notebook I almost cried when I saw they’d drawn pictures and written messages for me in the first few pages.
Me and Juan, the Spanish
teacher at San José with
whom I had a regular
language exchange
It also saddened me to say goodbye to Juan, the Spanish teacher at San José with whom I’ve had a weekly language exchange for the past 8 months. Over time we’ve not only benefitted from being able to practise our respective languages with each other, but I feel we also became good friends and I’ll miss him a lot. Before I left he gave me a beautiful compact mirror and matching notebook (to record my experiences in Australia in) as well as a bookmark, which seemed appropriate as we both share a love of reading.

Me with Rafael and Marta, one of my
private classes on a Thursday
Equally, my last class with married couple Marta and Rafael (and my last class ever, for that matter, as they’re my last class of the week) was an emotional affair. When I walked in, they beckoned me to the kitchen where they’d prepared an English tea party as a surprise for me, complete with Earl Grey tea and biscuits! When Marta dropped me off home she started crying which set me off too. I’ve never been good at goodbyes.

The curry club!
However, I didn’t have much time to brood because on Friday I was up early and on a train to Madrid to meet Anna. Despite having to hang around in the airport for longer than expected as her flight had been delayed by two hours, she got here in the end and we headed back to Cuenca. That evening, Krista arrived from Villarrobledo and I cooked a huge curry for everybody including her, Jaclyn, Corinna, Anna and my parents. It was so nice to have so many people I love in the room all at once, and the perfect end to a high-emotion week.

Anna, Mum and me wild swimming
in La Toba
The beautiful lake, La Toba,
in which we swam
On Saturday, having hired a car, my mum, dad, Anna and I set off for the countryside. It was a beautiful day and we ended up stopping at several places of natural beauty, including a little town called Uña which is known for its laguna and an absolutely enormous lake called La Toba, where all of us except my dad wild swam to our heart’s content. The water was so blue and what with the surrounding mountains, trees and even a little waterfall I felt as though I could be a member of the Swiss Family Robinson!

Waterfalls at the idyllic
Nacimiento del Río Cuervo
We also visited El Nacimiento del Río Cuervo (The Birth of the River Cuervo), a local beauty spot with gorgeous waterfalls and crystal clear pools. On the way back, we stopped at La Ciudad Encantada (The Enchanted City), which is a fascinating collection of natural rock formations which have been eroded into bizarre shapes (many of which have been given names according to what they are supposed to look like, such as ‘La Foca’ (The Seal)). Many of them look like they must’ve been sculpted by human hands, which makes it all the more amazing that it’s all nature’s doing.

One of the rock formations at La Ciudad Encantada: 
this one is called 'La Foca' (The Seal)! 
That night, sunburnt and tired but content, it was time to get ready for my birthday night out. Mary and her cousin who was visiting from the United States had also arrived from Villarrobledo and it was both an exciting and sad occasion as it would be the last time we were all together. The only person missing, sadly, was Natira, who was in Salamanca for the weekend with her brother, but all in all it was still a great night. The girls had all put money together to get me a birthday present, which included a book they’d made themselves, entitled ‘The Tale of Six Friends in Spain’, with the story of our shared experiences in Spain, complete with accompanying photos. It was so lovely and unexpected that it was all I could do not to burst into tears on the spot. It just served to remind me how lucky I’ve been to meet likeminded people with whom I’ve been able to talk, laugh and travel as if we’d known each other forever. I really feel as though I’ve made some friends for life through these girls, and for that I feel truly blessed.

Me with some of my favourite girls (and our male friend
Santi!)enjoying free shots in our favourite bar,
El Quinto Pecado.
After my parents left Cuenca on Sunday, the reality really began to set in that I too would be leaving in just three days. The days that ensued were spent packing and squeezing in final sentimental trips to some of our most frequented spots like our favourite bar El Quinto Pecado  and of course the old town. My birthday itself was probably one of the most surreal I’ve ever had, as I knew that the next day I’d be leaving Cuenca with all my suitcases and not coming back. I saw Elena one last time and she gave me a beautiful present of a necklace with an elephant pendant, having remembered that I’d told her I collect elephants. The next day, Anna, myself, three suitcases and one backpack set off for Madrid, where we’d be spending our last night in Spain before heading back to the UK.

And here I am. I can barely believe it’s all over but there’s no point in looking back when I’ve got so much to look forward to. On that note, I’ll just say that my year abroad exceeded all of my expectations and has given me friends, skills and memories that I’ll carry with me throughout my life. Heartfelt thanks go out to each and every person who helped to make my experience as special as it was; you all know who you are. Well, that leaves me with nothing more to say except...


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