Thursday, December 31, 2009

Recycling Christmas at Luis Casado School, Corrales del Vino

Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquantance be forgot,
And days of auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, m'dears,
For auld lang syne,
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,
For the sake of auld lang syne.
(Robert Burns)
Happy New Year to the children and staff of Luis Casado School, all my new friends in Zamora, volunteer teachers in Castile-y-Leon, friends and family everywhere.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Workaday Carols

St Dunstan's, situated where the Strand becomes Fleet Street, survived the Great Fire of London. Forty Westminster choristers were roused to throw water on the flames when they came to within three doors of the church.

Originally built between 988 and 1070 AD, centuries of wear and tear led to extensive reparations in 1831.

You could be forgiven for walking past the narrow facade and doorway without noticing it, unless you happened to look up at the splendid tower, rebuilt after the original was damaged by German bombs in 1944.

Although outwardly Neo-Gothic, an octagonal space inside lined in dark wood, like the dining hall of an Elizabethan manor, embraces a short aisle and
seating. The traditional pews are accessed by small end-doors with brass latches. The pulpit, raised to the right of the pews, has an attractive overhead canopy.

Once again, friend and Westminster Guide J. was the source of information about a lunchtime carol service on the 22nd, although I'd also attended one of the regular midweek concerts, timed to fit the lunch hours of local office workers.

The service was much more traditional than the one at St Pauls of the week before. No poems, but readings from an older version of the gospels had the virtue of decorous language that was also clearly understood. A contemporary note was struck when Rev William Gulliford drew parallels between the Christmas story and the plot of a film currently showing in London: 'Where the Wild Things Are'. Both, he said, involved' a malevolent Empire, cynical Kings and dark things lurking'.
Hymns were traditional, and included my favourite', We Three Kings of Orient Are', as well as a sonorous arrangement of the medieval 'Adam lay ybounden'. From this, and the vibrancy of the descants in the other hymns, I suspected that they were professionals. Sure enough, J. enquired and confirmed, they were a group called Chantage.
Here were no stewards in official coats, but clergy and lay helpers to point the way to 'seasonal' refreshments', laid out on tables in an area to the side. . Of course, it's easier to offer hospitality of this kind in a church with a small congregation, and most of these were hurrying back to work.
The fact that St Dunstan's is a 'Guild Church' intrigued me, as a native of Preston, which celebrates a 'Guild Merchant' or trades festival once every 22 years. It reflects the church's particular ministry to the daytime working population around Fleet Street, hence the lunchtime concerts lasting 45 minutes, when workers are welcome to eat their sandwiches. On this occasion J had time to sample Christmas cake and wine before returning to her office in nearby Fetter Lane.

J's blog about Westminster and her walks:

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Curate's Egg

' The readings seem shorter than usual', said J. We were at at the annual Carol Service at St Pauls on Tuesday. Except it wasn't a Carol Service, it was 'A Celebration of Christmas', and some of the reading were poems.

J had tipped us off about the event, but been detained at work. I had to talk my way past the stewards to retrieve her from the throng of 2,000 or so who were turned away. 'It wasn't like this last year', she commented.

The programme was odd mix. Instead of familiar biblical extracts recounting the annunciation, the rejection at the inn, the wrapping in swathing bands, visitations by angels, shepherds and wise men, we had Laurie Lee and Betjeman. Sadly, the modernised bible readings that were retained sounded like clumsy literal translations - the poetic -sounding swathing bands became mere 'strips of cloth'. Some bits struck a discordantly merry note: 'The Night Before Christmas' , an extract from 'Shirley Valentine' and the choir finale,' We Wish You a Merry Christmas'.

There was a good line-up of professionals for the readings: Sinead Cusack, Penelope Wilton and Toby Stephens. Sitting towards the back, I couldn't see them. There were whole sections at the front reserved for the special people, should they are to attend. Not a good idea to declare no room for those waiting in the cold when some couldn't be bothered to arrive on time.
The amplification was excellent. The choirmaster stuck out for more traditional carols, inserting the odd medieval madrigal - 'Lullay my Liking'- and even Latinate hymns scattered among classics like 'Hark the Herald'. No wonder the four little boys in front of me, like four miniature Boris Johnsons, wriggled and giggled.

I admired the way dimmers on the candelabrae continually varied the lighting between nave and altar area and pulpit, emphasising different performance areas. We always knew when it was our turn to sing and when the choir's. That was a good touch

Perhaps it was the lighting, continually casting different shadows and emphasizing harmony of sculpted stone, arches and cupolas under the great dome that made me realise what a wonderful building this was. It made me aware of the contrast with Spanish churches Whereas in the Spanish churches it's the artefacts - statuary and paintings and set-piece depictions, that caught the eye, with richness of texture and representaton, in St Pauls it's the architecture of the church itself that impresses.

So not one thing or the other, but very enjoyable. Next year I'll get there even earlier.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Santa's Mushroom Village

'Er, well, it's a kind of hole in a rock, perhaps all covered in snow'.

Last week I'd met with puzzled faces and blank stares from the Spanish teachers in Zamora. They'd enjoyed my Christmas Quiz, but were stumped by the question: 'Where does Santa live?'

Was it in:

a) a cabin

b) a chimney

c) a grotto

My Oxford Dictionary Thesaurus says a grotto is ' a picturesque cave' and I recall they were popular as writers' retreats in the eighteenth century. Alexander Pope had one in the garden of his house in Twickenham. The local History Museum and Art Gallery in Blackheath, a converted convent, had one too. Maybe it's iconic, associated with Lourdes and other places where the Blessed Virgin appeared. I've always hankered after a grotto, although I'd settle for a caravan at Whitstable.

So I was dismay to see that the Lewisham Santa doesn't have a grotto; he has a Mushroom Village. Why a mushroom village? It's not very Christmassy, and not even a very accurate description, as the 'mushrooms' are toadstools. Maybe it's an obscure advertising ploy thought up by the market traders.

At least the live elf was authentic- when she saw me wielding a camera she leapt down the path and said it would cost me £1 to take her photograph! I suppose it's all in a good cause if the money really does go to the hospice, but I do like a nice grotto at Christmas

Friday, December 04, 2009

Must be Santa

It´s almost the end of my stay in Zamora, and the man from the Junta was expected. Headmaster José Eladio said the Education Minister would visit village schools across the province, to see teacher volunteers. I was bracing myself; less formal than the greeting ceremony at the ‘monasterio’ in Valladolid, but I expected a speech.

In fact, José Ignacio Rodríguez Aguado (great names here), the ‘Jefe del Servicio de Innovación Educativa (great titles, too) arrived during my final session with the teachers. I’d been happy to swap a day at the school each week for a two hour oral English ´seminario´ with teachers in Zamora. I really enjoyed the sessions and it was a welcome change to teach adults with a good level of English.

Nice Victoria, the local 'Jefa´in charge of the Zamora programme, arrived too, with Jose Eladio. When the visitors came in we’d already sung a song :

‘Who’s got a beard that’s long and white?’
‘Santa’s got a beard that’s long and white.’
‘Who comes around on a special night?’
‘Santa comes around on a special night.’

Special night; beard that’s white …

Must be Santa, must be Santa,Must be Santa, Santa Claus.

José Ignacio didn’t have a beard, and it was me that made the speech, prompted by his question,’ How have you found the experience of teaching in one of Castile’s bi-lingual schools?’ To my surprise, I made some sensible comments and give a summary of the highlights. I expect keeping a blog helped - and the Cava.

Planned activities, comparing Christmas menus and playing Snakes and Ladders ‘- resources replenished courtesy of Roy – had to be shelved.

But we’d made a start on Cava and cake supplied by the teachers. The latter was a traditional Three Kings Cake with hidden treasures. If you chanced on one of two little mannequins it´s a year’s good luck, but if you get the ‘bean’ you’re supposed to pay for next year’s celebration. Poor Maria Jose was the unlucky one.

I won’t be there, but I think I’ll come back for the other ‘Santa’ time, - Semana Santa, at Easter.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Carrie's Visit to Zamora

Carrie´s Visit to Zamora

Altogether, there are sixteen of us volunteer retired teachers and we´ve been posted to ´bi-lingual´village schools all over the Northern province of Castile and Leon . The schools are near the historic cities of Spain´s largest province: Burgos: Valladolid, Avila, Soria, Segovia, Palencia, Leon, Salamanca and Zamora. I really enjoyed the weekend when Carrie stayed with me in Zamora. She´s a Canadian with a warm personality and an interesting background, staying in Salamanca, only an hour by bus from Zamora.

We were blessed with a fine Sunday morning for a walk by the River Duero. In the background, the ´romanico´Puente de la Piedra´

By yet another of the coincidences that have happened since I arrrived in Spain, Carrie´s 'host' English teacher , Belen, has a connection with me. We´d never met, but we´ve exchanged homes.

For some years Roy and I did home-swaps via an Internet company, and once went to stay in Salamanca for a week. By chance, she saw my name on an email I sent to Carrie and said ´I know that person´.

So she proposed coming to collect Carrie to drive her back on Sunday and I reserved a table for us at one of the restaurants that Olga recommended. It was ´Sancho 2´, is in a small park in Zamora. The food and company were excellent.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Concert For St Cecilia It`s too complicated for me to tell you where the conservatory is`, said music teacher Lidia. 'I will drive you there.' I was glad of this, as although I was keen to attend the students' concert, the temperature in Zamora had suddenly dropped. It was a foggy 1 degree in the morning and never rose above 5 that day.

Fortunately, Lidia´s flat is across the street from mine, which makes it convenient for her to drive me to Corrales three times a week. Her duties take her to other villages on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Lidia plays the violincello, as it´s called here. Last week she took the 'cello to the school. The children were still enthusiastic following the visit to a special concert in Vallalodid, so she wanted them to see the 'cello close up. She was feeling nervous about it, though. ´Did they damage it?´I asked her on the way home. No, she said, but she´d misjudged the width of a doorway and managed to break a string all by herself!

The music conservatory in Zamora is housed in what was once an orphanage, and I suppose the concert hall must have been the chapel. It was certainly well supplied with the gilded grotto-like structures called 'retablos'.

This concert had just the kind of informal atmosphere I enjoy, with a good turn-out of relatives, and all the pieces were short, so no strain on the attention. Naturally, guitars featured prominently, fifteen all at once for once piece. fMy favourite was the Villa Lobos solo, though, and I was moved to tears by the concentration of the fourteen year old performer.

Even though I was driven there and back I wore my red coat for the first time. It´s milder now, and I´m back to my padded vest, or flak jacket as Roy calls it. So my musical education continues.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ready to Fly: Storks in Zamora

It´s not unusual to see storks in the centre of Zamora. I could hardly believe it, all the same, when I first saw one pass overhead. It was warm enough, then, to sit in the Plaza Mayor and drink gin-tonic, Spanish size.

Sweeping over distant rooftops with legs and necks outstretched they circle like low-flying aircraft, then suddenly appear overhead, casting a shadow. The separated black wing feathers are clearly visible.

Yesterday they were unusually numerous, seven or eight circling all at once. Even the locals stood with faces upturned as I made my way to the library at 6pm. The birds not on the wing were perched on nests around the Plaza Mayor , or standing on chimneys, looking as if they might launch themselves any minute.

When I left the library an hour later it was dark and there was heaviest rainfall I´ve ever seen here . When I mentioned the birds´ unusual behaviour to Olga this morning she suggested they were getting ready to fly South. Like me, they know it´s almost time to go, but they´re savouring their final days in Zamora.
Hasta Luego

I thought Roy would miss his cronies, not to mention his bridge games, if he stayed too long in Zamora. So I suggested two visits instead of one; stay a week, return to London for two and join me for the final ten days. I even managed to book us on the same return flight.

On Sunday, though, when was in the kitchen consulting the Madrid Metro map, two weeks alone seemed a long stretch. And it meant four journeys for him instead of two.

Going by his postcards, what Roy most liked about Zamora was the food and drink. On every card he mentioned a three-course ‘menu del dia’ at 8 Euros, including half a bottle of wine. I joined him on his exploration of the town on two days but the rest of the time I was in school. My favourite time was a stroll by the lovely River Duero on his first day here.

It was almost like being back home when we visited the Zamora´Multicine´- excpet that all the films are dubbed into Spanish. As the one we saw was ´2012´, it didn´t really matter. It would have been bottom of my list in London, and even here all the mayhem palled after the first hour, but we enjoyed it.

I don´t think Roy was at all interested in going to the circus, but I caught this shot of him him standing next to poster. I have to be sneaky because he thinks I´m a pest with my camera.

For me it´s eyes down for a final three weeks, but the last two will be lightened by his return. Then, when we get back to London, I´ll make reparations by being a top-notch stay-at-home wife.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Fruits of the Earth

‘Old people can make ink from those –what do you call them?’ Jose Eladio the headmaster pointed to some strange-looking fungus growing under a tree. In front of the school, one or two trees of the pine variety are confined to square patches of earth. Spindly toadstools with frilly black edges had sprung up beside them.

The growth and harvesting of plants is something I’d been aware of in China, where Í´d watched farmers on the hillside opposite my flat. This had been forgotten in London, near a market supplying exotic fruit and veg from across the world and a supermarket full of canned and frozen goods. I was reminded, now, that plants are also a source of dyes and inks.

‘This time of year they also gather the kind you can eat’, said Jose Eladio. He added that the local people went out to collect them when certain weather conditions prevailed, such as showers followed by sun, to sell later. ‘Twelve Euros a kilo. It’s money for free!’

Next day a notice outside an upmarket restaurant in the historic centre advertised a week of speciality mushroom-based menus.

On Friday I took part in a harvest myself, ‘Come, Sheila’, Jose Eladio announced at break time. ‘We’re going to take the olives from the school tree.’

Some days before I´d been given a tour of an area the size and shape of a city allotment, not at its best in early November. Three large cabbages grew in an otherwise bare middle part. Some rosemary and other hardy herbs and thin trees grew around the perimeter. Conditions here don’t encourage luxuriant growth.

Between the silver and light green leaves of the olive tree, though, shiny oval black berries were clearly visible. A single pupil-volunteer held a plastic bag and helped the teachers pick, whilst his classmates played football. Here’s a young horticulturist-in-the making, perhaps.
The tree wasn’t big, and Jose Eladio could reach the highest berries.
I love olives, so I tasted one I´d picked. I immediately hurriedly spat it out; it was horribly bitter. The science teacher explained they’d need several days of soaking and changes of water to make them edible.

They’re now on the draining board in the staffroom, a timely reminder for a Londoner that olives don´t just come from tins and jars.

Friday, November 06, 2009

School Dinners

Here in Corrales the children are full of beans –literally. Today's treat is a Paella starter, with fish to follow, but I bet we'll see some beans tomorrow.

Lunch has three courses: a vegetable starter, which may be soup, green beans cooked with ham pieces or white beans with bits of chorizo, then almost always baked fish and lettuce, occasionally chicken or veal and lettuce, and bread. To finish, there’s fruit or yogurt.

The staff who eat at school, including me, have the same food. The children staying for lunch, who remain at school for afternoon activities, eat in a dining room. I usually go with Olga or another teacher to collect the teachers share from the kitchen. It comes back to the staffroom on a trolley.

Lunch is the time when I get to practise speaking Spanish, when I can get a word in, but there are usually no more than four of us. I still can’t understand much of what’s being said, except in a very general way. Teachers take it in turns to stay on each day and supervise the afternoon sessions.
Enough fuss has been made about English school dinners. Here it's more as I remember it back in the old days - except with more beans.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Have you heard the Angels singing?

Have you heard the Angels singing?

Lydia the music teacher tipped me off when she drove me to the village school in Corrales: sung music by Vivaldi and Purcell at the cathedral - by a group from London! She couldn’t attend herself. ‘It’s free, so arrive early to get a good seat’, she said.

It was the first time I’d seen the cathedral at night. The impressive dome dominated the skyline, and the interior was a vision of gilded splendour. On a previous visit I’d just wandered round a series of ante rooms, gawping at tapestries of the Siege of Troy, a massive Semana Santa procession platform, elaborately decorated silverware and paintings.

I needn’t have worried about a central position. The sponsors, Caja España, had provided monitor screens so the singers and players could be viewed in close-up – especially when the camera dwelt on a lively blonde first violinist and a handsome countertenor.

The strangest thing, for me, was the bars between the audience and performers – not light, decorative wrought iron, but heavy-duty ones that obscured the view. Some VIPs were allowed on the orchestra side.

While I waited I looked at the programme, with its alluring question on the cover: 'Have you heard the Angels sing?'. Inside was summary in Spanish of the lives of Purcell and Vivaldi, and the words in Spanish and English to the five settings of psalms by Purcell and then a Latin text for the Vivaldi ‘Dixit ….’ There was a short ‘sonata de trompeta’ between Purcell psalms. It was a hollow-sounding instrument of a dull copper colour, like an over-sized Victorian child’s toy.

The line-up for the moving Purcell psalms was a soprano, two counter-tenors and a tall baritone, with the occasional accompaniment from other singers. If there was one fault with the programme it didn’t have photos identifying individual performers, although Peter Pickett the conductor and founder of The New London Consort group was obvious. The concert was the first of four in cathedrals in Zamora, Valladolid, Leon and Palencia.

They saved the best ‘til last, and the Vivaldi, with everyone singing and playing together, was uplifting. Amid the applause that echoed round the roof, did I feel a hint of national pride? Or was it the angels singing?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Playing up agains so I can't upload photos. Will have to wait until tomorrow, which is what worked last time.

Monday, October 26, 2009

I can’t get no calefacción…

I’d been looking forward to Saturday 24th, the day the heating was to come on. Yesterday was a mild 14° but mornings are a bit chilly and one day last week it reached only 8°, even at mid-day.

The notice in the hallway was dated 2008, but José Eladio assured me it was because it was the same date every year.

I was surprised, then, when the radiators were hot on Friday 23rd, when I arrived home from school. Not for long and not all of them – the bedroom and hall ones remained cold and the knob to make them hotter was stuck. Best not force them, I thought, after my disaster with the ‘persiana’ last week: I tugged the cord too hard and the blind disappeared into the box over the window.

The heat must be on a trial run, in case adjustments were needed.

Then the same thing happened on the 24th. The radiators had been on for an hour when I left the flat at one and were cold when I got back at seven. Today they haven’t come on at all. There’s obviously someone at the remote control, working to a bonus.

José Eladio and Olga have been so kind to me I don’t want to raise a further problem. They went out of their way to help when I arrived – Olga offering a room in her lovely flat, with my own bathroom, at such short notice, and José Eladio ringing agencies trying to find a place within the Vaughantown budget. In the end he resorted to friends and relations. He even drove me round to view and it wasn’t his fault the first one was too big.

When I expressed my thanks he said, ‘It’s normal’.

Are all Spaniards so kind and helpful? I think maybe they are. ‘It’s the weather’, says Olga.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Chance Encounter

I don’t believe in coincidences as a rule, but what happened last Sunday made me wonder.

I was attracted by the title of a book in the window of an upmarket souvenir shop: ‘Un sueño de Barro and Piedra’. The cover had a reproduction of a painting of a road leading into a village of red-roofed houses.

In the store, a woman was bustling among cheeses and wine and figurines. The book stood on a rack of photo guides to Zamora. I thought I’d better make sure I could read it, with some help from a dictionary.

It was a collection of short essays by Herminio Ramos Perez, born in a nearby village in 1925. An introduction described his career after his move to Zamora, where he became a respected teacher, writer and expert on ceramics and local history. He was elected as a councillor, and nicknamed ‘El Maestro’. An informer who reported his left-wing views to the school authorities cost him his job in the 70s, a serious setback because he had eight children.

At 6.5 Euros, with excellent line drawings of Zamora’s main buildings by the cover artist, it seemed a bargain. The shop-owner finished a phone call as I browsed among postcards and some boxes of biscuits baked by nuns in a local convent.

It was as I turned to leave that the owner became excited, calling out, ‘Eh! El Maestro! El Maestro!’ She pointed to a little old man in a suit, who was making his way slowly down the street, hesitating with each step and feeling the ground with a walking stick. I saw he resembled a small statue I’d seen someone drawing. I soon caught him up.

Somehow inspired, I stuttered in Spanish that I was a volunteer teacher. Would he sign the book I’d just bought? I could understand some of his reply. Corrales was near his own village, he said, and even told me how many hectares had been under wine cultivation in the past. He was sad to hear there are now only 57 children in the village school. He apologised for his poor eyesight and insisted on returning to the shop, where the owner’s son helped him up the step. He wrote a shaky inscription in the book.

After I told Olga about it next day, I could just about make out what she muttered in Spanish to a colleague: ‘Huh! How come I never met Hemingway in the street when leaving a bookshop in England?’