Bilbao Metro 4am

I turn the corner and look up. Sure enough, there is a tall pole with the lit red symbol atop. It’s a welcome sight. I walk towards it. I go down a flight of stairs, down a steep escalator, then down another steep escalator. It’s hot. Anymore feckin’ escalators and we’d be at the earth’s core. A train screeches up the track. I quicken my pace and slip my card out of my wallet. I hope it has credit. I see the roof of the train by the platform below. The doors open. A beeping sound warns people to get their asses inside quickly. I run. I swipe my card. The gates open. I take the stairs, sidestepping as fast as I can. But, as I arrive on the platform the train moves off. It screeches in a kind of sneering manner, which I appreciate none-too-much.

The train is like a sideways parting curtain that slowly reveals the other platform and there, casually waiting, are the Bilbao folk that have it sussed. I didn’t miss the train. I’m on the wrong bloody platform. Dumb luck. Anyway, why was I rushing? Even if I had missed the right train there’d be another along in ten minutes. It’s not like I haven’t time to spare; I’ve just wiled away hours drinking in bars.

It’s not the same atmosphere of waiting you get during the day; voices are raised and every now and then someone bursts out laughing. I scan the crowd. Gangs crowd around benches. Well, groups. Gangs sound intimidating. Guys and girls. More guys than girls. There’s one woman who stands alone. It looks like there’s a uniform under her cardigan. A cleaner maybe, mid-fifties on her way home. Her thin lips give her an impatient expression. Two good-looking girls come down the steps and stand in front of an advertisement for an English Academy. Tight jeans and leather jackets.  I consider walking over and striking up a conversation, you know, to practise my Spanish. In the last bar I pushed myself to approach a girl and say ‘Hola. Que tal?’ She rolled her eyes and walked away. I was left standing there like a dick. Thankfully, the lads didn’t see it ( although I could feel some fella in some corner laughing at me). Anyway, I decide not to talk to the two pretty girls on the platform. Well I don’t really decide anything. I just stand there near the bottom of the stairs, waiting like everyone else.

A breeze blows through the station. I look down the tunnel and see a huge square can rattling up the track. People stand and survey the carriages sliding by. There’s a gasp and a screech as the train settles. The doors open. We inch inside, disperse, and find a place to park ours bums. Those already seated gather themselves. I sit on one of the flip down chairs near the door. The cleaner sits on the seat opposite, her two hands clasping the strap of her handbag, her back erect and her eyes alert. She’s primed to bolt at a moment’s notice. The two pretty girls find a space halfway down the carriage, sit down and busy their thumbs with their mobile phones. The train moves on. As we enter the tunnel the engine screeches like a banshee.

I can taste the alcohol in my mouth. I try to figure out how much I had. I lose count after six and conclude that it’s enough to secure a hangover, but also enough to engender the current mood of insouciance. I look at my phone for something to do. I go on Facebook. Photos, videos and comments slide by. If I have time for this it’s a lie to say I don’t have time. I feel an aching dissatisfaction slowly rising. I slip my phone away.

A couple of stops later the cleaning lady leaves and a drunk guy staggers on. It’s like the changing of scenes in an unscripted play. He sits where the lady was and instantly falls asleep; head tilted, mouth open and Adam’s apple protruding. As the train gathers speed his head moves side to side slightly. As it slows again he inches forward. When the doors beep he awakes. Confused, he looks around. His eyes meet mine and narrow in suspicion, as if he’s woken up in some hellish nightmare and I’m to blame. I look away. Eventually he gets his bearings and repositions himself in his chair. People let themselves out, people let themselves in.

The drunk guy keeps himself awake by telling himself a story that seems to both amuse and surprise him. He staggers away at Barakaldo.

‘I have no idea how I got home,’ he will tell his friend’s tomorrow.

The train pushes on. There are now just a few people scattered around the carriage. Everyone’s quiet and tired. On the way in we were nicely presented and curious to see what Saturday night had in store. Now, that curiosity has been spent. I wonder if we’re one step closer to, or one step further away from where we wanna be. Neither, I suppose. Saturday night is more a necessary side-step.

 ‘Portugalete’ announces the electronic voice. People stand and gather by the door. We exit the train and ascend the two flights of stairs and escalator.  A few people grimace as the early morning Autumn chill hits them at the exit.

After five seconds the crowd have vanished. I’m alone on a quiet street surrounded by tall buildings. It’s just a matter of getting to bed. Sleep awaits me there.


Something Similar; It gets off to a bad start…

Something Different; A Black Star on the last Day of School




A Day at the Beach

PE Store

I’m looking for tools to fend off the two words that I have come to hate the most these past few weeks of summer camp; ‘I’m bored’ (In fact, that’s not true; ‘I’m bored’ would be a welcome use of the English language. The two words I have come to hate the most are ‘No quiero,’ Spanish for ‘I don’t want to’.) I choose six tennis balls, four bats, two softballs and four Frisbees.

Today is our first excursion to the beach and I am hopeful it will be a success.

Take your Seats

The kids arrive. The bus arrives. Excitement grows. Feet move fast. Seats on a bus can be the source of anxiety for kids. For some, it’s where you sit. Squares up the front. Cool kids  at the back. And if you’re in the middle, you’re in the middle.

For others, it’s a fear of sitting on their own.

‘Can I sit next to you?’

I look down at Sofia’s worried face.

‘Of course you can.’

For the three BFFs it’s who is going to be cut loose?

‘I like the two of you the same,’ explains Enara, ‘but we can’t get three seats together.’

Enara understands the unwritten rule regarding bus seats which states; if you are a senior kid with a loud voice and a bullying streak then a backseat is a God given right.

But not everybody is schooled in the rules.

Two little lads are first to board the bus. They are all set for the beach; peak caps, shorts, bags on their backs and smiles on their faces. Their eyes widen as they see all the empty seats.

‘The back seats are free!!’

They run the length of the bus and settle in. Their classmates amble on.

‘Look. Look. It’s us! We’re back here. Come on.’

But their classmates aren’t as keen. They choose a seat near the front or middle.

Then the big boys enter. They are a little late. An absolute dick of a summer camp leader held them back because some girl was crying, or something. The five of them clamour, push and laugh all the way to the back. Three of them take seats.

The other two loom over the little lads. The little lads’ facial expressions have changed from ‘Ain’t life grand’ to ‘Oh Shit!’

Despite this they stand (or sit) their ground. By the time I arrive the big lads are shouting and baring their fists. The bus is moving. I calmly tell them to find another seat. They ignore me and continue shouting at the little lads. I get right up in their faces.

‘Did you hear me? Find another seat! How could you shout at them? They are half your age!’

They skulk off to another seat.

I am an absolute dick of a summer camp leader.

Teacher – Pupil

I take my seat next to Sofia. I’m addled after the back-seat dilemma and I’m hoping the next words out of her mouth will be;

‘Clearly this isn’t a good time for you. You gather yourself and what I wanna do can wait until later.’

Nope, instead she launches into a Spanish lesson.

She points at her hat and says ‘Gorra.’

I say ‘Gorra.’

‘No!’ she says. She shakes her head and wags a finger in my face.



‘No!’ she says and shakes her head and makes a tch, tch sound, as if I’ve been a naughty boy.

I let this pupil –teacher role reversal carry on for a bit and then I hammer her pronunciation of ‘slaughtered’, just to remind her who the grown up is.

La Salvaje Beach, Bilbao


The Beach

The kids are happily occupied, for about twenty minutes. Then the bats, balls and Frisbees get tossed aside. A group approaches me. I brace myself for the dreaded words.

‘Can we do sandcastles?’

‘Yes! That’s a great idea.’

The group walks towards the shoreline. They find their spot, drop to their knees and start clawing at the sand with their hands. There is feverish work with instructions being issued back and forth. I peer over their shoulders and see a drawbridge, a moat, a high defensive wall and a dome tower taking shape.The group consists of boys and girls, a mixture they sometimes resist when I suggest it. Their aim is to build a castle that will stand up to the incoming water.

The water approaches. They watch eagerly.

A wave slides up the shore and casually destroys the castle.

Child Vs Sea

Their reaction seems muted at first. They walk back to our nest of bags and change into their swimming suits. Then, ten of them stand shoulder to shoulder and stare down the sea. On a count of ‘3,2,1 Go!’ they charge forwards shaking their fists and screaming.

A band of pebbles and broken shells, impedes their speed. They pick their way through the minefield. There is a cry of pain as one takes a tumble. I tend to the stricken soldier’s foot and notice the rest of the kids in the camp running past. But once the water wraps around their ankles they freeze. I watch on, fearing a hasty retreat, but soon they are completely engaged with the enemy. There are shrieks and howls and explosions. Their skinny bodies are knocked about by big brutes of waves.  They get back up after every pummelling, or lie face down in the shallows, playing dead.

They re-emerge from the water in twos and threes, cleansed and calmed and happy with what feels like a victory.


They are too hungry to make faces. They unwrap the tinfoil and start eating. They watch the beach scenes before them. A feeling of contentedness settles over all of us.





Glimpses into Classrooms

10am. Spanish Class.  Adults.

In class we talk about teaching in an Academy. My Spanish teacher, Paula, waits patiently as I string words together.  It must be about as exciting as someone reading your junk mail while mispronouncing every second word. So, in an effort to spice things up, I insult all kids in Spain, and by proxy, their parents.

‘The kids here are different to the children I taught in Ireland. They are louder and their listening skills aren’t very good.’

Paula, herself a parent, ignores my negativity and praises my oral expression. A grown man of 33 I am not beyond basking in the warm glow of a teacher’s praise.

Mark, a fellow teacher and classmate, remarks that he has a very different problem with a group of college students. None of them will talk and the atmosphere is stifled and awkward. Paula says she’d prefer a silent classroom to the clamour of noisy kids any day. I’m not so sure I would…

4pm. English Class. 14 year olds.

They amble in, sit down and say nothing. It feels unnatural that so many people could make so little noise. I feel awkward. I rearrange my books. They are teenagers, but what’s my excuse? They are waiting for me to get the show on the road. I put on a fake smile and turn to greet them.

‘How was your weekend?’


‘Good. Not well. What did you do?’

‘On Saturday I hang out with my friends. In Sunday I study.’

It’s the same answer, every Monday. It’s the same stuttering start, every Monday. My questions hang in the air. I think cheese. They think mouse traps.

There is a collective groan when I tell them to take out their books. I feel their pain but act like nothing gets me more fired up than second conditionals.

I try to chisel through the mask of indifference with praise.

5pm. English Class. 8 year olds.

With five minutes left, I cut an A4 page in half. There are exclamations of excitement as kids spring from chairs. I call three names and place a paper in front of them. I step over to the other side of the room, call four names and place another paper before them. The team with three see their handicap as a badge of approval.

‘It’s because we’re smart,’ they say triumphantly.

Both teams apply a similar tactic; give the smartest pupil the pencil and huddle around him/her. Once they are set up they turn to me;

‘What write? What write? Animals? Hobbies?’

For a few blissful seconds they are silent and awaiting my instruction. Team captains have their pencils poised for action. I show them my stop watch.

‘One minute. Words beginning with C. Go!’

Pencils dash across pages. Teammates scan the walls and pore over textbooks for examples of the target word. Mikel, caught up in the excitement, dances in the no-mans-land that exists between the two teams. His gambol is viewed with suspicion by his opponents. Accusing fingers stab the air;

‘He copy! He look!’

I direct the dancer out of no-mans land to the food section of his textbook.

‘Cake! Cheese!’ he exclaims.

His opponents hear him.

‘Gracias Mikel,’ they say slyly.

‘De nada,’ Mikel replies.

I countdown the last ten seconds.

‘Stop! Count your words.’

The words are counted and recounted. The team of four wins. The captain with the team of three is not pleased.

‘Another. Another,’ he demands. But time is up. He is not happy. The dancer bursts into a victory dance. Words are exchanged. You don’t need to understand Spanish to realize they are not exchanging pleasantries.

As they leave, preoccupied with conversation, one of the girls taps me on the elbow. I expect she wants me to draw a smiley face on her text-book; it’s my little way of praising their good work and she craves ‘caritas’. She has my marker in her hand. She jabs the marker at me.

‘For you,’ she says and draws a smiley-face on the board.


Top Teaching Tips 1

Some sort of Wisdom

My phone wakes me. As my senses organise a nasty headache declares itself present. It’s my boss. I clear my throat and try to sound like I haven’t just woken at 1252pm. A teacher is sick. Can I take her classes? Work. Yes. I wrench myself outta bed. The headache flares in protest. I shower and slip on some clean clothes that I hope give the illusion of an upstanding member of society.

There’s scant consolation to be found in the fridge so I walk to a nearby café and munch on something greasy, sip coffee and fart.  The barman and I chat in Spanglish about the rugby world cup. It’s our twice weekly exchange. He wants to practise his English and I wanna practise my Spanish. We both refuse to speak our native language. He’s a good guy and a bigger fan of Irish rugby than I am. I’m functioning.

The mirrors image shows tired eyes and a red face that makes me seem constantly embarrassed. But, there isn’t time for self-loathing. I gotta bus to catch. I tell David I’ll see him Sunday for the match.

I arrive in work an hour early. I sip coke, pore over the books and chat with the boss. Only three classes to prepare. I can do this.

The students file in. Teenagers; 14-16 years old. I muster what I hope is sufficient enthusiasm and ask each student to tell me a little about themselves. They are perky, excited to have a different teacher for a lesson and the introductions are punctuated with laughter. I’m in a good position. They don’t know me well enough to try any serious messing and I’m doing another teacher a favour so I don’t feel pressure to get loads done. After the introductions I set them a task and go to the toilet. When I come back some dude with a hairstyle is standing.

‘Are you okay?’

‘My phone is ringing. Can I take the call?’

Everyone is watching to see how I deal with this.

‘Eh. Well…no…unless it’s your Mom or Dad.’

He looks at the phone.

‘I don’t know who it is.’

‘Then you will have to sit down and call them after class.’

He thinks for a moment.

‘Can I go to the toilet?’

We all laugh.

‘You must be joking. Sit down.’

He shrugs and sits down. We finish the class with a game. As they leave they smile and say goodbye.

The next class arrives. It’s a two hour lesson. It goes much the same as the first but my legs ache so much I have to sit down and my explanations are a bit rambling. It’s a sleepy lesson and we don’t stray too far from the textbook. With 15 minutes left I spring from my chair and launch into a game. It’s a good laugh. They say goodbye. I feel lucky. Really nice kids. A pleasure to teach. Not such a bad day after all.

Once everyone leaves the silence is eerie. I hastily pack my bag and lock up. There’s a birthday party in the square. Kids are screaming. It’s a bright autumn evening. I find myself getting a bit emotional – giddy that the class went well, that its Friday, that last night was such a laugh- but overall giddy that I’m living and working in the Basque Region. I still get a kick thinking that one year ago I had no idea I would be out here.

 I get the bus back. I’m tired but I’m dreading the thoughts stopping will bring. I slip a pizza in the oven, eat and message a few of the heads I was out with last night. Some funny shit. I’m nearly hysterical with the laughter. I pass some time on youtube.

Darkness descends. I’m so weary. It’s a sinister kind of tiredness; I’ve craved bed all day but now I’m here I feel restless. I can’t seem to let go, to fall into sleep. My whole body is humming with anxiety and doubt. Unresolved situations turn over and over in my mind.

Groups of merry, chattering locals pass under my window. Then it gets real quiet.

I rue last night’s actions. I blew it with a girl. I spilt my cards on the table; A grinning drunk issuing clumsy compliments. I can picture her pretty face; stunned and awkward at first – later, just annoyed. Anyway. I know now.

I think of past relationships. Girls I broke it off with. Good girls but I was a better man moving on to better things. This. Have I made the right choices?  If all roads have led to my current situation the answer would have to be a resounding no. But, reason counsels, it’s just the hangover darkening my outlook. If I had asked myself the same question early last night, I would have beamed yes; my answer bolstered by the company of smiling friends.

I’d rather not feel like this again. Of course I could just pace myself and not indulge to such a bitter end, but moderation is far from my mind when I’m agreeing to ‘uno mas.’ I’m thinking the night is filled with possibility, that new friends and pretty girls are waiting in the next bar and there’s an  urge to unearth truths that will bind me further to those around me. But, there is a price to pay. There are no friends or pretty girls now. Come to think of it there were no girls in the last bar either. And whatever truths were uncovered I can’t remember – I’m sure we were just loud and insistent rather then insightful.

The insights are coming now though. Grim insights that bring a yearning for change. Get better. But deep down I doubt real changes are gonna come. In another few weeks I’ll be back in the same place, feeling the same way; it’s been this way for years. Changing country isn’t enough to change habits. I no longer kid myself that lasting resolutions are born out of these sleepless nights. I guess that’s some sort of wisdom.



Pots in the Park

It’s a hot, bright Saturday in September. I’m pacing uphill in search of Parque de Florida. I’m about to have my first encounter with the Cuadrilla.

There are lots of hills in Portugalete. This, they say, is why the people in the city have the best asses in the Basque country.   From the river you have a steady ascent to the top of the town. The street I live on is so steep it has 5 escalators. They crank into life about 6 each morning and the gentle mechanical hum continues until 11pm.

At the end of Portugalete’s high street stands the slope of Cerantes – 410 metres tall. It seems odd to be able to see a small mountain from a city street, not silhouetted or shrouded in mist, but just sitting there, lush green and dwarfing buildings 11 stories tall. It’s a typical sight all over Bilbao; cities shouldered by mountains.

I continue uphill. I have a bottle of wine and some beers. I hope they like the wine.

A Cuadrilla is basically a group of friends. There are roughly twenty people in the Cuadrilla I’m about to meet. Amongst the gang are Emma and Una, my workmates.  The two girls are understandably proud to be members of the Cuadrilla as they can be very hard to infiltrate, especially if you are a foreigner and are not partnered up with any group members. Emma was initiated 3 years ago while Una, the last one in, has been part of the group for nearly a year. The initiation takes place at dawn on a mystical hilltop…okay I’m joking. Initiation involves you being added to a whatsapp group; A small deed that has huge impact on your social life.

I’m a little nervous. My Spanish is nowhere near good enough to be charming or funny – some might argue I never was in the first place. Adding to the anxiety is the fact that sources close to the group tell me there have been whispers of discontent about the increasing number of English speakers in the Cuadrilla. This is understandable. Let’s say you are Pedro and after a hard day’s work you go to meet your buddies in the bar. Suddenly you find yourself surrounded by people you barely know speaking in another language. ..In your group…in your hometown.

As I enter the park I see people stretched out on the grass basking in the sunlight. I follow the distant roars to the centre of the park, which is a hive of activity; groups, predominantly consisting of men, are stooping, stirring, fretting and bickering over large pots that are billowing steam. Today is the Putxera – an annual outdoor cooking competition where contestants make a stew in an old fashioned pot to be tasted by judges.

When I arrive greetings are cast over shoulders; everyone is a little preoccupied. Aketz, who has been keeping a watchful eye on his pot since early morning, steps back to explain the history behind the putxera (railway pot). It started on the steam train as a means of feeding the men delivering materials to the burgeoning steel industries in the Basque region. Red beans, onions, garlic, red peppers, sausage and bacon were placed into the pot and the stew was gently rocked by the train as it meandered through the countryside. The railway pot is no longer in service on the train but has not been forgotten by the Basque people, as evidenced by this annual event.

At 1 o’clock the pots are delivered to the bandstand where the judging panel of two ladies and a man taste the most important ingredient; the beans. This is no easy task when you consider that there are seventy two pots and the stew is infamous for causing wind.

Anyone about to forget the competitive nature of the event gets a swift reminder via a scene unfolding near the bandstand; there is a heated exchange between a contestant and an official; The contestant’s pot has been refused admission to the competition having been delivered two minutes after the deadline. The official is not for turning and the contestant has to return to his friends for an early lunch.

We watch and wait while the judges dip spoons into pots and taste.I try to chat with everyone but my limited Spanish means many conversations fall flat. Unfortunately my group’s pot is not among the prize winners. The pot is taken back to our station.

As people gather round the table I feel a pang of anxiety. Where will I sit? Who will be burdened with my presence? Everyone has been so nice but I am aware that sitting next to me requires patience, carefully chosen words and an ability to switch between languages. I hanker for a cigarette but don’t have the guts to bum one.

Seeing my hesitancy Aketz calls my name and gestures for me to sit down next to him. I feel a rush of gratitude towards the man. The spoils of the pot are shared. There is also bread, Spanish omelette, cheese, beer and wine. Everyone is packed in close and compliments to the chefs are issued from stuffed mouths. Warnings about the dangers of mixing the grape and the grain are delivered through rhyme;

‘Vino y Cerveza- dolor en mi cabeza!’

I cause unintentional merriment by announcing that I am horny; Tengo caliente is not how you inform people that you are warm. I listen to exchanges around the table. I cease on a word I know, repeat it in my mind and translate it but, by the time I tune back into the conversation it has sped up and accents and colloquialisms throw me off. These exchanges often conclude with laughter. I try to look pleasantly amused but I feel awkward or sometimes bored. It’s frustrating. There are two ways I could react; I could moan or take it as motivation and get stuck into my Spanish phrasebook. Obviously, you are reading the fruits of the former option.

Afterwards the table is cleared and the cards are taken out. What game will we play? The group opts for something simple and easy to follow. I pay close attention; my mistakes are small and forgiven by everyone. As the game develops a rhythm I become engrossed and anxiety about following the thread of conversation dissipates. The game is punctuated by slagging and laughter.  Beginner’s luck smiles on me and I win a few hands.

As the evening grows chilly the cards are put away and the things are packed up. I have finally met the Cuadrilla.  We leave the park and walk back towards our respective homes in the town centre. It’s all downhill from here.