Happy Birthday: Life is Long!

I wake to the sound of an alarm. I press snooze in the hope that Monday fucks off for itself. It doesn’t. Monday doesn’t care if you partied hard at the weekend. Nor does it sympathise with you about the fact you feel a little cheated; all week the weekend seemed like a book full of clean blank pages waiting to be filled with wonderful things. Now that book is bounced off your dehydrated head and lands open on a page baring the cold facts; you got drunk and did a few chores; it’s over now and a pressing list of demands awaits. I get outta bed. It’s my birthday. 34 and feeling every bit of it.

It’s a bright cool morning.

I have to catch the train to Bilbao 4 times a week, which means four times a week I am running through the cobbled streets of Portugalete, bag bouncing on my back. Each time I tell myself that I need to leave my house 5 minutes earlier but I’ve been telling myself that four times a week for three weeks now. Still, I haven’t missed a train yet.

On the train everyone silently agrees not to get on each other’s nerves by shutting up and staring at their phones. I check Facebook. There’s a lot of people saying happy birthday. Facebook has prompted them to do so. I do the same when prompted. Everyone must be getting tired of everyone’s birthday.

In Spanish class I start to think that Saturday’s partying has left me brain-damaged. It takes me ages to construct a sentence. I am a little disgusted with myself. Will I ever learn this fucking language? I need to slow down on the weekend boozing. Mind you, I’ve been saying that every Monday for about five years now.

Afterwards my classmates and I go for coffee and cigarettes. None of us are particularly enthused about having to teach kids later on.

‘I don’t know how I’m gonna be all singing and dancing today,’ deadpans Aaron in a droll Newcastle voice, the imprint of a hangover on his face.

‘I hate when you have to tell-off a kid just before you do a song and you’re really angry, but you have to force a fake smile and say ‘Come on everyone! Let’s sing ‘We’re going on a Safari!’ James says.

‘My kids don’t even like songs! And they’re six! I’m there dancing and singing and their eyes are boring through me. I’m 33…34 and I have a hangover. What the fuck is your excuse young fella?’

I drain my coffee and run for the train.

Later, in class, I’m asking my teenagers what they did at the weekend.

‘I hang out with my friends and studied,’ is the standard answer.

They stubbornly refuse to let the conversation go anywhere. Maybe they’re just bored that they are doing the same shit over and over. Life is short, they say. Nay, life is long; Long enough for us all to get into ruts. Long enough for us to get bored. Ashley Madison has it the wrong way round. Life is short. Have an affair. If life really was short would people get bored of their partners and seek out affairs on the internet?

Life is long. Have an affair.

Life is long. Get drunk.

Life is long. Give up alcohol for six months.

Life is long. Live in another country.

Life is long. Take up a new hobby.

Life is long. You may as well have kids.

Life is long. Do something you wouldn’t normally do.

‘Did anyone do anything different?’

‘I went to Bilbao,’ says one pretty girl.

‘Oh really! What did you do there?’

‘Take photos.’

‘Took photos.’


‘Of what?’

She looks at me like she doesn’t understand.

‘Of buildings like the Guggenheim? Of homeless people who possess a tragic wrecked beauty?’ I suggest.

‘No…of each other.  For instagram.’

Now I’m the one who doesn’t understand.

In my next class I have my six year olds doing exercises.

‘Running, running, running, running, jumping, jumping, jumping, jumping, eating, eating, eating, eating, swimming, swimming, swimming, swimming.’

Their enthusiasm and big wide smiles are a pleasant contrast to the guarded, sullen teenagers.

The adults file in. I smile and greet them all. They take their seats – everyone always sits in the same seat. As they settle I notice Martha isn’t here. Odd because she never misses a class. Then there is a knock on the door. Nerea jumps, opens the door and switches off the light. A low flickering candle enters the room. A low chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’ begins. My name’s on the cake and all. It’s a pleasant surprise.

Happy Trails

Something Similar: A Black Star on the last Day of School

Something Different: Squat Diddly


Learning Spanish

‘So, you are going to Spain for the year?’ people asked when they heard about my career break.


‘Do you speak Spanish?’

‘Not mucho. I’m trying to learn at the moment.’

‘Ah sure, you’ll pick it up out there,’ they said, like learning a language was as easy as picking up a tin of beans in Tesco. I’ve been to Spain a few times and come home with – a Barcelona jersey, sunburn, a hat, a fridge magnet, stories; but Spanish? Not mucho. Yes the Spaniards were filling the air with their rapid fire dialogue but it was just background noise and after a while you could tune it out.

Despite what people said I knew learning Spanish was gonna take time, effort and concentration. However, with work and a part time course on the go, I lacked the first ingredient; time. I looked forward to the summer holidays when I could really get stuck into the language. I’d attend classes, listen to CDs, devour textbooks. Soon, long monologues in Spanish would issue from my mouth.

When the summer finally came about and the days opened up, I discovered that there was another factor preventing me from becoming a fluent Spanish speaker; being a lazy bastard.

Learning a language seemed so daunting a task. Wouldn’t it be easier to not start at all? Why don’t I just pick it up out there? – like everybody  told me I could. No, success in Spain (wait, that’s too hard to define) –getting by in Spain would mean learning the language. So, I eased my way into it.

I decided I was gonna learn through song. Why not? I am more of an auditory than visual or kinaesthetic learner and music appealed to me a lot more than the pile of text books on my desk.

Devandra Banhardt, unknowingly, became my teacher. He was born in Texas, raised in Venezuela and sings in both English and Spanish.

Perhaps that wasn’t the best place to start for some honest, down to earth, man on the street Spanish. Devandra seems like the kind of guy who lives up a tree and dabbles in sorcery. Sample lyrics from his track Little Yellow Spider include;

‘And hey there little sexy pig

You made it with a man

And you’ve got a little kid with hooves instead of hands.’

But then youtube offered up a song that tickled the ear and delighted the eye – Brindo. After repeated listens the Spanish lyrics slipped into my head as if they’d been there as long as the prayers I learned as a kid. I was worried that what seemed to me like the most tender love song would turn out to be an ode to sexy pigs but, upon translation, these fears were nullified.

Brindo este amor un amor tan raro/Brindo este amor un amor tan claro.

Cheers to this love a love so rare/Cheers to this love a love so clear

Repeated listens were easy because in the video a gorgeous beauty is lounging around Devandra’s house (the rainbow house) in her white underwear. I learned new words. I learned a song. I was learning Spanish!

But, in fairness, getting by on pop music alone wouldn’t work. Imagine a Spanish person doing the same with English.

‘Well Pedro- where are you? You are late for soccer.’

‘Hello. I am slowly walking down the hall, faster than a cannonball.’

‘Pedro. I have no idea what that means.’

‘Okay yes. In which direcíon I go after the wonder wall?’

I was looking for other doors to the palace of Spanish. My housemate told me to try the duolingo website. I signed up, for free, and began progressing through the levels. You listen, you type, you get points for every level you complete. With those points you can pay for bonus lessons like ‘Flirting’ – ‘No estoy barracho, solo intoxicado por ti’/ ‘I am not drunk only intoxicated by you.’ It breaks down the language into small, manageable lessons which aren’t very time consuming. The lessons are divided into categories like food, clothes, animals. It gives you the vocabulary; manzana (apple) Yo como ( I eat) and before you know it you gotta sentence; Yo como una manzana/I eat an apple.

I was learning Spanish but I wasn’t sure I would succeed in the thick of it. So say I meet a girl in a bar;

Brindo este amor un amor tan raro.

Cual? Tu estás barracho.

No estoy barracho solo intoxicado por  ti.

What you want? My boyfriend is there.

Yo como una manzana.

Obviously I would have an apple with me, so as not to come across like a complete weirdo.

I got talking to a Spanish teacher. He gave me eight Michel Thomas CDs. Michel Thomas is a polyglot linguist and Nazi concentration camp survivor. His name had come up in conversations with other friends learning languages. ‘All you gotta do is listen.’ I put on the CD. Michel sounded like a learned middle aged man.

‘You do not have to write anything. You do not have to learn by rote. You do not have to revise. You do not have to revise mentally. You have to be relaxed…’

Michel – you are speaking my language.