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Drinking from the Dragon Well

Sunday, July 10th, 2011

The Longjing tea that is grown in Zhejiang Province is the most famous tea in all China. The original bushes were fed by the still and clear water of the Dragon Well, and maybe one of these days I will get to taste this water for myself.

An account of my adventures in China can be found here:

Final Preparations

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Is it really this long ago since I’ve last blogged?

Anyway, I’m almost done with the prep. I’ve developed a headache from playing Chinese character games and working through almost a hundred newbie lessons in Mandarin and downloading lesson plans and activities whenever there was time. Today the school has emailed me to say that the papers are on their way.

This means that next week may well be my last in the UK. I’ll attend a novel workshop, a graduation ceremony for two friends (incidentally I might receive my own certificate after belatedly graduating in absentia) and I’m hoping for a BBQ. Not to forget shopping for a suitcase!

Then it’s off to steamy Shanghai and on to Hanghgzhou, reputedly the most beautiful city in China. The modern China, that is. I’ll expect noise, smog and glittering sky-scrapers alongside tranquil lakes, hills and pagodas.

Not long now.

Tea to China?

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

Apple tree closeup

During my travels I have rarely missed things other than the odd piece of chocolate or salty liquorice. Except for—on one memorable occasion—apples.

I was about to travel through Africa on my own. The group had split up and I was somewhere so utterly foreign that it may have well been on another planet, although one where people spoke French. I was wracked with longing for the rain-streaked streets of home, picturing myself sitting in the back of our old VW Beetle, behind both my parents, and staring out of the windscreen on our way back from town.

I had to forcefully remind myself that my father was dead. But the taste of apples remained in my mouth. We’d had a lot of apple trees in the garden. The shelves in our cellar were full of tiny, wrinkly apples that would last almost all year.

I pined for a while. But returning home was never an option. And one day, when I’d continued my journey, I found some strange berries on the market and bought a few of them, since I’ve always been curious about strange fruit.

They tasted exactly like apples.

I’ve never found these berries again. But I didn’t need to: the craving and the home sickness were gone.

And the morale of the story? Other than for a few pieces of salty liquorice I’m not in the habit of taking home comforts with me because the things you enjoy at home rarely taste right when you’re travelling. The craving for salty liquorice or the odd piece of chocolate is physical and fleeting. When I got my backpack stolen in Indonesia I didn’t miss my remaining liqs all that much. But when I went to Barcelona to do my TEFL certificate, I took teabags with me. I figured I needed them, and I was right.

They worked us hard and the tea gave me comfort, just as those berries once did.

A mug of milky tea is a piece of home.

Journey of My Life

Monday, May 16th, 2011

When I was a child I made a pact with the devil. I wanted to have adventures, to discover new things, to travel to distant shores.

The devil agreed, but of course He extracted a price. He didn’t want my soul, because there is no such thing as a soul. No, the devil is a sucker for entertainment. He wanted to watch me squirm.

He granted me my wishes.

But I could never call a place home.

The Adventure Continues

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

I may find myself in China shortly. Watch this space.

A Lack of Sunshine

Saturday, February 26th, 2011

Gaudi evening

For the past six weeks I have hardly paid any attention to this most unique of cities. In fact at street level Barcelona reminds me of my old home town. I think it’s the scale, and the shops. Barcelona has a far more European feel than any city in the UK and there are none of the chain outlets that disgrace every British high street.

But whenever I look up—that is once I stop running for the traffic lights and am forced to pause—I realise with a sudden jolt that I am somewhere else. Somewhere unique and decidedly Mediterranean. Not that I could tell from the weather. When the sun comes out there is no doubt about it: John says that in the UK we get winter days even in the summer, but in Barcelona we get summer days even in the winter. But, true to form, the sun disappeared once the pressure was off and it takes the odd near-collision with a palm tree to remind myself where I am.

The palm trees give me another jolt every time I see them. The current weather makes this place seem like an odd, twisted version of home—it’s as if I’m walking through a dream.

In an attempt to get to grips with reality—and to realise why I’m hard at work learning Spanish even though I’m speaking English all day at school—I’m going to spend the next week exploring Barcelona. I’m going to walk down the length of Las Ramblas, criss-cross the Barri Gòtic, revisit Park Güell and take a tour around Montjuïc.

Today I started with the university but it was closed and the area was oddly impersonal and devoid of students. I was reminded of melancholic weekends at Oxford. It’s been a while since I’ve contrasted weekends and work days and found the former boring. Maybe it’s time to start writing another novel.

Or to resume blogging.

Tasca i Vin

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

It’s all over, but during the past two weeks we’ve barely had time to eat. So on this last day I went back to our old haunt: Tasca i Vins near the school where you can get a 3-course lunch with water, wine and bread for € 7.60.

My course mates weren’t there, but that didn’t matter. It’s common to lunch on your own on weekdays in Barca and I had my trusty dictionary in my pocket.

For starters I decided on something light. baby courgettes stuffed with Bacalhau perhaps?
Stuffed courgettes with Bacalhau

If these were ‘baby’ cougettes, I don’t know what they consider the adult version to be. Full-grown marrows perhaps. They arrived in a pool of guey white sauce, crusted with cheese.

Now you have to eat up, or the kitchen staff will be offended!

To follow, I had decided on something richer, namely Ossobuco—marrow bone and all.

This had to be followed by a postre, the lightest of which were pears in red wine. Seeing that I’d already had a quarter litre of red table wine with my lunch, I decided on an icecream which was swimming in a puddle of whisky 😉

I hope I can meet some of my friends there next week in a final attempt to re-live past times, but a lot of them have already left. Suddenly I find myself alone in Barcelona, at the start of a new career (or not, as it may be).

It is daunting and my ties to London remain strong. I must find a way to go back.

Indefinite Leave

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

They taught us a heap of Spanish vocabulary yesterday night. The class was adequately titled ‘Survival Spanish’.

The daily rhythm is different here. Night is the same as morning, mid-day lasts until four and ‘tarde’ encompasses both the afternoon and most of the evening. I don’t think there is any time left for sleep in this schedule:

Mañana: 24h-12h,
Mediodía: 12h-16h,
Tarde: 16h-20/21h,
Noche: 20/21h-24h.

There are 14 of us on the course—including a painter, a Mexican-Californian who speaks fluent university-level German and a Kenyan who works as an IT instructor in Oxford and knows several famous Reggae musicians. A good half of them left before the optional evening class because they already speak enough Spanish.

Me llamo Denni. Soy de Londres. Vivo en Barcelona.”

Adrian hesitated when it was his turn. “Soy de Oxford. Vivo en…

En Barcelona ,” our instructor said firmly. “You have lived in Oxford, but where are you now? You are in Barcelona. So? ”

Vivo en… Barcelona.

Some of my course mates already have flats lined up Some are wondering what to do next summer: hit the local beach or take the ferry to Ibiza? It’s becoming apparent–very quickly–that my stay in Barcelona may be indefinite.

Monday, January 10th, 2011


I’ve left tourist-fantasy land behind and moved into the residential areas. Eight floors up to be precise, and it wasn’t until I got all the way to the top (with my backpack, my daypack and my books) that I found out that the lift works after all as my host pushed open the doors. You don’t slide them, and they are sticky.

“It’s 35 minutes to walk to the school,” my host said. No worries, I thought, I walk fast.

I had to walk faster, arriving out of breath and a little puffy-faced on this incongruously warm January morning. At least I made it to the class on time,otherwise I might get a reputation. I passed a stationer’s on the way and bought a notebook the title page of which just jumped out at me:

‘You’ve got to fight
for your right
to paaarty!’

It brings back memories of my student days, but the pairing with my red and black Totally Wicked pen with the smoking devil face might just give the wrong impression.

Anyway, the honeymoon will soon be over. On Wednesday (the day after tomorrow) I will be standing in front of a class to teach. College will be from 10:00-18:00 with 3-odd hours of lesson planning and journal writing on top of that.

I only hope that my new friends won’t knacker me out over the weekend!

Barcelona: First Impressions

Sunday, January 9th, 2011

I didn’t want to go. I had to drag myself away from London kicking and screaming, quite literally. But fuck me if Barcelona doesn’t just quietly take over your heart.

It does so quite without pretence. Yesterday we met in a park for a picnic. Parrots flew overhead (yeah, I know they are a pest here). And Gaudí is all over this town.

From the top of a hill we could see all the way across to the Balearics. It’s sunny in January. People sit outdoors and have wine with their lunch.

Barcelona View

But that would not have been enough.

FC Barcelona is fan-owned and the players display UNICEF logos on their kit. The club doesn’t get paid for it, it donates. And it is sticking it to its richest rivals.

The place is crawling with tourists, but the locals don’t mind. The Catalan language and sense of identity are strong here, yet Barcelona is international. Closer to Europe than to Spain, closer to the Continent than to London it has the heart of a world city.