Tuesday, 27 September 2011


"Laugh, and the world laughs with you", we are told.
Laughter is indeed a social mechanism, and usually it results from and sometimes results in those emotional bonds 'twixt people. So, good for the soul and good for the health. It beefs up the heart, fights off stress, attracts people to us like a fisherman attracts birds (of an ornithological nature), and generally lightens the mood. Laughter, then, is the Superhero of the world. Batman, you're fired. We shall fight crime using nothing but comedians and tickling.

So when the opportunity arose to test out some laughter therapy and help a friend at the same time, how could I resist? We were promised silly games and finding the inner child within. The workshop was held in some area of Barcelona (can't quite remember where), missing the beginning of the session and having to ring the doorbell at least a dozen times, I'm sure, before being granted entrance to the party atmosphere inside. Everybody else was in a huge circle dancing rather bizarrely to Shakira, or rather they were dancing in a way I do but only ever let my closest friends see. They were doing it publicly! The prancing continued with hands in the air with everone else thoroughly enjoying themselves, whooping in delight, evidently finding the child within rather close to the surface. Mine was obviously that one child at the party who cries and refuses to let go of its parent's hand until the ice-cream is produced: it was in there, it just needed the ice-cream.

The teacher then asked us all to brush off the icky problems gnawing away at our soul, as if they were physical manifestations clamped onto our backs or in our hair like dandruff, so that for the next part of the session all problems were heaped in a corner of the room and we could walk around very slowly and really get in touch with our bodies. I didn't mind this bit; meditation, pondering, walking, chilled out music...piece of cake. We got to know new people via blindfolds and trusting them to lead us with their voices. I still hadn't laughed much by this point but I at least enjoyed meeting my partner, Pepi, who almost banged into the stereo. That would have put paid to the rest of the workshop. After that, we were put in lines and made to mimic crazy movements and dance routines. Now, I don't dance. I stand by the bar with a beer and look cool for a bit until I get drunk. Then I make some sort of movements that from the right angle could pass for dance moves. I laughed here only to keep from weeping.

Then the mats came out. Mats that were put on the floor in a witchcraft pentagonal sort of way (except they were arranged in fours so the shape wasn't so much a pentagon as a criss-cross line) so that we could lie on them and have another person's head resting on our bellies. And we were told to laugh.

Laughing is a spontaneous action, something one can't help doing. What it isn't is the 'ho-ho-ho' / 'hee-hee-hum' sort of thing. It appears, however, that some people can laugh on demand. Or they'd found something to laugh at, something I'd missed. Perhaps the guys from Jackass had walked in and thrown a trout in someone's face. All I know is that I was lying, looking up at the white ceiling (there were a few cracks; I counted) and not laughing. The male teacher loomed over me in his tie-dye floaty shirt; he was probably wondering why I wasn't laughing, wondering if I had no soul, no inner child...he inquired whether perhaps I'd be more comfortable sat at the side of the class. It was at this point I had to suppress the urge to jolt upright and flee the classroom - I mean, running from laughter! Do I have no soul? Am I in fact on the A1 to Mirthless-grumpy-git-ville? I think not. The reason I wasn't shrieking with laughter, as a woman next to me was, was because I didn't find it amusing. There had been nothing to laugh at: no Dara O'Briain wit; no Charlie Chaplin slapstick; certainly no Monty Python. I actually found this part quite disturbing and creepy. The 'unnatural' laughter sounded to me like those cackling evil clowns that always appear in nightmares, coming after you with a chainsaw whilst all you can do is sit tied to a chair. I call it 'unnatural' because it wasn't spontaneous. To me it was forced. And talk about basic reverse psychology; if you want a person to stick their hand in a termite nest, tell them not to and chances are highly likely that they will. I was told to laugh so I didn't. I have that attitude of 'Nobody tells me what to do.' Unless they're my parents, my boss, or generally have more authority than me.

It isn't often I'm in a room and think that I'm the sanest one there. Then that presented a terrifying thought: was I sane? Everyone else was laughing. Why couldn't I? Where was this bond that makes us so human? If laughter isn't the Superhero I thought it was, I say bring back Batman. I've nothing to worry about though because shortly after leaving the workshop my friend and I were cackling over Rowan Atkinson's Hell sketch. I do have a soul.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Back to School

Going back to the daily grind is always a bit demoralising after days of golden buttery sunshine, filling Time with pleasant things as one fills layers of spongecake - with jam and cream and origami butterflies. Suddenly, one has no more Time to go out cycling every day or make lovely little presents for friends. Time has been consumed by little monsters and planning lessons.

I don't actually work at a school; I'm not sure how sane I would stay after being put in charge of thirty mental eight-year-olds. No, I work in a language academy and I'm grand with just a handful of mental eight-year-olds. Teaching here means working evenings, which was quite a topsy-turvy change at first, but now I realise it's brilliant because it leaves the mornings free to do all the stuff everyone else does after they've been released from the bonds of slavery.

The first lessons are usually the Q & A sessions of predictable getting-to-know-you questions. Did I say predictable? Here, it truly is more like the Spanish Inquisition - this year I have been more prepared for the onslaught. Last year, the force with which I was asked about my marital status, my address, and what my favourite food is took me by surprise. Only Catholics interrogating poor people suspected of witchcraft are that determined to discover every possible detail about you. Now I am infinitely wiser: my English sensibilities have been hardened, and I have even navigated some of the pedagogical weeds below the seemingly calm surface of academia. These weeds are the classroom menaces, those who would disturb the academic surroundings and shatter the morale of the wretched teacher. They shall be castigated at the first out-of-line saliva-encrusted pencil... Fortunately for me, most of the little horrors I had have been palmed off onto the new American teacher.

One of my duties is to go to one of the schools to pick up some of the children in order to relieve the parents. This normally isn't a chore, or perhaps I've just got used to it now. At the beginning, when I was first told this would be part of my job, I went into headless chicken mode - be responsible for seven or so kids crossing car-riddled roads? I hadn't bargained on that. I was apt to wander onto the road in a socially imperilling state of whimsy myself; how could I possibly look after children who were either going to dart off like miniature human whippets or stop in the middle of the zebra crossing to intently examine their sandwich box, philisophically contemplating whether their Nutella sandwich would be infinitely more enjoyable if they unwrapped it fully or kept the foil on? Would the irritating stickiness of gooey chocolate on the hands outweigh the glorious practicalities of clean fingers? If only Socrates had left us the answer to this bewildering conundrum.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

La Diada

"For national and social rights. Independence, Catalan countries."

Most people will remember September 11th as the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, especially this year, considering that it was a decade ago. For the people of Catalunya, however, it was a day to remember well before these terrible events. For the Catalans, September 11th was the day that Barcelona fell to the Spaniards in the 1714 War of Succession.

I'm not going to talk about the history of another country about which I don't know very well, but one of the recent traditions is to hold protests in the Pla├ža de Catalunya in Girona. Recently, Catalunya has been under attack from a wave of controversy concerning the language and whether classes in schools and universities should be taught in Castillian Spanish so that students from all over Spain can enjoy the right to go to whichever institution they please and understand the language. I wonder what the central government would say if a few thousand Catalans demanded the same thing of Madrid....

The Catalan language is a symbol of extreme national importance - in fact, Artur Mas (President of Catalunya) has described it as the 'DNA' of Catalan identity. It's in the blood of these people; it would not surprise me in the least to discover that some of these people actually bleed red and yellow stripes: so is it that unusual to want to defend the right to maintain it as the national language? Singing the stirring national anthem, Els segadors, reminds the people to continue the fight to keep their identity. At midday today the choir to which I belong sang our repertoire of songs that includes the national anthem. I'm sure it went marvellously. I wasn't there because unfortunately, I awoke this morning only to look in the mirror and find Quasimodo looking back at me, complete with a swollen right eye barely capable of opening. I thought it best not to try to represent Catalunya looking like this. I suppose I could have climbed up the bell tower to watch though.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

How did I get here?

Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop - Lewis Carroll

Beginning at the beginning is all very well, but where, or more accurately when, is the beginning? It would be tedious to start at birth, and worse to start at conception. So the beginning for me is almost a year ago, when completing five years of university catapulted me into the pedagogic world in Catalunya. I might add with some confidence that I certainly arrived in style...of a shambolic nature.

I blame Liverpool John Lennon Airport and coffee. If it hadn't been for the belated caffeine stop and hour-long queue, I wouldn't have had to dash through the airport with only one boot on and holding my belt in the same hand as my boarding-pass. It wasn't exactly how I planned on boarding the plane. At least the flight itself was relatively peaceful, sans young lungs being tested at high altitudes; the dull murmur was punctuated only by the bored tones of the pilot offering us the vital information of the air temperature outside the aircraft, and the cabin crew attempting to sell overpriced tobacco. Thinking about it, perhaps this was why the pilot felt it necessary to inform us of the air temperature at 30 000 ft; perhaps he was hinting for the smokers to wrap up warm before going outside.

Once back on terra firma, I was thwarted again, this time by technology. My decrepit Spanish phone, bought years ago in Madrid, insisted that the number didn't exist. This was slightly concerning, for I hadn't even an address of the language academy in Cassa de la Selva or for my flat, which, in hindsight, was a bit of a rookie error. However, not to be discouraged (for this is a useless sort of feeling), I snaked the winding roads to Cassa via bus, weary but with the singular task of hunting down anywhere that looked vaguely like a language school. Or a bed.

The gods must have been feeling rather generous that night, for who should drive past but my landlady's mother. Usually, when a huge black car brakes sharply and a shadowy figure jumps out at you, instinct screams at you to run. Unfortunately for me, I was laden with a bulky backpack and so couldn't even contemplate running away a la Monty Python; any effort would have left me stranded belly up like a tortoise flipped cruelly on its shell. When my name was called, however, all fear and alarm melted away like chocolate on a window-sill on a hot summer's day, and I was bundled into the car and dumped like a little waif on the doorstep of the academy. Imagine my employers' relief to discover I wasn't actually dead, or worse, a figment of their combined imaginations.

A year on, I can see how I got here: with a great deal of luck.