Academia Nut

Dissertation is go. It’s taken long enough, let me tell you, but I finally have myself a clear subject, an innovative approach and, best of all, a reason for being in only the greatest music group Durham can provide: the university’s own Northern Lights. Because there’s no harm in getting all the bias out of the way before I get stuck into writing this 12,000 word monster. 

We’re already two weeks into my final year in Durham and I couldn’t be happier to be back. It’s a new, exciting year full of brand new faces and ways of looking at things, and for the first time in almost a decade I’m free body and soul from this debilitating search for Her. The shackles are off, the inspiration is flowing and the results are, correspondingly, something to smile about at last. The ticking-clock effect of this being my last year in the not-so-United Kingdom for the foreseeable future adds to the magic, I’ll give you that.

So it’s not all sunshine. Nobody likes reading blog posts that continue in that self-gratifying line forever, and don’t try to deny it. I’ve got the go-ahead from my former employer that I can return to work there next year, but I can’t help feeling I could do with something on paper, if just for peace of mind. The Englishman in me isn’t dead yet, clearly. 

And that’s no bad thing. My split personalities have bled through into each other over the last year, I’ve noticed, for the bettering of both sides. The feisty, sassy confidence of my Spanish alter ego keeps my reserved, reflective English psyche in check and vice versa. It’s highly entertaining to see one take the stage from time to time. Spanish BB kicked off when his speed of delivery and accent got knocked in a language class last week, and English BB spent the next hour trying to smooth things over. It’s not exactly schizophrenia – more like a natural precociousness on my part – but it’s a close one.

The DSU Café is pretty busy at this time of year. Then again, so is just about everybody in third year. But being busy is what makes me happy. I live and breathe it. The first week back was one of the lowest points of the year, if just because everybody seemed to have something to do except me. Then came the weekend, and overnight I went from facing the prospect of a year spent in the library to having a doubled timetable and a real excuse to sing again. To be happy, I need to be busy. Here’s to a busy year, and many more to come. BB x

Disconnect… While You Still Can

I’m going to tell you a story. A social networking story, to be precise. It’s not the most baffling or adventurous of tales. In fact, to most of us, it won’t be anything more than a detailed morning routine – but to a readership of the previous century, I wouldn’t be surprised to find it in the Sci-Fi/Horror section of the library, if not in the Tragedy aisle.

I woke up this morning and one of the first things I did was to reach for my iPad and check Facebook. A couple of likes and comments from friends and friends-of-friends. I had a look to see who these were, how they found the picture I’d posted. Ah, so you’re a mutual friend of X who I met on my travels. In ten seconds I won’t even remember your name.

I shift over to Instagram. I seem to have nabbed five more likes on one of my rarely-seen selfies last night, bringing the total up to forty. Twenty-seven of them are students I taught last year and one of them is that girl I thought was cute, though I never told her so. For some reason that counts for something.

My friends list seems to have gone down by one. Who could that be, I wonder? I hazard a guess that it’s that one girl in the choir I didn’t feature – or tag, by proxy – in my drawing because I didn’t speak to her all that often. My guess is right on the money. That’s reason enough to be unFriended – and a fair point. If I don’t know you so well, and therefore don’t really want to feature you in a drawing of all of the people who I consider my nearest and dearest, why are we friends on Facebook in the first place?

Even so, I confess to feeling both a little guilty, and a little galled.

I have breakfast, brush my teeth and go outside. It’s a gorgeous, sunny day and the cat is rolling around on the paving slabs. I love my cat, and it looks particularly ridiculous right now, its black coat covered in dust like fine spores. This would make for a great post, I think. I’ll go and get my iPad.

And then I stop. What the hell is wrong with me?

It’s this need to justify everything we do or see. This ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ mentality. Almost every one of us seems to be under its spell, and the younger you are, the stronger its pull. Life revolves around what was done and said over Facebook last night, instead of what took place in the real world. News has lost its value: maybe you heard about the anniversary of 9/11 on Twitter, or saw it on Buzzfeed, or it was in a post that an acquaintance shared at nine forty seven last night. You saw it, your scrolled past it, and somewhere you took it in, though you didn’t really register it. If it does come up in conversation, of course, you were in the know: ‘I saw it on my wall…’

We’re a sick nation. If you haven’t noticed yet, open your eyes. This isn’t humanity. This is a fourteen-year old psychosis permanently inflicted upon us through the glow of a small screen. It gnaws at our minds and roots itself in our routine. Most of the time you won’t even think about it. It’s just something you do, like the processed meat you eat and the coltan-charged phone you use, an essential part of your day that you don’t really need to think too much about. I challenge anybody to tell me in full what news they learned from their last browse of the social network.

I was lucky enough this year to be – however briefly – in the strange position of being pretty much as out of contact as it’s possible to be in twenty first century Europe. For some time I had a phone with no data in a house with no wireless in a village with no Internet café. Because of this, I took in the news like never before. And because of that, the Paris attacks shocked me to the core like nothing ever has. The night of the attack, I was watching a film on my own, none the wiser. A full twenty four hours later, after I’d traveled to a neighboring city to do a little sightseeing, I saw the whole thing on the morning news as I took a Cola Cao in the hostel bar. And it shocked me stiff. News had never been so alarming. It was the first I’d heard of it, and it hurt.

Not only that, but those internet-free months were probably the happiest of my year. When I finally worked out how to activate my data allowance (which, I suppose, I had squandered thus far), the remaining months rolled out in a sequence of worrying over eking out my one gigabyte of data expenditure to last the month. Another routine, another shackle, another link in the chain. The network has us by the balls.

I’m worried for my generation. We are, perhaps, the last to have grown up in the pre-Facebook world, though it was already starting to bleed through into our childhood as we hit our mid teens. Maybe wording this all in a blog post defeats the point, or maybe it doesn’t. Perhaps you have to fight fire with fire. A hundred years ago you’d have had to write a tale like this by hand and post it all over town, on real walls – and would anybody have paid it any more attention then, I wonder? Or is it, in the end, only in human nature to scroll?

I’m breaking free whilst I still have the power to do so. In this hyper-connected world, it can seem not only difficult but extremely inconvenient to cut yourself off from the world by switching off your network stations. But when you think about it, is it? Do you need to know what those eight hundred-odd friends of yours are doing every day? Is that normal? Those few who you do consider your friends, if they are worthy of the title, would surely find you by other means if they needed you and begrudge you little for the effort. That’s what real friendship is – or rather, what it should be.

It’s already been proposed that addiction to social media is having long-term effects on the mental stability of the next generation, as well as the present. We can’t know for sure, but I don’t want to wait to find out. I miss the freedom of the old world, when Google was in its infancy and the idea of a ‘social network’ was still a twinkle in the eye of the Internet.

Take a look at the twelve-year old girl posting duckface/sparrowface/(insert generic bird name here)face selfies on Instagram and tell me that’s normal. Really, tell it to my face. And it’ll have to be to my face, of course. Because as of tonight, I’m making a break for it. If that’s the lesson this grand artwork has taught me over the two and a half years I’ve been working on it, it was well worth both the time and the effort.

I’m getting out whilst I still can. Will you? BB x

Justifying Idleness

I’m back!

I’ve been much too busy to write of late

Since getting back from Morocco I’ve been working almost flat-out on the two-year mega-drawing. Now measuring an unhealthy six metres by 60cm, it’s now so big I can’t even roll it all out in my old room without a metre or so reaching out into the hallway. When it’s finished, I’ve estimated the total length at somewhere between eight and nine metres… and that’s provided I don’t meet any more people between now and then! At any rate, any chance of it ever being decorative wall art is now long gone. Unless, of course, somebody can point me towards an affordable house with walls over eight metres in length.
Don’t all jump up at once.

As such, I’ve been low on tales to tell. Not that I haven’t had my hands full, but the last week has been a little thin on adventures. And rightly so, perhaps, after almost an entire year of nonstop hijinks from Jordan to Gibraltar. But my family have decided that, after six years’ absence, we could do with a holiday together, so here I am, back at the grind once again in a rather lovely apartment in Dioni, a countryside setup not too far from the coast in eastern Attica, Greece. 

Slovenia looks rather lovely

I don’t tend to go in for conventional holidays, but since it’s been six years and more since our last family holiday, and given that my small family aren’t all the rough-it backpacker type, I feel like I can’t really complain about a week of lazy pool-lounging and crystal water snorkeling. It’s a good life, but it makes for extremely insufferable reading, because in truth, nobody likes reading about how much fun someone else is having, not really. So I’ll be applying just as much of the honesty brush as I always do.
The first few days reminded me why it is that we haven’t had a family holiday in six years; that is, arguments, arguments, arguments. Just navigating our way to our apartment – a challenge in itself, familiar to anyone who’s ever gone off-road in Greece – has a two in three chance of turning into a simmering verbal firefight. All sorted by the time we get to a coffee shop, as family disputes usually are, but it puts a damper on the day.

Unlike the rest of my family, I can’t even fully appreciate coffee shops as I’m neither a fan of coffee nor of tea, and since fizzy drinks never do me much good, I’m rather stuck for options. The waitress was cute, though. I just wish I spoke a word of Greek. Watching my entire family resort apologetically to English after an entire year juggling four languages is more than just frustrating. It’s soul-destroying.

I have this curious habit of retracing my steps. Something brought me back to Santillana del Mar three times, and the same something sent me back to Olvera in search of my former classmates from my childhood. This, too, is walking in the footsteps of my childhood, for it was Nea Makri, not Spain, that was my first trip abroad, some twelve years ago (discounting Calais). Greece has changed a fair amount since then. Back in 2004 it was all shiny and new and brushed up for the Olympics. Between them and now more than half of the cafes, restaurants and shops I remember visiting have shut down. The little kiosk selling banana-shaped ice creams in Nea Makri is miraculously still in operation, as is the stationary shop across the road manned by the ginger-haired Greek lady and her haunting-eyes daughter, but these are islands: the effects crisis are obvious. If going to some parts of Spain is like stepping back in time ten years, Greece feels all of twenty.

The family have gone for another coffee shop jaunt. I passed it over in favour of a morning’s swimming and research (I have to justify all of this lounging about somehow). This evening we might go in search of sunset over the Temple of Poseidon, though with the Perseid meteor shower peaking tomorrow, I might try to convince my parents to postpon that little adventure until tomorrow. I think that would be rather unforgettable.

Until the next time, folks. BB x

The Happiness Machine

There’s a new kid on the block in my host family. My replacement, ready and waiting not twelve hours before I’m out of this joint. The expression ‘not even cold in the grave’ springs to mind… But he’s Spanish (an Andalusian, to be precise) and his name is José María and he’s more than happy to let me witter away in Spanish for my final hours in this country and therefore I couldn’t be happier.

My host family were quick to notice the change. Very quick. ‘Ése Ben que salió por la puerta esta mañana, ¿dónde esta?‘. He’s gone. The quiet, hesitant, reluctant Englishman who used to come home at irregular hours of the afternoon, sit in what he thought to be companionable silence and then retreat to his room is now mouthing off like a human Gatling gun, in Arabic as well as Spanish. He’s gone, and in his place is this loud, jokey and irrepressibly good-humored Spaniard. Talk about schizophrenia. I have a very bad case of Jekyll and Hyde when it comes to my two linguistic personalities. Never mind getting that dual nationality, I’m still struggling with dual identity.

The host family were quite taken aback. I don’t think they were expecting such a drastic change in personality. The father even went so far as to show me the difference between the two Bens by means of a few crude imitations. Was I really that quiet? Did I really sit at the table with my hands by my side and say as little as possible? No me lo creo ni yo. After just an hour or two speaking Spanish to this Andalusian my whole personality has changed just like that.

I’d quite forgotten just how good it felt, just to be speaking that language again. Why? What’s the reason? How can a language make me so happy? Is there a linguistic reason? Is that why Spaniards are such jolly people, by and large? Or maybe has it got something to do with the drastic increase in body language, which makes me feel like a teacher again? Or is it because it’s the language of my grandfather, speaking through me? I’d like to think that. But in truth I can’t explain it. It’s just magic. My perpetual happiness machine. In goes Spanish, out comes happiness. It’s as simple as that. I just needed reminding.

And a good thing, too. This time tomorrow I’ll be back in Guirilandia and probably pulling into the drive round about now. No more Arabic study. No more al-Kitaab. Just one whole year with the Happiness Machine. I cannot wait.

The host father came in to bid us goodnight. I apologized for not being this way over the last two months. I’m grinning like a gargoyle and laughing and switching freely between Spanish and Arabic and it’s all because I had an hour ‘in the machine’, so to speak. It’s such an amazing feeling. It’s like the whole world is bright and sunny and full of colour. I need to be living in a country where they speak this godly language. I need to be living in Spain.

In perfect honesty, this is not at all how I expected to be ending my time in Morocco. I was expecting one last chastisement over something trivial, or a panicked search for something lost, a friendlier-than-usual dinner, or something along those lines. Instead I ended it in Spanish mode. Curious, perhaps, but it bodes very well for the future, and it’s reminded me – yet again – what I need to do to be happy in this life.

I just need to talk. Y ya que sabemos cómo se utiliza esa máquina de felicidad, no hay ninguna duda sobre mis planes para el futuro. España, vengo por ti. BB x

Lee, Martha and Aidan

Every once in a while one of those days comes around when everything that could possibly go wrong goes wrong. Yesterday was one of those days. It’s tempting fate to tell everybody you meet that it’s okay, you can stay out late tonight, because thank God it’s not tomorrow you have those extra three hours in the afternoon… and Fate is a devious little minx.

I think I got back from Martil at around two forty-five on Monday morning. It must have been close to that, as I recall the clock on my bedside table read three o’clock when I was setting the alarm for seven. I’d spent every last dirham of my small change – even those super-helpful half-dirhams – in a taxi spree over the weekend, so four hours’ sleep or none at all, I was simply going to have to walk this morning. The result was that I almost missed breakfast, zombied my way to school and pretty much sat through the morning class just blinking to stay awake. To make matters worse, I started ghosting during our preliminary discussion, cursing in my head every time my teacher came to the end of an explanation, questioned it (limaadha?), answered it, and went on to add yet another point (wa aidun). It can’t have been any longer a discussion than usual, but it seemed to drag on for hours.

Twelve o’clock was never more welcome than when it came, but five minutes before the hour one of my teachers popped his head round the door and informed me that my afternoon class – you guessed it – had been moved to Monday instead.

I didn’t have my Moriscos book. I didn’t have the necessary reading done. I didn’t have any coins for a taxi. I hadn’t had nearly enough sleep for a six-hour day. And now I didn’t even have enough time for lunch in between.

Kat came to my rescue and threw a few dirhams at me for the ride home. I made a beeline for the taxi ranks, rode home in the usual cramped conditions and collapsed straight into bed when I got back.

One hour later I was up again and motoring through the Spanish text in the Moriscos book on the Hornacheros, since I simply did not have the energy, even after an extra hour in bed, to power through twelve pages of Arabic. I barely had half an hour for that, as the host family (thankfully) insisted I have a quick lunch, which they’d sped up on my behalf.

And you know what? The punchline is as predictable and as priceless as the set-up: it turns out my teacher had got a little confused and my class need not have been moved at all, as it was meant for Tuesday anyway.

He was very apologetic on the whole swallowing-up-my-entire-afternoon front, but I didn’t really mind by that point. I think I’d simply given up caring. A Texan friend of mine once told me ‘you can sleep when you’re dead’ when I was in a similar frame of mind (refresh your memory here), and this time I bought it. Besides, it was a very enjoyable topic of discussion. At any rate, I didn’t exactly have long to dwell on it: Alex shifted his departure some seven hours earlier, and so I did the unthinkable and asked to leave class early, because come Hell, high water and all the paradoxes of Jahanna I was not going to let my dear friend leave without me.

I confess that I didn’t expect to spend my last hour with Alex helping him to dry-clean his clothes with a hairdryer. If the hotel staff had actually hung them out to dry like he’d asked instead of putting them through a second wash, I’m not sure what we would have done. But that made things a little easier, I guess. We walked down the alley from Reducto and every other Tetouani going about his business gave him something akin to a farewell salute, entreating him to return one day. It was quite something to see.

Five minutes later we’d exchanged farewells, shaken hands and gone our separate ways. It was both the easiest and the hardest goodbye I’ve ever had to make. Goodbyes are like little heartbreaks, I suppose; the more you go through, the easier they get. All the same, it wasn’t easy seeing that little yellow taxi turn out of Plaza Primo. I’ve been lucky enough over the last six weeks to have such a good friend so close at hand, especially after all of nine months in Spain on my own. I was looking for a good friend. I found one.


This post is dedicated to you, bud. To a top hiking buddy, to shouldering all of those god-awful Clarkson impressions, to keeping me afloat with my Arabic, to stopping me from unleashing my personality test on everybody I met, to hearing me out when I had only war to predict and to being an all-round friend. It may be some time before our paths cross again, but they will. I promise. Until the next time, bud. BB x

Road Rage

When it comes to learning to drive, I’ve always thought that some countries simply have it easier. The Netherlands, for example: all those long, flat roads with nobody else about. There are parts of Spain like that. They speak Spanish there, too. It’s largely for that reason that I’ve delayed learning to drive until I’m back out there next summer. That and a sheer apathy for cars.

But if you’re stuck for choice, never, ever learn to drive in Morocco. Ever.

In twenty four hours I’ve seen probably the worst driving in my life. On our way to the beach after school on Friday afternoon we almost collided head-on with a wayward van which came careering off the road out of nowhere and straight into the trees on the other side. Two seconds later and we’d have got right into it. Thank all the powers that be that our taxi driver was alert, enough at least to stamp hard in the brakes and save us from… well, a disappointing beach trip.

The driver, you may be happy to hear, was unharmed. Dazed, confused but apparently unharmed. She just tottered out of the crumpled van and went on her way.

What shocked me most, as before, was that I wasn’t really shocked at all. Scary car accident, white van speeding towards us with screeching tyres and bits of metal flying everywhere, the sweet stench of exhaust… Nothing doing. I think that’s our curse, as children of the twenty-first century (though technically speaking I’m amongst the last of the twentieth). I remember feeling similarly ruffled at being so decidedly unruffled when I saw a girl walking home from school go right over the bonnet of a car. Shocked at the lack of shock. I blame television, specifically programmes that really pushed the boat out: Casualty, Waking the Dead, Casino Royale etc. I hope my children have a better idea of what is and isn’t shocking in the future.

The return journey was easier, all things considered. But our driver was hopping mad. We had the stereo on full blast (with that vvvvvv bass quality you might expect from a taxi) and had what must have been a drag race with a fellow taxi driver all the way back to Tetouan. Entertaining, yes, but how many counts would he go down for in an English court? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

The taxi ride to Akchour the following day wasn’t much better. We were stuck behind a lorry for some distance and there was a good deal of illegal overtaking, until the tail up simply got too much to control and some James Bond wannabe tried to schuss through the gap between two trucks. By some divine prank he made it, but the result was that all traffic ground to a halt and the drivers all got out of their respective vehicles to yell at each other for a full five minutes. Not that we were in a hurry, or anything. Morocco is still very much a country that operates on an argue-first-ask-questions-later kind of system. Maybe that’s one more thing that bled through into the Spanish culture over the years. In part, anyway. BB x

Go with Peace

Jimminy. One more week and it’s all over. This year abroad, at times both the fastest and slowest year of my life, is drawing to a close. The old tablecloth analogy is back in force: somebody gave the table a tilt back in April (or was it September?) and now everything’s sliding towards the edge at an increasing rate (which is a real shame, because Tetouan was beginning to feel like home). As has been the case throughout the rest of the year, I’ve a fair few goodbyes to make, though as any frequent traveler will know, these get easier every time. So I’ve one last farewell to make before the end.

Or not. Because it’s not just goodbye to the team at Dar Loughat. It’s a bigger step by far.

It’s goodbye to Arabic studies.

Hey, now, don’t give me that look. If you’ve been reading carefully throughout the year, you’ll have seen this coming a long way off. You might even have cottoned on sooner, since I didn’t really make up my mind until the last days of June.

The blog, however, speaks for itself. It tells a tale of depression and despair in Amman and the golden friends I found there; and perhaps, the beginning of the end. It tells the story of how I fell in love with my grandfather’s country all over again; how Spanish became more than just a language, but the key to happiness itself; how I found in Extremadura the paradise I’ve been searching for for so long. Of the One-that-could-have-been and the opening of my eyes to the rest of Iberia. And in amongst all the musing posts in between, it reveals a slow but steady swing towards the heart of the matter, a realignment with the most important thing of all: finding where I belong. In retrospect, it’s obvious. It was always going to happen. It was simply a question of when. And in one of life’s great paradoxes, that realization came when I was more confident with my Arabic than I’ve ever been in my life.

Happiness was the key. I had to be truly happy to see the truth.

I reckon I still have a fair amount of explaining to do. I built up a bit of a reputation for myself in first and second year as the keenest Arabic nut alive (though I outright refuse the term BNOC). Granted, all of that time spent juggling societies, subjects and a social life in second year wore me down a bit, but at heart I was still a bloody keen bean. Always on time, always ahead of the game… Almost always optimistic. (Seriously, I was insufferable in first year, just ask any of my classmates). As a result, this is probably still a shock move for those of you who know me. Well, I’ll do my best to explain my decision.

  1. Spain happened. Specifically, the British Council assistant placement. We were warned; I didn’t listen; I fell in love. Because if you seriously want to push ahead with two languages, it’s absolutely essential to balance them, especially when it comes to…
  2. …the Year Abroad. Ya3ni, at least half of the class will have spent a minimum of six months in an Arabic-speaking country by October. That’s two more than me, and considering the speed at which I advanced in Tetouan, I’d be tempted even to discount any and all ‘progress’ I might have made in…
  3. …Amman. And in all honesty, I don’t really want to use Amman as an excuse, but it is. My time in Jordan was certainly eye-opening, full of highs, lows and plenty of laughs, but I don’t think I’ve ever been more drained in my life. This is honestly the least of reasons, but because of the effect it had on my attitude towards Arabic, it’s a reason nonetheless.
  4. Career paths. My companions have such noble ambitions with Arabic. Not me. I’ve mapped out the next five or six years of my life and they don’t stray very far from a homely little village somewhere in Spain. In light of this, improving my Arabic further seemed a little pointless.
  5. Priorities. A lot of people learn languages to travel, to communicate, for work, for business etc. the list goes on. But I don’t want to learn Spanish. I want to master it. As in, not just to speak it like a native, but to be able to write it as though it were my mother tongue. That’s going to take commitment, drive and serious levels of focus, the kind you can’t share with an Arabic degree.
  6. Simple credit-crunching. With 80 credits from Arabic last year, the language is already going on my degree title, so I’d be gaining nothing by moving on. If anything, I’d be risking…
  7. …a shot at a potential First. Arabic 2B, brilliant though it was, cost me dear last year and brought me crashing down to an overall 67. A First-class degree at Durham is something even my own mother never managed, so to achieve that… It’d be nothing short of legendary.
  8. The book. I started learning Arabic, amongst other reasons, because I needed it for my book. How could I ever hope to write convincingly about the Arabs if I couldn’t understand their language? Well, I’ve got to the stage where I can speak, read and write Arabic with respectable fluency. I’ve even learned calligraphy along the way. My work here is done. Which reminds me…
  9. …I never actually intended to take Arabic beyond the first year of university. Looking at my plans from school and the gap year that followed, I apparently meant to go on with French. It looks like Arabic simply took French’s place in my heart. And that’s completely, wholly and unashamedly down to…
  10. …the group vibe. Durham’s Arabic class of ’17 is no more and no less than the most wonderful, capable and hilarious bunch of people I’ve ever known, and they have been the lifeblood of my degree thus far. But in perfect, mercenary honesty, that’s not the best reason to jeopardize a First. I applied to Durham partly because of the fantastic college system, but to be honest, I never really fitted in at Aidan’s. I made a few unforgettable friends there, but it was in my degree that I met the people most important to me. And isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?

It wasn’t an easy decision to make. In fact, it took all of three weeks to fully sort out, in the end. But I worked my way this far and I succeeded. I can speak Arabic with almost the same confidence as Spanish, even though my vocabulary is only half the size. I can discuss Barbary corsairs, Tuareg mythology and Andalusian heritage with my teachers at speed. Gone are the days of Assad drinks milk, fathers that work in the United Nations and being fa3lan wahiid all the time. I’m walking out with my head held high.

I’m really going to miss sharing class with these wonderful folks!

Next year isn’t going to be drastically easier. Far from it. What with a short-fat module, the dissertation and the inevitable music commitments, the first term alone is going to be a serious uphill climb. But Spanish is my weapon, my Tizona, and I am determined to make this work. I know, at last, where I belong. BB x