The Cycle Repeats

Almost two years to the day, the British Council have given me the go-ahead for the second round of applications once again. I’ve more or less had it sorted up there in my head, but it’s refreshing to see some hard evidence at last. Everybody else has been scurrying about fishing up internships in London, grad schemes in Leeds and MA courses in Edinburgh whilst I’ve been kicking back in the knowledge that I’m returning to a job I know and love, even if it isn’t anywhere near as well-paid as those London-based affairs. Besides a niggling long-term concern for my pension plan (and I’m not entirely sure why I bother, with things as they are), that doesn’t really concern me – if I get to spend another year in Extremadura, I’ll be in seventh heaven.

DSC_0546

La Vera – what Paradise looks like

I’m really looking forward to next year for several reasons, and one of them is my return to regular blogging. I’ve not been out of things to report this year – quite the opposite, in fact – but for some reason I’ve been awful at recording it. I’ve had something on in one way, shape or form every single day, from rehearsals to meetings to deadlines. I’ve never known a year like it, and it’s been a welcome relief after last year’s relative quiet. I may not be working 8am-8pm shifts like I used to, but the few hours I have a day are always demanding and highly rewarding.

Or at least, they were until this term. I have two contact hours this week, as well as a mock Spanish oral on Thursday. Talk about open plan.

What that does mean is that I’ve finally had the time to do a little work on the Mega-Drawing, and consequently it’s very near to completion. That’s something to look forward to.

I mustn’t fall into the trap of making my last few months in Durham a series of looking forward to moments. Time is running out as it is; in less than two months I’ll be out of here, and that saddens me a lot. I’m losing the treasure trove that is the library, the stellar music scene at Durham and, of course, the host of wonderful friends I’ve made here. If I spend too much time looking forward, I’ll end up looking back for most of next year, and that’s no good thing. Better to live in the moment.

DSC_0586

Monasterio de Yuste

I’m making no promises, but now that my British Council go-ahead is in, I’ll try to keep you posted on some of the events coming my way. Coming up:

  • Recording a new single with the Northern Lights
  • A trip to the Farne Islands (finally)
  • A weekend in Dunkeld, Scotland
  • June Ball
  • Graduation
  • The 70th Edinburgh Fringe

If that’s not blog material, I’ll eat my hat. At least, I would, if I hadn’t left it on the ALSA bus to Seville last month. Goodbye, boina. We’ve had some wonderful memories. I can only hope your next owner finds as much joy in you as I did. Like me, it came all the way from County Durham to you, O Sevillano. Treasure it, please. 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

Change and Progress

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about growing up. A lot of people say that you do a heck of a lot of it when you’re made to stand on your own two feet for the first time. Gap years, years spent abroad, traveling solo… You develop fastest when left to your own devices, it seems. That makes sense. I remember walking out of Heathrow Airport one cold December morning to see my family again after nearly three months in Uganda, the longest I’d ever been away from home. One of the first things my mother told me was that I looked so much older. Well – what might a mother say? But it’s stuck with me.

I wonder how much I’ve changed over the course of this year alone. As years go, it’s been a colossal upheaval. When I set out, I was still reeling from a year of juggling too many things at once, not least of all my heart, and full of ideas of my own as to what the year was going to bring. I’m not sure how much I’ve changed since, but I know that I have. I find it hard to imagine exactly who I was back then, because something tells me that the Ben that left Durham last summer (with all sixty-three kilos of his possessions on his back) and the Ben returning there in September are two very different persons. These days I’m often the Ice Breaker, the one with all the games and ready to turn my hand to just about any conversation, and yet I don’t even blink at turning down invitations the way I used to. Where once I resorted to obscure ASMR and Guided Meditations of middling quality on YouTube, these days I read (reading has taken over my life somewhat). And politics – that ghastly, age old enemy of mine – no longer scares me off. Ben could always speak, but it looks like this year he learned to talk.

A useful development for a budding linguist, don’t you think?

But these little details don’t necessarily constitute growing up. Growing up, in the strictest sense, is moving out, getting a job, having a family of your own. At least, that’s how I’ve always seen it. A better definition, perhaps, would be the stage in your life when you start thinking seriously about the future. Not just next week, or next year, but five, ten, maybe twenty years down the line. When you’re a kid you don’t have to worry too much about that. As an adult, you’re on your own. Over the course of the year I’ve seen the fog of war blown away and the next ten years of my life made clear to me. Spain is where I want to be, Spanish is what I want to be speaking and teaching is what I want to do with my life. The revelation wasn’t shocking; it’s as though the plan was always there, just waiting for me to find it. So growing up is all about thinking ahead, right?

Not exactly. As far as I’m concerned, that definition is only a half-truth. I’ve always been a thinker. I read a fair few blogs on the subject before penning my thoughts on this one, and one writer opined that being grown-up meant leaving the constant search for excitement of adolescence behind and looking instead for long-term relationships. Flawed logic: in that sense, I’ve been an adult since I was five years old. Somewhere down the line my development went a little awry and I’ve never been able to consider a relationship as anything but a long-term thing. The whole ‘bit of fun’, ‘casual’, ‘fling’ thing… It’s never made any sense to me, as distant and intangible as quantum physics or the Zodiac Killer. Oh, I know we’re supposed to go through all that in our teenage years (the casual attitude, that is, not the quantum physics). It prepares us for later life. But I couldn’t then, and I can’t now. It just doesn’t make sense. How do you even begin to describe something you physically can’t get your head around, no matter how hard you try?

This year I’ve met a lot of people who’ve changed my perspective on the world in little ways. Andreas, the old soldier with the big heart; Tasha, the fun-loving Texan; Victoria, the brave young polyglot; Alex, the forward-thinker. The Andalusian with such an honest passion for India, the Israeli in Plasencia who spoke of his love for Coelho, the New Zealander in Rabat who traded for a living. All of them made me think in one way or another; none of them will be forgotten.

Travel broadens the mind, that much is true. I might even call it steroids for the soul. I wonder how each and every one of these individuals remember me, if they remember me at all?

Growing up is more than just a birthday. It’s a series of chance encounters. It’s a sequence of experiences, good and bad, that mould you into a brand new shape. There are plenty of books about it. The genre even has its own name: Bildungsroman. One of these days I’ll look back and be able to tell you which was the younger me and which the adult, but as for the exact point of divergence, I think that will always be a little foggy. That’s completely normal. Twenty-first century Europe doesn’t exactly present us with the life-changing, coming-of-age scenarios that stories and histories regale us with. Growing up is in the everyday, tedious as it seems. What you do with that everyday, however, is another matter.

Adulthood is out there somewhere and you find it without looking for it. It’s only when you look back that you realize, I guess. Certainly, the Ben that stepped off the plane at Heathrow four years ago was no adult, just a happy, healthy individual, fresh from the happiest time of his life. The same Ben that walked out of Gatwick’s South Terminal in June, safe in the knowledge that he’d found heart and home and purpose at last and would be going back soon. Maybe all this time he was only sleeping.

As for me, I’m still very much in the works. Michelangelo’s put down his chisel and gone home for the night. I’m working on my Arabic homework with The Avener’s Fade Out Lines playing. Maybe I’m grown up or maybe I’m still just a kid. The truth is I don’t really care either way. I still spend most of time thinking, but I’m not so caught up in worries and anxieties anymore. The road ahead is clear enough and I’m on my way. Maybe it’ll turn off in directions I’d never imagined, and maybe I’ll find Her along the way, and maybe – at the end of it all – I’ll know for sure what it means to be grown up. For now, I’ll stick to this Arabic homework.

The future is a wonderful place, full of uncertainty and bright ideas, but for living, there’s no place like the present. BB x

Polo’s Bastards

With my summer plans in a near-constant state of flux, I thought it about time to set a few things straight. This time last year I still wasn’t sure what I’d be doing for the summer of 2016. By all rights, I figured I was still lumped with another two months in Jordan. Since then, it’s bottled about through three weeks in South Africa, chilling out at Olvera’s August feria, hiking the Sultan’s trail from Bucharest to Istanbul, crossing the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, ten days in Romania, another ten in Egypt and, somewhere, completing my four month minimum in Tetouan, Morocco.

Understandably, my brain is a bit of a clusterfuck at the moment. It’s partly because of that that I accidentally booked a hotel for the wrong night in Chefchaouen and had to pay an obscene 95€ just to cancel, it being less than fifteen days until our visit now. (This is why I prefer to stay in cheap-o hostels, people…) And it’s unnecessary expenses like that that make me reconsider.

So this is me, reconsidering. Let this exploration of yours truly’s very own version of Polo’s Bastards stand testament to any further meanderings. The following ten countries, in ascending order, are the top ten on my hit-list. And they aren’t exactly the easiest. (Spain, for various reasons, is not included – call me easily pleased, but it’d invariably take the top spot).

Southern Morocco

10

Tafraoute, Morocco

This one’s on the list despite the fact that I’ve already been because I was only there for five days or so, and it’s worth an adventure in its own right. Morocco’s south is famous for the Sahara, for Erg Chebbi and the reasonably easily-accessible camel treks that set out into the dunes from Merzouga. Morocco is such a diverse country, and merits proper exploration of each of its three zones – the Rif, the High Atlas and the Anti-Atlas – independently. It’s the south that bowled me over, not least of all Taroudant, by far the most charming city I encountered when I trekked from Agadir to Fes. It’s also the home of Abderraman Rajji, the kind old Berber who offered his house to Archie and I. Tafraoute in particular has been calling out to me ever since. The way things are going, I might even consider exploring the south some more in September…

Yemen

The Republic of Yemen

Jebel Shugruf, Yemen

You’re mad. No, seriously, you’re insane. But Yemen has been my top Arabic destination since the very get-go, being one of the contenders for both Sheba and the most beautiful country in the world in my books (it may or may not have something to do with having so much in common with the country in the top spot on my list). Since it’s been a war-zone for so very long and many parts are still tribal – the two may or may not go hand in hand – much of the country has been spared the glass-and-cement arm that has scarred so much of the Gulf. Not to mention the gorgeous, Ali Baba-esque mountaintop towns. Wallahi.

Democratic Republic of Congo

Mount Nyiragongo  tourism destinations

Mount Nyiragongo, Democratic Republic of Congo

I’ve been within a stone’s throw of the DRC twice. On both occasions I had this mad urge to throw caution to the wind and cross the border. Fortunately, a crocodile-infested river stopped me the first time and a hundred miles of unchecked jungle stopped me the second. Needless to say, my appetite is whetted. This is the true African stereotype, Conrad’s dark zone, peppered with active volcanoes glowing red in the night – and at the risk of further destroying any faith you had in my sanity, it’s the danger of the place that attracts me so. Doesn’t the name alone sound so powerful?

Argentina

7

Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

A curiously mainstream addition to the list, I’ve had just about enough of seeing the same mountain range on the front of Lonely Planet, National Geographic and Wanderlust magazine – and have therefore decided that it must feature on this list. Patagonia looks so very crumpled and torn apart that it’s almost unnatural. I’ve been in love with mountains my whole life, and Argentina’ Tierra del Fuego represents possibly one of the most perfect mountain ranges in the world, picture-perfect in every way. And hey – they speak Spanish!

Egypt

6

Abu Simbel, Egypt

Let’s face it, who doesn’t want to see the Pyramids? Or the Sphinx? Or the Valley of the Kings? Egypt was my fall-back for Arabic until the Arab Spring ruined everything… now it’s been relegated to the dust of lost dreams, which is rather fitting, though it’s resurfaced from the sand of late in light of the summer flux. My only issue with Egypt is the package-y nature of it. If I could go, I’d rather backpack it – and that is the first leg of Cairo to Cape Town. That really would be an adventure and a half!

India

5

Mehrangarh Fort, Rajasthan

One word: Rajasthan. Land of desert forts, of rose sunsets, of dark-eyed mysteries. It’s the realm of the Far Pavilions‘ Bhithor (I think) and of Valmik Thapar’s Desert Kingdoms episode of Land of the Tiger. Southeast Asia may be the flavour of the month for most backpackers, but I’d eschew the Thailand-Cambodia-Vietnam trail for a month in Rajasthan alone anyday. India’s so massive and so diverse that you’d need more than three months to fully appreciate the place. And some day, I intend to do just that.

Ireland

4

Murder Hole, Donegal

I have absolutely no idea why or how County Donegal made it onto this list. One day it simply seized my brain and became the country of origin of my princess. I guess it all spun out from there; that, and that damned gorgeous accent they have up there in Ulster. Ireland’s a damned sight closer than any of the countries on this list (and is also, consequentially, the only European entry), but the only thing holding me back is the expense of traveling around; a fair hike compared to the others. Even so, I doubt it’ll be long before I’m drawn out to the Emerald Isle.

Cameroon

img_3316

Rhumsiki, Cameroon

As well as my madcap desires concerning Cairo to Cape Town, I have this less ambitious but no less adventurous urge to visit each of Africa’s four corners: North, South, East and West. Having seen central Africa already, I’m chomping at the bit to see the rest of it. It’s first on the list of countries I’d consider volunteering in, since I reckon it would really merit getting to know on a more human basis than backpacking could ever provide. It also has a serious bushmeat trade problem that I feel strongly about. On top of that, Cameroon has all that I love about Africa: fantastic food, spectacular countryside, great apes and a dark history. It’s also a necessary stopping point since one of my novels takes place here. Let’s just call it ‘essential research’.

South Africa

3

The Drakensberg, Kwa-Zulu Natal

Words cannot describe my love for this country that I’ve never been to. I’ve waxed lyrical enough about the land of Quatermain, of P.K., my ex-girlfriend and the Zulus before, so I won’t go on about it. What I will say is that I came with a hair’s breadth of going this year, barred only because my bank wouldn’t let me pay for both my flights and my brother’s in one go. Taking it as a message from above, I backed down. But only for a run-up. I’m not even close to the door yet.

Ethiopia

1

Gelada Baboon in the Simien Mountains, Ethiopia

Truly, Ethopia must be the King of Africa. It’s Africa with castles, with Gods-in-the-flesh and sulphur fields. The people are – in my humble opinion – probably the most beautiful in the whole world, being a striking blend of Arab and African. I had a three-hour layover in Addis en route to Uganda four years ago and I guess it started there – there, or a few hours before, when our plane came down out of the clouds and I saw Africa for the very first time, a paradise of rolling plains that gave way to spectacular waterfalls and blood-red cliffs. The Simien Mountains also top the list for me in terms of beautiful mountain ranges… and I haven’t even got onto Harar’s hyena-men. Then there’s Erta Ale, Gondar, Addis Ababa herself, the Omo Valley… Ethiopia simply has everything – and less tourists than the other African giants. Perfection. All I’m waiting for here is another like-minded adventurer to join me and I’m there. Just you wait, Ethiopia. Just you wait.

There. When you’re struggling for an idea as to where to go next in a couple of weeks, or months, or a year, return here. These are my top ten. And one day, come Hell or high water, I’ll have seen them all. BB x

Through the Looking-Glass

It’s been an interesting year. No, more than that, it’s been the very best of years. Not even that terrifying Monday primary class can put a damper on it. Incidentally, autocorrect suggested pterodactyl instead of primary, which is probably a very accurate description of the atmosphere. But like I said, that class alone has had next to no major impact on the year as a whole. As far as me goes, I think it’s been a resounding success.

This morning I found myself, for the first time, feeling genuinely fluent… and that was in the middle of giving a bilingual art class to a visiting school group from Romania, whose English was, in all likelihood, streets ahead of their Spanish. It’s the first time I’ve ever had to translate on the go, and being thrown the most dastardly terms that Dadaist impressionist art jargon can supply was a serious challenge, but one that I lapped right up. But that’s not the real crux: it’s that I’ve started getting tenses, idioms and (more crucially) agreements right without even thinking. It’s easy to think that the four-month point is the peak of language acquisition and after that it’s just vocab, vocab, vocab, but lately I’ve come to realize that the shoemakers’ elves have been at work and my grammar has been improving on the sly – which is grand, though it has made me wonder more than once whether I’m wasting £9000 a year and more on tuition fees if all I had to do to improve my Spanish was to come out here.

That’s a healthy dose of good news, because I was cut off from my principal means of improving my Spanish earlier this year. Or rather, I cut myself off. In a mirror-move of last year, I’ve fallen head over heels in love, had my heart broken and considered then walked away from a potential relationship over a niggling feeling that, as before, something simply wasn’t right. Story of my life, really. No matter how much I think, no matter how hard I try, I’m simply not cut out for the word casual. It’s not in my blood. Like my mother, I fill my every second with a job or project of some kind, be it work, writing or some other task to stave off sloth. I couldn’t ever commit any less than one hundred percent to anything, and though I’ve tried to convince myself of the ridiculousness of such a stubborn attitude, that’s something I can’t change. Whoever She is, she’ll be the kind of girl who gives a hundred percent back. Balance is key, and I’ve had my fill of one-sided love affairs. A couple of old friends I met over the Christmas holidays told me they’d reached the stage where they no longer have time for people who have no time for them. I thought it a rather selfish statement at first, but now I see the wisdom in it. After all, there’s no use in chasing stars over the horizon.

At the core of everything, but especially relationships – and I’m speaking from pitiful ignorance, as usual – is learning to love yourself. Love yourself and others will love you. That’s what they say. And loving yourself is no easy task.

I don’t think I’ve been truly happy with myself since I was fourteen; before girls, before exams and long before stepping out into the wide world (though I’ll make a three-month exception for that brief stint in Uganda). Physically, at least, I’ve always had complaints; why am I so small, why did I get the worst of my parents’ genes, why can’t I squat like an Arab without falling over… Petty, every one of them.

I’m also probably rather unhealthy compared to most of my generation, in that I don’t practice any kind of sport whatsoever (besides the occasional ridiculous trek). As I used to whine as a toddler, it’s not in my interest. And in my books, anything that’s not in my interest simply isn’t worth my time (until it is in my interest, of course, when suddenly I have to be exceedingly good at it). The gym doesn’t appeal to me – just hearing people bang on about their gym routine makes me want to jump down a rabbit hole – and though I’ve tried more than once, anything close to a workout routine tends to peter out after a few weeks because I get no enjoyment from it. The best I ever managed was those two months in Jordan, and that was only because Andrew stoically refused to let me back down. Left to my own devices, though, I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to sport. I’m simply not one of those people who gets a kick out of working up a sweat. I never have been. It’s only pure fear of what may become of me in the future that’s making me reconsider; now, when I should be at my physical prime.

So I have physical issues. That should come as no surprise. Fortunately, I’m either too stubborn or too indifferent to let them do me any emotional damage. Sure, I’ll probably have to start running soon, and that’s no bad thing. Especially in a country like Spain, where the food is a graver threat than terrorism. At least I eat well here.

This stream-of-consciousness was brought home to me by my headmaster in class this afternoon, when he whimsically commented that if I were a woman I’d be ‘marriage material’; “…this boy can draw, he can sing, he can dance, act, write, and he knows all of the names of the birds. He does everything”.

Yes, I basically got indirectly proposed to by my headmaster. Will this madness ever end?

But he was wrong. I don’t do everything. I happen to dabble in the arts, and whilst I consider myself reasonably accomplished in a few fields, there’s so many normal things I can’t do. Like mathematics. Or asking for help. Or driving. Or football. Or skiing. Or any other sport, for that matter. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s only because I’m so forthright with what I can do that I get by at all in this world. Because singing, drawing and writing are all well and good, but they don’t put food on the table – especially when you refuse to go mercenary.

Nonetheless, I’ve learned an important lesson this year, and that’s that I’m at my very best when I’m on my own. Jordan showed me that when there’s a crutch, I’ll use it, almost without thinking. That’s why I struck out for Spain alone, and why I’ll be doing the same in Morocco come June. Being alone forces you to work on yourself, which is never a bad thing, and allows you to truly live for you. I’ve been able to do so much this year, more than I ever thought I’d accomplish in eight months, and that makes me happy indeed. I still haven’t decided how much that’s got to do with being independent at last and how much it’s simply about living in my grandfather’s country. On a purely superficial level, I’d like to think the latter holds more weight.

I may not love myself quite as much for the time being as I should – that, like so much else, will come with time – and, dream though I may, until I am I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for a relationship, but simply being in Spain fills me up to the very top with all the energy I need to survive. Before, I’ve looked to others as charisma batteries, people from whom I could draw that precious life energy when mine was running low. Here I get it for free, right from the earth. And better still, I’ve learned how to manufacture that energy.

It’s the Spanish language. Nothing more, nothing less. Simply speaking in my grandfather’s tongue seems to be enough. If ever I truly love myself, it’s when I’m gesturing away in ehpañó. The earthy appeal of the semi-unintelligible southern accent is a serious draw for me, but it’s something about the raw dynamism of the language itself that really clicks, like a gear that’s been missing all my life. Here it’s functional, regularly oiled and, more importantly, spinning in its place. The very definition of perpetual motion.

So that’s the answer. I’ve simply got to come back and live here for good. The road to true happiness is hard to find, but I’ve found the map, at least, in both senses of the wording . The key is in the language itself. Perhaps it always has been. BB x

Be Kind, Rewind

My primary function over the last week has been more akin to a substitute CD player than a teacher. The Epiphany term is drawing to a close and mock exams are very much in fashion. The trouble is, the school’s CD players are acting up, and have been for years. I was called in to help – in my free time, I’ll have you know – to ‘improvise’ a brand new listening text for them on the Tate Modern.

And I’ll also have you know it was totally worth it. Whipping up a different, two-minute text on the same subject to suit different ability sets every time might sound dull, but as a writer I found it deliciously challenging. And as a former Langtonian, to whom improvisation comes quite naturally (for want of a better term beginning with B), it’s something I’m rather good at.

I’m now quite used to doing favors for my school. I feel I owe it to them every time I get a lesson off (which isn’t often, but it does happen from time to time). But that’s a mercenary approach: it’s more because I simply love what I’m doing. If I didn’t have these occasional hankerings to go adventuring at the weekends, I don’t half wonder whether I’d throw my day off out the window and work Fridays as well. It’s not as though I don’t already come into school on the occasional Friday almost hoping to be asked to take a lesson. I really must be a few screws loose.

I appreciate that I’ve been damned lucky to have landed such a jammy set-up. I wouldn’t say it’s the best shift in the world – the kids are about as rebellious as you might expect from teenage Spaniards – but it comes very close. I’m still going to strike out for somewhere new in the year after Durham – and I’m thinking one of either Aragón, Andalucía or a different part of Extremadura – but I’m almost 100% set on coming back to Villafranca in September 2018. I mean that. It’s not the most exciting place in the world to live, but it’s a wonderful place to be from a people perspective. The only thing I lack is a friend circle of people my own age, and that’s due in part to my Olvereñan fatalism and my awareness that this was always going to be a year in transition; perfect for getting a taste, impossible for laying down roots.

Sadly, I’ve become painfully aware that there’s only ten teaching weeks left. It was Brocklesby who alerted me to that; beforehand, I’d barely given it thought. That does mean ten more weeks of new lesson plans, of riotous primary classes and of absent teachers, but the ups outnumber the downs.

And best of all, it really is spring now. I forgot to wear my hoodie to sleep last night as I’ve been in the practice of doing since October (Spamish duvets are stupidly thin) and I didn’t notice until I put it on this morning. Spain’s about to put on her very best dress and I can’t wait to see what her stylist has done with her this year. BB x

  
PS. One of my colleagues just came to the staff room to tell me that despite the difficulty of the text, quite a few of them actually overachieved, so it shows they were listening after all. Which is kind of what you’d hope in a Listening exam, but there you go. It’s little things like that that make my days! They were also shown the artwork which I chose to talk about, which just so happens to be an old enemy of mine. It’s Andre’s Equivalent VIII (The Bricks). I’ve met it once before. The students hated it. The teacher hated it. And if I’m perfectly honest, out of my entire art class of 2011, I couldn’t stand it either. Great minds, eh?

Winter in Madrid

I’m spent. Completely and utterly spent, in heart and body and mind. Ready to drop to my knees and sleep for a thousand years like some twenty-first century Rip van Winkle. I’m back in Spain, I’m back home, and I’m back in bed, and if it weren’t for the sake of this blog, I’d be fast asleep by now. But that can wait.

I’ve dropped enough hints over the last few months for you to guess what I’ve been up to. I’m back from three days in Madrid with my dear friend Ali, who has stuck with me through thick and thin over the last few months and been a most valiant and enduring friend, putting up with more of my less-than-perfect Spanish than she deserves. As a way of saying thank you, and as a birthday present, I took her to the capital (a long-term dream of hers) to see El Rey León, or The Lion King (a long-term dream of mine). And since Madrid’s a long way from both of us, we decided to make a weekend of it.

DSC_0162

First things first, The Lion King. Oh. My. God. Words fail me. I’m normally fairly speechless when I leave a theatre or cinema, but Friday night’s performance had me tongue-tied for a record half an hour. It being almost entirely in Spanish – but for the Zulu and Xhosa lyrics – had absolutely no effect on the impact whatsoever. Shadowland and He Lives in You had me welling up like a new father and it’s nothing short of a miracle that I didn’t lose all control and burst into tears completely. There’s even a few fitting modifications to the Spanish version that make it – dare I say it – even better than the original in places. Timon in especial, and he’s not normally one of my favourites, was pure gold in Spanish, and a lot of the puns translate brilliantly. I know, I know, I’m late to the party as ever, but I’ll recklessly advertise it to you as its been advertised to me. You’ll simply have to see it for yourself if you haven’t already. It’s a once in a lifetime experience, and with seats on the first row of the platform, it could hardly have been better.

DSC_0341

There’s so much to see and do in Madrid – too much for a single day’s sightseeing – but we made good of the following day, taking in the Palacio Real, the Egyptian Temple of Dagón, the gorgeous Parque del Retiro with its street musicians and its Crystal Palace and, last of all, the Prado, home to some of my all-time favourite works of art, like Velazquez’s study of the Conde-Duque de Olivares and Goya’s Maja Vestida and Maja Desnuda, as well as the über-famous Las Meninas. If photos were allowed in the Prado, I’d have gone berserk. Naturally, they’re not. So you’ll have to look them up. We were herded out with the rest by the guards before we had the chance to find the equally famous Dos de Mayo, which is a shame, but that’s what you get for being thrifty and waiting until the 6pm free entry, giving you, and everyone else who’s in on the secret – which seems to be most of Madrid – just under two hours to appreciate it all. Fear not, Goya. I’ll be back.

DSC_0418

This weekend has also done one system a world of good, and that’s the thrifty-gifty BlaBlaCar operation that so screwed me over in December (or maybe it was me that screwed up…?). Getting to and from Madrid from our respective backwater neck-o’-the-woods could hardly have been easier, faster and more enjoyable. This year I will try to use it much more often, if not all the time. It requires a little bravery and certainly more social skills than simply hopping on a bus, of course, but I do believe I’m getting there. Consider me, then, a willing convert. And if you’re reading this, Mr Oulad Berhil taxi driver, you could learn a lot from BlaBlaCar. It’s all about the conversation, at the end of the day, and these can be worth their weight in gold, though it’s mere pennies you’re paying. Truly.

DSC_0249

Post script. Madrid is a capital city. By all rights, it should have scared the living day lights out of me. But with Ali by my side, it didn’t occur to me even for a second. I’d even go so far as to say that it was one of the best adventures yet. A lot of auxiliares living and working here use Spain as a launch-pad to other European destinations, but I maintain that there’s enough to do here to last you not just a year, but a lifetime. Oh Spain, how cruelly you play with my heart…

DSC_0470

Well, I guess it’s finally time to pack up the festivities, dust off the schoolbooks and get back to work. I’m none too keen to do so, but at the same time I really need to. The wind is howling outside and winter, it seems, has finally arrived. And long has it been in coming. BB x

Go West

For once, it’d probably be better if, whilst reading this, you’re not hearing my voice saying it to you – because my voice right now is wrecked, and you wouldn’t recognise the guy on the other end of the line if you could hear him.

I put that down to three things: three hours of choir practice (most of which spent singing at the top of my range as there are no tenors or basses here), two hours of conversation with Upper Sixth-level students and one hour of wrangling with one of my two very-almost-out-of-control primary classes. First and foremost, I blame Ariana Grande, but that primary lot don’t help much. Still, I got my first hug from my two favourite kids in that class today, which was heart-warming, to say the least. Tasha’s been getting hugs since the get-go, and I guess it’s normal procedure for the female auxiliares, but not for me. It made my day, anyway. When they’re not launching a full-on assault against my sanity, my will to live and my voice-box, it’s nice to know they see me as a human being.

I catch myself saying to myself almost constantly: remember the Iraqi kids, remember the screaming, remember the chair-throwing incident… It can’t possibly get any worse than that. I think that’s probably the right way to go about it.

In truth I’ve not got all that much to report at the moment. In a couple of days’ time I’ll hit the road as it’s the December puente (when a national holiday falls close enough to the weekend to create an extended weekend; literally, ‘bridge’). This year it’s only (!) a five-day weekend as the national holidays on the 7th and 8th fall on a Monday and Tuesday respectively, but that’s enough for a mini-adventure at least. I’ve been juggling several ideas over the last few months as to how best to use the time – surprising my friends in Cantabria, Morocco or Granada was the main plan – but it wasn’t until last weekend that I hit upon a decision, and my decision is PORTUGAL.

Yeah. I don’t speak any Portuguese.

It’s only occurred to me recently to take an interest in this nation that just so happens to be lying RIGHT ON MY DOORSTEP. No, seriously, it’s less than half an hour’s drive in the car if you just keep heading west. I suppose the main thing that stopped me going in the first place was that, quite simply, I know nothing about Portugal. I can read Portuguese almost as well as I can read Spanish, but understanding it spoken is… well, it might as well be Russian. The odd word might sound familiar, perhaps, but otherwise it’s a different language in its own right. And rightly so. But, just as Andrew and I decided in Kiev, the mere fact that I don’t speak the language shouldn’t be a barrier in the slightest to an adventurer like me, so… there we go. I’ve booked a couple of nights at a hostel in Lisbon, and I’m leaving it until I get there to decide whether the plan is to head south and check out the Algarve whilst it’s still tourist-free (a tempting prospect) or the gob-smackingly-beautiful north, peppered with unforgettable villages like Monsanto, Marvão and Piódão. It’s a tough call. As always, I’d rather leave that decision until the day. I’d feel better, that way. Come the day, I’ll know which way to go.

As for the Portuguese, well, I’m not going in completely unarmed. In Kiev all I could say was a feeble ‘спасибо’ (thank you). I’ll brush up as many little phrases as I can before I go, as a little always goes a long way, however badly you pronounce it. I’m told the Portuguese are a fascinating people; proud, polite, gaudy and brilliant linguists. My bachillerato class also seem to think that the women have moustaches, but I’ll be the judge of that.

With any luck, I’ll return doubly keen to pick up another language and add it to my belt. I was planning on making my next big language attempt in Zulu, but it is a bit of a jump… Perhaps it would be better if I worked my way towards Zulu, say, via Portuguese…?

Oh Monty Python. How I miss you. BB x

Diamond in the Rough

This week started just about the same way as every week begins, with me waking up to the sound of my seven o’clock alarm, with the morning’s first class just an hour and a quarter away, and finding myself struck with the weekly conundrum that is ‘now, what am I going to teach today?’.

For the first three weeks I had some stellar lesson plans, but we’re filing into my fifth working week here now (I told you before, my observation week became my first teaching week) and my tried-and-true classes have come and gone. Four down, twenty-seven to go. Since in school I teach across the age-groups, from six to twenty-two, I have to split my material in half depending on their ability, which requires two new lesson plans each week. Not exactly a challenge, per se, especially when several of those are shared between groups, meaning it’s possible (and highly recommended) to recycle material; but it’s a weekly problem, after a weekend spent traveling, partying or what have you, that on Sunday night the question is always there on the tip of my tongue as I bed down for the night. What am I going to teach them today?

Today I thought I’d brave it and try literature on the kids. Foolhardy, I know, especially after my last attempt at sparking some creativity amongst the would-be dullards, but I’m not about to give up on them yet. To spark their interest – and since I’ve just spent most of the weekend reading the tale – I kicked things off by drawing a blackboard-sized Moby Dick on the board, complete with scars, harpoons and rigging. Most of them had heard of it, but understandably, none of them had actually read it.

Well, not quite. One of them had.

I did a little double-take at this and made him explain the plot to the class. The way he put it, in English, a language that is not his own, told the tale better than Herman Manville (personally, I found the text hard-going, turgid even, though the story itself was impeccable). Better yet, he beat me to it and cited Manville as the author. I thought I’d let him sit on his laurels for a while and ask the others for any books they’d read recently, but they just stared blankly at me, as though I’d asked them if they’d like to spend the rest of the day doing quadratics. Moby – the pseudonym I shall forthwith use for this very literate kid – had his hand up the whole time and went on to tell me about Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. That he had read them in translation is beside the point. This is a boy of fifteen who’s busy working his way through the classics.

As I was struggling to elicit some kind of interest from the rest of the class – who, as you might expect, were getting visibly bothered by Moby’s contributions – my colleague spent the hour taking notes of other writers that he might enjoy, amongst them Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens. One of Moby’s companions lost it and complained loudly that it was unfair that only Moby was talking. My colleague and I soundly brought him down a size by repeating that all I was asking for was a story any of them had read, and that as Moby was the only one who was willing to talk, they only had themselves to blame for their silence. I opened the floodgates a little by allowing them to tell me about a film or television series they might have seen, but on that inch they took a mile and missed the point completely; three accounts down the line I had to remind them that match reports, game shows and reality TV are not stories, and consequently didn’t count.

Pushed into a corner, one kid looked very chuffed to say he thought his favourite TV show, a Spanish version of Match of the Day, was far better entertainment than any book he’d ever read. Granted, he probably hasn’t read very widely – I hadn’t at his age – but for good measure I told him that a show where two obnoxious early retirees discuss what happened, what might have happened, what should have happened and what might happen next time in a football match for an entire hour could hardly be as entertaining as a decent read. I could have done worse, of course, but I held back. Most of it went over his head anyway, as it was supposed to. I’m not foolhardy enough to let my personal prejudices against the tedium that is the world of football discussion ruin my relationship with my students, who already know I’m none too keen on it.

As you might have guessed, I was getting pretty frustrated by this point. I’ve learned to mask it after a month of teaching these kids, but it’s still pretty galling when you ask a simple question and all you get in return is twenty-three gormless expressions. But Moby came back with the goods, stating that he hadn’t read any books in English yet, but that over Christmas he was going to try with Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings. You’ve got to hand it to the kid; starting to read in a foreign language with Tolkein…? That takes guts. My parents are prolific readers and they can’t stand his writing, and sadly they’re not alone (though I, for one, can’t get enough of the stuff).

In the other establishment I work at there are several kids like Moby in every class; students who are well-read, well-cultured and whose English is streets ahead of their companions. It’s the norm in a private school. And teaching in both private and state has its merits. But kids like Moby make the state school experience so much more worthwhile, for all the challenges. Here is a boy who, despite everything, is working his way through the literary greats for the pure pleasure of it, with his mind bent on attending university in Toronto of all places. It’s kids like Moby who remind me just why it is that I love teaching. Because for all the sour looks, disinterest and gossipping that goes on, when there’s at least one kid who’s shining with promise there’s a reason to go on. Obviously you can’t cater to that one child alone – if it were that simple, everyone would want to be a teacher, I think – but as long as you know that what you’re dealing is going towards somebody’s personal development, that’s reward enough for all your travails.

As for me, I’ve got a fair amount of catching up to do. Moby Dick was this weekend’s read; The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Robinson Crusoe await, along with Allan Quatermain (after a two-month hiatus). Maybe I’ll recommend King Solomon’s Mines to Moby when I next get the chance. It’s certainly one of my favourites. BB x