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

No Going Back

Saying goodbye is never an easy thing to do. I’m certainly not particularly good at it. In fact, there are quite a few goodbyes I’d like the chance to go over again, given the opportunity. You know the kind: the ones where it was all too fleeting, or maybe you didn’t quite say everything you wanted to say, or maybe the real goodbye never came around and you were left with a last meeting that wasn’t really a send-off at all. Most likely you’ve encountered that oh-so-very British awkward goodbye at least once in your lifetime: the one where you say goodbye to somebody, only to bump into them a few minutes later. Don’t you find that situation crops up a lot? It certainly does in Durham, anyway…

For a chatty gossip like me (you’ll just have to imagine the deep sarcasm there), I don’t suppose there’s much point in an elaborate farewell. It’s only really an issue if you’re going to be out of contact for an extended period of time, like stepping off the plane into the abyss and severing all connections with the outside world. Which is essentially what I do every time I step off the train at Three Bridges. I have a phone, true, but I rarely use it. I think I sent a grand total of three texts over the last three months, and all three of them last Sunday. Radio silence on my part doesn’t necessarily mean I’m traveling – I’m probably a lot more talkative when I’m on the road – but it doesn’t mean I’m inactive, either. I simply enjoy going for long periods of radio silence. Anything that needs saying can surely be said best face-to-face, and anything that’s worth saying is always worth waiting for. That makes me quite a distant person, I guess – and not the easiest to track down. For somebody who spent almost all of two years on teenage texting tenterhooks, it’s a policy I’ve guarded jealously for some time now. So in that sense, setting off on another long adventure isn’t really all that different from any other end of term break, as far as contact is concerned.

I’m going off topic. I suppose I’d better come out with it. I’m heading off to Spain in two days’ time – less – to spend nine months working in a secondary school… and I’m not coming back in between.

The idea first came to me when I had a look at the Spanish school calendar for the coming year. That projected end of term date on the twenty-second of December shocked me at first, despite having been schooled in Spain at Christmastime before. It’s all about the reyes magos out there, and that’s not until January. I must have got it into my head early on, but it wasn’t until saying farewell (successfully, mind!) to Andrew at Gatwick Airport that it hit me: I want to be out there for the long haul. Taking a year abroad isn’t just about honing your language skills to fluency, it’s about growing up – and Lord knows I’ve still so much more of that to do. What better way than to strike out on your own for an entire year? Because that’s what it’s set to be, with my second Arabic stint in Morocco striking up almost as soon as I’m done in Extremadura at the end of May, meaning I won’t see the green hills of England again until August 2016, at the very earliest. That doesn’t trouble me as much as it should.

I'm going to miss autumn in England. No, I'm really, really, really going to miss it

I’m going to miss autumn in England. No, I’m really, really, really going to miss it

The last few days have been wonderful for a last taste of England. I consider myself extremely lucky to live in one of the most charming spots in West Sussex, overlooking a dream-sequence of rolling hills as far as the eye can see, right up to the point when they tumble into the sea to the south. Autumn’s in the air, the forest is full of mushrooms and the buzzards that nest deep in the woods are cartwheeling noisily through the skies as usual. Morpurgo described them ‘mewing’ in one of his books and I can’t think of a better way of putting it. This is England, and I’m going to miss it. But there’s something in the air, telling me it’s time I should be moving on. Maybe that’s autumn. The signs are everywhere. The leaves on the oak trees are going a gorgeous golden colour. Out on the school rugby pitches the odd wheatear sits taking a breather, whilst flycatchers and warblers hurry on through the hedgerows snatching a quick meal on their way home. But most telling of all are the great flocks of swallows and the martins streaming on southwards overhead, and in a couple of days I’ll be following them. Maybe I’ll even see some of the same individuals swooping by from Villafranca. Who knows?

Ten points if you can see the buzzard in this one

Ten points if you can see the buzzard in this one

The hardest thing for me to leave behind – besides the monstrous tapestry, which is never going to be finished anytime soon – will be the growing mountain of books in my bedroom.

A year and a half, five metres in and still slaving away

A year and a half and still slaving away…

It’s pretty daft, but for an aspiring writer, I’m late into the fold as regards actually reading. I got it into my head once that if I never read any books that contained ideas similar to my own, I couldn’t get done for plagiarism, because I’d never have noticed the similarity. How very typically overcomplicated of me. The end result is that I haven’t read a decent book – besides Pavilions – in nigh on ten years. At least, one that hasn’t been prescribed by my course. Now I’m motoring through them at lightning speed, assisted by all the iBooks freebies, an immense library at home (courtesy of my equally bookish mother) that I never truly appreciated, and an all-too brief visit to a real bookshop over the weekend.

So many books, so little time...

So many books, so little time…

I say real to distinguish it from your average WHSmith or Waterstones. Seriously, this place had everything. All the historical fiction you could shake a stick at. The entire Hornblower saga. Flashman in abundance. Sharpe, Iggulden and even the master of the art herself, M.M. Kaye. All beautifully spined, deliciously musty and lovingly second-hand. A new gadget may be a good thing, but there’s nothing better than an old book. Mum found a particularly beautiful pair of illustrated Arabic dictionaries – formerly the property of a military attaché, as stamped. Oh, I could have died and gone to heaven. I was in kid-at-Christmas mode. If I’d had this newfound book obsession just two years earlier, I might have given languages the boot and applied for an English degree. The only thing holding me back at the time was a general reading apathy…

Today’s been the downer of the month for no other reason than that every so often I have a lonely spell where it takes a lot to lift me up. Fortunately I’m in the best place for it: start of term or not, the grounds of Worth Abbey are no less than the finest place I’ve ever encountered for soul-healing. Alright, so the stone-pine copse along the Raya Real with its attendant black kites just comes up trumps, but that’s not on my doorstep every morning. Not yet, anyway. Besides, when the loneliness birds come flying in, the open world is always there. Nature’s an unpredictable lady at the best of times, but she’s never let me down. I’ve said that before, and I’ll say it as often as it takes to drive this funk of mine away. Everything will look better in the light of a new morning. It always does.

Waldeinsamkeit - the feeling of being alone in the woods!

Waldeinsamkeit – the feeling of being alone in the woods!

These are curious things to dwell on when home will be so very far away for the next eleven months. But home is where the heart is, and mine has been in Spain for as long as I can remember, and that’s got to count for something. Maybe she’s out there, and maybe she’s not. That’s not for me to decide. If fate decides to cut me a break and give me a good turn, I’m ready to run with it. But one thing’s certain: I will leave Spain fluent. If I can leave the country at the end of the year as bilingual as the grandfather I never knew, I’ll have accomplished a dream two generations in the making. Being a quarter Spanish will mean so much more.

I will be fluent. And that’s a promise. BB x

Tick Tock

Blimey, we’re on our fifty-fifth day already. Another two weeks and it’ll be almost time to head for home. In some ways it’s felt like every day of fifty-five, in others it’s flown by. I think it’s safe to say that we’re all ready to pack up and head for home, though. It’s been fun, but it’s been hard work too, and factoring in all of those post-exam rehearsals, I haven’t really had a decent respite since… Well, come to think of it, since the Christmas holidays. Ouch!

We had a lot of fun in class this morning acting out two or three of Nasreddin’s tales. You might also know him as Juha (جحا او نصر الدين). Plenty of opportunities to lark about. For counterpoint, we spent the second hour discussing the wonderfully British tradition of the stiff upper lip; that is, suffering in silence rather than causing anybody problems. Quite a world apart from the very hands-on Arab approach! Even though I’m not planning on returning to the Middle East in the near future, the 3amia classes (the local Arabic dialect) have been useful, if just for learning all the expressions and idioms which I adore. Here’s to the vain hope that some carry across into the Moroccan darija dialect, or even Egyptian.

Proof that I’ve been here too long is that I found myself slipping in and out of Arabic whilst trying to talk to my mum in Spanish over FaceTime. I’ve never had that problem before, not even with French. That’s probably a good thing for my Arabic, which has definitely improved since being here, but it’s doing no wonders for my mental state vis-a-vis my Spanish. Now that I’ve booked my flight it all feels a lot closer, a month and more away though it may yet be. A couple of days with my mega-drawing and it’ll all be over in an instant. I don’t know whether I’ll ever catch up at this rate; I’m already two years in arrears, so to speak. I’m going to have bite my lip pretty damn hard to stop myself from taking it out with me. But a promise is a promise: I’ll give it unti Christmas to get a feel for my new home in Villafranca de los Barros, wherever that may be, before I lug the monster out to Spain with me.

No, I haven’t started house-hunting yet. I’m kind of hoping to do that on foot when I get there. At the very least, I’m not making the same mistake I made out here in settling for a ridiculously expensive option for speed and safety’s sake. And no, I haven’t given up on my dreams of running into Lady Luck with flowing dark hair when I get there either. Or should that be Señora Suerte? Whatever. Miracles can happen. I’m not banking on it, knowing my luck, but it’d sure be a deal sweetener.

Ach, would you look at that, I’m setting myself up for a fall already! I’ve been rambling for a little longer than I intended to. I’ll love you and leave you for now. I need my afternoon nap as much as anybody. Andrew, in his wisdom, went straight home after class to take his. I think it’s time I followed suit. BB x

Zulu Dreams

We’re into the third day of recording this wedding present for Grace’s friend and that means the bedroom’s been turned into a makeshift recording studio once again. If that doesn’t raise a few eyebrows, try to picture it: we’ve opened the cupboard and rested the two mattresses against it, draping a duvet over the top as a mock-up boom and shut all the windows and doors. The result is actually pretty decent – as far as mattress-fort recording studios go. Grace is in the cupboard recording hers now so I’m in the next room with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade in my ears, trying to quell my recurring bouts of city angst. Replacing one noise with another can only do so much good, but I think I found a better solution.

Bit by bit I’m building a clearer idea of where I want to make my next adventure, and funnily enough it’s not a remake of Archie’s enviously-exciting Central American backpacking adventure. That ship has sailed. If the chance arises again one day, I’ll take it of course, but somehow I doubt it will. Lightning never strikes twice. As for me, I have my eyes on somewhere else, a place I’ve been orbiting, as it were, for the last seven years: South Africa.

Did that come out of left field? Probably not. The more you know me, the more rational a conclusion it is. For starters, this Cairo to Cape Town jaunt I’m so obsessed with was always going to end there. The only stage I’ve ever really been able to envisage is the last leg, cresting the veld and staring, at last, at the crystal waters of the Indian Ocean after a year or so on the road. I see myself throwing off my rucksack and racing into the water to fall, knees first, in the sand. That would be worth all the mileage, border bullies and nightmarish bureaucrats that’ll plague me along the way. It’s a scene that’s been playing on-and-off in my mind’s eye for years. That’s one reason.

I’d like to say Haggard started this. I’ve been reading one book of his after the other and I’m hooked. But it goes further back than that. My first girlfriend was half-Afrikaner. That’s where it really all began, I guess. Yes, it must have been; I remember talking to her aunt about her time as a game driver and falling in love with the place through words alone. Sure, that didn’t all pan out so well in the end, but like a flower in the ashes, I stumbled upon Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One (the film) a week after the breakup. No other film has ever affected me so strongly. It could have been the music, it could have been the red-haired heroine, or just as easily the people and the places. More likely than not, a combination of the lot – but especially the music. There’s something otherworldly about it. Amazulu – from the Heavens. How about Ukuthula, the Zulu spiritual that never fails to move me to tears? Or Miriam Makeba’s African Sunset, which is playing in my ears right now? Don’t forget the Circle of Life. I put so much of my heart and soul into the Zulu solo with the Northern Lights that I go weak at the knees whenever I hear that one, too. Fun fact: I was born just four days before The Lion King came out. It’s a sign, baby! At least, I’d like to think so.

I could point the finger at so many other reasons: a family connection to Steve Bloom; the film, Zulu; the Drakensberg; the Zulu language itself. Yeah, by this point I’m pretty damn-near decided. The main question is when and how. I reckon I should have saved up enough after next year’s teaching. If only I were going to Morocco and not Jordan next summer; I could save so much money towards it (quit complaining about Jordan and just deal with it, kid). It also means I can dedicate myself to learning Zulu on the side next year. I’ve always wanted to learn an African language. Arabic is just a means to an end. Zulu – now we’re talking. We’re talking Africa and talking Africa is the surest way to my heart. And it always will be. BB x

Humdrum

‘Hope you’re having a lovely time, I know Amman has been less than ideal.’

I tire of city living. I guess having my three-day escape to Egypt pulled out from under my feet threw me off target, but I seem to have sunk back into one of those despondent ‘I could be doing something so much better with my time’ moments. Maybe if I set a few things straight, the affair might make a little more sense.

I never really wanted to go to Jordan. I didn’t have much of a say in the matter – you can blame international politics for my limited options – so I just went along with it as a necessary next step in my language degree. I had my eyes on Syria way back when I started my course, before al-Assad, the civil war and the chaos that ensued. I then turned my attentions onto Egypt, and then there was all that palava was Morsi and the army shooting people on the street. One more magical destination to be crossed off the list. I guess I fell in love with Morocco shortly after that, it being the only other feasible North African destination; doubly so after two weeks’ travelling in the kingdom over the Easter Holidays. So when I was told I had no option but to spend four months in Amman, bookending my assistantship with the British Council, it was a bit of a bombshell. In my department’s defence I didn’t put up much of a fight – what could would it have done? There’s not a lot I can do to solve the political cat-fight of the Arab world, if just so that I could spend a couple of months in a country of my choice. Whatever the weather, that’s all I have: two months apiece. So it’s not so terrible a loss.

The primary concern is the apathy that this place instils me with. Had I been able to go to Damascus, Cairo or Fes, places I’d hungered after for years, I might have been able to overcome my city angst – maybe. The trouble with Amman is that I just find myself wanting to be somewhere else all the time, and that does no wonders for my Arabic. I can’t even say it’s a general problem either, since it doesn’t seem to be affecting Andrew, Kate, Katie or Eloise in the slightest. Maybe they’re just hardier human beings than I. But I’m seriously feeling the absence of a green space. Andrew asked an hour ago whether I knew if there was anywhere outside we could go and sit to read/study in peace. The truth is, there isn’t. The cars are always blaring. Music’s always playing. People are always shouting. The peace I’m looking for is to be found far out of town, and at this time of year, that comes at the price of dry, dusty emptiness. That’s the biggest problem of all; the countryside around Amman isn’t even worth escaping to because it’s a dust bowl.

Whinge whinge whinge. Andrew’s right, I’m not exactly in the best of moods today. I want to be in Spain already, settling into my job in a location that’s not more than a stone’s throw from open country and mountains – mountains. Rivers. Life. None of this city nonsense. Town mouse, field mouse, remember? One of the main reasons I set myself to the study of languages was to challenge myself to overcome one of my greatest fears, and that’s talking to people. In retrospect, that was a very costly challenge. I could have done an all-essay subject and come off the better – perhaps. Similarly, I tried to console myself before coming out here that maybe a couple of months of city living might cure me of my disdain for that kind of environment. In truth it’s only consolidated my belief that, whatever happens to me in life, I will never be living in a place like Amman – by choice or by force. Somewhere that can sap me of even my desire to travel can be doing me no favours.

On the plus side, I’ve discovered that if I sit on the end of my bed with the window open, I can access the WiFi from the school across the road, so I won’t need to pay to go to a cafe to send emails anymore. That’s a plus.

Chin up Ben, life’s not so bad. I just find myself wishing, as ever, that for something as important as the year abroad, which is supposed to be a life-changing chance to throw yourself into the culture of a different part of the world, I’d had a hand in the throwing part, rather than being sent out here.

But there’s a silver lining to every cloud. All of this has convinced me (along with all the reading I’ve been doing of late) that I want nothing more from life than to be a writer, and I’m arming myself at long last with the reading to better my craft. Per ardua ad astra, and all that jazz. BB x

The Circle of Life (otherwise known as Vocalzone)

There are few things more terrifying than waking up on the morning of a concert and realising you’ve lost your voice.

Alright, so I can think of a few, but it’s one I’d rather not repeat. Especially when that solo is the opening Zulu chant from the Circle of Life and the setting is none other than Durham Cathedral. Probably the biggest solo I am ever going to get and definitely the one I’ve been most looking forward to. So it should be just my luck that I found myself almost voiceless on the morning of the big day, throwing not just one but two gigs into violent disarray. Thanks to a little help from my friends (shout out in especial to the wonderful Emily Collinson for recommending me the miraculous Vocalzone pills) I was able to pull my voice back from the brink at the final hour and deliver the goods. It was still a semitone out, and because of my nerves I guess I rushed it too, but all things considered it could have gone so much worse. Like, my voice could have just gone before the solo. Or worse, gone halfway through, like it did once during The Sun Whose Rays in The Mikado several years back. But it held, even during the crazily last-minute additional solo in the King of Pride Rock finale – which, considering everybody was involved, probably went unheard by everyone except those who were listening out for it, even though I threw caution to the wind and belted out those last Zulu lines with all of my heart and soul, not to mention the last of my vocal chords. Lebo M. does it so much better because he’s the real deal, of course. But I hope I did him proud tonight. I dedicate that one to him. Him and, of course, all my champions in the Durham A Cappella Choir, the one and only Northern Lights. I don’t tend to miss much when I travel, but there will be a hole in my heart for evermore when I have to say goodbye to you all at the end of the year. You don’t know just how much you all mean to me.

Being part of the Northern Lights on their rise to power this year has been one of the best decisions of my life. No doubt. But trumping that and all the facts and life-lessons of the year, perhaps the most important lesson I’m taking away from this year is the danger of doing too much. Good time management may be a staple CV boon, but I’d put an honest acceptance of when too much is too much higher up the list, if I had a say in things. I’ve always tried to live by the creed that having too much to do is always better than having too little, which breeds boredom, idleness and a despicable state of mind. That’s fine, but instead of swinging between extremes as I tend to, in future I’ll be aiming for that golden middle-ground. I’m happy to be the one who does the planning and enthuses along the way, but the responsibility of authority is still beyond me. When you have to balance that power with everything else, it’s not just other people that you let down, it’s your own state of mind. This year for some reason I thought I’d be able to balance five societies, the novel, my degree, a social life, an attempt at a relationship and my sanity. Most of them took a serious hit in one way or another, but it’s the last that’s suffered the most. I’ve not had the chance to meditate properly for almost a year and it shows. I haven’t even managed to keep the novel going, which I stormed through last year. Some useful notes for my last year, at any rate. I know now that if I want to truly apply myself to something, no matter how appealing everything else may seem, it’s better to focus on just a couple of good things rather than trying to please everybody by tackling everything at the same time. Because it’s impossible to please everyone, of course, but most pressing of all, everybody’s friend is nobody’s friend. And that’s something I should really know better. BB x

The Northern Lights hit Durham Cathedral (Durham)

The Northern Lights hit Durham Cathedral. From left to right: Emmanuel, me, Becky and Luke (Durham)