The Strength of Blood

Seat eighty-six, coach two. A sky full of flat-bottomed clouds. The immensity of La Mancha racing by in a haze of olive green, dirty white and wine red, with scarlet carpets of poppies laid out in the tall grass of the wheat-fields. Ruined farmhouses crumbling amongst the endless vineyards, men and women bent double as they work the fields, and a lonely oak tree standing tall. Woodpigeons scattering in the wake of the train; a single kestrel perched high upon a telegraph pole; a pair of harriers wheeling overhead on slender wings, the female a living shadow of the earth below, the male a silver spirit of the sky above. I cannot see the bustards I saw on the way here, nor the rabbits or hares or even the magpies. But far off to the south the land rises, and I can see the blue hills of La Solana and Infantes, the vanguard of the sierras of Andalusia. Andalusia: where all of this began.

It seems strange, now, to imagine this whole Spanish adventure without my family at the heart of it. All those years spent wandering in the shade of the stone pines of Doñana, hiking in the scrubby mountains around Grazalema and anchoring myself in one way or another to an ancient, characterful little corner (literally) of the province of Cádiz… I question why, a cup of café con leche in hand, we did not simply come straight here to La Mancha, where the family is, was and always had been, rather than go chasing the same Andalusian dream that ruined so many British families before us. It would have made a lot more sense, certainly. But such is the way of things, and if we had, would I have half the story to tell? Would I even be where I am today? I think not.

The high sierras of Ronda. The stone pine forests of Huelva. The scent of snow in the Alpujarras, the Arabic lettering on the walls of the Alhambra and the pillared forest of the Great Mosque of Córdoba. And of course, the unspoilt wilds of Extremadura, from the plains of Cáceres to the paradise hills of La Vera. That is the Spain I know. The Spain I have come to love with all of my heart. Just as an athlete needs to warm up before a race, so too did I need to wander before finding my way. My mother chose the destination; I chose the road.

As I continue my wandering in the streets of Alcázar de San Juan, waiting for the connecting train to Madrid, I pass a small and modern church. Families pour out onto the street, shaking hands, exchanging kisses, the children playing chase in the street. I say to myself, aloud, “así habría sido mi vida, quizás…”. I walk in the direction of the windmills, knowing full well I will not make it there and back in the forty minutes at my disposal. I find a small park on the way and stop to eat a semicurado sandwich in a concrete ring decorated with painted tiles telling the story of Don Quijote. I must read that book, I really must. It’s nothing short of a crime to have come this far with my Spanish and not to have read the book.

An hour passes. The train sails through the lush greenery of Aranjuez. My mind races back to an August afternoon, many years ago, when my parents decided to break up the long drive south to our new home with a visit to the royal palace there. Twelve year-old me, with little to no idea what I was getting myself in for, crouched down over a pond staring at pumpkinseed fish. Leaving England behind meant nothing to me, then. I was going to live in a country with pumpkinseed fish, and eagles, and hoopoes, and vultures, and Cola Cao. I knew my priorities. These days I’m not so sure. I know what they are – that much I have learned – but which are the most pressing priorities, the ones I truly cannot live without… that is hard to say.

Without England, I would not have my music. My gospel choir. My a cappella group. My funk band and the chance to pour all my heart and soul into the most powerful necessity on the planet. But without Spain, I would not have my greatest love. I would not have my family, my ever-changing, ever-constant paradise, and the happiness machine that is the Spanish language itself (forgive the overuse of the word “my” – it is so very easy to feel possessive about the things you care the most about). For the last three years I have been forced to choose between the two, and it has done its level best to tear me apart.

Seat forty-eight, coach one. Getafe rises up and out of the fields, heralded by an advance guard of red tower blocks on the horizon. The wilderness is behind us now; the metropolis ahead. Last night I dreamed I was climbing a steep forested hill, when out of nowhere a stag, huge and thunderous with broad antlers, bolted out of the bushes, cleared the fence to my left in a single leap and came to a halt on the other side of the path, looking back at me as though to challenge me. Google says to dream of a stag is an augur of caution against making hasty decisions, and that a running stag foretells a great deal of luck in family life. It sounds like superstitious stuff and nonsense to me, but in truth, I have not had a dream so vivid in a long time. And I have been known to avoid walking under scaffolding.

By eight thirty tonight I will be back at work. With exam season in full swing I could hardly ask for more than I already have. But I return home full of light. Spending the weekend with my family has been everything I wanted it to be and more besides, just like it was this time last year, and the Easter before that. I have never known a happiness quite like it. Seeing the shock, the joy and the tears on my little cousin’s face when he saw me in the church of San Blas… it is a memory I will never forget. Last year it was the novelty of discovery that shook me. Now it is the strength of love and blood, the strongest of all ties. And it will keep me strong until we meet again. That much I know. BB x

Song of Autumn

I usually walk home across the Bailey after lectures, but today I turned left at the end of Kingsgate Bridge and took the path along the river Weir. It was the goosanders that did it, I suppose. The one constant of my three years at Durham University has been that, come winter, there’s a family of three goosanders on the Weir (don’t know what a goosander is? Look it up, they’re beautiful). I was done for the day and everybody else had gone their separate ways to study, so I thought I’d treat myself to a half-hour’s isolation.

I don’t think I ever forgot how beautiful England is in the autumn. In fact, I think I grew to appreciate all the more for being so far away from it last year. There’s nothing like thirteen consecutive months of almost total sunshine to give you a real heartache for a cold, crisp autumn morning. Well, it’s certainly been cold recently, even if the frost hasn’t settled in yet, but now that our boiler’s fully functional, I’m not complaining. Even so, after the madcap nature of the last two months – I really have had something to do every day, come to think of it – something I really had forgotten to do was to make time for myself. And I’m not talking the lying-in-bed-watching-Youtube kind of me-time. Everybody has something that fills them up again when they’re feeling low. Maybe it’s good food, maybe it’s a hearty jog, or that song that never fails to put a smile on your face. For me, it’s nature. Between DELE revision, rehearsals with the Lights and this many other commitments, I’ve scarcely had the time to think straight. I’ve waxed lyrical about the importance of being busy and having people around you that radiate good energy, but for me, there’s no substitute for a good hour or so in nature’s arms.

Mrs Goosander wasn’t about this afternoon. She sometimes goes fishing further downstream. Mr Goosander and his rather shabby-looking youngster (still moulting, but more impressively, still here) were going about their business in their usual spot. The father looks especially impressive at the moment, with his feathers flushed that special shade of salmon-pink that is so particular to his kind. I think I saw him catch about three or four fish whilst I was there. Sit long enough in a sheltered spot and the little world accustoms itself to you…

An inquisitive little coal tit came to have a look-in on one of the trees overhanging the river. A couple of blackbirds were making a lot of noise rummaging around in the undergrowth as is their fashion. The soundscape was so autumnal, I only wish I could have recorded it for you. Words will have to do: the cooing of a woodpigeon in the trees; the machine-gun twittering of a roving party of nuthatches; the high-pitched seee of redwings overhead; the cawing of crows coming in to roost. The pitch-pitch, pitch-pitch-pitch of a chaffinch, tea-cher tea-cher of a great tit, and, once or twice, the distant shriek of a jay.

I don’t tend to talk about my favourite pastime all that often. Sometimes you don’t have to: the things that matter most are plain to see. Besides, who’d want to listen? I learned a long time ago that there are precious few who care about the distinction between wrens and robins, crows and jackdaws, mallards and goosanders. And, I suppose, the names are not important. What matters is that people know that they’re there. Planet Earth II seems to be extremely popular up here, and I hope it’s encouraging people to look around more when they’re out and about. 

So that’s my advice. The next time you’re out for a walk, whether you’re on your way to or from work, or just to kill some time, unplug yourself from the noise, find a quiet spot to sit down, shut your eyes and just let the world let you in. You won’t regret it. There’s no better music (and believe me, I’ve looked – my whole family are musicians).

Blackbirds, crows and redwings. The wind in the trees and the splash of diving ducks in the silent river. These are the sounds of my childhood. Of all the things life has taught me, I am no happier than in my knowledge of the world around me. I have my mother to thank for that, I think. That and my obsessive habit of chasing the details. I should probably have given journalism a little more thought. Then again… BB x

An old photo of mine from 2008, when I had nothing on my mind but birds!

Reflections from a Little Window

Since I’m no longer abroad (for the time being), the primary function of this blog is somewhat defunct at the moment. Even so, since it’s been such a crucial tool for keeping me writing this year, I see no reason why I should just leave it there for a year. So, to keep the old writing muscles flexed, I’m taking on the 365 Day Writing Challenge and using this blog as the medium. They won’t be especially long entries, but hopefully they’ll be good reading, and better still, good warm-ups for the essays I’m due to be writing over the course of the year, not least of all my twelve-thousand word dissertation.

So, without further ado, here’s Day One: Outside the Window

Mine is a little window. Perhaps that’s just as well, as it looks straight across the road to the girl in the house opposite. She’s been working flat out since eleven o’clock this morning, and if she were to look up from her studies, she’d have a pretty good view of my bedroom. But when I sit down at my desk to work, I’m invisible to the outside world. I like that. I might not be the shy, retiring figure I used to be, but I haven’t lost my fondness for disappearing from time to time.
The local jackdaw brigade is out in force. There’s a roost nearby, I think, maybe in the trees over on the Avenue. It’s nice to have something wild close at hand this year, but I don’t half miss the kites, or the storks and swallows I used to see every day from my balcony in Villafranca. The trade-off is regular rain, which is something I find myself curiously attached to.
It’s raining now, as it happens.
There’s nobody out and about on my street at the moment. I suppose that’s because it’s a Sunday afternoon. Everybody who’s not at the library or the gym is inside, wrapped up snug in their rooms and noticing, like me, that we’ve already reached that time of year when your breath comes out in a cloud, inside or out. Sooner or later I’ll have to stock up on hot chocolate.
I walked home in the rain the other night. It was after midnight, and the rain was coming down hard. It’s hard to say exactly how it felt, walking over Palace Green in the half-dark getting gradually soaked in my hoodie, with the mighty cathedral and its scaffolding-crown towering overhead. It’s not the first time I’ve seen rain since I got back from Morocco, but it was probably the first time I really thought about it. I always used to think that standing outside in the rain was something to be shared, something intensely romantic. Now that the six-year blinkers are off I see things a good deal more clearly. It’s a feeling as personal as a diary, and every bit as important. And if we really are sixty percent water, there must be something naturally therapeutic about getting soaked in the rain.
I’ve missed it.
It’s not raining anymore, and the sky is still light, in that English yellow-streaks-through-grey kind of way. The slate tiles on the roof across the road are proof enough that it has been raining, though, and that’s something beautiful to see.
The girl in the window opposite isn’t there anymore. She must have taken a break, and about time too. That’s what Sundays are for. Quite by accident, I’ve been working flat-out this week, all the while duping myself that I was ‘merely helping out with a few things’. I guess I just can’t help myself. When it comes to spare time, there’s only one day of the week when I can forgive myself for doing nothing.
The sky’s opened up. Through the fifty shades of grey in the clouds above there’s a break of blue up there, and the sunlight on the trailing edges of the breach is a brilliant golden-white. It’ll be gone again by the time I pen this down, but whilst it was here, it was one of those fleeting little moments of beauty you just have to stop and watch.

Bit of a reflective first run, this one. I’ll play around with style and voice over the next few and we’ll see where this takes us.

If you’d like to do something like this, the challenge list I’m following is this one here: http://thinkwritten.com/365-creative-writing-prompts/

 

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

Ramadan Dreams

I slept pretty much all afternoon yesterday. That’s what you get after a two o’clock suhūr, I suppose. The result was a slew of very vivid dreams, perhaps not uninspired by the few clips of Inside Out! I’d been watching (I really must see the whole film. It looks amazing). This morning I could have spun the whole bizarre sequence out for you, piece by piece, but like so many dreams it’s been carried away by the morning light. All I remember clearly is standing aboard a gigantic galleon with vast, green sails, floating high above the earth like something out of The Edge Chronicles, and hurling myself overboard with my camera bag into the sea below as an alarm sounded and the ship slowly tilted sideways, stooped and then plunged into the water. And I was mainly concerned about keeping my camera dry.

I don’t think the family were all that impressed by my walking to and from school yesterday. I was. I found my way there and back in forty minutes apiece and it felt so good to get out. After all of that palava over Moroccan table manners, I really needed to get out on my own. To think. To breathe. Homestays really shouldn’t be this tough, but I am a bit of a loner. Sometimes what I really need is just to be left alone for four or five hours to read, or to think, or just to be. That was last year’s trouble, too; always rushing about.

It’s been a hard first few days. I knew it was going to be this way, especially concerning the Arabic language itself, but I didn’t expect it to be quite this hard. Leaving behind the friendly routine of the best year of my life to march straight into a two-month overhaul was always going to be difficult. Had I not gone in so positive I’d be on the brink of tears right now. I’m so behind. My classmate takes in the stuff like a sponge and I’m sitting there leaking. Grammar goes in, gets jumbled up with a million other unconscious thoughts, mistakes come out. It was so much easier in first year, when I was ahead of the game and vocabulary was all that really mattered… But then the grammar caught up, I burned out, and like so many track events, I fell back and back and back until I found myself a whole lap behind the rest. What a joke.

And here’s the punchline. In my brief spell at home, I found a folded sheet of paper covered in red scribblings I’d penned during that five-hour church service-cum-auction in Boroboro. University plans, mostly. I wrote them just weeks before I was offered a place at Durham. In amongst the scrawls there’s a four-year plan, detailing my plan of attack vis-a-vis studying French, Spanish and Arabic.

Apparently I’d never intended to take Arabic past the second year at all. There’s a question mark by that one as it is.

The question is, why did I take this road? Jordan was trying, but then, so is this – for want of company, this time. But for that one Monday class, last year was a dream. I belonged. Just speaking Spanish made me happy. And now I’m here… It seems very silly to be doing something you don’t really enjoy, and less so when you’ve no intention whatsoever of making any money out of it. Neither use nor ornament, and that’s probably the first and only time I’ve used that expression perfectly.

I suppose… I suppose I simply followed my heart. I tend to do that. I fell so very much in love with Arabic in first year. In fact, I scored more highly in Arabic that year than in either French or Spanish; undying proof that, if you put your mind to it, you can surely do it. It was, as we say, in my interest. Then came second year, the Northern Lights, the Gospel Choir fracas, another failed attempt at a relationship and the entire juggling scenario. I fell apart. I like being busy, but that was something else. I was balancing far more than I could feasibly carry. And I was also supposed to be studying Arabic.

Arabic is one of those languages you simply have to devote a lot of time to. I did in first year – almost every evening – and hey, it showed. I only became disillusioned when the lingering gap-year cabin-fever adrenaline rush petered out and I realized that there was more to university than endless study. It was thanks to that that I made so few friends outside my Arabic class that year… and that was one of the main reasons I decided to keep going. Arabic 1B wasn’t just a class, it was a real community in the way that the seven or eight French and Spanish groups could never be. United in fear. That was the magic.

What I really need right now is to escape. To be alone, without having to worry about grammar, about the family, about what my next heinous foodie faux-pas is going to be. Fortunately, I’m in the perfect place for that.

I’m turning twenty-two this weekend. Last year I spent a good deal of the day stretched out under the shade of an oak tree in the hills high above Durham, listening to the skylarks and feeling at peace with the world. That’s what I need to do. To get out. To the country. To be free. BB x

Whistlestop

I’ve been in the UK for just over twenty-four hours. In another twenty-four hours I’ll be gone again, somewhere over the Iberian peninsula on a plane bound for Morocco. I finished work on Tuesday night and I’ll be back to the grindstone by Saturday afternoon. Even by my standards, I’m cutting it fine for breathing space.

It’s my birthday that spoiled it. It’s quite stupid, really. I should have been heading out next Saturday, not this one. Any other day and I’d have been quite happy to head out to begin the third and final stint of my Year Abroad… But it’s the thought of spending an entire day traveling and winding up in Tetouan, alone, and very probably lost in translation on my twenty-second birthday that held me back.

It’s only another day in the year. And twenty-two is nothing special. But I’d rather have got cozy and settled in before I think too hard about aging another year. If I’d had half a brain and just a pinch of common sense, I’d have ignored the detail and given myself just a few more days to rest. Another week, perhaps. But I didn’t, and I’m off tomorrow, to begin the placement I fought so very hard to win last summer. I guess I have little choice but to tackle it head on, beaming.

There’s also the fact that I won’t be ‘alone’ for long. Just two weeks after I touch down, I’ll be joined by two Arabbuddies from Durham: Team Jordan’s very own Katie Lang and Kat, both Team Morocco veterans. The temptation to resort to English will be strong. All the more reason to knuckle down and get stuck in first. As the first Durham Arabist to test the waters at Dar Loughat – a pioneer, if you will – it’s my prerogative to get off to a good start, which means the less tempted I am to fall back on English, the better. I won’t have any repeats of Jordan.

Not that it’s a competition or anything like that. Language learning never should be. Even if it were, I’d have lost already. Kat will be fresh from at least five months and more in Jordan, Team Fes totaled six or seven shortly after Christmas and the Lebanon lot have just clocked a whopping nine months in Beirut, so any chances of the Arabic class of ’17 coming back on an even playing field are already dead in the water, but at least Katie and I are of the same mentality: namely, one of ‘ah heck, let’s just get this over with, shall we?’.

But that’s ok. Arabic is fun, it’s interesting and the countries where it’s spoken doubly so, but I never really wanted to go anywhere with it. A desire to explore North Africa and to make myself understood in the process are all I really wanted from it, and that’s exactly what Dar Loughat can provide. So what if I’m going to return to Durham near the bottom of the Arabic pile, despite having started off so strong? Put me in a Spanish class instead and watch me fly. Arabic is no lost cause either. Morocco will bring out the goods. All I have to do is hold up my end of the bargain and work for it.

The train’s pulling in to Paddock Wood. England looks so very green and lush and beautiful… And cold. It was almost worth making this brief sortie back home just for the train ride. The Kentish lowlands are really quite pretty.

I know next to nothing about what happens after I touch down tomorrow. I know I’m getting picked up from the airport, which is a plus, but as for the name and number of my host family for the next two months… Zilch. Kaput. I’m just hoping there’s something fixed on the other end. I seem to remember that it was just as laissez-faire in Amman, but I’m striking out alone this time. And whilst it’s hardly more a priority than having a roof over my head, I wonder if they’ll have WiFi… Internet access has been very touch-and-go this year; quite literally so, now that I have a portable device in the form of this Durham courtesy iPad. Since July 2015 I’ve leant out of windows, loitered about cafés and put in extra hours in the staff room in search of WiFi. Even here at home I’m going to have to go next door into the common room to post this. Here’s to third-time lucky.

First priority when I get home is to get packing. If I could finish unpacking first, that would be a plus, too. I suppose I should also spend tonight thinking about my dissertation; module registration opens tomorrow, so I’d better do that just before I go. I’m not lacking in ideas. I’m holding a book on captive narratives in the Empire years, and in my rucksack are a further two studies on women in the Indian mutiny and the role of Lawrence’s young men in the Khyber border disputes.

Unfortunately, I’m not studying for a History degree, and since the Spanish never had a hold over the Indian subcontinent, there’s precious little good any of that will do me, besides being thrilling reading. I’ve been obsessed with the Raj since Pavilions.

It’ll be something literary I suppose – that’s where I work best – but I haven’t quite narrowed it down yet. I’ll try to focus my three potential fields into two titles apiece and see what Durham’s advice is. I’m getting myself another £9000 in debt this year just for the privilege of studying at university (future generations, look back and weep); the least I can do is ask them to do that much for me so that I’m all cleared to begin in September.

Before that, two independent research projects in the target language are outstanding: one each for Spanish and Arabic, on bandit legends and the Barbary pirates respectively. All I need is reliable internet and I’ll get cracking. Morocco, don’t let me down.

The next time you hear from me, I’ll be in Africa (oh, but that felt good. I should say that more often. It makes the next leg a great deal more exciting, when you think of it like that). Until then, wish me luck. It’s going to be quite the uphill struggle, getting back into Arabic after almost a year’s wanton neglect, but I’m up for a challenge. Bring it. BB x

Counting Sheep and Blessings

February is over at last and the long, languid days of glorious sunshine are here.

Who am I kidding? This is Spain. We’ve had glorious sunshine on and off since September, and more on than off.

My private school whisked away the entire student body to Guadalupe today, yet another trip which I could have attended had I not a second job to balance. That gave me the afternoon off, which I sorely needed, having come down with a head-cold of some description since Monday morning. Frankly I’m surprised I got through almost the entire winter without a single incident, as I’m usually down with something or other in the first two months of the year. Not that I’d ever let it stop me from working, naturally, but it’s not all that easy to lead a conversation class when talking is just about the very last thing you want to be doing. Nevertheless, the stubborn endurance (or rather, total and deliberate ignorance of my condition) I inherited from my mother won out and I made a decent morning of it. Being ill, in a way, is just like being bored or heartbroken; the very best cure is to keep too busy to give it any thought.

On second thoughts, don’t take my word for that.

I took a detour through the park on the way home and, it being such a warm, sunny day, I sat by the water feature and tried meditating for a bit. I haven’t actually done any in months and boy, does it show. I’m out of practice, so I decided instead to simply soak up the sun, listen to a BBC Radio In Our Time podcast on the Spanish Inquisition and watch the goldfinches bathing in the water. I think I was there for an hour, or two… It could easily have been longer. For some reason when I’m ill I tend to lose track of time.

Something that occurred to me this week is how lucky I am to be where I am. I’ve been searching for a way of putting this that doesn’t come across as boastful, though I’d rather use the term proud; it refers to my ego, and it might just mark the final stepping stone in a healing process that’s taken all of seven years to complete.

I’ll explain. Since the day I moved to a junior private school at the age of eight, I’ve been surrounded by people vastly more capable than me. I was always something of a second-class citizen at that school: I didn’t have the brains to keep up with the best, and I didn’t have the money to keep up with the rest. I was swiftly filtered into the middle set, which is something of a no-man’s-land, from which it’s very hard to escape. I left that establishment after three years for other reasons, mostly financial, but also because (in one of the most pig-ignorant decisions of my life to date) my classmates were beginning to use ‘bad words’ and I’d got it into my head that a boys’ grammar school would be a more civilized environment.

I’ll be brief. It wasn’t. But as far as my surroundings were concerned, the wealth was removed but the feeling of being overshadowed trebled, not least of all because I actually failed the entrance test and got in purely on the merit of my writing. So I came in pretty much at the bottom of the pile, in a school where the average student was scoring eight or nine A*s at GCSE level. Add to that the number of kids on the ‘Gifted and Talented’ list, or on MENSA, with national-level CAT test grades; and the large proportion of students playing various sports at county level; and the musicians with Grade 8 on two or three instruments – most of these, I should add, heavily concentrated in the super-bright ones…

It was very hard to stand out at all in such a school. I guess that’s one of the reasons I’ve thrown myself at so many fields over the years: music, literature, history, dance, art, horse-riding, photography, ornithology… For want of an example, I led my school’s Funk Band, but I was a long way off from being the best singer. I simply did it because I was reasonably good at it and because I enjoyed it. The same with Art; there were some genuine Picassos in my art class. I was not one of them. So I was and always have been kind of a Jack of all trades and master of none, if we ignore a paltry average of 26% in my mock Maths exams.

Durham is not much better. Being the stomping ground of private and grammar alike, it’s just as much of a melting pot for the über-talented as either of my previous schools. That’s a great thing – really – as it brings great minds together. The result is some stellar orchestras, sports teams and research groups… at the cost of being ‘normal’ (which, I hasten to add, is not necessarily a bad thing, but then, nobody in my family has ever been or ever will be normal).

Coming to Villafranca, however, I’ve had my eyes opened for the first time in over a decade to what I can do. It’s not that I’m in a town of country bumpkins – there are some seriously bright stars amongst my students – but for the first time in my life I’m not surrounded by people who are leagues ahead of me in all fields. And for somebody who’s more than used to settling for second-best, it’s a wonderful feeling. Don’t get me wrong, I’m chomping at the bit to get back to a place where music for its own sake actually exists, but I intend to make the most of not being outshone this year. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I love travel so much. Getting away from it all.

That said, I’ve spent most of today in bed, drifting in and out of sleep. My dreams have been vivid and memorable of late, as tends to happen when I’m down with a headache. I can’t remember all the details, but I remember consoling Liam Neeson last night over the death of a family member, and then feeling slightly miffed that I didn’t get a photo with him.

If that’s the kind of thing that my brain does in its spare time, there’s probably a reason I’ve always been second best. But that’s ok. It’s a role that suits me just fine. B, after all, comes right after A. BB x