Double-Edge

The Christmas holidays have come and gone. I’m back in Durham once again for what is beginning to feel increasingly like the last tilt of sand in the hourglass. Last term went by like a bullet as I found myself thrown headlong into a heavy workload once again, but yours truly must have learned his lesson over the last year or two, because I can’t think of a day when I let it get me down. The troubles and traumas of the first two years of academia and extra-curricular pressures wanted and unwanted were very much absent from last term; if they were there, they were buried deep beneath a veneer of simple satisfaction. Satisfaction with my course, satisfaction with my extra-curricular commitments, satisfaction with the direction my life is taking me.

That’s not to say I’ve got it all figured out. I don’t. I’m still waiting on a crucial reference to secure my post next year – without it I could end up in hot water. I’m surrounded by people who are powering ahead with their dissertations at a remarkable rate, whilst I content myself with reading leisurely around the subject before I even think about the process of putting pen to paper. The Lights are also taking me forward at considerable speed, and it is this last which is eating into my timetable more than anything else at the moment. After three entire days of pitch-punching and choreo workshops, it’s easy to forget that university is a place for the pursuit of knowledge.

That’s something I’ve been thinking about recently: what does a university mean?

Over the last few years I’ve met a lot of people from different walks of life who have very different attitudes to university. There are many for whom it is simply the next stage in their studies, a means to an end, an expensive-but-necessary qualification to hack into the job market. I find it a little heartbreaking that this is what university has become for so many, the semi-obligatory next step in the road and one that we are all too often pushed into without even thinking. University should be open to everybody, of course, but does that necessarily mean that everybody needs to go to university? I’m not so sure.

Then there are those who accept that first notion and proceed to enjoy their time at university with their eventual degree very much subsidiary to their overall experience. They’re the ones who couldn’t care less if they land a 2:2 at the end of three years of lectures and under-prepared seminars, just as long as they had an amazing time and met some life-changing people along the way. Granted, it’s a point of view that suits the wingers and the daddy’s-boys more than most, but it’s not too uncommon. And at the end of the day, you can’t criticise the stance too harshly: it’s a very good example of making the best of a bad situation.

What else can a university degree offer? Networking, for one. It’s a fantastic way to meet new people and, by default, make important contacts in the outside world. It’s a good way to hone the skills you learned at secondary school to perfection, or to stay immersed in a subject you enjoyed. Some just don’t like to leave the school environment behind: the routine, the structure and the linear timetabling make for a familiar existence (and I include myself shamelessly in that bracket).

There is, of course, another important reason people decide to go to university: in pursuit of raw knowledge. That, for me, is the very essence of university. It’s what it’s all about: seeking new truths, dispelling old beliefs and walking into new worlds. What saddens me most is that this is so rarely the primary motivation. I wonder whether it’s more than a little big-headed of me to say such a thing, but I guess I expected to find more people with this kind of attitude when I rocked up a fresh-faced, idealistic fresher a few years back. I wasn’t exactly popular, and with an attitude like that, it’s really not hard to see why. Since then I’ve mellowed a bit, but I still feel a little happier than I should when I encounter somebody else who has nothing but unbridled passion for their degree. Perhaps that’s just the nature of an undergraduate degree; the Masters students all seem to be wholly absorbed in their studies. I guess I’ll just have to return to this world a few years down the line.

Perhaps it’s because I want to be a writer that the simple pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is so important to me. How can you profess to write for people if you don’t read? It’s little banal thoughts like that that kicked me back into reading fiction two years back. The effect that reading fiction has had on my overall enjoyment of academic research is surprising, to say the least. I wonder whether the two were supposed to go hand-in-hand from the very beginning.

More and more these days my degree leads me and my stories into worlds and places I could never have found on my own, and likewise the years of research I have carried out for my books gives me insight into my degree that features nowhere in my course. I have been torn from Spain, from the land that bled life into my tales like veins to a beating heart, but with a little hard work, I have found a survival mechanism in the university effect. Whatever one’s motivation for going to university may be, the result is a hot-pad of intellectuals of all walks of life. It is a place for bringing together great minds for the bettering of the nation, in pursuit of new truths and new ideas. Just the vibe alone of such an environment is reason enough to throw oneself into academia. That, I think, is the real purpose of university.

If only the UK could follow the Scandinavian example and make a university degree a realistic option for all, with no respect for money or background. The way things are going, such an aspiration is little more than a pipe-dream at the moment, but if we might try to take a step in the right direction, I’d implore the powers that be to rethink the idea that everybody in this country should be going for a university degree by necessity. University should be encouraged, of course, but no more than an apprenticeship, an equally admirable path by all respects. Higher education should be for everybody, but’s it’s not. An option, not a necessity.

I may be little more than another one of those liberal, meritocratic millennials, but I’m not alone. I think there’s something very wrong with the way we’re monopolising higher education, when it should be nothing more than that: an education.

To make good on my words and dispel a few old beliefs. A university degree is not meant to be the three best years of your life. It’s not meant to be a government-sponsored ride of wild parties and last-minute essays. And it’s not meant to be a long slug of soulless study either. But it can be immensely worthwhile and should not be abused.

But what do I know? Students are, after all, noisy creatures that are happy to live in hovels and live in close-knit cliques of their own. What do I know about the world? x

Advertisements

Lose Some, Winsome

I’ll pick up from right where we left off two posts ago with the dissertation.

I didn’t get it.

I should have seen it coming, I suppose. 2016 has been a bit like my last Maths exam: full of wrong answers. It’s been an odd year. A very odd year. A year where Donald Trump actually became first a viable and then the only Republican candidate for the US presidency. A year that saw 51% of Britain actually give in to race hate and fear-mongering and leave the EU. A year that brought us a Pokémon-inspired traffic jam, Boris Johnson elected as Foreign Minister, and the deaths of Prince, David Bowie and Alan Rickman. And now, just to top it all off, I’ve been thrown back onto my second choice dissertation.

In perspective, mine is a very minor problem. It still smarts, though.

Granted, radically changing my modules at the last minute may not have helped matters. But after all of the hard work I put into chiseling out a wholly original dissertation topic (not so easy, when Google contains the abstracts of almost every dissertation imaginable), I’ve been thrown back on my second. Small mercies, then, that I put just as much time and effort into making my fallback as enjoyable and challenging as the first.

Oh wait, hold the phone. I’ve done a real Benjamín here. It turns out I played an old hand this time around, one that’s never failed me before: that is, I deliberately made my second module broader, a little less original and closely linked to my TLRP, so that my university would be forced into giving me my first choice. The old ‘Second-best’ maneuver.

It’s a good trick, and it’s worked before. Only, this time I was outmaneuvered. And now I’ve been put into such a position that, if I stick to my original title, it would be almost impossible not to plagiarize myself. That’s without mentioning that the dissertation I intended to write (my first choice: memories of al-Andalus in Spanish literature) was the one I’d been planning on writing since I was in Year 10 in secondary school (I was an odd kid). It’s essentially research for my novel, the best there could have been. Gone. So that’s a six-year dream squashed underfoot. And no room for maneuver either, since they’re fixed now, and also as somebody else got the al-Andalus dissertation this year. Not so winsome now.

What a diss-aster. Thanks a lot Durham. Thanks.

On the bright side, my dissertation supervisor is possibly my favourite lecturer, so I can’t really complain. I’ll just have to swallow my six-year pride and do the best with what I’ve got. And what I’ve got is still good. Very good. Only, it looks to be a little bit harder to spin twelve thousand words of this one. Without plagiarizing myself, preferably. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

To commiserate, we went to the Med this afternoon to soak it all off in the sun. Katie has plenty to say about her equally unfair diss-missal, but the sun and the sea saw to our anger, and a couple of rounds of Psychiatrist killed any bad feeling remaining. I’ve come to love my Dar Loughat droogs as much as I did my Ali Baba babes if not more, which is a tough task. Balancing the time between them and the host family remains a tightrope walk, and one of these days I’ll have a bad fall if I’m not careful, but for now, the peace lasts.

But that’s it for today. I’m back in bed, I’m recharged on data (5€ for 5GB is a stupidly good deal) and I’m ready and waiting for the rest of the misadventures 2016 has in store for me. Global financial meltdown? World War Three? Another friend-zoning-of-the-century? All equally possible.

Here’s to another hike this weekend. The way things are going, hiking is probably the most hassle-free activity left to me.

But then again, this is me we’re talking about. Who knows what madness I’ll get up to next? BB x

Don Quijote soup – when the rim is larger than the meal itself

Blaming the Wind

“My country lay within a vast desert. When the sun rose into the sky, a burning wind punished my lands, searing the world. And when the moon climbed into the dark of night, a frigid gale pierced our homes. No matter when it came, the wind carried the same thing… Death. But the winds that blew across the green fields of Hyrule brought something other than suffering and ruin. I coveted that wind, I suppose.”

Ganondorf’s speech, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Have you ever tried to write an essay in summer, when your friends have all gone to the beach and the humidity is fiercely high? Let me tell you: it’s brutal. I have nobody to blame but myself for the panic, having left it this late to really knuckle down and get working on this essay, but the Levante is an obstacle I confess I had not counted on. It tires you out and yet at the same time it holds you back from sleep. On a regular day when the skies are clear it might just make you a little woozy, but when the clouds push the current down to earth it acts like a greenhouse. The very wind saps you of your energy and leaves you hot, sticky and lethargic.

Not the best environment to tackle a 5,000 word research project in a foreign language.

The Levante reminded from the very first of Ganondorf’s final speech from Nintendo’s Zelda: The Wind Waker. Until then he’d been a fairly standard videogame boss with awesome power and not much personality. I don’t know whether it was an act of mercy on the designer’s part or a simple desire for a more human villain, but he was a new man in WW, and that last speech always stands out in my head. Maybe after a thousand years of imprisonment in the Sacred Realm he’d had time to mull the whole world-domination thing over. So Zelda supports cognitive behavioral therapy. Who knew?

Alright, so the Levante doesn’t exactly bring death. But lying here in the heat and the stickiness and the fatigue of the night, it certainly isn’t the kind of wind I associate with green fields.

Fortunately, at least as far as the essay is concerned, I planned well: more than 365 days later, the topic – bandit mythology in Spain – is as exciting as it sounded when I first came up with the idea on a whim last year, when my mind was likely otherwise occupied by British Council anticipation and the next Northern Lights gig. So, whilst the others at Dar Loughat spent a jolly old time at Ceuta, or Ain Zarqa, or watching Grease, I managed to bust out a decent thousand words or so; decent being a liberal term, dependent entirely on whether you can stomach my shamelessly flowery essay-writing style. If it weren’t for the fact that I’ve been run down to my last megabyte of data – quite literally – I might consider going for another thousand this weekend too… But that’s not what the year abroad is for. Besides, I need more data or I’m going off the grid. I think I’ll check out the Three Armies after class.

At some point over the next few weeks I’ll get around to braving new territory and filming a grand sum-up of the year – mainly because I have to, it being part of my contract with the Durham blog. Not so good for this particularly camera-shy blogger, but you never learn if you never try, and it might be a fun little break from routine, anyway. You might even call it a swan song, in light of recent events.

It’s just gone four minutes past midnight, post-Ramadan time. I’ve got the Corrs’ latest album playing as I write – specifically, Gerry’s Reel. This evening, between sweating like a pig and drinking like a fish, I’ve got a decent amount of novelling done, too. Never forget, BB, that that is the crux. University, the year abroad, Arabic… It’s all a passing phase. The book is eternal and if you don’t work on it, nobody else will. It’s really blossomed this year like never before and I’m quite excited to have the time to work on it without any guilt in September, before dissertation season and the travails of Finals year set in.

Speaking of which, we should be finding out our dissertation choices this week. Scary, much. Especially so when it’s a 12,000 word commitment. Fingers crossed, eh? BB x

Flicking V’s

The first thing you should know about Villafranca: life may seem slow here, but the underground current moves lightning quick.

And here we go! The longest stretch of the year abroad has begun, and boy does it look it. It certainly felt it as I tried to bed down after packing everything I’ll need for the next nine months into a single suitcase. I got a bad case of cold feet in the last five minutes before I fell asleep, wondering when the next time I’d have a bed of my own would be. I’m hosteling it for the first three nights whilst I find my feet here, which takes me up to Friday night. It’s looking like it won’t all be resuelto by then, but, it’s still early days. If nothing’s been arranged by then, I’ll use the weekend to sort out a few vital affairs in Badajoz, namely acquiring an essential NIE, or número de identidad de extranjero, a turgid, long-winded process that looks to be quite the bureaucratic nightmare, worse by far than a flotilla of ICPCs. But we’ll just have to wait and see. If the Facebook page is anything to go by, some manage it with minimal hassle, others don’t. Luck of the draw. You just keep your head screwed on and tackle it sin compromiso, niño. This is no time to be shy.

Taking a breather under Alicia’s Bridge

Getting to Villafranca from Seville was not the simplest voyage I’ve ever undertaken. What really didn’t smooth things out was the singularly unhelpful bus driver, who told me that the 14:15 to Valladolid would not pass through Villafranca de los Barros; even if I wanted Mérida, I’d need a different bus. Fortunately this is Spain, and one of the passengers told me otherwise. So I took a chance on the Valladolid bus and, what do you know, it does pass through Villafranca. El Conductor was none too gracious with letting me take my suitcase from the bowels of his bus either, but he let it go in the end, and I took my first steps into Villafranca de los Barros fighting the temptation to flick several triumphant V’s in his direction.

This place is a lot drier than I’m used to (discounting Amman)

At four in the afternoon, the place really is nothing short of a ghost town. I took a walk through the centre to have a little look-around, and for the most part the place was deserted. On the edge of town, where the comparatively large park meets the open countryside, you can see all the way to the Montes de Toledo to the north. A cold wind was blowing across the steppe, which only added to the frontier town vibe. I was entirely alone in my circuit of the northern part of town, but for a handful of chatty students leaving the walled confines of the Colegio San José, essentially a Spanish remodeling of Worth Abbey. Mum thinks I should put in some extra hours there if I can and I have to say I’m pretty tempted, but it looks like I might be kept quite busy here after all.

As arranged, I’ve come into school right away, and thanks to all eight of the Meléndez Valdés English staff, I feel like I know the place already. Must be that charming will to help out that most Spaniards have preprogrammed into their systems (I’m looking at you, Mr Bus Driver). It’s dead similar to IES Sierra de Lijar as far as memory serves, but then, I suppose all Spanish secondary schools follow a similar mold. A major confidence boost is the music teacher, who was particularly keen to see me – she already has her sights on a Christmas concert with a potential choir in mind. I’ll keep you posted on that one.

At any rate, it’s such a relief to be speaking Spanish again, even if I do keep tripping over invading Arabic words – especially ‘na3m’ and ‘qariib’. It’s like 711 in my brain. But if I can keep this up, I’ll be fluent in a matter of months. Which is no bad thing.

Back to the staffroom life!

I’ve been charged with assisting with a few ESO classes primarily, which in this case is the bilingual branch of the school, along with a couple of classes of bachillerato. I’m still not entirely sure what that entails, as it seems a lot of my lessons will be open-book. It’s less a case of ‘here’s what we want you to teach’ and more a case of ‘there’s your office, and here are some materials you may wish to use’. That said, the age-old rule where ‘assistant’ is a byword for ‘another teacher’ still stands, as it did in Dr Obote College and with my summer job last year; I might end up taking a full class once or twice a week. Or more. My horario still isn’t finalised so it’s still all up in the air, but we’ll see. What I do know is that I get a day off a week, on either Monday or Friday, and I’m free in the afternoons – ‘para viajar’. They seem keen that I do, and I’m not about to disappoint on that count. I’ll probably need that extra day anyway; getting to and from VdB isn’t the easiest of operations. Given the spread of Saint’s Days and national festivals (a poor year for puentes, I’m afraid) I should probably try for having my day off on Friday, but I’m not about to get shirking just yet. Besides, I think I’m going to like it here.

I’ve still got to sort out somewhere to live for the next nine months, but that might not be the Herculean task it first seemed. I was game for roving the town in search of se alquila signs, but the staff have been lightning-quick in the hour since I arrived here. I already have two apartments and two flat-shares on the table to choose from. One of the newer members from staff is very keen to help out on that front, sweeping all the other offers off the board in typically bombastic Spanish style with an offer from his primo for a very competitively-priced flat-share. He’s showing me the place after the meeting this afternoon, and since I can have the place until June, it seems the best offer yet. The dueño is a real gitano and I’m going to have to negotiate to get as good a deal as it is by the sounds of things, but if it means I can share with a Spaniard, so much the better, purely so that I don’t have to worry about company. As it turns out, Wikipedia’s estimate as to the population count of Villafranca de los Barros, currently at 13,000, was wildly off the charts – by about ten thousand. So in a curious twist of fate I’ve got exactly what I asked for. And since everybody seems to know everybody here, I’m hoping it won’t take too long to get comfortable.

As before, it’s going to be a mask-wearing game. In the staff room, it’s Spanish for everything, and they’ve been very complimentary already as to the strength of my castellano – but the children cannot know that. To them I’m just a native/naïve English speaker, here to improve their English. Here’s to hiding that fabulous Andalou drawl for as long as I can.

I guess that if chinks start to appear in my armour, I could always claim it’s the Arabic coming through instead. It’s not like it hasn’t tried several times already. BB x

End of an Era

Racked up a grand total of five hours’ sleep last night. Not exactly great, but a lot better than it could have been, considering just how FRICKIN’ AWESOME yesterday was.

No more classes at Ali Baba, for a start. We’re finished. Khalass. Two months of study wrapped up and tossed aside, just like that. And doesn’t it feel like every day of it…! Nah, I’m just messing with you. In truth the last four weeks have flashed past in the blink of an eye. Wadi Rum feels like it was only a few days ago, and as for Dana and the others who were with us for first term… why, they could have been here yesterday (now somebody hit the cliché button and hit it fast). We’ve had a really good run of it and ended on a good high, with a certificate presentation, a few last rounds of Arabic language games and a talent show no less, which I won on votes with yet another dangerously one-man rendition of a song, this time the gypsy ballad Arrinconamela – chosen mostly because I’ve kind of done The Circle of Life to death out here and it’s not as fun without my Lights at hand. Hey, I got a double Snickers bar out of it, so I’m not complaining.

I digress. Ali Baba has been nothing short of brilliant in every way. I’ve learned so much out here and that has more to do with the intensity of my four-hour classes than anything else, so a great big shout-out to Wafiqa and the Ali Baba staff for a grand two months of Arabic teaching. I sure hope ALIF can match your level of commitment!

We scarcely had time to rush back to the apartment to start packing, Andrew and I, when I was whisked back to the internet range of Ali Baba’s fourth-floor cafe to book both of our hostels for the next week, in Aqaba and Amman. You see, unlike the homestay girls, whose hosts have graciously allowed them to stay on after their lease and then to take them as far as the airport, we’re being booted out on command and thus have to find – and pay for – somewhere else to stay for the next week. In fact, our cheery landlord wants us out of here by ten o’clock this morning. Worse, the chirpy chap even followed us to the main road yesterday asking over and over if we wanted to have left by eight instead. Words fail me; words did not fail Andrew. We’ve tidied up most of the place, but it’s still very much occupied for the time being. It’ll be a last minute rush down to the bus station when the clock strikes a quarter past ten, but it’ll be worth it to see the back of this little apartment. It’s been great having a pad so close to our school, as it were, and it’s been nothing short of the party nucleus for the last two months, both because of its proximity and because Andrew and I have been voluntarily phone-less, so the only way to contact us has been in person. A grand idea from the get-go.

That aside, I’m glad we’re leaving today; this place is simply not worth $1000 a month, even split between us. That’s double what I was paying in Durham, and that was for an entire house. Jeez. And for the gall of living in a city, no less! Ali Baba’s only flaw is the price it puts on student housing, whether they find you a flat or a homestay. Take my advice and find your own place, through AirB’n’B or from the friendly environment of a hostel. Because had I known how small a flat we’d be getting for $1000 – with a faulty kettle, nearly-headless tap and other inconsistencies too numerous to name – I’d never have been so quick to hand over the cash. Arabists, take heed!

With all of our hostels booked, Andreas and his language partner Abu Ahmad took us out into the country for a barbecue, and I might use this as an excuse to debunk a few myths that I started. It turns out that there are trees near Amman, and not the artificially-grown ones in the university grounds. If you can get as far as the neighbouring town of As-Salt, the countryside surrounding it is stunning, even in the last few days of August when it’s had the full force of the Arabian summer sun shining down on its back for three months and more. We cooked more meat than Andrew and I have had in our whole two months of egg-based existence and were stuffed to the gills within minutes. That we managed to gather our senses and box some for today’s journey stands testament to some last-minute quick-thinking, or else they’d have thrown the last home-made kebabs away. Ach, just thinking of it is making me hungry.

But seriously though: As-Salt. If you ever get tired of the noise of Amman, get yourself on one of the many buses bound for As-Salt (they pronounce it ‘salt’) and take a hike into the country. It’s so green, so quiet, and such a world away from the hustle-bustle of city living. There were wild birds there too: I saw a couple of jays, homely-sounding blackbirds and even an Arabian Babbler to top it off. If only we’d stumbled upon it sooner… No matter. We’ve had fun. More importantly this was also our last night with Andreas, who’s been such a rock in our time out here, both for Arabic queries and for good humour, not to mention strength of character. We’re all going to miss you, Andreas, our only and favourite Swede. Good luck in Cairo (you lucky thing) and I hope we meet again someday!

Our heartfelt farewells to Andreas were cut short because we needed to be back in Amman for seven to catch a taxi down to a place called The Dome, a party venue halfway between our pad and the airport – so quite a way out of town. Believe it or not, we had a stroke of luck in that – for once – the second taxi we asked was willing to take us there. Only, he had absolutely no idea where there was. So he got to driving south and rang up the venue for us, amongst other contacts, to divine the location, and in the end he not only got us there for eight o’clock but offered to pick us up in turn. What a charmer!

I should explain. We were bound for The Dome because the biggest name in the Arabic music world at the moment, Saad Lamjarred (the mu3allem guy), is in Amman and there was talk of a great big party on the grapevine. We had it from another taxi driver, as it happens, who let us in on the secret. He even called up his friend to get us tickets. At thirty dinar a head it wasn’t cheap, but any misgivings I had about the price were obliterated in the first hour – and Saad Lamjarred didn’t even show up until about twenty minutes past ten. No, our thanks go to none other than DJ Khaled.

Charged up on unholy slushie (I don’t even want to know what was in the stuff) and Kinder Bueno ice-cream (these Arabs have such great ideas when it comes to sweets) we – that is, Andrew, Eloise, Mackenzie and I – couldn’t help getting itchy feet every time a good song came on. About every five minutes, that is. And so what if nobody else was dancing? We were having fun. Sure, we must have looked a little crazy, just dancing alone as the four of us for about an hour, but when Khaled’s C’est la Vie came on and we realised that we knew it, we went wild. And before we knew it, there was a crowd gathered around us in a circle to watch us move. Andrew, Mack and I were milking it for all it was worth; Eloise had the sense to hang back a bit (and film it for last shaming opportunities). In the end it wasn’t just spectator sport either, as some of the men felt the vibe too and joined in, which is when the party really started. We met so many people our own age who had been waiting, it seemed, for somebody to bite the bullet in order to let loose. As for me, I haven’t danced so hard in months. Between the four of us, we got things going in the back row, and because of that it’s going down as one of the best nights of the whole shebang, if not of my life so far.

The craziness of it all is that the first, second and third class tickets counted for nothing, in the end. We’d gone for the cheapest option at thirty, the most sensible route by far, as next to nobody was in the £50 second class row, and the £70 first class row was a seated affair. That’s no fun! But it gets better (or worse, depending on how you look at it). The bouncers, some naturally built like gorillas, others just oddly proportioned with arms nearly three times the size of their legs, proved susceptible to the whims of Eloise and Mack and their charm and/or sheer determination to get ahead, because bit by bit, we found ourselves jumping from third class to second, and eventually even into first, right to the edge of the stage. How’s that for white guilt? It got to me just before the end and I hung back whilst the others rushed into first class, until I felt like a first-class muppet myself when it was just me, an old woman and a mother and child left in second-class towards the end of the night. As for the man of the hour, Master Saad Lamjarred himself, his show was nothing less than blitz-worthy; I mean that in a good way. He only really had four songs of his own, plus a few great covers, but he sure knew how to get the party going – and all the while with a great big grin on his face that was infectious at the sight. We had quite a rave at the back with our new friends.

I’d better leave it there. It was quite a night, and because of it we’re both knackered, Andrew and I. He was awake when I started writing this; he’s fast asleep now. We’ve got another long day ahead of us, but on the bright side, in a couple of hours we’ll be done with this apartment for good, and bound on a four-hour bus for Aqaba, where we can really let our hair down and chill. We’ve earned it. BB x

Necessarily Childish

Would you believe it? There are clouds over Amman today – real, genuine clouds. Yes, I really am getting excited about clouds. So tell me I’m crazy; I already know that. I just miss the sight of a sky that isn’t a brown shade of blue, that’s all.

We’re coming to it now, the end of my stay in Jordan. Just three days of class remain, and then a whole week and more to do whatever before our return flight takes us home – via a day’s sojourn in Kiev, provided the airport authorities allow us to pop out for a visit between flights! (Those twelve hours sure will drag if they don’t…) Way back in May when Kate, Katie, Andrew and I booked our flights, we had no idea we were going to get almost all of our traveling done before the end of term. Well, here we are at the end, and I’ve already seen the abandoned desert castles, seen the sun set over the Promised Land from the bitter waters of the Dead Sea, wandered the Roman ruins of Jerash, swam with triggerfish at Aqaba, trekked Dana, gawped at Petra by day and night and watched a veritable storm of shooting stars over Wadi Rum. Somehow I’ve managed all of that in our weekend breaks, and in retrospect, it’s as well that I did so; had I stuck to my guns in leaving some sights for next year, I’d have missed out for good on sights like Petra and the reefs of the Red Sea. Though Amman itself may have crushed this little country mouse, I can’t recommend Jordan highly enough. That’s always been my stance.

Trees, people! Trees……..!

We took an hour and a half of class today out in the sunshine in the Jordanian University grounds. They’re on vacation at the moment, so the grounds were deserted of students and we had the run of the northern campus. I’ve never felt more focused in all my time out here; just a little dose of sunshine, the warbling trill of a sunbird from one of the cedar trees and the taste of air that hasn’t come from a fickle conditioner… I was speaking more fluently than ever before. I guess that drives home this morning’s debate on students being more attentive if given access to green spaces in school. Now that’s something I can agree with! If only we could visit the university more often… It’s a bummer, living right next to the only green space in Amman, and not being allowed to enter it except on official business.

Class dismissed

To keep the engine going in the last hurdle, I’ve been making liberal use of Youtube. Specifically, two animated films from my childhood: Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (the 1988 Burbank version) and Don Bluth’s The Secret of N.I.M.H., based on the 1971 book Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien. If there’s one thing I’m seriously into, it’s obscure cartoons. The ones that fell by the wayside, in a manner of speaking. I guess that has something to do with growing up with Freddie as F.R.0.7., the obscurest of the lot, but there’s something magical about trawling through all of these hidden gems. Jaded as it sounds, they just don’t make films like ’em these days. Dreamworks and Pixar paved the way for a new era of animation with works of genius like the Shrek films and Finding Nemo, but since then, it’s just been one furry animal film after the other, as far as I can tell. I’d say I’m getting too old for such things, but that’s a complete lie; I still get the same kick out of The Lion King that I did when I was a five year-old sitting ten inches from the television in the back room. Preach.

But Don Bluth… oho, now we’re talking. They’re just so… dark. Tell me you didn’t feel afraid when you first watched The Land before Time – those jagged landscapes and bubbling swamps, and all the death…! Littlefoot’s mother died onscreen. Disney could do it too: The Lion King was extraordinary because you saw Mufasa die onscreen. Powerful stuff. But the best Disney offers up these days is one of a thousand villains falling to an offscreen demise (my sincerest apologies, Clayton). Not so with Don Bluth. The wise Nicodemus is crushed beneath a mountain of scaffolding. Rasputin’s soul is sucked out of him by the forces of Hell itself. The guy even had a hand in the original Sleeping Beauty, so you know he knew what he was doing. His style is also truly iconic; those stark, jagged landscapes from The Land Before Time follow you through American TailThe Secret of NIMH and Thumbelina; truly, a world apart from the sugar-coated Disney kingdom.

Derek Jacobi, is that really you?

Not that I have anything against Disney. I love it. Even some of their new stuff is great. I thought Wreck-it-Ralph was going to be dismal from the premise, but it blew me away. I just find myself wishing that the Paperman project had pulled through. Hand-drawn animation just smacks of my childhood and I covet it dearly.

Don Bluth, you really did have a thing for glowing eyes…

If you remember any of these classics, I’ll point you towards some even more obscure titles that you may not have heard of. Give Ralph Bakshi a try if you haven’t already: I’m thinking Cool World and Fire and Ice. Or there’s Nelvana’s niche Rock and Rule. Equally trippy, but worth the ride. And don’t forget the darkest of them all, the one that gave an entire generation nightmarish images they would never forget: Rosen’s 1978 adaptation of Watership Down. So… much… blood…

This, of course, has next to nothing to do with Jordan, or even Arabic for that matter. But it’s a damned good healing technique. I’m quite ready to go home, even though eleven days still remain, but the memory of these animated gems will keep me soldiering on. Ah, to have been alive in the sixties and seventies when these wonders were being created… I might have thrown caution to the wind and gone for a career as an animator. What a different life that might have been! BB x

Jekyll and Hyde

One week from today, I’ll be sitting on the beach at Aqaba with term over and my labours temporarily at an end. Two weeks from today, I’ll be waking up in the comfort of my own bed once again, looking out over the Sussex Downs. Three weeks from today I’ll probably be back in Kent with the family, to see my brother in especial before he leaves for University. And one month from today, I’ll be sitting in the bus station in the sunblasted Plaza de Armas in Seville, waiting for the coach that will take me northwards to what is to be my home for the next nine months.

It’s all moving thick and fast roundabout now. I’m taking some time out in Ali Baba to work on the novel for a bit. Most everyone else has gone off in different directions: some to Wadi Mujib, some to grab a falafel lunch, others to one of the nearby cafes for some quiet study. I’m here in search of my voice, which I seem to have lost whilst I’ve been out here. I spoke to Andrew for quite a bit about this last night, reading back over some of my notes that I penned last year, in various states of emotion. Andrew gave me quite a jolt when he opined that my writing was a great deal better back then. Those aren’t easy words to take for somebody who’s set himself on the path to bettering his writing… How could this be, I wonder? Is it because I’m writing every other day, so I’m drip-feeding my thoughts rather than saving them up for a grand oeuvre? Or maybe it’s because I’m not finding enough time for myself to think properly out here in the city? I think there’s a bit of truth in both of those. My writing has become rather acerbic of late. Compared to all the self-help greenie moralising I used to throw about, my later work comes across as bitter, over-excitable, and above all else more than a little opinionated. I hope it’s not a lasting trend. I took the time to read over my notes a second time after I’d discussed them with Andrew and I’m a lot happier with them, though I know I wasn’t at the time. Maybe I’ll look back on these blog posts in the same way, and maybe not. My saving grace is that there was a victory achieved last night, however small; after comparing my writing, Andrew conceded that maybe sticking it out in a city really isn’t good for me at all. Because if there’s anything that might be described as a true window into the soul, it’s the way we express ourselves, poetry, paint or prose.

My summary of Amman a week ago was misinterpreted by some as an all-out attack on Jordan. I’d like to come clean on that point and confess that it’s really not that. In many ways, I’ve loved Jordan. The dizzying views up into the Golan Heights from across the river, the crashing waterfalls of Wadi Mujib and the stars stretched out like glittering velvet over the desert. Dana in all her majesty. Jordan is beautiful. And capital city though it may be, even Amman has its bright sides. In my melancholy, I’ve been unable to see it; largely, I guess, because I didn’t want to see it. It eludes me still. Picture this: you’re at the cinema, and the guy in the row in front of you turns around and asks you to stop kicking the back of his chair. You didn’t even realise you were doing it. Of course, you then spend the next five minutes wanting the kick the chair even harder – or is that just me? There’s a window into my mind and a half.

What I’m trying to say is that I have a bad stubborn streak, and this city – or any city, for that matter – brings it out of me like never before. When somebody tells me to stop doing something, or that I’m going to like something, my first instinct is to disobey. Watch Mean Girls, they say, ‘because it’s unavoidable… it’s part of our culture’. Instinct tells me therefore I cannot, under any circumstances, be made to watch it. Wait it out in Amman, they say, and try to learn to love it ‘because city life is just something you have to get used to… and Amman is actually a really cool place once you get to know it.’ Sod’s law dictates that it cannot be. It’s the old ‘I’ve come this far, I can’t turn back now’ line.

When you set it down in writing, it’s really quite pathetic…

What’s a guy to do? I reckon the thing that I’m missing most of all, perhaps even more than escaping the metropolis, is time. Time to think, to write, and to be myself. It’s not just my writing that got bitter out here, it’s my personality. It sure is helpful having people around to point that out before it gets rotten. The year abroad is such an important part of your degree that it can feel criminal to ‘waste’ even an hour of it. As such, the last two months have been almost non-stop. Wake up, class, study, go downtown, shopping, sightseeing, studying, repeat. I rarely have more than an hour or so to get my head straight and that’s seldom in the solitary silence that I crave. Maybe I’ve made myself too dependant on ‘me time’; if there’s one common feature in all of my notes from last year, it’s a heavy emphasis on the importance of ‘me time’. I was busy then, too, rushing from class to rehearsal to gig after gig – and yet, I still managed to find time to wind down every week or so and defuse. Not so here. And it shows, right?

Oh, there’ll be one last big reflection on everything that’s gone down out here in the Middle East before I go. I hope that will be a better read, too. A blog in itself is a funny old thing, pasting your thoughts and feelings for the world to see. But that’s what writers do, paper or pixels. Some of my best writing was set down when I was in the throes of a hopeless crush, some time ago. Or maybe it’s just because we’re human, and we all love a good gossip. I don’t know. I’m going to keep looking for my voice, and I hope that I can find it again before I leave this place, if just to leave you with Jekyll’s view on Amman rather than Hyde’s. I think that would be fair. (Oh look, I’ve gone and done a JK Rowling, leaving the explanation of the title to the very last line of the chapter. Now I really do need to get reading some more!) BB x