2016 Reasons to Smile

Hello you. Welcome to 2016. Happy new year, feliz año and all the rest. I’ve only really just finished with my first teaching day of the year and I’m already broken, but my Gold Box playlist is on at full blast, currently serving up a fantastically uplifting Son of Man courtesy of Phil Collins and all is as it should be. 2015 is behind us, a brave new year awaits. And it’s you who’ll climb the mountain, it’s you who’ll reach the peak.

What was it I said last year? That 2015 would be my year? In a sense, I suppose it was. It was, in all honesty, the very best of years. I took part in an international a cappella competition in London. I braved the Atlas Mountains. I sang the Circle of Life solo in front of a thousand-strong audience in Durham Cathedral. I recorded a single with the Lights. I saw the sun set over the Holy Land, swam with triggerfish in the Red Sea and watched a meteor shower over the desert in Wadi Rum. I found my old friends in Olvera after so many years and had some of the best nights of my life in my old hometown. I also had a close encounter with a griffon, saw the cranes come down for the winter and learned to harvest olives.

It wasn’t flawless, by any means. My essay ethic got worse and worse and my timetable got busier and busier, Persian was (sadly) a mistake, I had some Judas-level loyalty issues between the Lights and my official post as a musical director for Durham’s gospel choir and Year Abroad admin threatened to break me body and soul for several months. Amman, ever more of an obligation than a decision, practically drained me to the last drop of my will to study Arabic, and if it weren’t for having such good and honest companions about me, I might have tossed in the towel for good. And maybe, just maybe, I came home all the stronger for the ordeal.

But that’s looking back. Here’s to looking ahead. I’ve never been one for living in the past so much as in the future, which is equally problematic. One of my New Year’s resolutions really should be learning to live in the moment, which is a healthier state of mind by far, but… I guess I’d better be realistic. You can lead a horse to water, but if it’s not thirsty, there’s no point in drowning it just to make a point. So here, without further ado, are my reasons to smile in 2016.

  1. I’m alive. That’s as good a reason as any.
  2. I wanna know ’bout these strangers like me.
  3. I’m living in Spain. It’s what I’ve always wanted.
  4. I might be working long hours, but I’m being paid for it.
  5. Winter is upon us, and that means spring is around the corner.
  6. I’m going to be here in Spain when spring arrives.
  7. In three months’ time the bee-eaters will be here.
  8. Jesús and Laura, two of my primaria children, gave me a hug today.
  9. I’ve just seen The Lion King. Twice. Once on stage, once on film. Big smiles.
  10. Femi Kuti’s Truth Don Die has just come on.
  11. I’m going to learn something new this year.
  12. I’m going to go somewhere new this year.
  13. I’m going to live somewhere new this year.
  14. I’m going to meet somebody new this year.
  15. The world is huge, and full of life, and wonderful people, and beautiful moments.
  16. The sunsets here are nothing short of gorgeous.
  17. The novel is coming along better than ever before.
  18. You’re never lost if you’ve still got hope. And there is always hope.
  19. I’ve finally found my feet with serious photography after a few years’ absence.
  20. Get up, get on up; stay on the scene, like a sex machine.
  21. Durham chose me as one of its international bloggers.
  22. My brother and I are more alike than I ever knew.
  23. I know who my dearest friends are and I love them so.
  24. Erin Shore.
  25. I haven’t had to do a maths paper for almost six years.
  26. I haven’t started the TLRP yet, but it’s going to be hella interesting when I do.
  27. My passion for learning new (useless) facts hasn’t dried up.
  28. Nants ingonyama bagithi baba (sithi uhm ingonyama).
  29. Wa sangoma ngi velelwe.
  30. The 2015 negatives paragraph looks longer than the positives, but only because it ends on a positive.
  31. I’m not in Syria. Whoever decides these odds has dealt me a very fair hand.
  32. I’m an Englishman in a country where English is always in high demand.
  33. Consequently, I don’t hate being English anymore. Thank you Allan Quatermain.
  34. Dar baz ast.
  35. There’s plenty more fish in the sea. Oh, and the nearest sea is the Mediterranean.
  36. The Herculean backlog of stories I’ve got to read is still growing.
  37. The new Star Wars film is nowhere near as bad as the prequels.
  38. Zulu chant never ceases to lift my spirits, and it never will.
  39. I’m going back to Morocco in June.
  40. I’m not going back to Amman in June.
  41. Thriller.
  42. I might well be fluent in Spanish by the end of the year.
  43. Two of my Big Five life ambitions have already been accomplished.
  44. I’ll never stop chasing my dreams.
  45. I’ve still got two new pairs of socks to wear.
  46. Incidentally, the laundry is almost dry, too.
  47. Philip and Stephanie live happily ever after in the end.
  48. My childhood obsession with video games is over. Sméagol is free.
  49. I actually have three weeks’ worth of lessons already planned for once.
  50. I’ve got somewhere to live next year.
  51. I’ve got a roof over my head at the moment, which is more than can be said for many.
  52. Everyone is where they need to be, doing what they need to do.
  53. Everything that happens, happens for a reason.
  54. It’s raining, but I love the rain.
  55. All the setbacks in the world will never kill the romantic in me.
  56. I’d originally planned on twenty-six reasons. We’re now approaching sixty.
  57. There are only four of us left, but I love my family to pieces.
  58. It’s the little moments, not the major ones, which make life worth living.
  59. I’ll never give up on myself.
  60. My last class ends at half seven tomorrow, so I’ll have time to go grocery shopping.
  61. Chipicao might be gone, but Spain still deals a roaring trade in its twin, Bolycao.
  62. The last song on shuffle just happens to be my all-time favourite: Back in Stride, by Maze and Frankie Beverley. The ultimate in cure-all, feel-good songs.
  63. Don’t worry. Be happy.

If all else fails, put on a smile yourself. It’s not a failsafe, but it sure looks nice, and it makes everybody else feel nicer. And maybe they’ll smile too. And that will come around and make you smile, too. And that, in itself, is a reason to smile. BB x

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The World’s Most Beautiful Women

Why am I doing this?

No, seriously. Why am I doing this? This isn’t Amman. This isn’t even vaguely Arabic. We’re halfway to Kiev on a bus that isn’t the Skybus that Google and Tripadvisor recommended. Come to think of it, I didn’t even ask the driver where we’re going. It might not even be Kiev. I’m going by the size of the city and the great big river we crossed earlier and assuming it is. Other than that, I really don’t know. I can’t read the alphabet. Any and all Russian I learned in those four after-school sessions has jumped clean out of my mind, except that the letter P becomes R and K, T and A stay the same. Ten points for effort for this worn-out linguist! I mean, there’s no escaping it this time: this is sheer lunacy, even by my standards.

‘We could be going anywhere right now,’ says Andrew. ‘We could literally be going anywhere.’

Well, this really isn't Arabia anymore...

Well, this really isn’t Arabia anymore…

We really could. It all looks bleak and Soviet; pine forests, grey skies and grim skyscrapers with peeling walls. Even the hooded crows look seedy. But I do have £33 worth of Ukrainian hryvna in my wallet (or at least, I think I do) and I plan for us to be back at the airport for six o’clock at the latest. So there is some semblance of a plan beneath the anarchy. Blimey, but what I wouldn’t do to have fellow linguists and Russian speakers Shahnaz and Rosie here with me now, if just to have a vague idea of what’s going on.

Nope, I don't understand any of this

Nope, I don’t understand any of this

If that whim decision to go for the twelve-hour layover bothered me slightly at four o’clock this morning, it was practically crucifying me by nine, when we’d touched down in Borispol Airport and navigated customs. Andrew managed a good couple of hours’ sleep on the journey from Amman; I did not, and it’s really beginning to kick in now, as I’m no longer constantly on the move. But fatigue is the smallest of barriers to the determined adventurer!

…once again I find myself picking up the mantle some two hours later. Two sentences later I woke up with the iPad slipping off my legs onto the floor of the bus. So I take that back. Apparently fatigue has other ideas.

I digress. After a minor financial confusion over the exchange rate of the Ukranian hryvna, Andrew and I made it to Kiev (it really was Kiev in the end) with six hours to kill. Cue at least half an hour of ‘wow’, ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this’ and ‘this is absolutely bonkers’ as Andrew patiently bears my childish enthusiasm. We took a wander into the old part in search of the Bessarabsky Market to grab a bite to eat. Every single stall inside, without exception, was manned by what can only be described as the stereotypical babuschka. And no, try as they might, Andrew and I didn’t understand a word of what they were saying. But an idea struck me at one of the aisles and I procured a tin of caviar from one of the stallholders who was anxious for us to try a spoonful of all of her wares, from sweet to tongue-zappingly salty, from lumpfish to Beluga sturgeon. And if you think I’m exaggerating, I point you towards the sequin-scaled monstrosity lying headless on a mound of ice near the market door, barbels removed. It hardly needs saying, but this is a world away from Amman. Period.

Concrete block for make unification of great Russian Power and Ukraine

Concrete block for make unification of great Russian Power and Ukraine

The miracle of Kiev is that there is so much to see in so small an area. Like I said, a world away from Amman. In just under four hours we had covered almost everything there is to see. Beginning with St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral, an elaborate Orthodox affair in gold leaf and black-robed majesty, we set off an a tour of the old city. There’s something really special about Orthodox churches. At first glance it all looks a bit showy: giant crosses, bold block colours, gold used just about wherever there’s breathing space, not to mention all the icons. But it’s a great deal more complicated than that. It was Andrew who pointed it out to me. The congregation, outnumbering the sightseers by about nine to one, were mostly women, in varying states of dress, but the one thing they all had in common was the wearing of a headscarf. A kind of step-down for us from Jordan, perhaps.

‘Surely it doesn’t work like that,’ says Andrew, as a scarfed young woman in high heels leaves the cathedral after making the sign of the cross twice across her chest and bowing out, a lurid pink thong showing above the cut of her miniskirt. Apparently, it does. You know what they say about book covers…

Overloading on the blue, much...

Overloading on the blue, much…

One of the subjects that came up in conversation with Fahed and Massoud yesterday was the subject of Ukrainian women, whom Fahed believed, as ‘proved by science’, to be the most beautiful women in the world. I set out to test that theory today, both to conduct some kind of fair test in light of such a sweeping statement (especially when any suggestions of Spain and Colombia had been overruled just minutes before), and more so to justify this ridiculous little side-quest into Kiev at the end of our labours.

Or you could just cut out the middle man...

Or you could just cut out the middle man…

I’m going to surprise myself, but Fahed’s got a point. Ukrainian women are pretty stunning. They must be, or we wouldn’t have run into not one, not two, but a total of seven weddings in the course of our wanderings. There’s also a heck of a lot of them; more than the men, anyway, at least from my observations. A bit like Elvet Riverside, come to think of it. But seriously, those weddings we walked in on (there was hardly any avoiding them, they were all over the place…) Flowing white dresses everywhere on a backdrop of marble steps, spiralling turrets and Orthodox spires. My heart was on a serious flutter. Perhaps it’s the healthy skin tones, the raven hair, or the eyes that shelter a mixture of light and dark? Or even the fabulous dress sense? No, surely it’s the curled smiles most of them are wearing… (I wish Nizzar Qabbani could help me out here, I’m teetering on the edge of the villainy of objectivity)

Somebody stop me before I make a rash move!

Somebody stop me before I make a rash move!

Before I go too far, I’ll throw you the anecdote that tipped me over the scale of utter disbelief of Fahed’s claim to conceding a little ground to the guy. In the grounds of the St. Sophia Cathedral, Kiev’s jaw-droppingly beautiful UNESCO cathedral complex, Andrew and I stumbled upon an outdoor recital by a young Ukrainian student playing quite possibly the largest lute I have ever seen. I believe, if memory serves, that it is called a bandura? We still had a good three hours to kill so we stopped to listen, and am I glad we did! No sooner had she put her fingers to the strings than the girl began to sing, and in all my years as the son of two music teachers I have rarely heard a voice so magical. Like a siren, but sadder and more graceful. I was totally drawn in – so much so that it took me some time to realise that the bandurist and I had been staring at each other unflinchingly for almost a minute before I snapped awake, and she’d been singing all the way through.

‘You should have got her number or something,’ said Andrew, as we moved on to the Great Gates of Kiev twenty minutes later. ‘You haven’t got forever. Get them before they’re all gone, that’s what my godmother told me.’

DSC04510

I’m not running out of time yet – at least, I hope I’m not. Maybe I should have done or said something. As ever, I was lost in the music, I guess. Too lost to appreciate that we kept looking back at each other after her set was over. My obliviousness reigns supreme. At the very least I have a good three minutes of her set on video, so I can listen to that siren song again if ever the mood requires. And by that I mean, of course, sleep. Andrew fell asleep during her recital. If I hadn’t been so entranced, I guess I might have done so too.

It's ok, as long as I have cats I'll be just fine

It’s ok, as long as I have cats I’ll be just fine

Water under the bridge, hey? But what an adventure, and what a way to end my time in Jordan! It’s been a pleasure to live and work alongside you, Andrew, and I wish you all the best in France (knowing that you’ll be back in the comfort of your own home by the time you read this, and that Babette won’t have to check on how you’re getting on in this long-winded fashion anymore!) As for the rest of you, dear readers, I shall probably take a few days’ hiatus to catch up on sleep, as I’m dangerously behind, and to clear my head. Just a few minutes in one of Kiev’s parks was enough to recharge my batteries right the way up – green, green, GREEN, oh my God, the trees, the leaves, the grass and all of the GREEN – but I intend to set up stores for the winter, as it were. Villafranca’s not lacking in countryside, but I’ve learnt my lesson, and I’m not setting off into the open world without a well-supplied heart next time.

There’s still another hour to go until boarding begins for the flight back to London. Farewell, До свидания and I’ll catch you all later. Yours truly needs a well-deserved break from all this madness. Until the next time! BB x

Giving Amman a Second Chance

Had I known the Kievans would throw a violent protest four days before my return flight to the UK, I might have forked over that extra £80 and come home three days earlier on the two hour layover, instead of holding out for one last fling on that twelve hour layover that awaits me now.

The last stretch always seems like the longest. Only three nights remain, which is a damn sight closer than three weeks, and I have a bed for only two of those, as my 4am Saturday morning flight means that Andrew and I will be on stakeout at Queen Alia International Airport all night, catching sleep when and where we can. I’m still up and raring to get out and see Kiev during our ridiculous layover, protest or no protest, but it won’t be much fun on less than an hour’s sleep, and I’ll probably need my wits about me in the current climate. Especially when I speak about as much Russian as the hornet buzzing about my window. Still, that’s as much of an adventure as I could ask for, and the more I think about it, the better I feel for being so parsimonious with my flights back in May. Let’s just hope they let us out of Borispol first, or the whole thing will be dead in the water. 

But let’s not jump too far ahead! I’m still here in Amman. The breaking of the fellowship has come about at last, and a great deal more sincerely so than the last time I used that turn of phrase in Casablanca. We said farewell to Mac yesterday, after five days on the road together. Kate and Katie left for home in the early hours of this morning. Of the original Ali Baba team, there’s only three of us left. Andrew and I are practically the old guard. When first we arrived, it looked as though the end wouldn’t be ‘farewell’ so much as ‘until next year’, with all five of us set to return next summer; same people, same time, same place. Fortunately, life is a constantly fluctuating thing, and I’m bound for other lands next year. In truth it’s most likely that I won’t see the bulk of Team Jordan until we’re called back to Durham next October, now far in the distant future. So perhaps it really is farewell- until the next time.

It’s coming up to five o’clock in the afternoon, which means this post has taken me all of an hour and a half to write. The midday sun is just beginning to think about giving up the ghost, Andrew’s penning a couple of final postcards and the fan’s on at full blast, as it has to be if we aren’t to pass out in the fug. The hornet’s gone, thank heavens, and the orange vendor is back on the job, driving lazily up and down the streets with his pre-recorded pitch on a tinny repeat. We picked up our luggage yesterday and made a gesture at packing up, even though three whole days remain. It’s the thought that counts. Trying to fill up the final hours is a tedious affair, but on the plus side, downtown isn’t as frightening a beastie as it used to be. I guess that has a lot to do with living two minutes’ walk from the centre. Date bread and street pizzas from 25p a piece, slushies for half a dinar and plenty of cheaper eateries than the falafel mothership that is Hashem’s – and best of all, all of them within walking distance. So we come to it: it’s not the crush that bothered me so much as it is the needless expense on the taxi rides to and from wast al-balad. Diagnosed, at last. And that, I hope, is my last spark of angst off my chest.

For two months I’ve bombarded this blog with big city blues and saturated you all with my town mouse tantrums. I look back on all of that and laugh. It’s easy to do when I know I’ll be home in four nights’ time, of course, but it’s the final and most important part of the therapy. I’m not about to turn around and say that Amman is a great place to live – it’s not – but I’ll concede some ground to my detractors in that it’s not the Hell on Earth I made it out to be. It’s a question of willpower, living in a place like this, and I’ve learned a great deal about that here. Whether it’s a choice between holing up in your room with a book and braving a night on the town, or striking up a conversation with a local without a prompt, or even finding a functional solution to the ten-foot tall, sixty-foot long man-eating slug in the eleventh room on the left, one of the most important lessons you can learn in life is conviction. Being true to yourself. I thought I was pretty on it before I came here, but I see a lot of what I thought of as conviction now as my natural stubbornness, and there is a difference. You shouldn’t do things because you feel like you have to, just as you can’t be made to love a place you don’t like, but if you don’t make an effort on the inside to see the good in all things and stand by it, you’ll be on an island forever. Take it from the king of the castaways: man up. Some troubles in life are insurmountable, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re unassailable.

I’ve come close to breaking my golden rule and slipping into despair out here, but it’s that brush with the very worst emotion of all that’s given me the strength to go on. And Amman, for all its flaws, is built on a bedrock of warm, friendly people. Sure, you might have more adventurous encounters outside the city limits in provincial backwaters like Tafileh, but Amman itself is a very good place to start. Don’t make the same mistake I did and allow yourself to be freaked out by the size and speed of the place; beneath the rush are a host of charming characters who simply want to know how you’re getting on, if you’ll give them the time. The guy who runs this hostel, the Bdeiwi Hotel, told us last night that you often judge a language by your experiences with the people who speak it. He’s got a very good point, too. Sit on a step off the main road like a local and you’re bound to have somebody come over and strike up a conversation, in Arabic or in broken English. It’s heart-warming once you get used to it, just how much these people care. The sheer extent of the hospitality of the Arabs can seem so great as to be insincere to the untrained Western eye, as I once had to explain over a failed homestay offer in Morocco; we, a country so used to living off the hospitality of others. I think back to my trek across London with sixty-three kilos of luggage on my back, when I collapsed flat on my chest from exhaustion in the Underground and it took all of eight minutes for somebody to ask if I was alright; Amman is not as faceless as that, nor could it ever be.

Three nights remain. Twenty six dinars are left in my wallet. My city angst is exorcised, I’ve had a good two months’ run of it, and Andrew agrees with my final judgement. All is well with the world. 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

  

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