My Most Treasured Possession

My first dissertation extract is complete, and after three somewhat hectic days I can finally relax in the library and read whatever the hell I want for a little while. My field of research and my area of interest are closer than I could ever have imagined, but the very fact that I have to focus on them makes them a little less attractive than they were before. That’s natural, and it’s primarily why I’d never make a career out of art or music. The minute something you like becomes something you have to do, it loses a lot of the magic it once held, I find.

Perhaps the greatest roadblock to making great strides with my dissertation is the fact that, wherever I go, I carry with me a battered little red notebook chock-full of notes, sketches and observations from the last year and a half. I’m almost never apart from it. If it’s a knee-jerk reaction to years of being warned against electronic addiction, it’s a damned healthy one. And whilst it might have got in the way of focused academic research from time to time, it’s actually been responsible for guiding me to some of the most useful books for my degree this year.

notebook

Fresh from the Libreria Talia back in October ’15

At twenty-two, a one year old notebook seems like a strange object to consider my most treasured possession. You’d never know it was that young, looking at it now. It’s battered and bruised and dog-eared on all sides, and the binding holding it together has been heavily reinforced with generous layers of sellotape. But it’s been with me almost everywhere I’ve gone since I first tracked it down in a bookshop in Villafranca last year and, to me at least, it’s more than just a notebook. Leaving for Spain without a sketchbook was one of the more stupid things I’ve ever done, but the result is this absolutely priceless little book of memories. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

DSC_0363

The Red Book at the feet of Washington Irving, Granada

It’s been all over the place. It’s been carried over the holy ground of Moulay Abdessalam and watched the sunset over the Aegean Sea. It’s sat on the walls of the Alhambra, felt the sea breeze of the Atlantic from Cape Roca in Portugal and sampled tapas in Salamanca (with the olive oil stains to show). These days it contents itself with regular trips to and from the library, which is intellectually stimulating at the very least, but perhaps not what the Red Book was necessarily born for. I expect it’s just as hungry for another adventure as I am. The trouble is, there’s only thirty pages left until it’s all filled up, and with the rate at which I’m harvesting new ideas, Greece may have been my eternal companion’s last fling. When I stop to think about it, that’s more than a little bit saddening.

We’ve had some pretty special memories, the Red Book and I. But probably the most treasured of all was its first ever outing to the sanctuary mountain east of Cáceres where, as the sun set over the old city, I had an epiphany and decided to base my series of novels in Spain. And, suddenly, it all made sense. What had been for some fifteen years a mishmash of fantastical borrowings and cliché leapt out of the chrysalis into a vast historical saga. The moment was recorded with two simple words scrawled at the top of a heavily-smudged first page: it begins.

img_5155

Full-page sketches like this one are not helping on the page-saving front…

 

Of those who have commented on my faithful travelling companion, the general opinion seems to be that I could get ‘so much money if I ever sold it one day’. Sacrilege incarnate. This little book and I have been on so many adventures now that it’d be like pawning off a loyal pet. But I suppose it’s more than that, because what the Red Book is, beyond a well-travelled journal, is an extension of my very soul. My whole world, the one I don’t tend to share with anybody, is stored within its pages in scrawled notes and sketches. Most of it wouldn’t make a jolt of sense to anybody else, but to me it reads like a map. I’ve kept a working notebook on me in various formats for the last five years – since I could hold a pencil, if you count the sketchbooks as well – but the Red Book is the prince of them all.

The sister notebook is already waiting, an equally eye-catching blue-and-gold journal of identical dimensions. It’s also a Paperblanks notebook. I swear by the things. It’ll be tough, starting afresh with a new book after all this time, like starting up a new relationship. Quite literally: all the memories I’ve stored in the Red Book are ours to share. The Blue Book will need new memories of her own. One day, many years from now, I’d like to think there’ll be a whole shelf of these things, tattered, bandaged and well-thumbed, but loved, and I’ll be able to take them down to explore them with my children, taking them into the worlds I have spent so many years creating.

An ode to a notebook… Well, it was a strange post for Valentine’s Day, I’ll give you that, but with all the time, care and attention I’ve lavished on this little book over the last year and a half, perhaps today’s a fitting day for such a post after all. BB x

Advertisements

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

Exile

I’ve deliberately waited to pen this one. Being both out of the country and out of WiFi meant that I didn’t get the news until I got to class this morning, by which point I’d already forgotten yesterday’s referendum buzz. I had more important things on my mind, like how many men were really killed at Covadonga, and what kind of a world would Spain have been had Navas de Tolosa gone the other way. Stuff like that.

Waiting has also meant that you’ve been spared the knee-jerk, bloody-hell-it’s-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it attitude that I spent most of this morning suffering from. In fact I was so shocked by the news that I could hardly talk for the first twenty minutes or so of class. And whilst I was a little tongue-tied for the first two weeks, the last few days’ confidence boom has brought out the chatterbox in me, and therefore it felt quite odd being left with suddenly nothing to say.

I’m talking, of course, about Brexit. About my country’s decision to ignore sanity, common sense and all basic human emotions besides fear and to rally behind some of the most sinister British politicians in living memory.

It smacks of Weimar. It smacks of Trump. It smacks of the start of pretty much every slow run-up to fascist mind-control. I’m not going to start spouting nonsense about the end of the world – it’s really not – but it was a knock I was certainly not expecting this morning. 

And that’s the strangest thing of all. I simply never saw it coming. It always seemed so… laughable. Oh, I’d be the first to confess that I’ve barely looked into the consequences or the data. I got most of my updates from Have I Got News For You. In the end, if the truth be told, I simply let instinct and common sense decide my stance on the matter. Perhaps that makes me no better than anyone else. But if my Facebook page is anything to go by, the Brexit voter is a very rare beast indeed – at least, amongst my generation. I’m told it’s the fault of the older generation; they voted for Leave in their droves, apparently. Personally I have no idea. I have no grandparents, no great uncles or aunts, and therefore no contact with that generation whatsoever. I don’t have the foggiest how they live, or how they think. Therefore I refuse to buy into rumours or make claims about what I don’t know. If only some of my countrymen had done the same.

It still shocks me, though. How did it happen? It was just a joke, right? Everyone and their tabby cat was against it: Patrick Stewart, Alan Sugar, Ryanair, James Bond, David Attenborough, the Prime Minister… The list was endless. Who was supporting Leave? I mean, apart from Trump, Kim Jong Un and IS, who naturally all want what’s best for us, of course. I was baffled enough by the Trump campaign. How could a man faced with such a fierce backlash ever get to be the Republican candidate for the President of the United States? And yet he did. It was tempting to think ‘only in America’… and yet, here we are. Severed from the European Union by another silent majority who – if the rumours are true – won’t have to live with the results for even a breath of the time that we will. We, the generation who came out so strongly in defense of the Union… Ignored.

To say that it swayed my mind on moving abroad after university would be heresy. I’d already made that decision many months ago, and I’m proud to say that I made it out of love, not fear. My decision stands. Only, perhaps now there’s a sense of urgency, a feeling of Cortés landing in Mexico about it. My plans were laid, but somebody went and burned the boats. It may take all of ten years to obtain my Spanish citizenship, or – if that old Hispanic obsession with blood still stands – it may be less, but the way things are going, I’m bound for exile no matter what happens. BoJo and Farage and their silent worshippers have made it just that little bit harder now, as my road is now fraught with VISAs that had never been necessary before, but I won’t let that stop me. They can try, but they’re not treading on my dreams.

The way some of us Brits have reacted to this – myself included – you’d think that war had just been declared. That’s the worst part of it all: the fear. It’s fear that has got us in this state. Fear of what? The unknown? The migrant crisis? I would pay handsomely to send the average Leave supporter to one of the refugee camps in Jordan or Greece for a couple of months, if just to see if there really is a right answer. Familiarity: that’s the obvious solution. Once you know that which you’ve only seen and heard in the news, it’s suddenly a great deal more than a number on a piece of paper (Would Stalin have sent so many to their deaths if he’d had the chance to get to know them all?).

Of course, I’d go for the laughter route myself. Laugh at your fears, laugh at the world and especially laugh at yourself. I almost walked into the same lamppost twice today, and I had to count the hours between nine o’clock and twelve just to be sure there were three of them. And yes, I just did it again to confirm. Yours truly has some remarkably oafish tendencies. But I revel in my bouts of stupidity. It’s what made the Greek gods so much more interesting than the Abrahamic belief in perfection. None of us are perfect, nor ever could be. We’ve as much hope of being ‘perfect’ as a Jack Russell has of explaining quantum physics to a nursery group. But we try. And that’s kind of funny. We should laugh at that.

 J.K. Rowling had it down: laughter really is the best cure for fear, but familiarity is the next best thing.

Where am I going with this? I’ve literally just got home. My phone wouldn’t make the connection to my host family for some reason so I ended up sitting in the doorstep for an hour, as I’ve done in one way or another so often in my life. I’m quite used to it by now. Waiting is no bad thing. It gives you time to think, to muse, to watch the world go by. Life goes on. Britain may have decided to leave the European Union and we may or may not be headed for troubled times, but it’s business as usual in Tetouan.

I’ve been waiting my whole life in one way, shape or form: the right girl, the right moment, the right place, the right language. Patience: birdwatching taught me that. I can wait a little longer. One day, when of all of this fear and hostility has blown up and/or over, we’ll look back and have a good, long laugh. No matter how dark it gets. 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

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

Winter in Madrid

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

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

DSC_0162

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

DSC_0341

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

DSC_0418

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

DSC_0249

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

DSC_0470

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

Go West

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

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

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

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

Yeah. I don’t speak any Portuguese.

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

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

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

Oh Monty Python. How I miss you. BB x