The Cycle Repeats

Almost two years to the day, the British Council have given me the go-ahead for the second round of applications once again. I’ve more or less had it sorted up there in my head, but it’s refreshing to see some hard evidence at last. Everybody else has been scurrying about fishing up internships in London, grad schemes in Leeds and MA courses in Edinburgh whilst I’ve been kicking back in the knowledge that I’m returning to a job I know and love, even if it isn’t anywhere near as well-paid as those London-based affairs. Besides a niggling long-term concern for my pension plan (and I’m not entirely sure why I bother, with things as they are), that doesn’t really concern me – if I get to spend another year in Extremadura, I’ll be in seventh heaven.

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La Vera – what Paradise looks like

I’m really looking forward to next year for several reasons, and one of them is my return to regular blogging. I’ve not been out of things to report this year – quite the opposite, in fact – but for some reason I’ve been awful at recording it. I’ve had something on in one way, shape or form every single day, from rehearsals to meetings to deadlines. I’ve never known a year like it, and it’s been a welcome relief after last year’s relative quiet. I may not be working 8am-8pm shifts like I used to, but the few hours I have a day are always demanding and highly rewarding.

Or at least, they were until this term. I have two contact hours this week, as well as a mock Spanish oral on Thursday. Talk about open plan.

What that does mean is that I’ve finally had the time to do a little work on the Mega-Drawing, and consequently it’s very near to completion. That’s something to look forward to.

I mustn’t fall into the trap of making my last few months in Durham a series of looking forward to moments. Time is running out as it is; in less than two months I’ll be out of here, and that saddens me a lot. I’m losing the treasure trove that is the library, the stellar music scene at Durham and, of course, the host of wonderful friends I’ve made here. If I spend too much time looking forward, I’ll end up looking back for most of next year, and that’s no good thing. Better to live in the moment.

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Monasterio de Yuste

I’m making no promises, but now that my British Council go-ahead is in, I’ll try to keep you posted on some of the events coming my way. Coming up:

  • Recording a new single with the Northern Lights
  • A trip to the Farne Islands (finally)
  • A weekend in Dunkeld, Scotland
  • June Ball
  • Graduation
  • The 70th Edinburgh Fringe

If that’s not blog material, I’ll eat my hat. At least, I would, if I hadn’t left it on the ALSA bus to Seville last month. Goodbye, boina. We’ve had some wonderful memories. I can only hope your next owner finds as much joy in you as I did. Like me, it came all the way from County Durham to you, O Sevillano. Treasure it, please. BB x

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The Unspeakable

I can’t believe I’ve left it until my final teaching week to make use of Jeopardy and Mr Bean in an English class. They’re two absolute staples of ESL teaching and I’ve managed thirty teaching weeks thus far without using either one of them. Just as well, I suppose; it made planning my last lesson less painful. And as usual, for a lesson that was drafted in ten minutes flat on a Wednesday morning, with just an hour to go before my first class of the day, it’s turned out to be one of my better plans. It’s definitely not a rule to live by, but the pressure of last-minute living certainly does produce fantastic results.

At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.

Today is Thursday. The last working Thursday of the year.Fortunately, it’s not quite the end. I’ve got at least two more days next week, and if I can help it, I’m going to see if I can’t wangle an extra two hours in tomorrow on my day off to catch up on the two classes I’m missing to catch up for that one primary class I thought I’d been spared this week. Future teachers, beware: state schools might not make you make up for lost hours if you’ve been on a school trip, but private schools will. At this stage in the year I don’t even want a day off. I want every last second I can get with this lot, especially since most of my stars will have gone by the time I get back.

It’s been a rather predictable finish. No poppers, no fireworks. Just a gradual loss of classes until I’m left with my last next Tuesday, which promises to be a wonderful finish; the only class of the twenty-five I have that I can guarantee to be quiet, relaxing and easy-going. There are only three of them. That’s probably why.

Predictably, my exercise routine died. For the fifth time this year, I tried to get into a work-out routine. It didn’t work. After almost three weeks, I simply lost interest. Again. Some people say that going running and getting a good sweat going in the gym gets them into a state of relaxation like none other. Golden orioles do that for me. Or hoopoes. Or woodlarks. Or just about anything that lives, breathes and moves in the wild.

For a good deal of the run-up I assumed it was standard form to duck out early, since that’s what everybody else seems to do. Looking around, the French assistants were allowed to leave before their time, since they ‘weren’t really needed’ towards the end. I get that impression from the other Spaniards, too. But I’m contracted to work for two schools, which complicates things a little – and makes things a whole lot simpler. This week’s school trip meant that I missed Tuesday, my favourite day of the week (Tuesday used to be Funk Band rehearsal day, and Northern Lights rehearsal day, and Arabic Literature day… Tuesday has always been a good day). This year, the 31st May falls on a Tuesday. So there’s absolutely no way in heaven or hell that I’d miss that last Tuesday. Heck, if I could extend my stay by another week, I would. It’s only the thought of flying out to Morocco and getting settled in on my birthday that stopped me. Twenty-two is no big deal, but I’d rather not be on my own on my first day in a new country for my birthday. There are some things that simply aren’t done.

If it sounds like I’m raving about how good my job is… I am. Because this time next week it will all be over, I’ll be back in England and I’ll have to wait another year – another eight months, British Council time – until I can come back. I’ll need this kind of stuff to re-read when I’m sweating over my finals this time next year. Looking back, everything tends to look rosier than it really was. In my three brushes with the law – in Spain, in Uganda and in Morocco – I was absolutely terrified, but it’s all hilarious in retrospect. I just need to remind myself that it was just as good in the moment as it was in memory. Remember that when you’re panicking over that last summative essay, Benjamin. Bloody £41,000 degree. The decision of what to do with my life turned out to be so easy, I could have saved myself a lifetime’s debt and simply marched straight out here, if only I’d known. The things we do to make our way in the world, the hoops we have to jump…

There’s only a few little hurdles left before the finish line. I need to pay in a cheque for 50€ worth of peanut butter that I’ve had on me since March. I need to sort out Student Finance for next year, saddling myself with another £12,500 worth of accumulative debt. I also really need to write up my Spanish TLRP on banditry in the Spanish sierras (although at least it’s planned and ready to go).

Must dash. The only class I’m not going to miss awaits. BB x

PS. I’ll tell you about the school trip in another post, I just felt a regular post was needed for the time being… before it all goes mad.

Be Kind, Rewind

My primary function over the last week has been more akin to a substitute CD player than a teacher. The Epiphany term is drawing to a close and mock exams are very much in fashion. The trouble is, the school’s CD players are acting up, and have been for years. I was called in to help – in my free time, I’ll have you know – to ‘improvise’ a brand new listening text for them on the Tate Modern.

And I’ll also have you know it was totally worth it. Whipping up a different, two-minute text on the same subject to suit different ability sets every time might sound dull, but as a writer I found it deliciously challenging. And as a former Langtonian, to whom improvisation comes quite naturally (for want of a better term beginning with B), it’s something I’m rather good at.

I’m now quite used to doing favors for my school. I feel I owe it to them every time I get a lesson off (which isn’t often, but it does happen from time to time). But that’s a mercenary approach: it’s more because I simply love what I’m doing. If I didn’t have these occasional hankerings to go adventuring at the weekends, I don’t half wonder whether I’d throw my day off out the window and work Fridays as well. It’s not as though I don’t already come into school on the occasional Friday almost hoping to be asked to take a lesson. I really must be a few screws loose.

I appreciate that I’ve been damned lucky to have landed such a jammy set-up. I wouldn’t say it’s the best shift in the world – the kids are about as rebellious as you might expect from teenage Spaniards – but it comes very close. I’m still going to strike out for somewhere new in the year after Durham – and I’m thinking one of either Aragón, Andalucía or a different part of Extremadura – but I’m almost 100% set on coming back to Villafranca in September 2018. I mean that. It’s not the most exciting place in the world to live, but it’s a wonderful place to be from a people perspective. The only thing I lack is a friend circle of people my own age, and that’s due in part to my Olvereñan fatalism and my awareness that this was always going to be a year in transition; perfect for getting a taste, impossible for laying down roots.

Sadly, I’ve become painfully aware that there’s only ten teaching weeks left. It was Brocklesby who alerted me to that; beforehand, I’d barely given it thought. That does mean ten more weeks of new lesson plans, of riotous primary classes and of absent teachers, but the ups outnumber the downs.

And best of all, it really is spring now. I forgot to wear my hoodie to sleep last night as I’ve been in the practice of doing since October (Spamish duvets are stupidly thin) and I didn’t notice until I put it on this morning. Spain’s about to put on her very best dress and I can’t wait to see what her stylist has done with her this year. BB x

  
PS. One of my colleagues just came to the staff room to tell me that despite the difficulty of the text, quite a few of them actually overachieved, so it shows they were listening after all. Which is kind of what you’d hope in a Listening exam, but there you go. It’s little things like that that make my days! They were also shown the artwork which I chose to talk about, which just so happens to be an old enemy of mine. It’s Andre’s Equivalent VIII (The Bricks). I’ve met it once before. The students hated it. The teacher hated it. And if I’m perfectly honest, out of my entire art class of 2011, I couldn’t stand it either. Great minds, eh?

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

A Sex-Tape is a Step Too Far

I think the title needs a little explanation.

In addition to the mid-term exam, our Arabic teacher set us the task of coming up with a five to seven minute presentation on a topic of our choosing. It took me until the morning to come up with something I could realistically rattle on about for that amount of time (no, seriously), but after stumbling over my words as usual, I ended up putting Andrew up to a bet whereby he had to talk about Kanye West. Naturally, Andrew tried to make his presentation somewhat relevant to what we’d studied so that he could activate the vocabulary, or whatever buzzword you want to use. The result was an exploration of the modern wedding through the Kimye phenomenon, complete with all the gory details, ego, sex tape and all. Highly entertaining, of course, but our teacher took umbrage at the subject, claiming that it was ‘hardly suitable’ for class, and debarred us from asking any questions so as to bring the topic to a decided halt. Still, the man did a good job, and he held his ground in spite of all the criticism, so I held up my end of the bargain and rustled up a pretty neat lentil and vegetable stew for him and Andreas, as promised.

To kill some time in the post-class hours, Andreas took us to an underground church in West Amman to help him to teach English to a group of Iraqi refugees. Just a couple of hours in a church not too dissimilar in style from a Worth Abbey chapel, which made me smile almost as soon as I set foot in the place. John 3:16 was up on the wall behind the lectern in golden lettering; it was pretty clear from the first four words, even in Arabic. Beautiful stuff. The Iraqis themselves, Christians from Basra, were just about the nicest bunch of people I’ve met here in Jordan yet. Andreas and his teaching partner Jason assigned Andrew and I four to teach, and we discussed hospital related vocab to get the ball rolling. Whilst we worked, the children of our students scampered about the church at full pitch. I haven’t seen such unfettered happiness in a while. One of our group was a lot quicker on the draw than the others when it came to learning all the new words and expressions, but Raja’, the oldest of the group at seventy-one years old, was an utter delight to teach, especially when she came out with a flawless sentence at the end of the session, primarily because she was so shy. It kind of reminded me of how I must have been earlier down the line. Boy, but it was good to be teaching again, though. Getting back into practice for my assistantship in two months’ time. Better still, Iraqi Arabic is the closest to fusHa out there and a joy to listen to. Basra sounds like a beautiful place, as if Iraq needs anything more to make it more appealing. Land of the Abbasids! Home of Abu Nuwas! Man, why can’t I spend my Year Abroad in Iraq?

Wait, on second thoughts, don’t answer that one.

There’s a lot to be said for this religion malarkey. With any luck, one day the moment will come and I will believe. Warm fuzzy aside, I’ve got to say that those two hours were a godsend, no pun intended. All of my frustration and anger from the past week simply disappeared. I have Faras and his friends to thank for that, for being so friendly and eager to learn; and of course Andreas, for giving me the chance to get in on the project. All is well with my heart once again. I’m still going to fight for the chance to go back to Morocco next year, but I know now that I can and will survive another month out here. I can do this.

Hold the phone, according the beeb there’s a storm coming. Rain. You have no idea how happy this makes me. That it’s going to be 41 degrees at the peak of the storm is beside the point. Bring on the rain, I say. Bring it. BB x

  

Cracks at the Seams

The slump returns with greater force. Amman has clawed me back from that wonderful week of traveling and spewed me back up into the noise.

Andrew’s using my laptop. I don’t even know why; frankly, I’m past caring. He went out for an ice cream with a couple of the girls when we got back from downtown and took the keys with him, so I guess I must have been waiting outside the apartment door for half an hour or so, by his watch. I wasn’t counting. I might have done had I known, but I’d chosen this particular sortie to leave my iPad at home for once. Mistake.

Much against my better judgement I was led away from preparing for tomorrow’s exam and press-ganged into checking out a cafe in Abdali this evening; Amman’s posh district, with open-top restaurants sitting high atop the glass monoliths that shadow the soulless five-star hotels below. We ended up in just such a place: one of those £3.45-for-a-lemon-and-mint establishments. You’ve got to agree with me, that’s bonkers, right? And that’s without factoring in the 15% VAT and the standard fare compulsory bottle of water that you have to pay for wherever you go. For a country with a chronic water shortage, they don’t half throw the stuff around like it’s worthless. But that’s besides the point. Who pays that kind of money for a drink? Do I look like I’m made of money?

Breathe, Ben. Breathe. I admit that I’m none too good around classy venues. It brings out the spikey anarchist in me and he’s not much fun to be around, trust me. When people start flashing their wallets and eyeing up resort hotels and all that I get all jittery and feel the need to rave about how nobody needs to spend when it’s so much more fun to rough it. I guess I get so into it that I put people off; heck, I wouldn’t want to be around me in that kind of situation. It’s just awkward. Thus, we return to that class on personalities and how much we all love our own, right? <ugh> Of course right. You just keep telling yourself that.

The trouble is that we’ve hit the four week stage of this venture. Make that five, as we weren’t exactly studying during Eid al-Fitr. That’s about the point when things usually get rocky, and you only need a cursory glance to notice that. My city angst must be getting on everybody else’s nerves just as much as it gets on my own. More and more I find myself wanting to retreat to the flat and work on the novel, which would be no bad thing, but everyone else is opening up and wanting to explore. I guess I just don’t work like that. Different strokes for different folks. ‘But you just have to force yourself to try these things’, they say. I disagree. I’ve been forcing myself to try city-living for a month now and I can tell you in no uncertain words that it and I are not made for each other. But you know that already. It’s not like I’ve been talking about much else for the last few weeks and, like Morocco, I’ve been trying to keep a lid on it. Shame, then; if I’d kept my mouth shut earlier, I might have been able to talk about this situation tomorrow, but I’ve already done two presentations on what I think about this place, so I guess I’ll have to move on to pastures new.

The good news is that a dear friend with a heart of gold will be visiting this weekend. That’s a ray of sunshine through the gathering clouds if ever there was one. It’s not all doom, gloom and majnuun here, of course, but it is Amman. Oh Durham, hear me if you can; please let me try somewhere else next year. Two months here is trying enough. Another two months next year and all the expense that will entail just seems ridiculous, especially when I get less and less keen to go out there and practice my Arabic with each passing day. Isn’t that the point of a Year Abroad? Quite apart from being ‘the best year of your life’… Morocco, please. Or even Egypt. How about Yemen? Anywhere but here. October just can’t come fast enough. BB x

  

Thrice and Once

I’ll be home in four days’ time. Staring blankly around my still alarmingly cluttered room as the sun sets outside, however, you’d never guess it. Two days’ clothes and my formal wear are lain out on the table in the corner, and I’ve crammed everything else – including all those goddamn shirts – into two suitcases. The wardrobe still looks a mess, however, largely due to the jumbled mess of coathangers, a onesie I’ve yet to wear (I don’t honestly know how I came to possess it, I can’t stand the things) and that ridiculous Soviet coat I thought would be a good fancy dress purchase, staring back at me as a poignant metaphor for the folly of flights of fancy. The only things noticeably absent from my room are all the books, packed away into three boxes. Since I’m already having to carry two suitcases, a satchel and a tog-bag on the train, I’ll have to split the three between friends who live nearby. Much as I hate asking for favours, I’ve gotten into trouble for not doing so before, and now’s just another example. Thank goodness for golden hearts. There really is such a thing as having too much stuff. Remind me never to take this much with me again. I’ll be living out of a rucksack in Jordan.

It’s that critical time of the year when, just like at the end of every term, there’s a moment’s lull before everything comes along in a gigantic rush; this time in the form of a flashmob, Erasmus applications, a major financial crisis vis-a-vis Jordan, Castle’s June Ball, module application, Student Finance, exam results, working out how I’m going to get everything home and lastly, and perhaps most importantly, leaving dear old Percy Square in a respectable condition. Definitely not in the condition we found it – which was lamentable, even for a troglodyte like me – but perhaps in the state after our first week, when we’d blitzed it to within an inch of its life. It’s the swan song of my second-year juggling career, and in all honesty I’ll be glad when it’s all over. Tensions are high on all sides and it’s no environment to live in. But perhaps that’s best. It makes leaving this place a little easier. I mentioned in my last post that Durham is sometimes too much for me, but it’s still Durham, and it’s as much in my heart as Canterbury. I will miss it. Truly.

And as if to remind me what I’m leaving behind, after a sage talking-to from one of my housemates, she pointed out of my window and told me she thought she’d seen a hedgehog. I went out into the garden to have a look and found two skulking behind the pond. It didn’t take long – they’re noisy little critters. Neither of them seemed at all bothered by my being there; one must have noticed eventually, but instead of freezing or scurrying into the bushes, it sped across the lawn and stopped right at my feet to investigate. That’s the third magical mammal encounter in as many weeks. I’m over the moon. Just goes to show there always is a silver lining, especially in the most unexpected places. Here’s to one last juggling spree. BB x

Curious George

Curious George