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