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

Letters from my Grandfather

I never knew my grandfather. Neither did my mother. In the twenty-two years I have lived on this earth, my family has never numbered more or less than four: my mother, my father, my brother and I. No uncles, no grandparents, no second-cousins… Four. No more. It certainly made for an easy job learning languages – especially Arabic – but now that I’m older, and especially at this time of year, I find myself wondering just how much I have lost in that absence; an absence I share with my mother.

On account of a bad cold and a very real fear of spending another New Years Eve stranded in a strange place, I shied away from the celebrations last night and spent the following morning in church, questioning my elusive faith as usual. Do I feel like I missed out on a good time? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I try not to think that way these days. Sometimes, however, these things are meant to be. I believe that. I always have. The choices we make lead us in the right direction, wherever that may be.

It just so happens that my choice led me to stumbling upon something I’d never seen before: a collection of letters from my grandfather.

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My grandmother’s journal of memories

I don’t need to explain my love for Spain here. I’ve done it before and I expect you don’t want to hear me say it again, nor do I need to tell you if it’s news to you. I used to get sick of people taking the mick out of me for it, as if they hadn’t got it in them to love the places they’d been on their years abroad. I apologise for such childishness on my part. Of course, it’s foolishness to have even reacted in the first place. Because Spain is more than just an obsession. It’s my grandfather’s country. It’s where a part of me is from. It’s a deeply personal adventure, and these things always hurt.

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It looks like he could dress up and dress down…

Who were you, abuelo? What did you sound like when you laughed? Did you laugh often? There is sadness in your letters, impatience and frustration, but so much hope. Did you play the violin well, or did you tire of it like me? How can I know, when your mother burned it when you went away? You were a linguist, like me, but you weren’t afraid to chase your dreams. There is so much resolve in your writing, so much conviction. There was a living to be made on the Costa Brava, even if your parents didn’t see it that way. Those dreams of yours, those plans to take my grandmother out to dinner on a boat on the Seine… Spain was about to open up to the world. Did you know, I wonder? How old were you when that car struck you down on that black day in June 1964? I don’t even know that much. All I know for sure is your name, your letters, and your typewriter. I wish I knew you better. I wish I knew you at all.

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Hotel Catite, Castelldefels, where my grandfather worked as the hotel’s first receptionist

How different life might have been had we met, abuelo. It is impossible to imagine. I see you in my mother and, perhaps, in myself. But you had a family, somewhere out there, and now it’s up to me to find them. Last year I went chasing a dream, but when I found what I was looking for it turned out to be a dream and nothing more and it slipped away through my hands like dust. This is something more. I can feel it.

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Who cares about a language barrier when you’re in love?

2016 has come and gone. It was an odd year. Many things that happened that confused me, and some things conspired to bring me down, and many more lifted me high. It was, for me at least, one of the best of years. The new year is yawning ahead and I have my quest. The road will be long and not wanting in fears old and new, but it leads on and I must follow it now, for my own sake, and for my grandfather José who set this whole affair in motion many years ago. BB x

15:00 Report from the Library

An unadventurous title for an unadventurous afternoon. I’m in Bill Bryson Library, in what seems to be a new experience for yours truly: namely, making a start on an essay more than twenty-four hours in advance of the deadline. I guess I learned a thing or two on my last written project after all. At least, I learned some more useful skills than a general history of banditry in Spain.

It’s already getting dark outside. The scaffolding on the cathedral tower is a glaring golden-white in the setting sun, rising like a great stone tree above the slate blue of the world below. It’s supposed to come down at some point in 2017, so we’re all hoping that some point is before graduation, but who can tell? It’s December, the last two weeks of term are rolling in and graduation seems a very long way away right now (insert generic reference to time speeding up as you grow older here). We haven’t had any snow yet, though some forecasters are predicting the heaviest snowfall in years. It obviously has been falling sporadically up in the Dales, because some mornings you see the cars driving through town with little palisades of snow clinging to the windscreen, but we’ve yet to see a single flake down here in Durham town. Some folk have all the luck! Still, with two summative essays in for the next two weeks, four gigs and a dinner party to bear in mind, I guess the last thing anybody needs right now is the distraction of Durham in snow.

Not all that much to report right now. Just a very Durham-y view from my post in the library before I knuckle down to work on money and Muslims in El Cid. It’s snapshots like these that I will look back on fondly over the next few years, when I don’t have such ready access to such a fine library. Even with the sickly, cough-a-minute student body crammed in here at the moment, it’s a wonderful place to be. Libraries are such wonderful places. BB x

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Walking to my Wednesday 4pm rehearsal with the Lights

Exile: To BBC or Not to Be

Two factors have triggered this post. One, a suggestion from my dissertation supervisor that I misread two months ago. Two, Emily Mortimer in The Sleeping Dictionary.

It’s been about six months since I decided to move to Spain for good once my university degree is over. The number was in my head without even thinking, and I had to count to make sure. Six months exactly (sometimes you just know these things). It wasn’t one of those eureka moments. It was, I suppose, a bit like a journey to find one’s faith: one day I woke up and it just seemed as though I’d known the answer all along. In that sense, there was really little I could do about it. You can’t deny that kind of enlightenment.

Over the last few months, freed at last from work and study, I’ve had a lot of time to think this one over. I’ve come up with something resembling a game plan for the next three years. I find it’s a useful thing to have when you find yourself having to reason your decision to abandon the land where you were born.

The repercussions are, understandably, quite immense. No more Christmas. No more Whole Earth peanut butter. No more Poldark or Have I Got News For You (or British TV at all, for that matter). And no more taking my mother tongue for granted: in a year’s time the only major outlets I’ll have for the English language will be my work and my book. That’s pretty extreme.

Now I’ll admit, it’s not as painful a decision as I’m making it sound. The peanut butter I can live without. British television will be a major loss though, I’ll give you that. You don’t appreciate just how good the Beeb is until you move abroad (Spanish comedy is entertaining, but it’s just not as brilliant as British humour – or maybe I’m just not fluent enough?). As for Christmas, while I’ve never been particularly excited about it since growing up, I was a little sad that December came and went and… nothing happened. Christmas is something that Spain simply doesn’t do. Even Lisbon seemed to do Christmas better in the twenty-four hours I spent there last year. On the other hand, they do have Semana Santa and that is a hundred times more impressive, so it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make.

There is at least one snag I’ve been almost too quick to ignore in this whole chasing-my-destiny thing and that is the obvious one: who and where is She? Is she Spanish, or is she English? Or something else entirely?

I’ve read a lot of articles on this subject. I feel like I had to; earlier this year it was compulsory reading, when I thought I’d found her and I needed to think things through. I hadn’t, obviously, but it did me good to read about others who had been down the same road. The general consensus seems to be that, unless you are both determined to stay together, and that there is something akin to a balance between the languages, these cross-cultural relationships are fraught with difficulties. And whilst I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how much they’d love bilingual children, from those few dual-nationality parents I’ve met, it sounds like a serious uphill slog to achieve that, as the language of their immediate environment will always take the prime position.

Never mind the bilingual children for now. I have more pressing things to worry about, namely my dissertation, which may or may not be on the subject of exile (a suitable topic for this year, I think). It is possible to look too far ahead. But as the prospect of exile looms closer, I think it likely that there may well be a few more reflective posts of this nature. It’s easy to say that you’re never coming back, but quite another to hold to that.

Perhaps it’s best to think of it not as exile, but going back to my roots. Even so, I was born in England and am, by all accounts, an Englishman. I never said it would be easy, and it won’t. But some things in life are greater. This, I believe, is one of those things. BB x

The Happiness Machine

There’s a new kid on the block in my host family. My replacement, ready and waiting not twelve hours before I’m out of this joint. The expression ‘not even cold in the grave’ springs to mind… But he’s Spanish (an Andalusian, to be precise) and his name is José María and he’s more than happy to let me witter away in Spanish for my final hours in this country and therefore I couldn’t be happier.

My host family were quick to notice the change. Very quick. ‘Ése Ben que salió por la puerta esta mañana, ¿dónde esta?‘. He’s gone. The quiet, hesitant, reluctant Englishman who used to come home at irregular hours of the afternoon, sit in what he thought to be companionable silence and then retreat to his room is now mouthing off like a human Gatling gun, in Arabic as well as Spanish. He’s gone, and in his place is this loud, jokey and irrepressibly good-humored Spaniard. Talk about schizophrenia. I have a very bad case of Jekyll and Hyde when it comes to my two linguistic personalities. Never mind getting that dual nationality, I’m still struggling with dual identity.

The host family were quite taken aback. I don’t think they were expecting such a drastic change in personality. The father even went so far as to show me the difference between the two Bens by means of a few crude imitations. Was I really that quiet? Did I really sit at the table with my hands by my side and say as little as possible? No me lo creo ni yo. After just an hour or two speaking Spanish to this Andalusian my whole personality has changed just like that.

I’d quite forgotten just how good it felt, just to be speaking that language again. Why? What’s the reason? How can a language make me so happy? Is there a linguistic reason? Is that why Spaniards are such jolly people, by and large? Or maybe has it got something to do with the drastic increase in body language, which makes me feel like a teacher again? Or is it because it’s the language of my grandfather, speaking through me? I’d like to think that. But in truth I can’t explain it. It’s just magic. My perpetual happiness machine. In goes Spanish, out comes happiness. It’s as simple as that. I just needed reminding.

And a good thing, too. This time tomorrow I’ll be back in Guirilandia and probably pulling into the drive round about now. No more Arabic study. No more al-Kitaab. Just one whole year with the Happiness Machine. I cannot wait.

The host father came in to bid us goodnight. I apologized for not being this way over the last two months. I’m grinning like a gargoyle and laughing and switching freely between Spanish and Arabic and it’s all because I had an hour ‘in the machine’, so to speak. It’s such an amazing feeling. It’s like the whole world is bright and sunny and full of colour. I need to be living in a country where they speak this godly language. I need to be living in Spain.

In perfect honesty, this is not at all how I expected to be ending my time in Morocco. I was expecting one last chastisement over something trivial, or a panicked search for something lost, a friendlier-than-usual dinner, or something along those lines. Instead I ended it in Spanish mode. Curious, perhaps, but it bodes very well for the future, and it’s reminded me – yet again – what I need to do to be happy in this life.

I just need to talk. Y ya que sabemos cómo se utiliza esa máquina de felicidad, no hay ninguna duda sobre mis planes para el futuro. España, vengo por ti. BB x

Go with Peace

Jimminy. One more week and it’s all over. This year abroad, at times both the fastest and slowest year of my life, is drawing to a close. The old tablecloth analogy is back in force: somebody gave the table a tilt back in April (or was it September?) and now everything’s sliding towards the edge at an increasing rate (which is a real shame, because Tetouan was beginning to feel like home). As has been the case throughout the rest of the year, I’ve a fair few goodbyes to make, though as any frequent traveler will know, these get easier every time. So I’ve one last farewell to make before the end.

Or not. Because it’s not just goodbye to the team at Dar Loughat. It’s a bigger step by far.

It’s goodbye to Arabic studies.

Hey, now, don’t give me that look. If you’ve been reading carefully throughout the year, you’ll have seen this coming a long way off. You might even have cottoned on sooner, since I didn’t really make up my mind until the last days of June.

The blog, however, speaks for itself. It tells a tale of depression and despair in Amman and the golden friends I found there; and perhaps, the beginning of the end. It tells the story of how I fell in love with my grandfather’s country all over again; how Spanish became more than just a language, but the key to happiness itself; how I found in Extremadura the paradise I’ve been searching for for so long. Of the One-that-could-have-been and the opening of my eyes to the rest of Iberia. And in amongst all the musing posts in between, it reveals a slow but steady swing towards the heart of the matter, a realignment with the most important thing of all: finding where I belong. In retrospect, it’s obvious. It was always going to happen. It was simply a question of when. And in one of life’s great paradoxes, that realization came when I was more confident with my Arabic than I’ve ever been in my life.

Happiness was the key. I had to be truly happy to see the truth.


I reckon I still have a fair amount of explaining to do. I built up a bit of a reputation for myself in first and second year as the keenest Arabic nut alive (though I outright refuse the term BNOC). Granted, all of that time spent juggling societies, subjects and a social life in second year wore me down a bit, but at heart I was still a bloody keen bean. Always on time, always ahead of the game… Almost always optimistic. (Seriously, I was insufferable in first year, just ask any of my classmates). As a result, this is probably still a shock move for those of you who know me. Well, I’ll do my best to explain my decision.

  1. Spain happened. Specifically, the British Council assistant placement. We were warned; I didn’t listen; I fell in love. Because if you seriously want to push ahead with two languages, it’s absolutely essential to balance them, especially when it comes to…
  2. …the Year Abroad. Ya3ni, at least half of the class will have spent a minimum of six months in an Arabic-speaking country by October. That’s two more than me, and considering the speed at which I advanced in Tetouan, I’d be tempted even to discount any and all ‘progress’ I might have made in…
  3. …Amman. And in all honesty, I don’t really want to use Amman as an excuse, but it is. My time in Jordan was certainly eye-opening, full of highs, lows and plenty of laughs, but I don’t think I’ve ever been more drained in my life. This is honestly the least of reasons, but because of the effect it had on my attitude towards Arabic, it’s a reason nonetheless.
  4. Career paths. My companions have such noble ambitions with Arabic. Not me. I’ve mapped out the next five or six years of my life and they don’t stray very far from a homely little village somewhere in Spain. In light of this, improving my Arabic further seemed a little pointless.
  5. Priorities. A lot of people learn languages to travel, to communicate, for work, for business etc. the list goes on. But I don’t want to learn Spanish. I want to master it. As in, not just to speak it like a native, but to be able to write it as though it were my mother tongue. That’s going to take commitment, drive and serious levels of focus, the kind you can’t share with an Arabic degree.
  6. Simple credit-crunching. With 80 credits from Arabic last year, the language is already going on my degree title, so I’d be gaining nothing by moving on. If anything, I’d be risking…
  7. …a shot at a potential First. Arabic 2B, brilliant though it was, cost me dear last year and brought me crashing down to an overall 67. A First-class degree at Durham is something even my own mother never managed, so to achieve that… It’d be nothing short of legendary.
  8. The book. I started learning Arabic, amongst other reasons, because I needed it for my book. How could I ever hope to write convincingly about the Arabs if I couldn’t understand their language? Well, I’ve got to the stage where I can speak, read and write Arabic with respectable fluency. I’ve even learned calligraphy along the way. My work here is done. Which reminds me…
  9. …I never actually intended to take Arabic beyond the first year of university. Looking at my plans from school and the gap year that followed, I apparently meant to go on with French. It looks like Arabic simply took French’s place in my heart. And that’s completely, wholly and unashamedly down to…
  10. …the group vibe. Durham’s Arabic class of ’17 is no more and no less than the most wonderful, capable and hilarious bunch of people I’ve ever known, and they have been the lifeblood of my degree thus far. But in perfect, mercenary honesty, that’s not the best reason to jeopardize a First. I applied to Durham partly because of the fantastic college system, but to be honest, I never really fitted in at Aidan’s. I made a few unforgettable friends there, but it was in my degree that I met the people most important to me. And isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?

It wasn’t an easy decision to make. In fact, it took all of three weeks to fully sort out, in the end. But I worked my way this far and I succeeded. I can speak Arabic with almost the same confidence as Spanish, even though my vocabulary is only half the size. I can discuss Barbary corsairs, Tuareg mythology and Andalusian heritage with my teachers at speed. Gone are the days of Assad drinks milk, fathers that work in the United Nations and being fa3lan wahiid all the time. I’m walking out with my head held high.

I’m really going to miss sharing class with these wonderful folks!


Next year isn’t going to be drastically easier. Far from it. What with a short-fat module, the dissertation and the inevitable music commitments, the first term alone is going to be a serious uphill climb. But Spanish is my weapon, my Tizona, and I am determined to make this work. I know, at last, where I belong. BB x

Take Me to the River

The world doesn’t look particularly different at twenty-two. So much has happened since last year, but what’s changed? I’ve been so busy for most of the year that I’ve hardly had time to look. I’ve been binging on Doctor Who lately, and with all of that timely-wimey stuff in mind, I thought I’d pen down a few things that I’ve seen and heard over the last 365 days.

Paris got hit by an earth-shattering terrorist attack, and then a flood six months later. Brussels got attacked shortly afterwards, as did numerous other cities in the Middle East (most of which overlooked, perhaps because Europeans weren’t directly involved). IS obviously wasn’t satisfied with all the fear and blew up Palmyra. It’s a rough world we live in. The migrant crisis is deepening, UK is currently considering leaving the EU and mogul, ‘kill the women and children’, human-seesaw Trump is genuinely the Republican candidate for the US Presidential elections. That may or may not have something to do with all of this. There’s also another plane vanished without a trace, this one flying between Paris and Cairo. We lost a lot of actors to cancer, including Alan Rickman, and also the West African black rhinoceros to boot – but in all the xenophobic madness that’s plaguing the world right now, that’s a loss that most people will have ignored.

There’s a change right away: Ben’s been reading the news this year.

Yesterday was my first shot at getting out and about in Morocco and I seized it by the horns. It was also the first real day of summer, pushing 36°C from 11 o’clock onwards. Summer Ramadan is a challenge on a whole new level. Thank goodness the plan was to spend most of the day in the shade of a canyon.

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Now if Wadi Dana had been this lush and green…

The Moroccan north is nothing short of spectacular. In truth, most of Morocco will blow you away, but the Rif is rather special, even for a seasoned Sierra-trekker like me. Imagine the Pyrenees, sprinkle them with red earth, plant them with cedars and remove the high-rise ski resorts and you have a basic idea of the Rif. You might also care to throw in a few monkeys if it’s to your fancy, though a surprising number of folks wouldn’t.

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Thank God I brought my trunks on a whim

Turn off the road near Talambote and you’ll find yourself in a breathtaking valley of cedar woods and stark, red cliffs, set against a blue, blue sky. Heaven incarnate. There’s a small car park and a couple of bathrooms at the point where a river tumbles out of the mountains, carving its way through the rocks over a series of waterfalls. Akchour and the Bridge of God lie just a couple of kilometres upstream.

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Talassemtane’s pretty amazing, but the party starts south of Tetouan!

The route there is not exactly what you’d call linear; you have to ford the river at least two or three times. And whilst the weather might be sweltering at this time of year, the water rushing down from the mountains is anything but. There are a couple of stepping-stone paths and a few lines of conveniently-placed sandbags,but unless you feel like risking the adventurous, straight-out-of-a-Conan Doyle log bridges, it’s sun’s out, guns out, shoes off. I usually need a seriously good excuse to strip, being white bread through and through, even though I tend to tan pretty well, thanks to the Manchego in my blood (mmm… manchego). Well, a swim is as good an excuse as any.

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Throw me the idol!

The water is cold. It’s not as cold as that pool in the riad we stayed in over in Chaouen, but it’s still bloody cold. After about fifteen minutes in the river my jaw is shaking uncontrollably and I’m having to bite my tongue to talk, which is hardly the most efficient way of going about it. But the water is so clear you can count the stones on the riverbed two metres down. And somewhere up in the trees high above, troops of macaques patrol the cliffs. I only had a fleeting glimpse of them this time, but I’ll be back. Hey, I can’t help it; I lived with two anthropologists last year. It did my obsession with primates no good whatsoever. Get up close and personal with our distant family and tell me you don’t feel some kind of connection on a deeper level – it’s in the eyes. You can tell they’re thinking.

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Barbary Macaque in the Cedar Forest, Ifrane National Park, Morocco (2015)

They must be. If you aren’t buying it, visit the Rock. The Gibraltar macaques know all the tricks to relieve tourists of their munchies: smash and grab, puppydog eyes, even a rudimentary pincer movement. But here they’re free, unfed (and thus unspoiled) by tourists and wary enough to be considered natural. And that’s beautiful.

The car ride home was nothing short of a dream. Why? Because Omar, our guide, spoke Spanish. As did Mika, as did Jennifer. As did I. I can hardly tell you how amazing it felt to be speaking Spanish again after what feels like ages, even though it can only have been ten days, tops. It made returning to Arabic on Monday morning all the harder, but it was worth it for the high. Send me back to Spain. I can see the blue skies, I can see Paradise.

The Corrs have a new album out. White Light. I’m in a very happy place. And now I’m not booked out this August, I might just get to see them after all. BB x