Rewind, Reset, Refocus

Diary Entry: 14th March, 2012. Ten years ago today.

Heavens above, the first night of Fiddler is less than a day away! This year has flown by… Today went by in a similar blur: four frees (essentially), Spanish and English raced past with a quick thrashing of Peter at chess over lunch and a Yearbook planning session. The dress rehearsal was superb – a lot to be ameliorated for the night itself (apparently) but otherwise very good. I must say, personally, I’m impressed with everyone. Our Tevye in particular: he’s come a long way since only just deciding to put his oar in… One of the big five is almost out of the way! The only question is… what next?


When I was seventeen, lists to me were everything. I think it was a long hangover from the teenage bird-watching days: garden lists, patch lists, year lists and lifers. That kind of thing. I wasn’t really the kind of kid who had it all figured out from the beginning, but I did appreciate a tick list to motivate me. I must have the original “bucket list” of fifty miscellaneous tasks I wanted to achieve before the age of fifty stored away on a memory stick, buried deep beneath a hundred other forgotten half-finished jobs, books and games. The irony isn’t lost on me.

I still remember the big five, though. They were the “ultimate goals”, the quests that I had to complete, come Hell or high water. It went something like this:

  1. Play the part of Motel in Fiddler on the Roof
  2. Get a place at Durham University
  3. Travel from Cairo to Cape Town
  4. Get married
  5. Publish the book

You’ll notice that two of them are struck through. Completed. Dicho y hecho. You might well think it more than a little foolish that I managed to get two of my five “great quests” completed within six months of each other, and by the age of eighteen, to boot. You might also question the logic of making the First Quest so very specific, which relied upon a great many external factors, but as the descendant of a lost Jewish family driven into hiding, Fiddler on the Roof holds a very special place in my heart. I was also uncommonly blessed with a musical director for a mother, so I did, I admit, have a significant advantage in achieving one of them early on.

Is there a blessing for a sewing machine?

Durham? Durham wasn’t even up for debate. I simply had to get there. And though I do my very best to advise my own students against such stubborn folly, I was more than prepared to take a gap year and have a second shot when I didn’t get a place at the university of my dreams the first time around. Call it madness, but I wasn’t prepared to accept anywhere else. It was a gamble I ended up making good on, shored up by a much more favourable set of A Level grades. A combination of luck, hard work and stubborn pride secured me the Second Quest.

Of the remaining three, one was swapped out a few years back for a new quest:

3. Find the family

As I got older and my desire for reckless travel steadily fell away – the pressures of holding down a job and being in a relationship will do that to you, I guess – the idea of making the great overland trek from Cairo to Cape Town by any means at hand drifted further and further into the nether realms of lost dreams. Living in Uganda very much whetted my appetite for all things African, but in the years since I’ve been made to question that interest so often, through the lens of anti-colonialism, BLM and the downfall of my Gospel Choir. Eventually, the risks outweighed the allure. I buried that dream a long time ago, and replaced it with a much more personal Third Quest: finding the lost family I had never met.

I found them. That was five years ago – you can read the story here, if you missed it. Of all my quests, the search for my family has been the most precious, and I live in its afterglow twice a week every week as I guide my youngest cousin towards his English B1 exam.

That leaves only two of the original five: arguably, the two chambers of my heart. The book, and the one. I’m not afraid to admit that my single greatest ambition since childhood has been one and the same, and combines those two into one; and that is to read my own stories to my own children one day. It’s an image I’ve had in my head for almost twenty years: sitting on the edge of the bed, my life’s work in my hands, putting on all these silly voices and painting the world I’ve spent decades creating for my children. Leading them there, chapter by chapter. Watching them grow up with my heroes, until they find stories of their own and take up the mantle my great-grandparents passed on to me.

Of course, there’s a small but fundamental stepping stone that must be crossed first: the Fourth Quest.

Getting married and publishing the book. The two quests go hand in hand. That, perhaps, is why coming out of a long-term relationship has been a bit more jarring than I thought it would be. The derailing of two quests at once. A future rerouted, rewritten, a page of thoughts and ideas and names scrubbed blank. It’s not disheartening – nothing can be when the birds are singing and the year is on the turn – but it does leave you knocked out of orbit.


Ten years ago tonight, I was psyching myself up for the first night of Fiddler on the Roof. Tonight, Russian forces continue to cut a burning path through Ukraine. Kiev shelled. Mariupol in flames. Hospitals in ruins. As Motel, I took my young family and fled west into Europe. The radio today was talking about how the British government is offering a tax-free allowance of £350 per month to those willing to put up Ukraine’s refugees. According to the Beeb, some 43,000 have already signed up to help, only five hours in.

The events described in Fiddler took place in 1905. More than a hundred years later, the parallels seem alarming. They put one’s troubles in context. Personal quests and family pride must be denied and set aside and mortified and all that. Perhaps it’s high time I set myself a new quest. In the meantime, there is work, and work is good for the soul, even if marking GCSE translations is a far cry from any soul food I’ve ever eaten. BB x

Tevye: Work hard, Motel. Come to us soon.

Motel: I will, Reb Tevye. I’ll work hard.

Fiddler on the Roof, Act II, Scene 8

Athene noctua

The students have gone home for half term. Silence hangs over the school. The corridors of the boarding house are dark, and a little cold, too. The floorboards creak under my foot with the kind of volume that only darkness can amplify. The dull glow from the torch on my phone casts long shadows. A friend of mine once explored an abandoned hospital on a dare. I did not go with him then, out of some primordial fear of the darkness within. And yet, here I am, haunting the empty corridors of this old house by night, the last man standing. Filling up a water bottle from the cooler on the Year 10 corridor becomes a quest in its own right.

I’ve had a lot of time to think lately. I guess coming out of a long term relationship will do that for you. One of the things I thought I might be able to recover was the fierce reading streak I had on my year abroad, but I just can’t find my mojo for that right now. Time just seems to slip through my fingers when I’m not at work. I wonder what the world does when it’s not working? I guess that’s what television is for, or Netflix, or whatever streaming service is in right now. But then, I’ve never been good at sitting down to movies or TV shows. My brain wants to be involved. There’s a precious few I’d happily watch over and over and over again, but it’s rare that I find a new picture out there that sinks in.

There’s not a day goes by where I don’t feel a genuine fulfilment in my line of work. Teaching is in my blood, a duty that my ancestors have carried out for generations. Knowing that I am the torch-bearer for my generation gives me a sense of purpose that is utterly unshakeable. And it’s not as though that purpose hasn’t been tested over the years. It’s just that, whenever something comes up to shake its fist in my direction, I know instinctively that there’s a greater mission behind it all, and that’s reason enough to persevere – even when my core beliefs are thrown into disarray. I wonder if my great-grandparents, Mateo and Mercedes, ever had such doubts?

There’s a little owl calling outside. It’s been piping away from the upper branches of the Atlas cedar in the drive for half an hour now. The foxes have been quiet for a week or so now. I suppose their noisy January antics in the front quad are over for the year. Three buzzards were soaring over the grounds the other day during morning break, but none of the students seemed to notice. The redwings and the fieldfares have moved on and the snowdrops are out. The daffodils will be on their heels soon enough. I escaped to Richmond Park a few weekends back, just as the first blooms were sprouting. It was good to see the wide world again, even if only through my own eyes.

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The meltwater of the long Covid winter is starting to run. Just like the birdsong and the subtle shift in the light over the last couple of days, change is in the air. Piece by piece, the last fragments of the old world are coming back. At the request of one of my students, I blew the dust off my long-neglected violin and rocked up to orchestra this week. I’m about as good on the thing as I ever was – that is, haphazard at best – but I’d forgotten how much fun it used to be. It’s one of those things that simply slipped through my fingers over the last couple of years.

I think I’ll take up the guitar this half term. A zealous diet of sevillanas have powered me through the darkness of the winter months this year, and I’m done with being able to sing along but never sing alone. At the very least it will give me something to do until my provisional arrives and I finally confront the long-delayed challenge of learning to drive, which I have put off for far too long.

I’m done with playing games. It’s high time I went on another adventure. The Easter holidays aren’t far off, and I could do with some more writing fuel. And spring is always such a hopeful time of year. BB x

Living out of a Book: Adventures with a Journal

The Red Book (my first “Renaissance” journal) at the feet of Washington Irving, Granada (March 2016)

Let me tell you something for free: full-time employment is a writer’s bane. You knew that already, so neither of us lost anything in that transaction. Except me, and the ever-increasing gaps between the dates in my journal.

I spent so much of this weekend powering through marking after a week of KS3 assessments that it only occurred to me as I filed my Year 9 papers away that last weekend was the first time I’d given my novel some serious thought in a year and a half. Since you can chalk that “blip” up to the first lockdown, it’s probably safe to say the last time I made any real headway with my book was before I took up a post in a boarding school back here in the UK. That is to say, back when I was living in Extremadura, now almost four years ago. If it weren’t for the fact that I still carry a journal around with me, I’d have made no progress in that time whatsoever.

But since I’m more of a glass-half-full kind of guy, I’m going to focus less on the killing instinct of working life and more on the magic of keeping a journal. Because, as always, there’s a story behind it – and in my case, it’s a lot more personal than I ever knew.

I’ve written reasonably extensively about my journalling habit before, but in case you missed it, click here for an earlier piece on one of my favourite journals, the Red Book.

Sketching the windy peaks of Montserrat (April 2019)

I don’t think I’ve ever been without a sketchbook of sorts. Going back to my parents’ place for Christmas turned up quite a few of my oldest surviving books, dog-eared, half-filled and almost all of them featuring the same cast of characters that share a space in my head and my heart to this day. Studying Art for GCSE and A Level naturally fed the habit, though I seem to remember having separate sketchbooks for school and for myself right the way through. I suppose I should reach out to a couple of early inspirations here: to Mr Howe, for his no-holds-barred approach to sketchbook work (“unfinished pieces are often more interesting than finished pieces” has stuck with me); to my old friend Freddie, whose handwriting I secretly admired and have long since adapted into my own; and, of course, to my own mother, who must have kept several journals of her own when she was younger.

These first attempts were more art than word, though. It wasn’t until my eighteenth year that I took the craft of journalling more seriously, riding off the back of having successfully kept a diary for a little over a whole year – to date, the longest successful writing streak in my life. With many long months to go until the first day of my degree, I picked up a small flip-journal from Waterstones and penned some thoughts. At first, it was just lists: locations in my novel, possible pen names, key elements for fantasy fiction. On the second page I branched out and jotted down some facts that I found interesting, for a change of pace (my brother was quick to point out this was a considerably less interesting way to use a journal). I guess not everybody needs to know that the underside of a waterfall is called an undercutting; that Mullah Omar donned the mystical Cloak of the Prophet to drum up support in 1996; and that Dr William Bryden was the sole survivor of the Khyber Pass massacre of 1842.

Three pages in and the novel is the back in the limelight – and so it continues. Every so often, I find something in a book or on the news that I deem worthy of recording, but as a rule, the bulk of my pen-and-pencilwork concerns the fate of my cast of characters and the world in which they live, ever-growing, ever-crystallising. Sketches in pencil duck and weave through the gaps like weasels, giving over onto full page illustrations when I really found my mojo. It’s a formula I have deviated from very little for nine years now.

Gypsy Legends and Grenadine Gifts (2020)

When I was younger, and I still had these crazy notions (as the young and reckless always do) of embarking upon death-defying expeditions to Afghanistan and beyond, I remember thinking that, if something should happen to me, the world in my head that I had spent all but the first seven years of my life creating would disappear completely. That is, unless I left enough material behind for somebody to pick up the pieces. I suppose that morbid justification stuck, because there is now enough information spread across my various journals for somebody to put together the various stories I have always wanted to tell.

The rain in Spain on the plane (August 2019)

And perhaps there’s a logical explanation for that mindset.

My great-grandmother Mercedes was a woman ahead of her time. In a Spain teetering on the brink of Civil War, she found love with a poet and musician called Mateo. They corresponded in verse, quoting Oscar Wilde and Keats and Plato and Engels. Their handwritten letters to each other – safeguarded by my family for over fifty years – tell of a truly devoted husband and wife on an equal intellectual footing, flying in the face of the dictadura and the expectations of women outlined in the Guia de la buena esposa. Mercedes was well-known about town for her journal, which was as much a part of her character as her glass of brandy and cigars. Though her locally legendary journals themselves are lost to time, it is chiefly through her precious letters to her Mateo that I can see through a window in that past. It is a past which comes clearer into focus the more I get to know my family out there. The fatalist in me cannot help but wonder at the sequence of events that led to me arriving at my family’s door with little more than my journal in hand, unconsciously carrying the one item that would prove my connection to a great-grandmother I never had the chance to meet. Mercedes left this world the very same year I came into it.

I spent the greater part of my search for my family focused on the grandfather I never knew, but it is my bisabuela Mercedes who guides my hand these days. I’m a strong believer in upholding family traditions, and it doesn’t half lend a sense of purpose to the scribblings in my journals, even if they never lead anywhere. My ancestors left me a literal paper trail and I must follow.

Barcelona vignettes (March 2019)

Have you ever kept a journal? I’d highly recommend it. It’s less onerous than a diary and a beautiful thing to look back on. Through mine, I can read the world around me through the strokes of my pen: the euphoria of success in the a cappella semifinals; my bewilderment at Brexit; the shockwaves of the fire of Notre-Dame; and my bottomless love for the country of my ancestors. It’s all there, and since boarding school life makes it nigh-on impossible to knock out a couple of chapters a week like I used to, my journals do a thumping good job at telling the story.

And maybe, one day, that’s exactly what they’ll do, when they fall into the hands of my grandchildren. I’d like that. I think Mercedes would have liked that, too.

BB x

The Strength of Blood

Seat eighty-six, coach two. A sky full of flat-bottomed clouds. The immensity of La Mancha racing by in a haze of olive green, dirty white and wine red, with scarlet carpets of poppies laid out in the tall grass of the wheat-fields. Ruined farmhouses crumbling amongst the endless vineyards, men and women bent double as they work the fields, and a lonely oak tree standing tall. Woodpigeons scattering in the wake of the train; a single kestrel perched high upon a telegraph pole; a pair of harriers wheeling overhead on slender wings, the female a living shadow of the earth below, the male a silver spirit of the sky above. I cannot see the bustards I saw on the way here, nor the rabbits or hares or even the magpies. But far off to the south the land rises, and I can see the blue hills of La Solana and Infantes, the vanguard of the sierras of Andalusia. Andalusia: where all of this began.

It seems strange, now, to imagine this whole Spanish adventure without my family at the heart of it. All those years spent wandering in the shade of the stone pines of Doñana, hiking in the scrubby mountains around Grazalema and anchoring myself in one way or another to an ancient, characterful little corner (literally) of the province of Cádiz… I question why, a cup of café con leche in hand, we did not simply come straight here to La Mancha, where the family is, was and always had been, rather than go chasing the same Andalusian dream that ruined so many British families before us. It would have made a lot more sense, certainly. But such is the way of things, and if we had, would I have half the story to tell? Would I even be where I am today? I think not.

The high sierras of Ronda. The stone pine forests of Huelva. The scent of snow in the Alpujarras, the Arabic lettering on the walls of the Alhambra and the pillared forest of the Great Mosque of Córdoba. And of course, the unspoilt wilds of Extremadura, from the plains of Cáceres to the paradise hills of La Vera. That is the Spain I know. The Spain I have come to love with all of my heart. Just as an athlete needs to warm up before a race, so too did I need to wander before finding my way. My mother chose the destination; I chose the road.

As I continue my wandering in the streets of Alcázar de San Juan, waiting for the connecting train to Madrid, I pass a small and modern church. Families pour out onto the street, shaking hands, exchanging kisses, the children playing chase in the street. I say to myself, aloud, “así habría sido mi vida, quizás…”. I walk in the direction of the windmills, knowing full well I will not make it there and back in the forty minutes at my disposal. I find a small park on the way and stop to eat a semicurado sandwich in a concrete ring decorated with painted tiles telling the story of Don Quijote. I must read that book, I really must. It’s nothing short of a crime to have come this far with my Spanish and not to have read the book.

An hour passes. The train sails through the lush greenery of Aranjuez. My mind races back to an August afternoon, many years ago, when my parents decided to break up the long drive south to our new home with a visit to the royal palace there. Twelve year-old me, with little to no idea what I was getting myself in for, crouched down over a pond staring at pumpkinseed fish. Leaving England behind meant nothing to me, then. I was going to live in a country with pumpkinseed fish, and eagles, and hoopoes, and vultures, and Cola Cao. I knew my priorities. These days I’m not so sure. I know what they are – that much I have learned – but which are the most pressing priorities, the ones I truly cannot live without… that is hard to say.

Without England, I would not have my music. My gospel choir. My a cappella group. My funk band and the chance to pour all my heart and soul into the most powerful necessity on the planet. But without Spain, I would not have my greatest love. I would not have my family, my ever-changing, ever-constant paradise, and the happiness machine that is the Spanish language itself (forgive the overuse of the word “my” – it is so very easy to feel possessive about the things you care the most about). For the last three years I have been forced to choose between the two, and it has done its level best to tear me apart.

Seat forty-eight, coach one. Getafe rises up and out of the fields, heralded by an advance guard of red tower blocks on the horizon. The wilderness is behind us now; the metropolis ahead. Last night I dreamed I was climbing a steep forested hill, when out of nowhere a stag, huge and thunderous with broad antlers, bolted out of the bushes, cleared the fence to my left in a single leap and came to a halt on the other side of the path, looking back at me as though to challenge me. Google says to dream of a stag is an augur of caution against making hasty decisions, and that a running stag foretells a great deal of luck in family life. It sounds like superstitious stuff and nonsense to me, but in truth, I have not had a dream so vivid in a long time. And I have been known to avoid walking under scaffolding.

By eight thirty tonight I will be back at work. With exam season in full swing I could hardly ask for more than I already have. But I return home full of light. Spending the weekend with my family has been everything I wanted it to be and more besides, just like it was this time last year, and the Easter before that. I have never known a happiness quite like it. Seeing the shock, the joy and the tears on my little cousin’s face when he saw me in the church of San Blas… it is a memory I will never forget. Last year it was the novelty of discovery that shook me. Now it is the strength of love and blood, the strongest of all ties. And it will keep me strong until we meet again. That much I know. BB x

Family Reunion: Part Two

When all is said and done, there is surely nothing more important in life than family. I always knew that. A hundred books and films tell you explicitly what your parents don’t have to. But my mother did, in one way or another, and one way or another I set my heart on finding my lost Spanish family years ago. It makes me proud, prouder than I’ve ever been, to say that I’ve done it. It was nerve-wracking and emotional, but I did it. My world just got five sizes larger over the space of a single night. I’m happier than I’ve been in years and not even a third repeat of Charlie Puth’s How Long over the bus radio can dampen my spirits. Not today.

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“How did you know where to find us?” they asked.
“You’re Spanish,” I said. “I knew you wouldn’t have gone anywhere.”

Twenty-four years on and none of my relatives had moved so much as a mile from where they were before. God bless the Spanish and their strong family ties.

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I had so many questions when I pulled into Villarrobledo on Thursday afternoon. I got so many answers that I almost ran out of questions by the end of it all. Now it all makes sense! The great-grandmother from Albacete, the school in Teruel, the letters from Cataluña, the ties to Murcia and the car accident in Alicante. I had all the pieces, but I needed somebody who knew how to assemble them. Luckily for me, my grandfather’s cousin Encarna was just that person. Born in Alicante, raised in La Mancha, educated in Murcia and displaced to Cataluña for a short time, my grandfather Pepe covered in twenty-nine years just about every corner of Spain that I haven’t in twenty-four. Between the two of us we have the whole peninsula in our hands. I still have so much of his world to see, but I’ve made a great start, and that’s always the hardest part.

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It’s hard to know what was the very best moment of the last three days. Rafaelín’s insatiable curiosity. Encarna’s spectacular cooking. Natalia’s “en Semana Santa no se pega”. Hanging out with a generation of cousins I never knew I had. Jokes about vegans, vegetarians and hapless Brits abroad, three spine-tingling saetas, and Jesús brought back to the church in what looked like a body-bag by the Guardia Civil to protect him from the rain. I’ve never felt closer to the spirituality of Semana Santa and the family were only too happy to introduce me. I’ve only ever seen it through the eyes of a curious outsider before, hooked – like so many guiris before me – on the magic of the spectacle. But now it’s closer. It’s not just wishful thinking on my part. Finally, I belong.

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Perhaps the biggest surprise of all came out of my notebook. In all cases but this, I’d have loved to have my family with me for the reunion, but in this instant, I’m glad I came out on my own. Were my mother or father about, they’d have told me not to bring the notebook. They’d have said it was “showing off” or being “unsociable”, perhaps. That was what they always used to say. But if I hadn’t had it on me, I would never have found out that my passion for carrying a notebook everywhere I go is not just a strange quirk of my own – it’s a family affair. You see, my great-grandmother Lucía María Cruz de la Concepción Mercedes – Mercedes for short – was also a prolific notebook keeper, who liked to sit on her balcony on a sunny day with a cigarette, a glass of brandy and the radio on, jotting down whatever she found interesting and penning her thoughts between her doodles. Quite by accident, I’ve been channelling my great-grandmother’s spirit all this time, and I never knew.

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Well… I’m home now. There’s always something a little sad about the end of a great quest. The journey there is filled with hope, excitement and a host of well-wishers who spur you on like a good wind in your sails. Every step is a climb and the end of the road, as short and sweet as it may be, is the most beautiful of rewards by far. But there comes a time when home calls, and every adventurer must gather their things and return to reality, and the road home is quieter. My quest is my family, and it will go on forever.

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It isn’t all too often that you get to be your own wishmaker. But every once in a while you just have to get over your fears and go for it, whatever it is. And if the last week has taught me anything, it’s that whilst something as simple as making a phone call still has the power to cripple me, nothing and nobody will stand in the way of me and my family. Fate tore us apart years ago. My mother gave me the tools, Don Rafael gave me the opportunity, and I have put us back together again. Whatever happens in the remaining nine months, 2018 will go down as one of the greatest years of my life.

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P.S. As if today couldn’t get any better, when I got off the bus I was met with the screams of Villafranca’s swifts, back from the winter in Africa, and when I got home, I found a letter from nothing other than the wonderful Kate Brocklesby waiting in my letterbox. Today has been a very good day!

Family Reunion: Part One

10:52

It begins in Salamanca. It’s not exactly where I thought it was going to begin, but it’s a more auspicious starting point than Villafranca, I guess. The other passengers around me are reshuffling their seats on the bus. The lady on the seat next to me scrolls blindly through her Instagram feed. Flighty pigeons patrol the bus station roof and a few fluffy clouds pepper the sky. Suitcases roll in, buses roll out and people chat about what they’ll be having for lunch. It’s just another day in Salamanca – but not for me. Today’s the day I find my family.

It’s hard to say exactly how I’m feeling right now. Three days ago, when Rafael called, I was nervous. So nervous I waited until the call went through to my answerphone so I could deal with the matter calmly and indirectly. I’d already gone through the business of psyching myself up a couple of weeks ago, when I first made plans to visit. Spurred on by Coco, and some of Bella’s heartbreaking family stories, I decided I could wait no longer. Then Rafael’s sudden hospitalisation put our reunion on hold and I had to wait.

Now I’m racing across the sunny fields of old Castile with the cathedral of Salamanca shrinking into the distance, and my new quest – perhaps the greatest quest of my life so far – has begun.

12:58

The snows on the highest peaks of the Guadarrama seem as smooth as flour. San Rafael, the quiet town that harboured me once when I came down tired and hungry from a sixty kilometre trek across the mountains, looked warm and unfamiliar in the sunlight. I only remember it in the dark of the night. I have left the granite boulders and high sierras of old Castile behind me. Madrid stretches out across the plain with queer mountains of tower blocks and skyscrapers. The Buddenbrooks film they have playing on the monitor is drawing to its sad and depressing finale, a world away from the hopeful sunshine outside. Nineteenth-century Germany and sunlit Madrid could hardly be further apart.

I see a magpie. I count to ten. A second appears. I breathe again.

14:43

Every quest has a dragon to be slain, and today’s is Atocha Station. On the bus I briefly entertained the idea of a small paseo in the Retiro, should I find my way through the station easily. It’s as well that I didn’t. It took me several bewildered attempts to navigate the terminus. Atocha makes London King’s Cross seem like the Dunkeld and Birnam railway station. Stairs criss-crossing each other in all directions. Media distancia here, larga distancia there, high-speed AVE lines elsewhere. The icing on the cake: the platform is not revealed until minutes before the train arrives, or, in this case, withheld until the thing is just pulling in. I was a bag of nerves back there and I’m not proud of it. I love travel, but I don’t like cities. I never have. And it’ll only be harder on the way back when I have half the time to get from Atocha to Estación Sur. But the dragon is slain, and I’m headed south into New Castile and the immense emptiness of La Mancha.

15:08

Where do I begin? What questions do I ask the only man on Earth who knew my grandfather when he was still alive? It’s hard to know where to start. Rafael may be my first cousin twice removed, and his descendants more distant still, but they’re all that’s left of my family and I have to find them. I have to know. It’s what’s been driving this whole Spanish adventure from the very beginning. My grandfather José… When was he born? What was he like? Is there anything left of him in his hometown, or has he passed, like the Moorish kings, into memory? I can only hope for some small detail, a shred of the faintest of proofs. In truth I do not really know what awaits me in Villarrobledo, but I can wait no longer.

15:40

Some etymologists believe the Roman word “Hispania”, from which we derive the modern name of Spain, came via an old Punic-Hebrew cognate “i-shfania”, meaning “Island of Rabbits”. The rabbits are dying out by degrees – I haven’t seen one in months – so perhaps “Island of Magpies” might be a better term today. The kites and the swallows come and go, but I see magpies wherever I go in this country. I used to associate them with the oak tree that grew on the verge by my house when I was growing up. Nowadays I think of Spain when I see them. I’m not sure where we get the word “magpie” from, but the Spanish urraca is supposedly onomatopoeic, like the Arabic ‘āqāq. There was even a Spanish queen called Urraca once. I wonder why they called her that?

The earth is red. We’re rolling into Alcázar de San Juan. Three stops remain. Just to spite me, a pair of rabbits watched our train pass by from the sleepers on the opposite line. Hispania lives on.

17:29

The first words I heard on entering Villarrobledo were not in Spanish at all, but in American English. I’m not sure whether that marred my first experience or not. Villarrobledo looks like a lot like Villafranca, picked up and dropped in the middle of La Mancha. And I thought Extremadura was flat… I’ve never seen such horizons.

The hotel Rafael arranged for me has everything I need, except the little zing of extra courage I could do with right now. To be fair, there’s probably plenty of courage in the couple of Dueros I brought as presents for my family, but if I can soldier through twenty-two years of teetotal trials, I can manage this one sober. I’ve had a shower, freshened up and put today’s date in my journal. There’s nothing left to do but to step out of the hotel room and finish my quest. Some food wouldn’t go amiss, but as it’s Jueves Santo, I doubt anywhere will be open. Besides, needs must: there’s a greater cause at stake. Grandfather, this is for you. It always has been.

Ps. I’ve forward-dated this post, so by the time you read this, I’ll have met my family already. I’ll keep you posted.

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

Halfway There

I’ve crossed the halfway mark. As of five minutes ago, I’ve been in Tetouan for four weeks. Four weeks exactly remain. It’s strange to think that the year abroad, essays outstanding, will be over soon. It feels like I’ve been away from home for so long. Jordan dragged, but Spain was over and done with in the blink of an eye and now I’ve only four weeks left at this Arabic game, inshallah, before I can return home at last and, for the first time in over a year, not have to think about where my next placement will take me.

At least, not for a month or so.

Victoria left for home this afternoon, which leaves me as the last of the old guard, if four weeks makes a veteran. I think I’m going to miss her, and I don’t say that about just anybody. She’s bound for brighter and better things and I can only wish her all the best wherever she goes. She’s been such an inspiration whilst she’s been her. It’s not every day you meet somebody who speaks nearly fifteen languages to varying degrees.

Goodbye Victoria!


Inspiration is so very important to me. I had an English teacher once who once complained about a parent asking her to motivate her child; her response was that she was ‘paid to teach, not to inspire’. I’m pretty sure I’ve used that example before, but the argument still stands: she was so very wrong. Inspiration is fundamental in teaching. When the pupil is ready etc. You know the phrase. I won’t repeat it. Inspiration is essential, especially for a subject as challenging as Arabic, and I’ve been so inspired by the people here at Dar Loughat. By Dris, the man who seems to know everything; by Jamal, the diplomat; Alex, the adventurer; Victoria, the original polymath; Katie, the courageous. For somebody who was dragged out of Spain by his heels, it was absolutely essential that Morocco delivered the goods and got the job done, and so it did – and how!

Relations with the host family have got significantly easier, too. That’s probably because I’ve been going out less of late, but maybe my rising confidence in Arabic has dealt a fair hand in that. The library in my room is a gold mine of information, the food every day and night is amazing (and much too plentiful) and the conversation is fantastic. That the father has a firm naturalistic understanding from his palaentological hobbies is just an added bonus, really.

Oh, I’ve been spending my time wisely, I have…


We had a few teething problems, I admit, but I discovered recently what I had guessed to be true: my predecessor was a bit of a social recluse, prioritizing a rapid mastery of Arabic over any and all gatherings. He rarely left the house, spent every spare hour out of class with the family and was constantly asking questions. The family just kind of assumed I’d do likewise, I guess. Is it any wonder, then, that they were a little confused by my silence, preference for books and long, long walks at the weekend? I reckon they’ve got the hang of me by now – insofar as anybody ever can – and my deep attachment to my own freedom. Maybe I’m more British than I thought.

I think I’ll go for my own apartment in Villafranca next year. BB x

Fasting for Convenience

I never saw it coming, but the biggest challenge of living in Morocco is not the language at all. Above and beyond case-marking and getting your head around an Arabic variant that freely borrows French and Spanish words, rendering it almost four languages at once, is the challenge of eating. And whilst I consider myself reasonably proficient at keeping myself well-fed, these first few days in Morocco have rocked me to my core.

The problem, of course, is tied up with living with a family.

Before I set out on my ridiculous trans-Iberian adventure three years ago, I had the appetite of a wolverine. Always eating, ever snacking, stuffing myself with huge quantities of food that I was somehow able to finish in one sitting. Luckily for me, I remained as thin as a beanpole. Something to do with age, a penchant for going on long walks and a good metabolism. I was lucky. 

2013 changed that. The whole Santander to Almería adventure was in a constant state of flux – I don’t think the exact route was entirely clear until it was over – and in the mayhem of sleeping rough in the mountains and navigating by compass and a map dated from 1978, I forgot to eat. That Spanish adventure killed my appetite for good.

Ever since, it doesn’t take much to fill me up. Which is a positive boon, when you think about it, but a major snag when it comes to lodging with an Arab family. I expect it’d be the same just about anywhere in the world, but Arab hospitality is deservedly famous. In amongst all of the Arabic that went over my head, I’ve heard my hosts say more than once that they think I’m not eating well. Not for want of trying – Moroccan food is amazing – but I’ve yet to finish a meal. The quantities are enormous, and the whole eating-with-your-hands thing is frustratingly technical. It slows me down to the point where I’m only halfway through a meal by the time the others have finished eating. Naturally, I’m much too stubborn to accept the cutlery they offered – it’s shameful, like resorting to English abroad – but I can’t help but wonder whether by trying to adapt in one way I’ve only set myself another challenge.

And I need to learn. Eating with one’s hands is the done thing in so many parts of the world, not least of all my beloved Africa. I’ve given myself a week to learn to do it properly; after that, I may resort to a knife and fork, if only to be eating well. It’s Ramadan, after all. It would make no sense at all to be fasting and eating less than usual at the same time. That’s idiocy on another level.

The fasting thing is good, though. It felt right, somehow, getting up at two with the family to eat suhūr together. It adds a new sense of structure to the day. They were all fast asleep when I left the house this morning, which you might expect from a total of five hours’ sleep, but I had class to go to. Fortunately, it’s only a forty minute walk, and that takes you through the medina and last the Royal Palace. It’s a really lovely walk, and it feels better off the back of having fasted with the Tetouanis.

All of this is very easy to say now, on the noon of the first day. Left to my own devices, I doubt I’d make much headway. But with the family watching I’m willing to try. Ramadan helwa, as they used to say in Jordan. And anything that’s got something to do with helwa can’t be that bad. BB x

The view from Class N°5, Dar Loughat

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That’s the first time I’ve ever walked twenty kilometres to get home after a night out. Suffice to say, I also sincerely hope it’s the last. Talk about a walk of shame…

Why did I do it? Because I could? Very possibly. I think it was more the thought of sitting shivering in the dark until the nine thirty bus that made me decide to walk the distance. It certainly wasn’t stinginess on my part; the Almendralejo bus fare is a paltry 1,31€. Perhaps I thought I could beat the earliest bus back to Villafranca on foot. That’s vaguely logical… in a very roundabout-Ben-way-of-thinking. But then, it was five forty-five in the morning. I don’t think I had any real sense of what I was doing. I just remember saying to myself “Alright, let’s do this” before marching off into the darkness like a low-budget Leeroy Jenkins.

As the crow flies, it’s just under twenty kilometres from Almendralejo to Villafranca. I had to take a detour to cross the motorway, so I reckon I clocked just over that. At night the distance looks deceptively close; the twinkling orange lights of the polígono merge with those of the hospital in the middle of the two towns, presumably so situated for industrial accidents in the field. Most of it is traced by the Via de la Plata, the pilgrim road to Santiago from Seville, so it wasn’t exactly a challenging hike. It’s also probably the first time I’ve been sincerely grateful for the vast, empty flat of the Tierra de Barros: navigation is as easy as pie when the nearest hills are a good forty kilometres behind your destination. 

The whole walking-at-night bit didn’t bother me in the slightest. I’d put that down to a six a.m. lack of awareness too, but then, it never has. Of all the things that frighten and frighten horribly in this world, I’ve never been afraid of the night. I learned a long time ago to consider night as just another shade of the day. It’s the same world, only somebody turned off the lights. No deep-seated fears of a shadowy assault or mugging either: I do believe that even the dullest criminal mind would have more sense than to be lying in wait in the countryside in the small hours. The countryside is safety. It always has been, in my eyes. In fact the only mildly unsettling thing in the whole walk was the occasional startled growls of the caged dogs in the farmsteads that dotted the early stages of the route. Alsatians, most of them. It’s a popular breed here. I remember saying to myself “Why can’t you people just keep cats?” and not for the first time. 

Besides the dogs, the soundscape of the early morning Tierra de Barros was really quite magical: roosters crowing, ravens croaking, the tinkle of a pipit overhead and, from somewhere far across the plains, the lonely cry of a stone-curlew. All of this as the sun rose dim and yellow into the clouds on the horizon. My feet might be punishing me two days later, but I don’t regret that walk for an instant. I just don’t think I’ll be repeating it all that soon. It’s a bit like that Spain north-to-south adventure of mine a few years back: it was there, it had to be done, and I did it. Now I can move on.

I don’t think I even stopped for one second to consider what I’d do if it started to rain. The forecast for the weekend was set to bucket it down. I guess I forgot all about that. That I will blame on my fatigue. If it had rained, I’d have been well and truly drenched, and in my best clothes, no less. Why is it that I’m always wearing my best clothes when I set out on these ridiculous adventures? At any rate, it did; a royal thunderstorm hit on the following night, sheet rain, lightning and all the works. Luckily by then I was holed up in my apartment with a cola cao and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor on TV. Someone up there likes me.

I’d like to think that it’s due to foolish misadventures like this that I get to see a side of Spain that most modern travelers simply pass over. You could be forgiven for thinking that Spain, like much of Europe, was fully humanised a long time ago: the sweep of olive plantations and vineyards in the Tierra de Barros certainly gives that impression. But all you have to is close your eyes and listen: the world survives on the fringes. The stone-curlews of these tilled fields and the mournful plovers that ply the once-pristine sands of the raped Costa del Sol hark back to an older Spain, one more ancient than even the oldest of the moorish forts that dot the distant hills. It puts me back in touch with that world to hear them again, just as though I were playing a record from a forgotten world.

It’s not a purely avian nostalgia. As I arrived on the fringes of Villafranca I saw another scene from a bygone age: a muddle of tents positioned about a small campfire where a couple of ragged-looking men stood cooking a light breakfast. Spain’s native gypsies (if such a term is not a misnomer) are a heavily romanticized lot and were mostly squeezed out if their old ways by government programs decades ago, but this new generation of travelers – Romanians, mostly – have taken their place. When I say tents I don’t mean the bright canvas of a modern traveler, nor the UNICEF-stamped donations you might encounter in a war-torn country. These ones might have been cut out of a picture book from the 1930s. Situated on the very fringes of the town, hidden from sight by the town’s waterworks, it’s the very definition of a gypsy encampment. And I thought such echoes had long since faded into history.

You don’t see them in Villafranca proper. The only encounters I’ve had with them so far have all been in Dia supermarket, where they are instantly recognizable by their clothes, by their language and by their complexion; a rich, ochre-brown, marbled like the soil. I’d like to get to know them, to know why they’re here, where they came from and what other stories they might have brought with them, but the townsfolk only have dirt to say on their account. And in my propensity for romanticising the underdog, am I really any better?

Seeing the Romanian encampment made me think of home for some reason, but I was really too tired by then to dwell on it for long. It was purely because I was still moving that I didn’t collapse from fatigue; on the two occasions I paused to get my bearings my head began to spin and I very nearly dozed off. It was only later that night, when sorting through my music collection and The Land Before Time‘s Whispering Winds came on, that my thoughts took me home again. I cried. Profusely. I always do when I hear that one. Damn you, Don Bluth, for producing a film that still brings tears to my eyes some twenty years later. Damn your genius.

Many auxiliares use the holidays to go home to be with their families. Some of my closest friends out here have done just that. It’s a very sensible move, but it’s only when I stumble over such memories that I remember how vulnerable and human I really am. Whispering Winds is on my iPod for exactly that reason; 1608 times around I can put my weaknesses aside and soldier on alone, but there’s that 1609th song that’s there to remind me that neither home nor family is ever truly put aside.

I won’t be seeing home until August. I won’t have time to do so until then, since the third and final leg of my year abroad across the Strait begins almost as soon as I’m done here. Fortunately my parents are coming out to visit me in a couple of weeks, so I don’t have to. I won’t deny that I’m looking forward to having a car at my disposal – being in Europe’s bird capital and relying on public transport is nothing less than tortuous – but more than that, I miss my parents. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Sometimes I need to remind myself of that. There’s only four of us left; my family is precious to me, no matter what impression my aloofness might give.

A lot of things have happened over the past year. Some good, some not so good. Now that I’ve got the time, I’m retreating for a couple of days to the one place in the whole world that makes me truly happy. It’s a place that has answers… of a sort. My rock, my cradle, my very own Shangri-La. BB x