Bittersweet

Endings can be hard. Obviously, there is the sadness of mourning, of friendships and family lost; something that too many people are experiencing acutely at the moment. But there are other, smaller, endings. The TV show that ends too soon. The inevitability that a perfect holiday can’t last forever. Just having to go home at the end of a night out.

Sometimes I find myself pre-mourning the end of an experience, friendship or other moment in time. That sadness can bleed into the experience itself, adding a bit of bitterness to my joy. It is odd that I am feeling similar things as quarantine comes to an end here in the Czech Republic.

I write this on the eve of truly ‘returning to work’ at the school where I teach. I am experiencing an interesting mix of emotions; excitement to see my students, anxiety about being stressed or overwhelmed, relief that things are sort of normalising, as well as sadness at a ‘special’ time coming to an end.

Of course, I am lucky. I have worked from home and haven’t suffered ill health. I don’t have relatives or dependents I’m worried acutely about. I have been lucky enough to enjoy the breathing space and time of quarantine. I recognise that as much as there are things I’m happy are back (restaurants yay!), there are things I’ll miss from these strange few months.

I hope that I can keep doing some of them of course. Keep reading lots, keep developing my wine-drinking palette (so bougie, I know), and keep making and sharing recipes and culinary creations. But there is never going to be a time quite like it again. Even if there is a second wave (gulp) and we’re back to lockdown, this unexpected and weird time won’t happen again.

For that I’m thankful. But I’ll also kinda miss it.

For me, tonight, that little bit of bitterness is seeping in. And I think it’s making the good memories of the past months all the sweeter.

Quarantime

It may be oft repeated at the moment, but it is truly hard to believe that the past month has, well, been the past month. The fact that I went on a trip to Jordan in February and was planning to currently be in Korea on another seems, frankly, absurd. We have indeed moved to the other side.

How fast things have been changing was illustrated to me most clearly when I had a conversation with my parents in the UK in early March. By that time, the Czech Republic had instituted a strict lockdown and everyone had to wear masks outside. The pandemic had truly hit home here, despite relatively low numbers infected. Yet there my parents were, planning trips and events all week long. It felt like I was talking to myself in the past, grimacing and shouting ‘cancel it all!’ Needless to say, the very next day Boris Johnson announced a similar lockdown in the UK.

My experience of the quarantine has gone through several stages. I have to preface all this by saying that I one of the very lucky ones. I can work from home. I am not worried about bills. I am not in a vulnerable group. My job is to stay home for the sake of others. And to support those less fortunate in any way I can.

The initial stage of pandemic-fever which gripped me was an almost physical anxiety as I watched all my plans and normal routines crumble. This is perhaps the ‘panic buying toilet paper’ phase of quarantine. Though in my case it was more like panic buying wine… It felt like everything I knew and understood was changing daily as the government announced progressively more strict measures. The ‘home learning plan’ we had prepared at work suddenly became very real.

This probably lasted for a week or so and it was strange to see it replayed in my home nation a week or two later, as everyone queued outside Waitrose and shared the location of ample loo roll supplies with a mad sense of urgency. Yet actually, once it became clear that working from home was workable, and that I was actually more than capable of feeding myself adequately, a strange and welcome calm settled in.

I have been reflecting that I have actually not been this relaxed since, perhaps, childhood. Thinking about a situation like this a few months ago would have horrified me. What about meeting up with friends for a drink? Restaurants and cinemas? I’ll just be so bored! Yet there is something very reassuring and welcome about a very slow daily routine completely free from busyness and indeed FOMO. There are simply no events to miss.

Yes there is so much disappointment going around, but there is at least equality of disappointment. Everything is cancelled. Of course, to those whose weddings have been cancelled or who can’t attend funerals of loved ones, this is so much more difficult. I know I have it so easy. I feel guilty about that. But I also know that my role is to stay home and hold my slight disappointments very lightly. And maybe to order Uber Eats from my favourite restaurants who are struggling through.

So here’s where I am now. I think I have reached the peak ‘quarantime’ place where this is just, well, normal. The fact that I know it will not last forever is a welcome comfort, but there’s some small part of me that will be sad to go back to a busy and rushed routine. I know that we need to get there as soon as is safe for all those who are suffering, and of course I am in awe of the health carers, supermarket employees, and postal workers who are keeping us going and keeping us sane at the moment, yet this unique time is going to be remembered.

I hope the legacy is one for me of valuing the really important things; of taking my time, not rushing through conversations with friends and family, reminding myself, at risk of cliche, that the simple things are the most important.

So I’m praying for those in need and at risk, supporting them in the simple ways I can, staying home, and trying to make the best of it. In this strangely calm apocalypse we find ourselves, that’s all I can do.

Photo is by my amazing friend Eli – see her pictures here – https://seasidewildflower.com/

Living Abroad – The Upsides

Wouldn’t it be cool to live abroad? To bask in the Tuscan sun in short shorts like Armie Hammer, to become a samurai like Tom Cruise, or perhaps even ‘eat, pray, love’ your way around with Julia Roberts. Our films, books and popular culture have long been enamoured with the idea of leaving home for foreign shores. Whether for escape, adventure, or business, the expat life is captivating to many. In recent years, with the advent of air travel, globalisation, and EU citizenship (sigh), it has become an even more common experience to spend time in another country, among some groups even a right of passage. I mean, who hasn’t been in a conversation with that person who has shamelessly name-dropped every foreign destination where they’ve lived (“That reminds me of when I spend the summer on the Amalfi coast…ya ya ya.”) I should say now, as an expat myself (though I’m not really a fan of that word), if this has ever been me I’m sorry. And even as I write this, that almost seems a humble brag. So sorry, again.

I’ve lived in the Czech Republic for the past six years and have been reflecting on my time abroad in recent months, on the up and downsides of life in a country not your own. So this will be my attempt to share some of what I’ve learned of the good things that happen when you leave your home nation for a spell. I’ll follow it up with the not-so-good things in a later post.

Perhaps the best thing about being away from your home country is that suddenly your nationality becomes at once more and less significant. You automatically become both an ambassador and a scapegoat for the successes and failures of your nation. I didn’t really think much about being a Brit before I left England, but now every Brexit crisis and Royal drama is my concern, and I am the go to expert on anything to do with the UK. This can be a bit awkward, especially if someone tries to talk to me about the Premier League, of which I know nothing, but is also strangely affirming. I have become more proud of where I’m from as a result of leaving, not in a nationalist kind of way, but simply in terms of recognising the good things and the things I miss. Being encouraged when people speak warmly of my home and getting to bring my foreign friends home with me. Seeing home through others’ eyes has been a joyous experience for me.

But as I also said, your nationality also becomes less significant when you are away from your home. There’s a sense in which I’m simply ‘foreign’ when I’m here. Not Czech. I therefore immediately feel a greater affinity with other foreigners and, a bit like when you start University, feel an immediate closeness with others in a similar situation to me. This has led to forming fast and deep friendships with those I’ve met here, from all manner of nations. The unique ‘expat community’ is a wonderful thing to be a part of and I have been able to visit the homes of many foreign friends. I’ve had experiences in places I never would have thought to go without my experience of living abroad.

Perhaps a more subtle but nonetheless powerful thing about living abroad is in the way your underlying attitudes and ideas can change. You notice just how different perspectives are from different nations, yet also how much is shared. Before I lived in a place surrounded by Americans, for example, I think I felt that they were basically confident Brits with cowboy accents, yet I have learned so much about and from my American friends. I think that it’s more accurate to say that the only thing that is the same is the language, and that that is also quite different at times (my favourite recent example is learning that when you really need to use the toilet, Americans might say you’re ‘prairie dogging’ while Brits are more likely to go for the rather more literal ‘touching cloth’). I have learned from my friends and they have learned from me. We have changed and grown together in this funny melting pot that is international life.

It’s not one long Italian summer living abroad of course. There are real costs to moving far from home and I worry that some of the ways I’ve changed will mean it’s hard to readjust should I move home one day. But, I have to say, that I think the risks are worth it.

 

 

The Grey

I wonder if my dream will come true this side of heaven. I wonder if heaven is there to be honest. I understand more than ever the desire, both inside and outside the church, to bring ‘heaven on earth.’ To make the world a more happy and tolerant and loving place. I see how this desire leads to people idolising marriage or rejecting it as an outdated thing, I see how it leads to people having babies or choosing not to, I see how it leads to people becoming missionaries in far flung and dangerous places or to take to the streets in a pride march in a place where they might face similar danger. We all want to make the world a better place. What would that better world look like in my dream?

I think it might be something like this. So many of my insecurities, both self and other inflicted, come from expectations. Expectations from my own heart, from the church, from the world, from movie, hell, from Instagram. I expected my life to go a particular way until, well, it didn’t.

Perhaps the biggest area this has been hard for me is in relationships (of the romantic kind.) Everyone, myself included, is just obsessed. Everywhere you look, from the most conservative Christian, to the most postmodern atheist, the focus is on just the one thing, or so it seems. My perception, as someone looking in from the outside, is that the one thing everyone values highest is the thing I don’t have. So dramatic, I know.

As much as I appreciate people like Emma Watson saying she is happing ‘self-partnered’ – and we need to value each opportunity to big up those currently single – the answer is somehow bigger. What if we could truly free ourselves from these expectations? How many sons, daughters, friends, would feel less like a person-in-waiting if they were freed from the pressure to find someone? How many people would be willing to take a risk on actually meeting someone if they were freed from the pressure of finding ‘the one’? How many marriages would be improved if we were freed from our insecurities that we married the wrong person?

I dream of a world where we are just, well, people. Each precious. Not a half-person in sight. Not a waiting person, nor one who is too damaged. Too ugly. Not cool enough. Whatever.

I have glimpsed the reasons the world, and the church, is so in love with, well, love. Of course there are so many good things; the companionship, the love, the romance, the fact that someone is there, the family life. I get it. I don’t want to tear down marriage. I want to celebrate when my friends get married. But I want to be freed from the inescapable heartache that comes for so many when that happens. Why should we feel left behind? I wish I could reset my heart and remove this part. My head knows that I am no less a person than my married or coupled friends, but I don’t think my heart realises.

I dream of a place where each one is truly valued equally, yes irrespective of sexuality, race, gender, but also ‘relationship status.’ There are so many who are in pain every day, whether that’s because they jumped at a relationship that was wrong, or were afraid to jump at all.

In so many areas I feel like we need to recognise the grey. The fact that nothing is simple and everything seems blurry sometimes. This area of life is so significant and yet so nebulous for so many. So let’s talk about it, let’s try and be better where we can, let’s speak to our hearts and our friends. Let’s try to be more comfortable with the grey, because grey can be beautiful too.

2019 in Review

I wonder if you’re the same. Whether all the years since the start of real ‘adulthood’ just blur together into a mess of colour and sound. I sometimes picture the year in my head like a circle, with each day, week, and month with its own section. For some reason, December is darker than most months in my mind. Anyway, 2019 has been no different. Just another circle, full of good days and bad. Yet thinking back now it’s only moments and scenes which really jump out at me. It’s a bit like a TV show; you don’t see the mundane scenes, only the ones that matter.

A few years ago, recognising that I am hopelessly forgetful when it comes to this stuff, I started noting down in my notes app a little ‘Review of the year’. Mostly so that I could sound well-informed when people asked for recommendations, but also so that I could impress you all with just how cultured I am. No wait. That’s not it… Just so I can remember. Ahem.

So here are some memorable scenes from 2019.

Books

Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow

A fascinating and detailed account of Farrow’s investigation into the Weinstein scandal. Shocking and saddening, but also hopeful.

Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper

A moving and thoughtful autobiography from a member of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. Phelps-Roper does an amazing job of showing both how she loves and cares for her family, while also comes to see through the hateful beliefs of the church.

I recommended some more books from 2019 in an earlier post which you can check out here.

Films

Beautiful Boy

Even for those not slightly obsessed with Timothee Chalamet, this is an excellent and heartfelt exploration of a father-son relationship and battle with addiction.

Aladdin

Worth it for the wacky humour alone (jam anyone?), this seemingly inevitable remake of the Disney classic is worth your time. For my money, better than the new Lion King (sorry Beyonce!)

Long Shot

I had pretty much zero expectations for this seemingly wacky comedy with Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron, but it won me over instantly.

Marriage Story

So emotional. So good. I already loved the director (Noah Baumbach) of this wonderful Netflix movie about a torturous divorce, now I am fully behind this film getting all the Oscars (especially Adam Driver for his amazing performance.)

Knives Out

I’ve always been a fan of a murder mystery and this is a wonderful reinterpretation of Agatha Christie for the 21st Century. Both a love letter and a refreshing change of pace. Even Daniel Craig’s accent can’t ruin it.

Little Women

I challenge anyone to not be obsessed with Timothee Chalamet after this film. He and Soirse Ronan are simply wonderful. A rare film that is both joyous and finely crafted. Go and see it!

Music

Maggie Rogers

Elton John

Sufjan Stevens

Harry Styles

This list of some favourites from this year covers some old favourites and new discoveries. Maggie Rogers’ debut album was one of the most fresh and catchy pop records I’ve heard in years. After watching Rocketman, I have enjoyed going back to listen to some classic Elton. Also, after a recommendation from a friend have discovered some new deep cuts from Elton’s old stuff. Harry Styles’ beguiling pop/rock persona has won me over despite myself. I love his new album. Sufjan will always be close to my heart…

Other

Dear Evan Hansen

I went to see this wonderful and thoughtful musical before Christmas and can’t recommend it highly enough. So much empathy and love, especially powerful for those who have anything to do with teenagers.

Dolly Parton’s America

This podcast series has also been a highlight of my year. Who knew that everyone loved Dolly so much? It’s an exploration of just why which touches on some powerful and unexpected themes.

The Unlived Life

As I’m sure many of you have been (and SHOULD BE), I’ve been watching the wonderful series ‘The Crown’ over the last week. As a Brit who feels fairly ambivalent about the monarchy most of the time, it’s incredible how some patriotic pomp can bring a tear to my eye, like some kind of collective memory. Perhaps they’re tears for some bygone age of Britishness, perhaps out of a national pride which feels all too rare these days. In one of this series’ best episodes, Aberfan, it was simple grief and horror at the terrible tragedy portrayed. Yet I think what gets me most is the simple fact that it is a drama about family. About a family in an extraordinary situation, but a family none-the-less.

One of the moments that stood out for me as I have been watching was when the Queen spoke of her dreams of the ‘unlived life’. It’s been an ongoing theme of the show that these people are stopped from being who they could otherwise be by the situation they find themselves in. Yes, they have extraordinary privilege, but also overwhelming pressure. The pressure to be completely visible and yet completely unavailable. To have no opinions and no slip-ups. Ever.

For the Queen, it is the simple dream of an unlived life as a horse-breeder. For Prince Charles, to be free of the pressure and expectation of waiting for his mother to die, and to be able to marry the woman he loves. For Princess Margaret, it’s simply to find personal happiness.

This theme of the unlived life struck me as it’s something I think we all feel. We all dwell on the roads not taken, the choices we might have made. That feeling of ‘everything would be better if…’

Perhaps a difference for the Windsors is that there is no way out for them. For us, these feelings often take the form of regrets. We always wonder if there’s a way to change our situation, to rectify mistakes. Of course, as we are not under the incredible pressure the characters in The Crown face, there’s a sense in which we always can.

Not that I’m saying we should live a life full of regrets. Not at all. I’m just noticing something about my thinking and about our culture, especially as I seem to have reached the end of any predetermined path. We tend to obsess about which way is the right way. We wonder whether there’s some abandoned path which would have been happier, more successful or more fulfilling. I think this robs me of contentment where I am, just as it robs happiness from some of the characters in The Crown.

What’s the answer? We’re not stuck in our situation like the royals. We can make changes and, when something is making us unhappy, make a course correction. But at the same time, I think we can choose to be happy where we are. I think we need to. For dwelling on roads not taken is an invariably destructive course. A course that will lead us to view our lives now as a poorer reflection of some other reality. When really, we need to see the beauty and wonder around us to keep going.

We need to recognise the ways in which this is the best of all possible lives. We need to try to be the best versions of ourselves. Or else we’ll be tipped, flailing, into the uncertainty of never-knowing, always looking for the better option.

So be sure to watch this wonderful show, but remember to recognise and appreciate the ways in which you are living, for want of a better phrase, your best life right now.

It’s People

What makes you happy? How do you relax? What’s it all about? What are you doing this weekend?

All questions of varying depth and seriousness, which I’ve come to think have one common theme in the answer. It’s people.

It’s not really about opinions, beliefs or preferences, it’s just common sense. When it comes down to it, we are made to love and to live with other people. Not just to succeed as ambitious individuals, to just look out for ourselves, or even to prioritise ‘self-care’. We’re made to be part of a community of people, some the same and some very different, taking steps along the wandering road of life together.

What that looks like is different for everyone and at different times of life. For me right now, it looks like a community of individuals, couples, families and others, doing life together. It’s frustrating in many ways, especially trying to navigate different cultural expectations and backgrounds, but rewarding in more.

I still feel lonely much of the time. Does that mean I haven’t found ‘the one’ yet, or the right community even? I’m not sure it does. I think it means that I’m learning that there is no such thing. That everyone carries with them a burden of loneliness. We’re the only ones inside our own heads and there’s no way to change that. Yes, having a significant other is good. That burden can feel lighter. But the burden can be even lighter if we have a community of people who know and love us, both friends, lovers, and family.

That’s where our cultural reverence of romantic love falls short; one other isn’t enough. We need people. Lots of people. Diverse and wonderful and difficult people.

Yes we need the friends who are easy, who don’t challenge us very much, with whom we can quote ‘Friends’ endlessly and sing along to Celine Dion, but we also need the friends who are older and wiser, who can question and confront us. Who can push us when we need it, or hold us back.

To be quite honest, I feel some pity for myself in the past. I feel my past loneliness more now that the heavy load has been shared amongst trusted companions. I wonder what my future self will feel when he looks back on me now. I hope he will feel similarly. That there is more and deeper sharing to come. I have to admit that one of my greatest fears is that this is the best it’ll get.

I worry because it’s people. The best and hardest part of life. How to love and live and relate with those so similar and yet so different from us? I am hopeful and thankful and joyful because of the people I’m blessed to know, excited about those I’m yet to meet, already mourning those I’ll lose. I’m willing to take the risks.

I take comfort in the fact that now my heart has known so many wonderful souls, there’s no way back to the loneliness I might have felt. Not truly. For as I’m known and loved and walked beside, my burdens and stories are shared, remembered, treasured.

People can move on, let us down, disappear, but we are blessed with the chance to be friends, if even for a short time. Let’s make the most of that.

My Bookshelf

It’s been a long time since I shared some of the books I’ve read and loved. For the last few years, I’ve made a point of noting down, just on my phone’s notes app, the books I’ve read with a brief review.

There have been too many times when people ask me – what are you reading? Any recommendations? My response used to be a stunned silence while I was racking my brain for the names and authors, but now I can share my ideas and tips with confidence. I’d recommend you give it a go! I’ve also been noting down films, theatre and gigs but I’ll save those for another post.

So here are a few recommended titles for your perusal.

Chernobyl – Serhii Plokhy

Like many this year, I watched and enjoyed the TV series about the Chernobyl disaster. Diving much more deeply into the event itself, the people involved, and the short and long-term effects, this absorbing read comes highly recommended. A Ukrainian who lived in Minsk at the time of the accident, Plokhy makes a more or less chronological account of the events both technically accurate and gripping. I couldn’t finish quickly enough.

A Game of Thrones – George R. R. Martin

Another TV series I have enjoyed over the last few years (as have many people…) is the epic Game of Thrones saga. I decided to finally read the original books this summer, hoping for an engrossing holiday read. I was not disappointed. I read the first four volumes over the course of my summer travels and loved every moment. The depth, complexity and thematic richness of Martin’s text is remarkable. Also, I enjoyed how the violence and other naughtiness was much less distracting when in book form. You just know the ending is going to be better in the book…

The Testaments – Margaret Atwood

I read the original Handmaid’s Tale some years ago and was in equal parts riveted and disturbed by the dystopian classic. I was therefore eager to read the newly Booker Prize winning follow-up. I enjoyed how the story was an unashamedly hopeful fable, a gripping escape tale, and a family saga. Highly recommended, though make sure you read the original first.

Dreamers – Snigdha Poonam

I was lucky enough to visit my sister in India earlier this year. I was recommended this fascinating read to help me understand something of the quandaries facing young Indians – the world’s largest generation. Poonam captures their hopes, fears and frustrations effectively through this non-fiction account of various lives across India. I would encourage anyone to read this to understand India today, including the rise of Hindu nationalism and Modi. Yet it is also a very human story of individuals, making their personal struggles very real.

Notes on a Nervous Planet – Matt Haig

I’m an unashamed Haig fan, enjoying both his fiction and non-fiction work (and his social media presence). This book of short essays, poems and thoughts is a wonderful book to read and to share. Talking about anxiety is so needed in our lives and Haig does a great job of making clear things we’ve all experienced, as well as offering wise and common sense advice.

Factfulness – Hans Rosling

Another book looking to counter some of the anxiety we’re facing as a society at the moment is Rosling’s fascinating non-fiction book ‘Factfulness’. Rosling breaks down many of the negative and counter-productive assumptions we make about human progress and development, showing us we have reasons to be hopeful about the future. The book is excellent at making clear where the big problems still are and what progress has been made. A must read!

Uncertainty

Certainty is easy I think. Not easy to find, but perhaps easy if we hold it. If we know what we think and believe then we have a security which is unshakeable and real, often reinforced by the people around us who share that certainty. This can make us, and has made me, feel a measure of contentment which is hard to find in our busy world.

Recently, certainty has been harder for me to reach. The relative contentment of my twenties giving way to a more listless and wandering heart in my thirties. It’s hard to point to reasons, but I wonder if my earlier contentment was in part based on expectations, on patiently waiting for something that would seal my certainty and hold me fast for the rest of my life.

The fact that the people around me were, for want of a better term, conventionally progressing through the stages of life (marriage, kids, promotion, cat…), led me to expect the same I think. When these stages didn’t materialise, or looked different from expected, some of that certainty began to change. Almost like I had stepped off the conveyor, or perhaps onto a different conveyor entirely.

Partly this was because I literally stepped out of my comfort zone in moving country half a decade ago. As I reflect on what led to this decision, I feel peace about it, like it was definitely the right thing to do, yet I also feel that in ditching the beaten path I’m a bit lost in the woods.

Not that the woods are unpleasant. I am fortunate to be in a stable and prosperous stage in my life in so many ways, feeling successful and valued in my decade-long career, yet I just find it difficult to know what next.

It’s often discussed how we millennials were raised with the dual expectations of continual success and personal happiness. These things seem hard to reconcile sometimes, and the way I’ve often viewed is that in my extra-curricular life I can pursue the personal part and in my job the success part. I think the lines are more blurred than that in real life. To be honest, those blurry lines are making themselves apparent everywhere and perhaps that’s the origin of some of this uncertainty.

Whether it’s the ongoing Brexit mess, the divisions over nationalism and liberalism, personal and political, everywhere it seems people are seeking certainty and security in one extreme or other. I feel caught in the middle, in the grey and blurry, both personally and politically.

In this grey place though, I think some things become clearer, even if one of those things is not the future. The really important and vital things in life become crystal clear sometimes in these circumstances. Things like community, like laughter, like family, like vulnerability. These things transcend my current quandaries and in fact help me to make sense of where I am and where I’m going.

Because that’s another interesting thing. I’ve begun to wonder if uncertainty is actually what we should expect. What we should learn to accept and even use. Uncertainty can mean that we are cautious as we don’t know quite what to expect. Gentle with others wandering through the trees with us, who are dealing with their own questions. Brave enough to make our own paths through the trees when there is no clear way forward. Patient to wait for the next thing, rather than rushing through.

Uncertainty is perhaps more real than certainty. Not that holding fast to beliefs, ideas and plans is bad, but that when you hold so tight you can’t deal with questions or challenges then maybe you’re actually cutting yourself off from others and new opportunities.

Holding fast to an expected life plan to seal your certainties similarly cuts you off from opportunities and experiences. I’ve been blessed with unexpected twists and turns, which I’m trying to learn to be thankful for and to embrace the uncertainties.

(Sort of) Arabian Nights

On a recent trip to Morocco, I read the book ‘In Arabian Nights’ by Tahir Shah.

Through this remarkable book, many of the things my friends and I were noticing about the culture we found ourselves experiencing came into focus.

Marrakesh feels like an assault on the senses. Every narrow alley and bustling square is filled with market stalls, donkeys, motorbikes, and every kind of person. From gormless tourists to hippies, traditionally dressed bedouin and berber to innumerable Moroccan traders seeking to entice everyone else into their shops crammed with goods.

It can be an uncomfortable place – squeezing through impossibly tiny spaces, having menus and goods thrust at you, not to mention the catcalling my female friends experienced. In his book, Shah talks about the formidable Moroccan women who rule the roost at home, but it’s an unpleasant realisation that many men see western women as completely different.

Interestingly, the favourite name that the sellers called at me was ‘Ali Baba.’ For a rather pasty Englishman I found this quite hilarious. Ali Baba is one of the characters that we in the West associate with the ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ – the collection of tales told through generations in the deserts of Arabia and North Africa.

In legend, these stories would be told around the campfire to keep the minds of shepherds and merchants alert as they travelled the trade routes and pilgrimage trails, all the way from Baghdad to Timbuktu. Each story is viewed as a vessel for some lesson or message, passed on from a time before writing.

The historical art of storytelling still holds sway over many in Morocco. You can see how the past in much closer to the surface in the crumbling, donkey-filled streets of Marrakesh. We are very good an sanitising our cities in Europe. In some ways, the markets of Morocco have not changed for a thousand years. The goods made and sold, the leather and metal and wood, have been made for generations.

‘In Arabian Nights’ is in part the search for the story ‘in the heart’ of the author. It is also a panorama of life in Morocco for an outsider, albeit one who speaks the language. You can see in its pages the way that superstition and stories permeate the streets of this ancient kingdom, like the sun streaming through the geometric roofs of the covered markets.

One of the highlights of our trip was a tour with a local guide to the local countryside. We visited the High Atlas mountains and the desert, rode on camels and wandered through abandoned villages. Talking with our guide, we learned about how Moroccans pride themselves on their religious tolerance, as well as their Muslim heritage. Our assumptions were challenged, even as we were acutely aware of our whiteness and foreignness.

Shah discusses the phenomenon of mass tourism in his book. How the locals are very happy for the money tourism brings, and thanks to the high value they place on hospitality, are wonderful hosts. Our riad had it’s own cook, who was one of the most wonderfully kind and caring people we met. She prepared us delicious food and copious amounts of refreshing mint tea.

I can’t help but worry that Morocco is being spoiled by tourism, yet at the same time something about the country seemed remarkably ancient and unchanged. Shah talks about ‘rivers of words’ flowing below the streets and the sands of the country, deep enough that they are untouched by the modern world. These rivers link Moroccans together and back in time to their ancestors.

The love that bonds the people to each other, to their community, and to their past, goes beyond our Western conception. It is tied up with obligation and family in a way that our individualism has turned away from. Undoubtedly their are negative aspects to this and it was very noticeable how different, often negatively, gender relations were on our short visit. Yet the bonds of love and community seemed so much stronger, so much deeper, than we experience. It got us thinking about how new our ‘western’ way of life is. How so much has changed so fast. What have we lost?

I can’t recommend this wonderful book highly enough, but you should be sure to read it in Morocco. Let the rivers of words and the ancient charm wash over you and see what you learn.