Time to catch breath. It’s been one of the best and busiest summers for some time: a whirlwind of travel, incredible sights, jet lag and work. I’ve felt pressure to grab on to each moment and not let them pass me by: the new experiences, the sunshine, the time away from the daily grind. And it’s been exhausting.
Back in July, I went to Tanzania with my husband and my parents. For the most part, my brain is still trying to compute the extraordinary otherness of such a place: the wildlife, the landscape, the threatening city, the wild roads and the inescapable poverty. I’ve never travelled much – I was never a ‘gap year’ kid – and I am not a person who takes travel for granted. I left Europe for the first time in 2014, age 28. Until then, far-flung countries and felt as distant and untouchable as the Land of Oz, or travelling back in time. Going to Africa – and let’s face it, you can’t really get any different from my safe little pocket of England – is as big a culture shock as I’ll probably ever experience. To look back weeks later, I’m still overwhelmed by the scale of the difference. I could pick out small specific things: the sound of waking to the call to prayer at 5AM in Dar Es Salaam, the smell of fresh turmeric in the market, the smell of fresh fish under my nails after eating it with my bare hands. But there are so many little things. One day I’ll write it all down. Right now, I’m still reeling.
It took us twenty four hours to get back to Birmingham airport, and I went straight into teaching the next day. I signed up for a month’s work with a summer school again. One of the reasons that being a teacher is such a demanding job is the need to enthuse, to light up every word you say with perky inspiration – even when your head is pounding and all you want to do is sleep. You have to just keep going. These children had travelled from all across the world for a great experience in Oxford, and for so many of them, I had the responsibility of teaching their favourite thing – creative writing. Wow, these teenagers love writing. (They’re not all that good at it, but they love it). For four exhausting weeks, I had to find that energy, that enthusiasm. It was hard. By the end of it, I wasn’t sure I liked writing all that much anymore, which is weird. I’d taught the same sessions so many times, I’d become a teaching robot. I got bored, and the marking and report writing got me down. The students were lovely, and as much as I loved their company, the strain of the last month’s work was considerable. Still, it paid for the adventure in Tanzania, and life is about compromises.
Then, seeing two friends getting married in Prague. The bride was Czech, and the groom was Spanish. The ceremony was beside a lake with mountains and forests as a backdrop – a true fairytale setting. I loved that not only was the bride given away by her father, but the groom was given away by his mother. There was a perfect symmetry and equality to this. The Czech ceremony, translated into English, showed marriage as a practicality and legality. Both had to swear that they’d planned and thought of how their lives were coming together, how they would live, and treat each other fairly. There was no mention of God in this former Communist state: this was a legal binding rather than a spiritual one, which makes it sound unromantic, but it was the opposite. The rest of the day was peppered with fun, happy Czech traditions, and a superbly quirky disco compiled by the bride and groom.
I’ve scrambled through summer, and in two more weeks, I’ll be back at school, and normality will resume. I’m ready for it. This week has been the first week I’ve had to just tootle about and enjoy my own company, and while I’m enjoying the rest, I’m ready to get back into my usual routine. The house is clean. The washing is done. I’m almost caught up on my freelance work – almost – though I seem to have a bad habit of always leaving things until the last minute. All is calm.