Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The daily grind

After much frustration, thanks to the lovely computer guy at work, I think I've finally worked out what the problem is with my computer being so agonizingly slow I have barely written an email over the last six months, let alone on this blog. And what do you know? It turns out to be the bloody anti-virus software that's slowing me down. Which, like a sucker, I paid eighty bucks for. I don't care if I'm invaded by hackers who destroy the hard drive, anything is better than staring at that little rotating circle and wondering if you should give up or just wait a few minutes longer to send that one email you've been trying to send for ten minutes...

The only reason I bought the software was that I accidentally deleted the software that came with the computer in a misguided effort to speed the damn thing up. Which proves I should not be left alone with a computer and a plan. Anyway cross my fingers, it all seems to work now.

Only two weeks till Christmas, which means two glorious weeks off work. Can't wait. I plan to ride my bike, cook, go out, celebrate and spend time with people in a relaxed frame of mind, with no work peering over my shoulder. Oh, and I also plan on watching a lot of TV, and a few movies. I saw Australia last week and loved the sheer excess of it. Wonderful scenes, music, comedy, drama. It was an all you can eat buffet and I gorged myself, even when I knew it wasn't good for me. Ah Hugh.

Today I was in Roseville paying my lovely dentist $10 a minute to take care of my teeth. Just before I had that privilege, I wandered into a shop which seemed to be entirely filled with upmarket party products. No waving Santas here. A woman in the shop with her toddler was discussing the difficulty of sending her kids of different ages to one of the states most elite private boys schools. "It's so hard when you have two boys," she said "because you've got to drive them to two different campuses." And people think the rich have it easy. Personally I went to a school when I was six, rather than a campus. I wonder what the difference is? Possibly the quality of the lawn on the tennis courts.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The more I see the less I know

Last night I went to see Micheal Franti and Spearhead at the Enmore Theatre and had a fantastic time. I'd forgotten how fabulous the theatre itself is, all deco and shabbiness, and we sat up the top so had a great view. The band came on with so much energy and never stopped, they are a combination of high-energy, inspirational lyrics and raw sex appeal. I haven't enjoyed myself on a Tuesday night like that for ages.
And they had many sniffer dogs, which gave me the sense of being part of some underground drug-fuelled anti-establishment swarming mass. A far cry from the staid English teacher I am during the day. Which is always nice.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Three things

There are three things which have been a large part of my life this week. They are The Flight of the Concords, hay fever and two books which have made their way into my mental landscape. The Flight of the Concords is a wonderful show. I love it because it satirises many things I like to make fun of, such as men, women, pop music, homophobia, Australian nationalism, American culture and the idea that consulates do any real work. It also gives me hope that in the USA there are many who have an excellent sense of humour and couldn’t possibly vote for a female version of George Bush. The tracks are quite catchy too.
The hay fever is less welcome. I have itchy eyes, a snotty nose and every morning I wake up feeling unrefreshed and lethargic. The only thing the medication does is dry up my nose for a few hours. Every year it feels like my hay fever is getting worse, and for someone who’s never been allergic to anything, being allergic to spring seems incredibly unfair. I love spring. I also love plants and pride myself on my ethical diet and lifestyle. It seems like nature’s way of saying I’m not a real environmentalist. A real greenie surely wouldn’t have to medicate against flowers.
The books I’ve read are The Book Thief and Reading Lolita in Tehran. One novel, one autobiography. Both beautiful and a little self-indulgent. I loved The Book Thief from the first page when I realised it was written from the viewpoint of Death. There’s something about this device I find incredibly comforting. The idea that Death has a consciousness makes it so comprehensible and less alien. It would be so good to believe that Death cared about us, that when we die in terrible ways or simply when we die, that there is some being who notices it and registers the horror of it. Anyway I loved the book from then on. The other thing about it was that it was an unashamed celebration of books, as was the second book I read Reading Lolita in Tehran. Both books reminded me of the power of words to make life bearable, in fact even to give it meaning.
Now the lovely Kate B has given me Persepolis which is a perfect sequel to Reading Lolita in Tehran. There’s so much I don’t know about that part of the world. I love the way that learning about it is like watching a map become detailed while I look at it, things are illuminated I didn’t know were in the dark. I’m starting to understand something about Islam and women. The benefit of knowing very little about a subject is that it’s a perfect excuse to spend hours reading about it.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Work life balance

It's been a very long time since I last wrote anything on this blog and unfortunately I don't have an even moderately exciting reason for my virtual absence. Just bloody work, work and more work. I have no patience with new jobs. I'd like to go from the awkward, first days when you don't know anyone and have no idea what you're doing to the chummy familiarty and weary repetition of tasks in a few months. I've been working at my new place of work for over four months and it's still so damn exhausting and I still don't have any friends. Well, not really. So I can't even whinge about it with the regularity I'd like, I have to come all the way home and complain to S, which he unsurprisingly doesn't love.
What makes it all the more irritating as well, is that I suspect my job isn't actually that hard, and that I'm doing fine. This seems to be the feedback I've got from other people. Which makes it even more illegitimate to moan about how I'm tired all the time, can't keep up with the work and want to go and live on a kibbutz. Now. Today.
The one bonus of all this is the amount of reading I'm doing on the commute. I'm going through three books a week and loving it. In Germany I didn't read much out of a sense of guilt about the fact I was reading English rather than German and even when I did, the supply of cheap books was limited. Luckily for me I've forgotten all the plots of my books so I'm happily rediscovering my entire book collection. It turns out I have quite good taste.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Warning: self-indulgent rant

Today is one of those blah days where my body seems to be inhabited by a black hole, located pretty much dead centre of my chest. Anytime I try to make a decision about what to do with myself a surge of hopelessness and lethargy jumps out of me and sweeps that desire away, replacing it with an aimlessness and restlessness which has seen me waste a whole day on doing small pointless jobs that are a distraction from my own inner monologue.

It must be the weather. It’s a grey day, with the occasional drizzle (like right now when I want to play frisbee) and a sort of heaviness in the air, like before a storm. There’s just enough wind to need a few layers. The noisy birds continue to chirp, but somehow it seems ominous to have cheeping birds without sun. Dreary, dreary day.

At times like this I wonder how reliable my own perception really is. Obviously, the world is coloured by my emotional state more than I’m willing to believe. If birds seem creepy when I’m feeling down, who’s to say that my assessment of what’s great when I feel good is any less crazy? That said, how am I supposed to evaluate anything? Through a serious of tests that have nothing to do with how I’m feeling? Ultimately I have to set benchmark based on my experience, but my experience when? When I feel good, as if the world if full of joy, or when I feel demotivated and lifeless?

I guess the difference between happy and troubled people is what they choose to see. Someone once said to me “But things are basically good the way they are!” and I thought they were wrong. I still think they were, but I understand the need to believe it.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Learning English

In front of me sit a class of eighteen defeated, demoralised students. Their faces register shock, their slumped postures show their defeat. I flit among them, trying to reassure and clarify. “Teacher, teacher!” “Hanna, Hanna!” each time I stop and talk to one, the others cry out like baby birds.

The reason for this chaos is my attempts to follow the program, which requires that they make a poster based on the excursion we went to last week. I have just spent ten minutes explaining that they need to make a poster and give a presentation, enunciating each words like I’m speaking to the deaf. I have asked them to form groups of three. The result was this village of the dammed. In the middle of trying to put a group of eighteen adults into groups of three (“four? Why no four? We can four?”) which will not result in any cultural clashes but will result in some English being spoken I feel like a kindergarten teacher without the height advantage. As I dash from group to group making suggestions that are greeted with strained silence – did they understand or are there tensions I don’t know about? – a student asks if he can ask me a question. I look at him. Is he blind? Can’t he see I’m in the middle of something important? (He can’t). I say yes.
“When this class finish?”
I look at him in blank disbelief at this apparent rudeness and disregard for all my effort. In fact, I snap. “What kind of a question is that? What do you mean?” He repeats the question. In disgust I tell him it’s the same time as every day, what does he think? He looks upset. I continue with my efforts to make a group of unwilling adults do what I want. The next time I move past him he grabs me again. By this time my patience is paper-thin – they have known about this poster from the beginning, why all this reluctance? He starts to tell me his English is no good. I think of my yoga teacher and breathe through the rage. I try to listen through the blood rushing through my head.
“ I mean, how long the week? When this class end?” With a sudden rush of guilt there is deadly silence in my head. Oh no.
“The course, you mean when does the course end.” Blank. I try to explain. It is too late. He is hurt and upset by his teacher’s failure to be patient with his English. I tell all the students when the course ends, and what the word “course” means as a way to assuage my guilty conscience. It doesn’t work.
Welcome to the world of beginners.

Today I spent twenty minutes trying to convince a student he isn’t ready to go up to the next level. In the end his friends had to translate for him. His belief that he should go up even though he isn’t able to communicate with his teacher is astounding. There is an expectation out there in the world that learning a language is linear, like learning how to drive, that it’s a matter of checking the boxes. First, it isn’t. Second, get used to it. It took me years and years to learn German and I’m still learning. It will never be easy. It can be freeing and wonderful and help you to grow as a person, but easy? Forget it. A beginner student will need to do at least 100 hours of face to face teaching plus 50 hours of self-study to be able to express basic needs in English. In fact, it is unlikely that an adult will ever be able to express themselves in their second language as well as in their first, particularly about the things that are really central to their idea of themselves. They may become better at talking about a specific subject, if they learn about that subject in the second language. So for beginners, learning English is as much about learning to be realistic than actually learning new words and ideas. Beginners is the coalface, where expectations inflated by who knows what agent’s promises and a fancy school website, along with misguided notions of how easy it is, get deflated by the guardian at the gate. Who happens to be me.

After a day of feeling like a harridan – “you need to do your homework and stop speaking Vietnamese in class!” – it is important to reflect on the students who succeed. Another student who I told last time to wait is now ready to go up a level. He has improved out of sight. When I first taught him I asked him if he had a question. “Kwe-stion?” he said, completely bamboozled. Now he is one of the better students in class. It takes time to learn to deal with a new language, a new country, and I understand why people fight it. It came as a shock to me how difficult it was being in Germany, and I was with my family and I already had an intermediate level of German. It is important to remember that.

“Teacher! Teacher!” I smile, take a deep breathe and listen. They might have something important to say.

Monday, May 05, 2008

They say the darndest things

From a student's listening test today:

When bushwalking you need to take a head.

I believe he meant to write `a hat´. Who knows? My German friends never picked up on any ironic use of my German, perhaps I should give him the benefit of the doubt here?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

And along come the tourists...

... is a great film. Also The Edge of Heaven. Both the kind of German films which remind me why I go to film festivals.

Rain rain rain

It rained all day today, in heavy sheets that made the gutters and drains overflow. I drove Mum’s car, which was such a luxury given that it is usually me who is drenched by the spray of passing cars. Although it’s my week off, I went into work today to prepare a few things and leave myself free and easy for the weekend.

In fact it’s been raining all week, perfect sleeping in weather, making my eight o’clock wake up a distant memory. It’s been a mini holiday in Sydney, thanks to Mum’s gorgeous house, and it’s been great. On Sunday we saw Lars and the Real Girl, which I liked, despite the obvious fantasy of the whole thing. I also wondered about the politics of it, is a sex doll in and of itself a misogynist object? From my vague memories of the minimal philosophy I encountered in English lit I seem to remember that its what we invest in an object that makes it so. Seems eminently plausible, especially when, in the film, the Bianca figure becomes slowly emancipated as she is taken on by the various women in the film. She even acts as the catalyst for an argument about the role of women, active versus passive. Lars is furious she isn’t going to be there for him one evening and his neighbour berates him for not letting her have a life of her own. I think that was my favourite moment in the film.

Overall I don’t think I liked the politics much. Especially the contention that Lars was a good boy at heart. Surely it’s how you behave that makes you good or bad? And is inflicting a sex doll on your entire town really the sign of a caring, selfless person?

This weekend I’m going to see a couple of films from the German Film Festival, one with the obligatory WW2 related themes, the other a rollicking feel good comedy. Can’t wait.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

New job thrills

I haven’t blogged for a while, for which I largely blame work, work-related activites and the resulting stupour I seem to get into once I have done too much work. That being said, I have been working full-time for four weeks now and the shock to the system of only having two days a week for me is beginning to seem like a lame excuse not to write a few words on how things are going.
Last time I write I think we were both still on holidays and I was looking for work. Well, I found some.
My new job is as a casual – of course – English teacher at a language centre at one of Sydney’s largest unis. I don’t want to seem too paranoid but I also don’t want any current or future students to google me so I’ll leave the name off for now. Suffice to say, it’s the uni that’s pretty much as far away from the inner city as possible, which means a three hour a day commute time there and back.
That’s really the only thing I can complain about, however. Everything else is just spiffy. The school is professional, interesting, has a huge support network and seems to be run largely by extremely socially competent women. It’s like a dream come true. I even have my own desk with a brand new computer on it. There’s also a library for the students, as well as a big kitchen for the staff. And that’s just the facilities. The best things are the courses, which seem to be pretty well-run, well-planned and well-supported.
At the moment I’m teaching beginners two days a week, which is a massive challenge. It’s a little daunting when your students understand nothing you say and you start to break out into a cold sweat any time a difficult concept like say, the word aunt, comes up. I took them to the Aqaurium last week and tried to explain the concept of the Great Barrier Reef. Their puzzled looks told me I didn’t get through. Oh well. I can only improve their skills right?
The other class is a group of young adults who want to study at uni. They’re hilarious. Last week we had an afternoon of bush dancing with them and they squealed like kids when we told them they had to hold hands. I never thought I’d be demonstrating the heel and toe polka for two hundred international students but weirdly, I enjoyed it. It was a lot easier than trying to teach the word aunt, that’s for sure.
We also had the animal man in to visit, which has made my new favorite animal a green tree frog. They have such wisdom in their bulging eyes.
But the strangest experience so far has been having a fuly veiled woman in one of my classes, something I’m going to have to get used to. It’s amazingly difficult to connect with someone when you can’t see their face.
A couple of union veterans at work warned me off teaching English last week and said I should teach in high school, more job security, time off in the holidays to see your kids etc. It just didn’t resonate with me. I love the friction between cultures, I love teaching language and I love working with adults. It makes the lack of job security almost seem worth it. Almost. That said, I've joined the union.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Home easy

One of the strangest things about going away is the difference between what you remember a place to be like, everything from the smells to a friend’s job, and the reality of what you encounter when you return. It’s even more interesting to realise what’s changed and what’s stayed the same. But perhaps the most revealing is what’s changed about you, in the ways you interact with the world around you. Travel opens you up in ways quite unexpected and freeing.
I expected to dislike the messy streetscapes of Sydney’s west, and to remain unmoved by the glittering showiness of the Harbour. I thought I’d find talk of the future depressing, expecting everyone to be so much more together than I am. I wanted to be somewhere new, make a new life in Australia as far removed from my old one as possible. Mostly, I thought I’d find it difficult to adjust to being so isolated again, so far away.
I was pretty much wrong on all counts. I walk the streets of Marrickville, Leichhardt, Petersham and the lack of tidy German streets doesn’t get to me. I know there is no beauty in the cracked pavements, dirty awnings and traffic jams but I see it elsewhere; in the lorakeets on the bottebrush trees, the sunsets, the sunlight. I love housesitting for Mum and walking home under the eye of the Harbour Bridge, sitting on top of every hill on it’s bed of sparkling blue. I love the views of the cars sitting on the docks and glinting in the sun as I slowly climb the hill of the Anzac Bridge on my bike. I talk easily of the future, certain of finding a good job, a nice flat, a great life. Reconnecting with friends is surprisingly easy, over beer or dinner jokes are made, histories are told. I’m doing a few weeks of relief teaching at my old work, where the students seem the same, the colleagues are all new and my old colleagues are now somewhere else or running the place. I feel optimistic about finding new ways to make my old life interesting. Perhaps its just the summer never seems to end. Or maybe it’s the knowledge I brought back with me about the importance of being at home with yourself to feeling at home where you are. Whatever it is, I’m finding it surprisingly, marvellously, easy to fit back in to life here. Who knew I was carrying the capacity for joy with me all along.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Heading south

Given that we’ve just arrived, it seemed only logical to leave Sydney as soon as possible for somewhere else. Simon’s Dad helped fullfil our escapist fantasies and took us down to his caravan on the south coast of NSW for a few days to reconnect with a few Australian essentials. Like the fact that it rained for two days and we spent most of them sitting in a caravan looking at sheets of water pour onto the bush. Or the fact that every meal was barbequed. Also going out on a tinnie (small boat) and running out of petrol (false alarm thank god) and drinking beer on a lake. Seeing roos on the way to the toilet block. Being woken up at all hours by screaming birds. Having insects fly into you as if you’re in their way. Seeing a wave of silvery fish flying through the air towards you. I suppose it’s not all bad, this place.

Kiel’s not the only town to have ludicrously large boats in the harbour.

They’re like cows only bouncier.

Birds on bikes…

Hanging with the locals

Friday, February 01, 2008

Home is where the shoes are

After eight weeks of holidaying we’re finally home – and so are all the boxes I sent from Kiel. The last one, which I sent first, arrived only yesterday, presumably after some similarly convoluted adventures through the globe, containing my fabulous red Camper pumps which will come in handy if I get around to applying for any jobs in the near future.
It’s very nice to be home. The day we arrived it was raining in sheets, but it quickly cleared up and then we had a week of heat, not unlike Thailand but with a little less crazy-making humidity. The skies were blue, the sun was beaming, there was a long weekend, and Mum threw us a party. The only things I could have wished for were fewer Australian flags about the place – since when did flag waving become cool?- and perhaps a front page without cricket on it. Fewer huntsmen in the bathroom staring at me with their multiple eyes while I'm taking a shower would also be nice.

Simon, meanwhile, was in seventh heaven watching cricket on a real television for five days in a row. Ah the Australian summer.
It’s also a joy to hear “Strayn” again wherever I go, and to speak it. To be able to say Chuck that over here will ya? and be met with comprehension rather than bewilderment. I really do think we’re only a generation away from becoming completely unintelligible to the Brits and the Amis. Some of the things I’ve overheard I’d almost forgotten existed. I’m thinking of carrying round a notebook and writing them all down for a new dictionary.
So far, however, the only work I’ve done is rewriting my resume, trying my hand at a cover letter and glancing at the jobs section very reluctantly. My bank balance says it’s time to go back to work but my heart says no. I think it’s time to remember what I like about living here and maybe then, but only maybe, find a job. All in good time. There are a couple of movies I want to see first…

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


On top of the Golden Mount.

Who needs celebrity cooks?

The big buddha and us at Wat Pho.

Hanging in the hammock, Bush style (George, that is).

Our beach. Need I say more?

Sitting on a tropical island, listening to the waves softly breaking and voices coming from the neighbouring bungalows, both Australian and German, I can’t help but reflect that there’s nothing quite as weird travel wise, as leaving the minus five, sleeting, Ordnung-filled world of Germany and arriving in the 30 degree heat, plus god knows how much humidity, chaos-filled streets of Bangkok. The list of contrasts is mind-boggling; the smells of German Christmas, marzipan and cinnamon plus the crisp smell of cold air versus a cacophony of food smells, rubbish smells, exhaust fumes, fruit, sweat. Not smiling versus smiling at everyone. Eating inside insulated, heated rooms versus eating on the street. Christmas markets versus Bangkok street markets. Potatoes versus rice. A well-organised transport system versus a constant traffic jam. Overpriced versus underpriced.
Jet lag is about more than just the time difference, it’s about the mid trying to work out what is going on, where am I, and more importantly, why is everyone smiling? Luckily, the reflex came back quickly. After all, I still used to smile at Kielers even though the response was often either cold disinterest or the striking up of conversation, assuming we must know each other.
The first three days in Bangkok, it was pretty clear that I didn’t know the people whose smiles I returned. We stayed in the backpacker nest, right near Kaoh San Road, a wonderfully mad area filled with stalls, tourists, massage parlours, travel agents, tuk tuks, restaurants and hostels. We bought fresh fruit from a vendor for breakfast, ate the best pad thai I´ve ever had from a street stall and shopped till we dropped. By far the best thing we did was a half day vegetarian Thai cooking course, where we made ten dishes including the world’s best green curry. Every curry we’ve eaten since then has come up a loser against ours.
After our Bangkok experience the thought of an island getaway was enticing, and we’d had enough long train journeys in Italy to last a lifetime, so we went for the luxury option and caught a plane to Koh Samui and from there a ferry to the Browne and Holmes island of choice, Koh Pangan. It’s amazing, there’s nothing to do but eat, lie in a hammock, read, swim, play frisbee and basically reflect on how excellent your life must be to have ended up here.