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Back to the first dimension

July 2, 2011

The week before I left Europe, Paula and I were talking about what it feels like to live several lives, have them criss-cross, etc. Her description is one involving dimensions – each big move or decision made shifts the course of life, providing a new branch to, hopefully, break off from once again. Each segment becomes a sort of dimension, which you can sometimes, in some ways, go back to. I am now in my first dimension, back to the beautiful city of Mount Vernon, the Skagit Valley, Washington, the Pacific Northwest – it keeps expanding, but really it’s simply home. A home. One of several that I’ve now been making around this country and a few others.

One thing that always surprises me about moving between the several lives I lead is how immediately natural it feels to be at home, coupled with the simultaneous feeling that things are actually quite different and that I have, in fact, been away for a long time. It has been ten months since I left home, but I really left in 2005, coming back for vacations. Six years is not a long time, and yet it is a long time to be away from a place that you call home. I realized this the first time I said “home” and was referring to Worcester or Cancun or Genappe. I knew Luxembourg was winning me over the first time I offhandedly told some Belgian friends that I couldn’t go out, because I had to take the train home.

All of these places become normal when you live in them every day, but the beauty of leaving is the reunion with a place that still can’t help but charmingly welcome you back. These are the things I’ve been enjoying over the last two days, in no specific order:

1. driving an automatic car
2. getting to turn right on a red light
3. actually having space to park (this is throwing me off, and oddly enough has made it more difficult for me to park)
4. drip coffee. coffee at any ungodly hour of the night/morning.
5. understanding everyone around me…well, technically
6. Mexican food
7. Mexican food
8. Thai food
9. getting to swing by my parents’ offices and chat for a few minutes
10. seeing the ocean and mountains in the distance every day
11. living with my brother again

I woke up very early this morning and went for a drive through town and then past my old house. Well, not that old, but my former house. It was a beautiful, foggy morning.

It’s always hard to leave a place, but it’s also hard to miss a place when you’ve moved to a very similar spot on a different continent. Green fields. Cows. Looks familiar.

But of course some things aren’t the same. I could get an americano at 4:30 this morning, but there were no bakeries on my drive where I could stop and get a decent pain au chocolat. Pastries aren’t very good at drive through espresso places, and I knew that it would disappoint me. Thank you, Europe, for spoiling me.

It’s also odd to speak in English all the time. When I was traveling with my family and friends, there were several occasions when I had to go walk by myself and let my head slow down. It was audibly buzzing to me, so many words and so many conversations, so much movement. I realized that in the last few months I’ve only rarely spoken English with more than two people at a time, and when it’s with Paula, there is always French and Spanish mixed in. I did get to speak Spanish when I went to this awesome Mexican restaurant, and it felt good to switch. Even though I spoke English in Luxembourg, I always used French several times through the day, read French on the trains, and attempted to read Luxembourgish and German signs. I am once again the member of a very large target audience that demands (and usually gets, which is what makes the difference) the understandable.

Addition to the list: non-creaky floors and wall to wall carpet. Not necessarily more enjoyable, but it makes moving around the house while my brother is sleeping so much easier.

Moulin Rouge!

June 16, 2011

Oui, last night I went to the Moulin Rouge. What an experience. My mom, stepdad, and two of their best friends have been letting me be their tour guide, and for the last few days we’ve been in Paris. One of the things that we wanted to try and do was see the show at the Moulin Rouge, so yesterday morning we headed up to Montmartre to get our reservation. Everything was sold out for the 9:00pm show, but we got seats for the 11:00pm show. Tickets included a half bottle of champagne per person. Perfect.

The show was about an hour an a half of sequins, heels, boas, breasts, and high kicks. There was a tank raised from under the floor full of water and a number of snakes, quickly followed by a nearly-nude woman doing impressive water-gymnastics. There were entertainers brought in between sets while the cast was changing: a juggler, a guy who did all sorts of cool things with the several balls he juggled with his mouth, and a ventriloquist. True entertainment.

Immediately after the curtain call, I was sent out to scout for abandoned full bottles of champagne. I was working against the flow of people leaving, but managed to grab a couple before the waiters snatched them back up. When I got back to our table, a woman was sitting at the next table over, and was wildly gesturing for a glass. My mom passed one over. I quickly figured out that our neighbors had left a half-full bottle of champagne, and this woman was outraged at the waste and decided to sit down to finish the rest of it. She, of course, had the full support of my travel companions. I’m not exactly sure how this all played out, because she was Brazilian and only spoke Portuguese, and yet my mother explained everything that she had said while I was on the hunt. Ah, the language-ability-enhancing power of alcohol. The woman’s friends found her and drank with us for a bit, me speaking Spanish, them speaking Portuguese, me attempting to interpret from Portuguese for my parents, the whole group losing lots in translation but having a wonderful time in the process.

And really, who leaves full bottles of champagne on the table? Paris doesn’t have open container laws. Doesn’t it seem simply appropriate to walk out of the Moulin Rouge at 2:00am drinking champagne straight from the bottle? I thought so. And so we did.

What’s happening, Vico and Genappe?

June 13, 2011

A few days ago I was in Italy with my mom and my stepdad. We’ve been traveling for a little over a week now, starting with the car ride from the Amsterdam airport. Paula and I drove to Schiphol to pick them up, headed back to Belgium, and then a day and a half later we left for Rome. This is their first time to Europe, so I had the rare opportunity to reexperience several places. This was my third trip to Italy, and I was traveling a route that I know well. The negative side of knowing a place well, however, is that it becomes all too comfortable, normal in a slightly dangerous way: you forget to take a step back and appreciate what is happening around you.

I realized this as I was leaning against the wall of a loud, squeaky, crowded train. Specifically the Circumvesuviana, a commuter train that connects Naples with Sorrento, its rails skirting the coast of the Bay of Naples. We were on our way to Vico Equense, a small town just a few stops before Sorrento. My sister Sara’s grandfather was born and raised there, and although he left Italy at a young age for the United States, most of his family stayed in this area. I’ve been to visit with Sara twice, once when we were thirteen and once when we were nineteen, and so it seemed only logical that going to Italy meant going to see Tono’s home. Being on the train brought me right back to riding around with Sara (her mom’s cousins, doubting our ability to avoid danger in one of Italy’s most dangerous cities, didn’t want us to stay in Naples – they took us out to Vico and left us at their other house). At that point, we both knew how to get around, how to travel together, and where we were headed next.

This time, I’m the guide. It’s a job I really like to do; sometimes I truly lament the fact that the profession of travel agent is nearly obsolete, because I think I would enjoy it. Planning is time consuming, but in the end it consumes a bit of me as well, and therefore I can’t hope to stop myself once I’ve started.

This is odd, because I’m traveling with my parents. The people who, for most of my life, have been making sure that I’m not getting lost, that I have a place to stay, etc. I thought I may have gone too far when, at the airport, I reflexively grabbed my parents’ passports and put them in my bag. Tickets: together. Passports: together. Where? In MY purse. Why? Well…no real reason, except that if I have them it gives me something to keep track of, I guess. It was odd because I realized that I’d just treated my parents a bit like you treat a child that can’t handle responsibility, but they thankfully understood, took no offense, and let me hold on to all of the travel things.

After a day in Vico, I noticed that something had definitely changed. People were speaking English to us. It mustn’t have been difficult to guess that we were American/English speakers, thanks to the fact that, well, we’re Americans and are generally a bit louder than the average European, added to the fact that we were indeed speaking English. The old man who was sweeping outside our place in Vico had a chat with me. The butcher at the grocery store mildly insulted my command of the Italian language (which is really just Spanish with some different endings thrown in as far as my ability is concerned), and then informed us he’d lived for a few decades in Brooklyn. The waiter. The checkout person at the grocery store.

Last time I was in Italy, we had to really try, and what’s more, people let us drag them along through our rocky attempts at communication. This time, I get halfway through a sentence before the person either says “English?” or just proceeds to answer the very basic and obvious question I’m trying to ask. I was confused. When did this happen? How is it that it comes from people of all ages, not just kids in school? I’m not saying we could all have deep conversations, but people were surprisingly quick to respond and explain. Have they just gotten to that point where they no longer have the patience to just listen to someone butcher their language and make an effort to still pay attention?

After Italy we made our way back to Belgium, to the tiny town of Genappe, (one of) my home(s) and home of my Belgian/Chilean family. Once again, walking around with my family made me notice how many people in this little town actually speak English. Not sure why I should be surprised. It was, after all, teaching English that brought me here.


May 29, 2011

I have a friend in Belgium who is absolutely untranslatable. He’s a good friend of Paula’s, and every time we hang out (which isn’t too often), I spend about 50% of my efforts on imagining just how I would interpret what he says for a hypothetical English monolingual speaker. What makes it so difficult is that I can understand him, but simply do not have the subtle sense of vocabulary to capture and convey just what makes him so damned funny.

That’s the thing – when he talks, I end up laughing hysterically. But I couldn’t tell you, for the life of me, the exact words he’s using. Over the last number of months, I’ve been thinking a lot about humor. I’ve lived in this area for one and a half out of the last five years, and in that amount of time you can’t help but let people rub off on you a bit. It’s all a part of adapting to someplace new, and learning a new sense of humor is one of the best results. I have since found that it is possible to not understand every word in a joke or sarcastic comment and still get the joke. It’s possible to get what makes a specific reaction or a change in tone funny without having a full grasp of the language.

I find this comforting, because it makes explicit the fact that people can share a general perspective or experience without getting bogged down by too many words. How lovely.

Students Read, Redemption for All

May 22, 2011

Last week I was given the opportunity to prepare and lead a class at the university all by myself (more or less…it’s not called co-teaching for nothing). A couple of months ago I was invited to lecture on US language policy by a different professor, and although I think it went alright overall, I left feeling very unsatisfied with my performance. Now, part of the reason it was difficult was because the US technically doesn’t have language policy; things vary from state to state, so trying to convey a sense of a cohesive body of policies is pointless. Regardless, I didn’t ruin their minds or give them useless information, but I also felt like I was, topic-wise, all over the place. Part of the problem may have been that I used a powerpoint presentation. I’m not really a visual learner and therefore have a difficult time making a powerpoint that actually works for people who are. I did, however, get to lecture with a microphone up on a stage-esque platform, so that was pretty cool. I was tempted at first to drop the microphone and just project my voice, but decided against it, seeing as the students might misunderstand and sit there wondering why I didn’t just use the technology provided to me. Little do they know that I had to learn to project, and since I don’t get to do community theater anymore, my opportunities for practicing are very slim.

There was no need for being loud in this recent class; our group has been slowly dwindling, and there were roughly fifteen people in class when I arrived. We had them move the desks into a U shape, because it’s much easier for discussion (no neck craning, no ignoring each other, etc.). It was kind of funny because the professor announced to them that they would be having an “old style” seminar class. That’s right, just one more thing that makes me prematurely old. I really love these kinds of classes, so it was fun to mix it up a bit and try something a bit new for the students.

If you haven’t read it, check out my blog post on lecturing – otherwise, you may not be able to appreciate how triumphant I felt throughout this particular class. After giving that lecture (the finger-wagging kind), I spent two weeks reminding my students about their reading, and mildly threatening them with do-your-reading-or-so-help-me-god-you’ll-be-sorry-type comments.

And lo and behold – it worked.

For this class, we were reading Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. I had them read two stories in particular, “No-Name Woman” and “A Song for a Barbarian Reedpipe” (if anyone is interested in reading them and can’t find the book, I have the pdfs – just say the word and I’ll pass them along). I was really excited to have the chance not only to teach this book, but to discuss it and learn some more myself. When I was at Clark, I studied another book by Hong Kingston, China Men, and read The Woman Warrior on my own. There’s something very important in the act of digesting a book alone, but something equally important in sharing and discussing it with others; this group of others is something I miss very intensely, because I got so used to having other people around me who were reading what I was reading and who were up for talking about it, in class or out (ah my dearest dearest English majors and current librarian). So even though I had to wait a couple of years, I finally got the chance to discuss this book with a room full of people who, like it or not, had to read what I told them to. [an evil laugh seems appropriate here]

My students did not disappoint. In fact, they kept raising questions and mentioning passages that made it practically unnecessary for me to structure or try and direct the conversation. I was so proud of them. Some had read the stories several times (many comments were made on the difficulty of the text itself), and throughout the class they were flipping through the book or the printed out pdfs, citing passages, pointing out specific words or passages, and just generally being awesome. It made me miss school so much, but I was happy to have proof (once again) that switching sides of the desk doesn’t mean I have to learn any less (I just have to be more diplomatic about when I talk and when I keep my damn mouth shut). Some people may think that organizing a class or standing in the front means that you know everything or that you’ve already found every possible interpretation, and you’re just guiding people through. Praise be to everything holy that that’s not true.

It’s been far too long

May 18, 2011

and yet there’s not much time left. A lot has happened since my last update, when I ranted about ranting. Now I’ll be catching up, filling in the important gaps.

Over spring break I went with a group of 14 year old students from Diekirch (and three other teachers, including and headed by Isabelle) to Edinburgh, Scotland. It was only for two days, but even that was worth it. Edinburgh is simply gorgeous, and we had perfect weather the whole time. It sounds a bit ridiculous, but I actually got a sunburn while I was there. Scotland was never really a place where I imagined such a thing could happen. Here’s where I was though – it was obviously worth putting up with the sun beating down:

Read more…


April 17, 2011

There are two obvious ways of interpreting this word: 1) standing in front of a group of people and speaking on a particular subject, making them take notes and pay attention and whatnot, and 2) standing in front of a person/group of people and scolding them or generally criticizing something they have or have not done. Last week, I delivered the latter to my students in Literary Theory, although the real fire behind it started a week earlier in another class I co-teach. The “real fire”… it sounds kind of hellish. Even the words I automatically use to describe it reinforce this idea (who knows where it came from)  that having actual expectations and high demands equates to some mean or aggressive personality, as if it were a form of sadism. It’s an absurd connection, but it nevertheless seems to be quite prevalent, and as much as I dislike it, I can’t keep it from sneaking in and second-guessing my decisions.

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