Donnerstag, 11. Juli 2013

this teaching anniversary

I've learned so much. I've loved my students.  They're all so different.
Last night, however, I was challenged in a whole new way. I was reviewing time telling with my beginners and found myself at the crux of uplifting and demolishing a student's desire to learn English. The student was paralyzed and I typically enlist the help of other students in that situation. "Can anybody help?" But last night I was so sure that he just needed to try. "It's the same as in German really." He starred at me like a rabbit in headlights. it was like a horrible game of chicken and I had to fight with myself to finally offer the normal invitation to the other students. In those moments before relenting to my better judgement, I had an inner-debate with myself. The thought "is this the moment that students have when they're turned off of language learning forever? " I instantly switched to an alternative activity and as I went 'round the room to check on progress, I squatted next to the rabbit and told him (in a Swiss German whisper) "when I learned German, my husband would forget himself and use the Swiss German words for time telling. I didn't realize that 'viertel ab' was the same we 'viertel nach.' I was half an hour early for everything for a year." He asked how long I'd been learning the language and I told him. "But it was only with and practice." It's true of course. But almost as essential as practice is humility and patience. I need to remember both of those skills when teaching as well, though.

Dienstag, 19. März 2013

gendery words and wordy gender

I believe that years ago, I wrote on this blog about speaking a masculine Swiss-German. My teacher, after all, is a fella.
This morning I went down to the basement for a demonstration of the top-modern washer-dryer in our basement. Despite the fact that one of the people who work at home here is a man, the basement was full of the female neighbors. This pissed me off. Ivo is typically responsible for laundry in our house, but Ivo isn't here. As a control freak, I feel responsible for everything, so new or extra responsibilities make me cranky. I wasn't looking forward to this demo.
As soon as it began, I realized that I'd never really truly used the Swiss-German words for laundry. Not properly at least;"Kochwasch" for example. Not only that, but female speech in Swiss-German uses far more words in the diminutive. They have special words for wrinkly clothes,  the filth that builds up in the washer, the residue that builds up in the detergent dispenser the, the filth that builds up on the rubber lip around the dryer door.

In class the other day, one of my students said that "cats are more lady-like and dogs are more like men." When I asked why he thought for a long time and said, "Yeah because 'die cat and der dog'."
"I see," I said. "But in English, it's the cat and the dog." "And if I want to ask about him or her?" he asked. I explained that, if we can't tell the gender straight away, then we refer to it as an it. The student then had no answer for why dogs are male and cats are female. "But that feels right, yeah?" he asked. And it does. It feels right.
Bridges feel female to me. Spiders too. I remember the moment when bees stopped being male in my mind and became female. I'm so excited about my new class full of absolute beginners. Gonna bring them a whole universe of neuter. 

Donnerstag, 14. März 2013

The Vatican

This Tuesday, nearly my whole class was out sick or stuck at work. Only one student was able to come, so we had a private lesson. I then proceeded to break nearly every rule of teaching. We talked about religion, illness and moral questions. The student told me about her time at a catholic boarding school. Afterwards, she healed by spending a year in Italy learning the language.
Somehow, we got to talking about the vatican. I mentioned visiting with my husband the first year we were married. My great-aunt had given us the wedding gift, that our names were read at every mass for the first year of our marriage.
"I got there and I saw the marble and the statues and the gold and I felt...."
My student began to nod her head. I thought, "shit, she's going to think I'm talking about a positive emotional reaction."
I finished: "more upset, more disgusted, more crushed than I'd expected."
To my surprise, the student continued nodding. "It's horrific." she said.
And it is.
I looked around and was shaking with anger, thinking of the crusades, of the poor people who go without and the teachings that the church supposedly believes in.
In the past few weeks, I've been constantly reminded of that feeling.

Montag, 11. März 2013

This cliché: good cop bad cop

Having a puppy means being strong, patient and a disciplinarian. I spend the majority of time with Penny in our household and so I own the lion's share of the responsibility for Penny's obedience. This makes me "bad cop."
I prefer being bad cop to being "en Hündler." When we first started talking about getting a dog, this was a slur that was bandied about by our loved ones. The term describes a "dog person" but with the characteristics an American would ascribe a "cat person."; a person who only thinks of their dog and becomes defined by them. The use of this term in early doors makes me twinge every time I notice how often I'm posting about Penny on Facebook. It also makes us aware that we should never use the lil' pendulum as an excuse to not go out.
In addition, an old habit of mine is to not get too close. I'd hoped that my role as bad cop would help me create distance from her. Sadly, however, her constant trips to the doctor have proven that I am indeed close. Meantime, hours spent with her means that I also experience the lion's share of the negative aspects of puppyhood: the nasty habits of eating grotty things, the stubborn days, the unpleasant interactions with alcoholics (the more peripheral edema the better as far as she's concerned.)
Now Ivo is away and I am both cops together. This contains all of the parts at the same time. When I leave her to go to work, I leave her with a special treat. I bought her a valentine's day gift and we cuddled on that day and watched a romantic comedy. Yesterday I had the blues for a moment. I got on the floor and played with her and she made me laugh and laugh as she climbed me and cuddled with me. I realized that this would not have been my instinct in the past. Normally such fun play with Penny is reserved for Ivo, who, upon coming home, hasn't just had to force and cajole her to be a good puppy.
As with so many things, this is one of the experiences of Ivo's absence that help me learn and grow in the meantime.

Dienstag, 26. Februar 2013

Evacuation number 2 (cemetery edition) (warning - this is yucky)

This is a land that uses squat toilets. If there happens to be a proper toilet, it will not have a seat. If there is a toilet with a seat, there will often be boot prints on it, where someone has turned this odd toilet into one of the “normal ones”.

Yesterday, we went to a cemetery outside of town to visit the grave of a Tula legend: Dyunyasha. She was a woman who has been mythologized as an oracle, a holy figure and someone you visit to ensure the safety of your loved ones. When the Second World War began, she was beset with worried families. Everyone wanted to know the fate of his or her husbands, sons and fathers. These huge crowds made many people in Tula uneasy, so they put Dyunyasha in prison. In short time, the Germans drew so close to the city that all of the prisoners were released to help fight. Dyunyasha told the military to allow her to help. She said that she could close the city to the Germans. The story claims that she went out into the no-man’s land between the Russians and the Germans and simply bowed. She would bow, walk a few steps to the side and bow again. She bowed all along the boundary to the city, crossing herself and prostrating. The city still stands and the Germans were unable to get in.

For these reasons, Dyunyasha remains a legend. People visit her grave to request health and safety for their family, but most visit if they cannot get pregnant and wish to have a child. It was something that she’d apparently exceled at in life. She had a great record of being visited by women who wished to become pregnant and soon after got their wish. Thus we were not alone at her grave and were able to follow the dance-steps – if you will – of the grave visitor. I followed other ladies’ leads and bowed as they bowed and lit my candle and crossed myself the orthodox way (right shoulder first.) After the grave visit, we had a bit of a hike to the Tolstoy property, so I decided to hit the bathroom for safety’s sake.

As a colon-free tourist, I have an intimate knowledge of the toileting culture of any country I visit. I have to remind Ivo (despite his vast experience here) that when a wastebasket is provided, one must through their used toilet tissue in it and not in the bowl (or hole as the case may be.) I’ve become an expert at assessing how yucky a toilet will be from the exterior of the bathroom and the amount of eye contact from the woman taking your payment.
On the train to Tula, there’d been a very clean squat toilet with handy handles. They even had toilet paper that you didn’t have to pay for! Since then I’d been staying with friends in their home with their clean toilet (where a waste basket was provided.) I was thus unprepared for the outhouse in the cemetery. There’d been no yucky toilet ramp up. This was a squat outhouse!
Next to the usable outhouse was an outhouse with a collapsed floor. The usable outhouse stank, despite the -12C temperatures that day. The biggest problem was that there were 2 holes in the floor and they were a bit too close together. There were no handles and depending on your stance, you risked slipping into the neighboring hole.
I would normally never dream about writing such a gross entry. But this damned outhouse was so shocking; I needed to spread the word so that any reader may be more prepared than I was in future.

Evacuation - number 1 (library edition)

I brought work along with me this trip. Ivo is here for three months to work in the archives, and I wanted to be sure that I would not distract him. Thus I brought along 3 translation projects to busy myself. While Ivo goes to the archives, I go to the library.

I got my library card the first Monday I was here. Ivo and I ran errands, registering my visa and whatnot. Then we went to the National (or Lenin) Library. I filled out a form with my name (it was there that Ivo and I discovered that our last name had been transliterated differently on our separate visas), took a number, took a photo, paid my 100 rubles (3.50 CHF) and got my very own card – good for 5 years. This is not my first library card, mind you. But it is my first library card with my name written in Cyrillic characters. Moreover it’s the first library card that has felt as vital as it does. You see, beside this card, my entry to the library feels flimsy and precarious. I mumble pleasantries and adhere to a very precise script and cannot answer any spontaneous questions from any attendant in the building, as I have no idea what they are saying. Luckily, I have an ally there.
That first day at the library, Ivo happened to speak to me while we were checking our coats. It’s been our intention to only speak Swiss-German while here. (Ivo has encountered a few people with stories of Americans being made to fill a role for some disgruntled Russians and being made the target of some verbal or physical abuse.) Therefore, we stick to the only slightly less offensive (because of it’s relation to German) native language of my adopted land.

Because of our Helvetic exchange, the coat check attendant asked where we were from. As he waited for our response, he grabbed an album and wallet from beneath the counter. We said that we were from Switzerland; he flipped through his coin album and found that he had no entries from Switzerland. Ivo asked if I had a few francs and I gave him a 5-er, a 2 Franc piece and a few Rappen coins. He was delighted and Ivo later said that he was now “Nashi” – meaning “ours,” meaning that he’d know us if he met us again. Ivo then took me through the rest of the entrance procedure (I show my bag and promise that I have no paper or newspaper on me; I say “Na Notebookem” so that I get a slip of paper with permission for my laptop) and then we head inside.
The next time I was in the library it was on my own. I went to the other coat check – a big mistake. I didn’t find the Nashi we’d met, but instead a severe woman. I was so nervous that I only mumbled a hello as I began to strip of my woolen layers and put my supplies in order. She snapped “good day!” I think that she hadn’t heard my hello and then I was so nervous that any additional thing that she said to me met with a dumb nodding of my head. I was so embarrassed. I got the rest of the procedure right and quickly made my way to the stairs. En route I saw the fellow whom I’d given the coins and he smiled and nodded.

My third trip to the library, I returned to the original coat check. No Nashi this time either but as I was being helped our fella came over smiling and shook my hand. I smiled at him and reached into my pocket to grab a one-franc piece I’d found that morning. He seemed pleased and said something while moving his hand as if to say that he’d collected a whole row now. His colleague seemed a bit suspicious, but he explained, “She’s Swiss and gave me Swiss money for my collection.” (Or so I gather. I definitely heard “Swiss” and “collection”)
I continued on through the rest of the process and found my place 2 floors up to set to work. I filled out my exit form (the one that specifies Notebookem) right then, as I’d had problems with the line for my card number each time I exited before.
3 hours later, I’d prepared myself to leave and was heading for the stairs. Ivo and I had a lunch date and I wanted to leave early to navigate the Metro alone for the first time. Once I was in the main hall where the rows and rows of card catalog drawers are, an announcement was made. I don’t know what they were saying, but many people paused to listen. For the first time in 3 visits, people began to chat to one another once the announcement was over. (In the library, the silence is akin to that in the street, in the metro and anywhere else where there is a large collection of strangers. All of these places also contain a number of people who will answer their awful ringtone and yell down their phone. In libraries and archives, this includes the polite shout of “CAN’T TALK NOW! I’M IN THE ARCHIVE/LIBRARY! - - -I SAY I CAN’T TALK NOW IT’S THE ARCHIVE/LIBRARY!!!” But idle chatter is non-existent.)

I continued on to the bathroom, as the general reaction to the announcement seemed to be a carrying on as usual. Meanwhile a new, short, regular announcement began. It was sort of similar to that announcement that one hears at an airport “Attention: all unattended baggage will be confiscated.” I began to wonder, “What do people who don’t understand English think when they hear this and see people milling about ignoring it?” En route to the lavatory, I saw the aforementioned Nashi. He nodded but said nothing about “go back! There’s a fire/monster/bomb!” so I carried on as normal. By the time I returned to the main hall it was full of people evacuating. An older woman stood at the stair shouting information up to everybody but me. I snuck through the booth where you give up your slip of paper, because all the other patrons needed to find a pen and fill theirs out. I then headed toward the coat check, but the line lead from the counter to the exit doors. As this registered, good ol’ Nashi waved me over to him. I was allowed to come to the counter and as I gave him my coat check tag, he gave me a piece of candy and winked. He quickly got my coat and bag, just as a woman next to me said the words “live news.” (Still no idea to what she was referring.) I tottered off to the exit and got myself dressed in the vestibule. Before the building, the patrons paced to keep warm in the cold sunshine.

Next day I checked the Internet. Apparently, someone had called in a fire, but none was found. “This happens all the time,” said an employee there.