Once Upon a Time …

… in a land of cake and snow, two Australians, one pale of skin and hair, the other with chocolate locks and lovely white teeth, froze. It happened on a bright, brisk and sunny day in the North Western German city of Münster. It was a crisp -6 degrees as the pair hopped on a train bound for the South Eastern city of Nürnberg and already their cheeks were flushed and fingertips without feeling. As the hours passed, the two pals ate chips and gazed out the windows. The flat, neat, green landscape of Nord-Rhine Westphalia slowly gave way to the hilly forrests of Franconia and the neatly ploughed fields turned white beneath their blankets of snow. Several stations lay between them and their destination, and several minutes were spent jogging up and down on the spot to return feeling to extremities as they waited for connecting trains. But they knew it was to be a solid journey – they were, after all, crossing the country.

It was dark and nearly six hours later when the train pulled into Nürnberg. They were ferried to Weiden, an hour east of Nürnberg, by a Nordic looking man by the name of SG and, because it was late and nothing was open, dined at Burger King. Both slept soundly that night – they had to, another journey awaited them and little did they know, the East Wind had a touch more frost in store and a belly full of ice.

The following day dawned bright, blue and -18 degrees. The friends were heading back to Nürnberg, where the pale one had to speak to people about work and where both had to explore a hitherto unexplored city. They revelled in the kindness of Weiden station’s staff, 2€ coffees from the splendid station bakery and boarded a train to one of Germany’s oldest, most historical cities. On the way, they passed vast snow fields, little red roofed villages nestled in valleys and gullies, frozen lakes with children skating atop the glinting, slippery surface and, unless their eyes were playing tricks on them, Little Red Riding Hood weaving her way through the snow carpeted Frankenwald with her basket of lebkuchen and apples. It was magical. The pals were enchanted.

But it was so cold. So cold their breath turned to ice, their noses went pink and then a deep red and the pale one began running around in circles on Nürnberg station screaming ‘this is like putting parrot fish in the Baltic Sea.’ The cold froze their ability to think, it pierced their mittens and snuck beneath their coats. It bit their faces and gnawed at their legs. They found the tourist information and breathed at the lady ‘it is unbelievably cold’ as she handed them a map. Eventually, after demanding a cab for the 200m walk, the chocolate haired one managed to convince her friend they could walk it and they found the pale one’s first interview location. The chocolate-haired one skipped over a stone bridge to a heated Starbucks, where she hid out until the pale one had finished.

Afterwards, once huge mugs of coffee, sample hot chocolates and a large bagel had been consumed, they rugged up and, sticking to the sunny side of the big cobbled street, began to explore Nürnberg. It was stone captivating. It was beautiful. It was every adjective and superlative rolled into one. It was bridges and icy streams, Medieval houses, antique shops and markets, bakeries and cafes, churches and polished stone streets. And, looking out over everything, sitting broodily atop its domain, the magnificent, 12th century Nürnberg castle. They walked to the top of it, through the cold, stone archways, and gazed out over the city of ginger cake, toys and tiny little sausages stuffed into bread rolls. They breathed it in and felt their lungs turn to ice beneath the wintry blue sky.

Although it was cold and although the friends had to run into shops every five minutes to thaw out and although they had to avail of several cafes and a gluhwein stall to pour hot liquid down their icy throats, it was a magical day in a magical city. Darkness fell and the time came to go back to the tiny town of Weiden. They boarded the train cold, tired and hungry, back to where SG was waiting to ferry them to a restaurant for their goodbye dinner. There they ate baked camenbert and plate-sized schnitzels and drank a bottle of German wine. With full bellies and pink cheeks, they rolled home and into bed, where they slept happily for the evening after.

The End

Photos coming soon …

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27 – Surprisingly Fantastic

The night before my 27th birthday, a funny little feeling that something was up began to niggle. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but there was something in the air.  Walking home from an impromptu post-work German session with Silke, I idly looked for SG’S car, wondering if the niggling feeling something was up, was him coming up from Bavaria to surprise me for my birthday (who would have thought it, there is a romantic in me). No car behind our apartment building, but a light on in my bedroom. The niggling increased when I rounded the corner and found my flatmate standing outside our building, looking up at the kitchen window. I asked her what she was doing and she said her boyfriend had bumped into someone’s car whilst parking and then bolted up the stairs ahead of me, clattering about, talking loudly. Said boyfriend was standing in our apartment looking suitably annoyed and holding his phone and my bedroom light was no longer on. I looked at both of them warily and proceeded to my, now dark, bedroom.

In my dark bedroom, I spied a strange bag in my room. It looked vaguely familiar and atop it sat an English book that wasn’t mine. And, the classic giveaway, my bed had been made. I asked my bedroom walls why my bed was made and then I asked my flatmate, who was hovering in my doorway, whose bag was in my room and she said, ‘oh it belongs to a friend of mine who just arrived …’ and as she said this, she performed a sort of dance move and drew back to reveal … one of my best friends from back home, arms outstretched, yelling, naturally, ‘surprise!’

Now, I am a terrible person to surprise. I discovered this last year when my flatmate pulled the first of her Extreme Stealth Surprises by helping Tammy conspire to fly into Münster from Dublin and surprise me in my local pub for my 26th birthday. Far from shrieking, Hollywood style, and leaping into Tammy’s arms, so we could both jump up and down together, I went bright red and sat there like a stoned toad, mouth agape, eyes flooding, whimpering, ‘what are you doing here?’ Eventually Tammy had to say, ‘can you at least act like you know me so people stop thinking I am a major creep.’ It’s not that I wasn’t thrilled – it was that I was too thrilled and obviously, when I am that level of thrilled, disbelief takes over and I can’t move.

When Dee, who I haven’t seen for nearly twenty months, ran into my bedroom, despite my subconscious niggling, despite knowing something was brewing, I had what could have constituted a minor heart attack. I knew something was up – but Dee flying in from Sydney? I sat down. I stood back up. I went bright red. My breathing went funny. I whimpered. I screeched. It was completely, again, un-Hollywood and mildly scary and Dee had to ask me, genuinely, if I was alright. I was. I was just too thrilled to speak.  I was blindsided. Flabbergasted. And completely overcome by the sheer amount of love, kindness and generosity it takes to plan a surprise visit of that size, by those on both sides of the globe.

Subsequently (despite coming down with a beastly flu type thing in the middle of  my birthday dinner and losing my voice) Dee and I talked rapid-fire for three days straight over kettles of tea and bottles of wine. We skipped through Münster, drank tea and ate cake in one of the city’s sweetest cafes, drank wine at a window seat in a wine bar in Kuhviertl, ate schnitzel at Das Blau Haus and picked over every single detail of the past twenty months we have been living on opposite sides of the world. And then, because it was Friday and because enough red wine had not yet been consumed and there were still moments to dissect and stories to tell, my flatmate suggested we convene at a local haunt for a glass of wine. A couch was found, wine was poured and we got down to business, picking and pulling at stories we had each hitherto only read about in emails.

Halfway through our second glasses, my flatmate’s boyfriend walked in and behind him, casually, SG. SG who, for the past six weeks had been telling me he had to work on the weekend of my birthday party. SG who, once Dee’s plans were cemented, joined forces with the other three conspirators and hatched Surprise #2, the surprise that, after 2 months of planning (them) and 2 months of being blissfully unaware, (me) drew us all together – the best friend over from Sydney, the boyfriend up from Bavaria and my beaming flatmate and her beaming boyfriend. And me, the luckiest girl in the world. And that, dear readers, was how I turned 27.

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Kicking the Dictionary

One of the most marvellous things about teaching and learning a language is that both processes are quite often extremely and unintentionally funny. Ponder, for a moment, the potential hilarity of my own tendency to confuse the German words for ‘grape’ and ‘pigeon’ (traube and taube) ‘boot’ and ‘pen’ (stiefel and stift) and cake and kitchen (kuchen and küche). Or the German tendency to pronounce each and every letter in an English word, as one would do in German. Suddenly words like ‘clothes’ and ‘attitude’ and ‘knife’ take on a whole new flair. I almost feel bad cutting through the flamboyance of ‘k-neef-eh’ with the flat, somewhat boring, ‘n-ih-f.’

Little things like there being no differentiation between a married Frau Hambrett and an unmarried Frau Hambrett, means I get called Mrs a lot. Yesterday I was even called Mrs Hamster, which was a magnificent collision of my oft-misinterpreted surname and the lack of ‘Miss’ or ‘Ms’ in German.

Last night, during a class with a Spanish student of mine, let’s call him J, we laughed like drains for the entire 90 minutes. This is largely because, due to fatigue, J’s Spanish accent was wildly thick and he was quite unable to say the word ‘zone’ without sounding like Antonio Banderas. Every time he said ‘zooooorrrrrhn’ I started laughing and he said ‘why you lath’ and I would laugh some more. It was mildly unprofessional and I am usually very restrained when my students speak of their childrens, or things coming out of TVs or of ‘putting off their trousers’ after a hard day’s work, but J has an excellent sense of humour, and soon we were laughing together at Antonio Banderas, the Spanish, French and Italians. ‘When the French speak English,’ J said, ‘it is truly terrible. It is like they are kicking the dictionary.’

Learning a language is exactly like kicking the dictionary. Putting a language on the floor and booting it around, so words and meanings fly out and rub shoulders when they shouldn’t, wreaking havoc on meaning.  Sometimes the results are stupendous and original, because, often, as one scrambles for the best word, in the heat of the conversational moment, the most simple, direct route is best. Hence my class describing a woman the other day as having ‘canyons all over her face’ instead of, perhaps, ‘deep wrinkles’ or ‘notable crows feet’. And often translating one’s own idiom directly, rather than searching for an appropriate alternative, is less time consuming and allows the conversation to continue flowing – which is why the same poor woman with canyons all over her face, was also accused of looking like an old box.

Sometimes tiny omissions – like an ‘e’ – result in nonsensical claims like ‘I can’t breath’ or using the wrong pronoun makes you far too familiar and bordering on rude (I have since stopped attempting to translate ‘you too’ into ‘du auch’ and thus insulting people when they wish me a good day, by being far too presumptive and casual). Often verbs with similar-but-not-quite-the-same meanings get confused and a lot of ‘renting’ goes on, when it should be ‘lending’ – SG often rents things to people – or SG provides running commentary on the process of ‘watching for a parking lot’ instead of looking for a parking spot.

The only good thing about it all is we are all in the same boat, kicking the dictionary together. Thank God languages are generally sturdy creatures and the damage is (not always) irreparable. And by the way boat in German is ‘das Boot’ and ship is ‘das Schiff’ which, when I am having a particularly bad day, I also get confused with pen and boot. And that is the English boot, not the German boot.

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Australia: The World’s Misunderstood Teenager

The other day someone asked me if Australians are patriotic. In and of itself that is a loaded question and I made some sort of strange ‘yyyeeeaaaahnooooo’ noise which swiftly ended when the second part of the question was posed, ‘to England or to Australia?’  I was quick to assure the lovely man that we display little patriotism to England, despite the Union Jack on our flag, despite the fact we voted against becoming a republic and despite the fact half the bloody country will spend a year in London at some point, and that in fact there exists an age old rivalry between us and the United Kingdom. I didn’t delve any further, because it was not the time or place to embark on a lengthy monologue about it all, but I have been mulling over the question for a while. There is but one take home message in this well-intentioned but completely bizarre question and that is a take home message I encounter time and time again in Europe, and that is – no one really gets Australia.

That’s fine. We are very young, very far away and are largely known for two things 1) our unconventional start as a Western nation 2) our unconventional flaura and fauna. In between grappling with the idea of England sending boatloads of (petty) thieves to a vast, unknown land at the bottom of the globe (and establishing, in an extremely short amount of time, a thriving nation) and an enormous marsupial that bounces and keeps its baby in a pocket, there is little space to attempt to come to grips with the Australian culture. To be fair, Australians themselves have difficulties defining what this culture is – we simply inhabit it, identify with some or most of its complex, woven facets and fail miserably when trying to present ourselves to the world.

I blame several things. Paul Hogan – you have no idea how many people say ‘that’s not a knife’ to me, sometimes in the most obscure of ways simply because they are so desperate to reference it – Australian Tourism for its bizarre penchant for embarrassing campaigns in which people wear a lot of shorts and hiking boots and hats, and us. We tend to shoot ourselves in the foot because a) we aren’t fully comfortable with who we are and therefore what image to present to the rest of the world b) we love telling stories, regardless of the amount of truth they contain. So what happens is we end up fulfilling the world’s expectation of us, by sitting around in shorts and thongs, telling outrageous stories about snakes and spiders with a thick, exaggerated accent for effect because, well, it’s just easier than being serious. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the rest of the world walks away from the experience with all assumptions truly confirmed – we are friendly, funny, talkative and routinely wrestle venomous snakes.

What we fail to explain comprehensively are the finer details of a truly wonderful, rich, complex culture that has formed in the most unique social, environmental and historical circumstances. Of an ever evolving identity that, despite its constant evolution, despite its youth, despite the constant debates that surround it, really does have a strong foundation, built on commonalities, shared histories and shared values. We have an indigenous history and we have a white history. We have a strong immigration history. And these disparate, varied, unusual collective histories have combined to produce a unique shared culture. We have a shared way of speaking, a shared way of interacting with each other, a shared sense of humour and lack of pretension. A shared openness, a shared stubbornness. A shared sense of adventure. A shared social code. A shared love and awareness of, reliance on and respect for the outdoors. We are commonly afforded and commonly expect a shared freedom to be heard, to express. We have a shared understanding of what it does and can mean to live in Australia and to be an Australian.

But we cannot expect the rest of the world to understand that, if we don’t tell them.

I love a good snake/spider story and I derive a sick amount of pleasure from telling wide-eyed Europeans about the presence of sharks in our waters (having never actually seen a shark, or experienced a shark alarm or anything remotely shark-related) and what they say the best way to evade a crocodile is (despite never actually having seen a crocodile outside of a zoo). As a beach lover who wears thongs and routinely says ‘no worries’, I play into many a stereotype and for the most part, that’s fine. Because stereotype or no stereotype I am a beach lover who wears thongs and says no worries and enjoys a venomous snake story.

But I also love, and make a concerted effort to do so, explaining what we are also about, beyond the crocs (animals, not shoes) and kangaroos. I want the rest of the world – or at least the people I meet – to understand my culture like I do. Or at least, at the very least, to know that we do have  our own, collective culture, despite our youth, despite how un-serious and casual we claim to be about it, and it’s an interesting, complex one that – despite how unfashionable it is to say this – we are quite and quietly proud of.

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How Hard Can It Be?

When I started teaching English as a second language, I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know whether I would be pointing at a plant and saying ‘green’, pointing at my smiling face and saying ‘happy!’ or repeating ‘hello, goodbye’ over and over again. I did think to myself, ‘how hard can it be … teaching people my own language?’, but beyond that, I didn’t really think of how things would proceed. I ignored the more obvious questions of, ‘I can speak my native language, but can I teach it?’ and ‘where does one actually begin when teaching a language?’ and jumped in. In hindsight, not knowing how little I knew was probably a good thing. Had I known how little I knew – in the beginning – and how often I had had to completely fake it, I may never have jumped with such gay abandon. I may have been far too tentative and far too nervous and the students would have smelt it, like sharks smell blood, and eaten me alive.

You see in some cases, and in some countries, teaching English may well involve 2 hours of teaching kids how to count, or a few hours of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘I would like a coffee.’ But not here. Here, people start learning English at school. By the time they have finished, they have been learning English in a school environment for ten years. Most of them know the grammar, many of them better than English speakers themselves. (I shudder to think of what teaching English in the Netherlands or Scandinavia, where they don’t dub film or television and where the people speak near perfect, accent-less English is like.) Most of them don’t really want to know how to order a coffee, they want to know more. They want to perfect their grammar and move onwards and upwards towards total fluency. Or even worse … they are totally fluent and want to get even better. They want to speak like native speakers.

To be a language teacher means you really have to get inside your own language and know it inside out. It is to be intensely familiar, on a whole new level, with your mother tongue. Your grammar has to be perfect, or close to, all the time because your students are going to write down and repeat what you say, or catch you out, or prove you wrong, or double and triple check to see if you are absolutely sure that is the only preposition you can use in that sentence. Sure, as native speakers, we should all know the basics – although many of us don’t, including those with journalism degrees writing for daily nationals – but knowing the basics isn’t enough. You need to know the answer and you need to know why it is as it is, or why, out of several possibilities, the answer you are giving them is the best possible one. Why this tense now and not that one? Why this preposition here, but in an almost identical situation, that one? Why should I put this word in this position in the sentence, and not in that one? Why can’t I say this? Am I wrong, or is it just not ideal? What makes it less ideal than your suggestion? Are you sure?

Beyond the complicated, bendable, nit-picky, sometimes bizarre grammatical basics of the fluid, flexible (and fantastic) English language, there are other things you will be called upon to do as a language teacher. You may have to help bankers understand legal documents; write a speech for a company’s CEO; teach suits the terms and systems specific to the business world; teach civil servants the language, terms and processes specific to the sector of the government they work for; make people aware of cultural differences and how to deal with them in different situations; teach pronunciation in the ‘how now brown cow’ kind of way; prepare students for university entrance examinations that consist of data analysis and essays. Often you must maintain the energy necessary to keep one single class interested and informed for 5 hours straight, or coax someone to speak, as grammatically correctly and as clearly as they can, for 90 minutes.

To be a language teacher is also to be something of a trivia vessel. You have to know a lot about stuff (or at least hoard facts as you go along). Stuff about your own culture, stuff about places you have been to, stuff about literature they studied in high school, films they have seen, songs they have heard, historical moments they are curious about. Not only because, quite often, you need to encourage people to speak by speaking yourself, but also because when it comes to one culture’s curiosity about another, people ask the strangest things. And then, of course, they almost always ask ‘why?’

And finally, to be an Australian language teacher – or indeed to be an Australian anywhere in the world – is to be constantly asked if you have eaten, ridden, seen, touched or owned a kangaroo.

Fucking kangaroos. And yes, I do teach my students how to swear. Sometimes. And only in a grammatically correct and socially appropriate manner. It is a valuable English language skill.


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The Next Big Life Veränderung

I am moving. To Bavaria. More specifically, to a region known as Franken and Oberpfalz. Even more specifically, to a town called Weiden. Let me tell you a few facts about Weiden.

– It has a population of around 41,000 people.

– It is 35 km from the Czech border.

– The city has been around since 1241.

– The US Army has a base there.

– Weiden means ‘pasture’ or ‘to graze’ in English.

– It has long, hard winters. Which is great, because Lord knows I love winter.

Here is a handy map that I borrowed from the internet and defaced:

I actually think Weiden is further south. Geography was never my strong point.

When I have told my German friends where I am bound for, most of them have looked at me strangely and repeated ‘Weiden’ slowly and clearly, a few times, then admitted to not knowing where it is. Upon hearing where it is, they have all warned me, without fail, about the following:

– the dialect.

– the fact that Bavarians are, essentially, not Germans.

And after this, they have all said, ‘but … why?’ This is perhaps the best question of all. Why Weiden? Why a town of 5 people with an unintelligible way of speaking when, for the past few months, I have been missing my town of 4.5 million and can only just muddle along in a conversation with clear, ‘high German’ speakers? Because I am mad? Because I have completely relinquished any control over my life? Because Weiden is actually one of Europe’s glittering, unknown gems? Because I am being paid millions to write a novel set in Franken and Oberpfalz?

Yes, yes, no and no.

For a little while now, I have been feeling that a new adventure is in order. I love Münster (on particularly rainy days when the bus driver is an arsehole to me, I have less positive feelings towards it) I have some extraordinary friends here, and I love my job. Münster has been the host city of the original Big Life Veränderung/change. It has officially lodged itself in my heart and I hope to return to it time and time again. But I didn’t move to Münster to settle down. It was the first stop on an adventure that, sure, had no specific stops beyond it, but stops nevertheless. The UK was in the running for the next stop, as was Berlin or Hamburg, somewhere in the Mediterranean and Shanghai. Even home, for a little while. The marvellous thing was, I didn’t know. I would make that decision when the time came.

But the time, when it came, coincided with the SG and I beginning to talk seriously about what was next for us. He had to move to Weiden for three years. What was I doing to do? I didn’t know. All I knew was that I wanted to try a new city, that my time in Münster was up. But, as it became more and more clear, my time in Germany wasn’t. Suddenly Shanghai, with SG in Bavaria, lost a touch of its lustre, particularly when the idea of flying back and forth regularly for the sake of our relationship entered the equation. No problem, it would have to be a German city. Hamburg? Berlin? I could move to one of Germany’s bustling metropolises and we could take turns travelling back and forth to each other on weekends. 600km between Weiden and Hamburg and about 100€ one way on the train in in petrol, so 200€ and about 12 hours round trip every weekend, for one of us. Berlin was a couple of hundred kilometres better. We could do it – we could bank on having every weekend free to travel to one another, bank on not being too tired or too poor to make the trip. Where there’s a will, quite often, there is a way.

The more we spoke about it, the more living 600km apart in the same country sounded pointless. Expensive, stressful and pointless. SG is what is keeping me in this country – why orchestrate it so we are so far apart and it is so costly and exhausting to maintain the relationship? Why not try living together in Weiden. Sure, it’s in the back arse of beyond, miles from nowhere, it will be another culture shock and difficult to find work for me. But we would be remiss not to give it a go.

Weiden isn’t as bad as it sounds. It is actually a pretty little town, and because it isn’t a bustling metropolis, the rent on a very spacious, very central apartment is very reasonable. And it’s 2 hours from München, 2 hours from Prague and in a whole new area of Germany I have never explored. It will be, as we have come to call it, The Weiden Adventure. Who knows what it will hold? Most likely a lot of Czech beer and even more meat dishes, but also trips to Italy, Austria and the Czech Republic. New people. New friends.

So A Big Life will soon become a Big Bavarian Life. I am as terrified as I am excited. I will not understand a word anyone says to me and probably eat schnitzel everyday. But I am so, so ready for something new and this tiny little border town is just the ticket.

* Read about the First Big Life Veränderung here.

2012: More

I am not known for my willpower. Just ask the entire cake aisle of my local supermarket. We are well acquainted in a most intimate, excessive way. I also have the terrible, Aquarian habit, of starting things with the best intentions and then getting distracted halfway through and starting something else (case in point, at least 10 unfinished short stories and 4 novel manuscripts languishing in a file on my desktop). But I do love making plans, and there is something quite thrilling about setting a goal and working towards it (in the beginning, anyway). I also love lists and new leaves. All of which leaves me in the completely ordinary predicament of wanting to make resolutions but knowing, quite honestly, there’s a large chance that within 14 days, my resolve will have disappeared under a pile of paper. Or into a cake.

A couple of years ago, I came to a simple, obvious conclusion. It is always easier to do more rather than cut back. ‘Stop eating so much shit’* sounds so confining and bossy, whereas ‘eat more good things’ is encouraging and kind. It also deals with the tedious psychological issue of immediately not wanting to do something if you are told to do it. If I am told not to eat more shit, I will defiantly eat more shit, even if it is my own list of resolutions, penned by my own hand, telling me not to do it because it is in my own, self-acknowledged interests. If that same list says, ‘eat more!’ I will think to myself, ‘pffft, no, I won’t eat more.’ I am my own worst enemy.

One might suggest I avoid making any sort of resolutions altogether, but I feel far too shiny and new and resolute not to. So in the spirit of compromise, here is what I resolve to do more of in 2012:

Read More

Three books a month. And not just crime fiction. Preferably a touch more historical fiction.

Write More

Finish two of those scrappy manuscripts.

Finish at least three short stories.

Write more feature articles.

Blog more.

Watch More Films

At least two a week. I fell far, far too far behind in 2011 and spent far, far too long unaware of Melissa McCarthy’s excellent comic timing.

Travel More

Make the most of Germany’s borders and, when I am home for December, see more of my own backyard. Like, for example, that reef the rest of the world bangs on about, but I have never seen.

Cook More

My Mum gave me Neil Perry’s The Food I Love for Christmas. We will be getting a new kitchen in March. I need to expand my repertoire beyond Greek food and (excellent) Thai curries. All of this means I must … cook more.

And live more with this in mind …

* But I really must stop eating corn chips, Berliner donuts and wine gums. And on a totally unrelated note, I really must wear eye cream more often.