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.

2011

It has been a big year. I know it is customary to say that at the end of every year. To look back on 365 days gone by and give them a polish with a tired, satisfied sigh and a scrap of  hindsight. But really, 2011 has been rather large. And hard. It has, I think, of all years, presented the tough with the sublime, like no year before it.

As a lister, I am inclined to list the big things of 2011, purely to get it all straight in my own head. And to remind myself to stop, take a deep breath and have a glass of wine before a new year bursts onto the scene. And when I say a glass of wine, I mean 4.

This year I …

Turned 26.

Lived in a foreign country.

Spent a third summer on Santorini, and during it a night in this extraordinary hotel.

Visited Brussels, Bruges, Ghent, Dublin, Sonderborg, Hamburg, Berlin, Frankfurt, Kiel, Köln, Fürth, Weiden and London.

Spent 5 days in hospital.

Continued writing professionally for a handful of independent, quality publications.

Taught English as a second language, to all kinds of people, from all over Germany.

Began learning a second language.

Fell in love.

Decided to move to a town of 40,000 on the Germany/Czech border, in the new year, with said love. Here goes nothing.

Started thinking about the likelihood of living in Germany indefinitely. Holy shit.

Wrestled valiantly with snow. And lost. But I have come around, slightly, to the cold.

Ate far, far more than one person should ever eat.

Have been more homesick than I ever believed possible.

Have missed my mother more than I ever believed possible.

Kept doing what I want to do.

Break on through …

When it became apparent I wouldn’t be making it home for Christmas, I was quietly devastated. I cried like a baby for at least a week straight and then every time I saw a woman who remotely resembled my mother (ie was female) for a good month after that.  I assure you, my behaviour surprised myself. I am usually a relatively positive person, it was my choice entirely to move to Europe, no one forced me, and I love it here. And it wasn’t as if I was going to be spending Christmas with a woven basket at my feet and rubbing my hands above a lit trash can. I was going to be surrounded by loved ones, fed excellent food and had the warm busom of not one but three families to nuzzle into. Plus, there was the man himself, the one and only SG. What was my problem? Get a grip, Olivia, I hear you all saying. I suppose, really, I just wanted to go home for a bit, see my Mum and Dad, stick my feet in the water and snuggle with my dog. It was as simple as that.

Weihnachtsmarkt in Münster

I felt sorry for myself for quite some time. Spent a little while martyring. And slung some vitriol at the weather, to lift my spirits. But then, inevitably, the sleigh bells started ringing. The Christmas markets popped up in the city and the much dreaded snow never came. The world’s best Advent calendar was strung up on my wall and St Nicholas struck on December 6th, with boatloads of chocolate. The gluhwein began to flow. Judy Garland’s Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas was popped on repeat and I started Christmas shopping. Faced with a list of presents to buy was like being told in a gentle yet deservedly firm manner, ‘look at the people you have here who love you and who you love.’ It was breakthrough number one; the warming realisation that, as much as I will always call Australia home, I also have a home here, one I have built, one where I belong. And one I must remember to treasure.

If Christmas is good for anything, it is heightening sentimentalism and yesterday afternoon, I had the second breakthrough. I was around at Silke’s, wrapping presents and assaulting her ears with my lusty carol singing, when I spied two little red squirrels chasing each other around a tree, scampering about without a care in the world. Bear with me, I am not making this up. As I stood with a truly wonderful friend, drinking coffee and watching squirrels frolic, the Christmas medley from Hanson’s under-appreciated album, Snowed In, came on the radio. My little heart exploded with festive spirit. Nothing spells Christmas for me, like a three-part male, adolescent harmony.

On the walk home, my fluctuating, Christmas-spiked emotions struck again and  I made the mistake of thinking about Mum, which is like my method acting trick if I ever need tears on cue. I just have to think of the words – not even verbalise them –  ‘I miss my Mum’ and the tears flow like I’ve rubbed my sockets with raw onion. Quite amazing. But just as I was glancing skyward – a trick I perfected during blood tests to stave off the tears, because needles also make me cry – my phone rang. It was my German Mum, calling to say that she and my German Dad were coming  around to see me. What timing. What delightful timing.

Sitting in our tiny kitchen with tea and biscuits and my German parents, people who have loved and cared for me as if I am one of their own, was the final breakthrough. I am now through to the other side. I am knee deep in Christmas spirit. I am thrilled to be here. I am hand-rubbingly excited about spending Christmas with SG and his family. I may not be in Australia, I may be away from my beloved friends and family – people I will always miss – my Christmas may be devoid of Pa’s pavlova, Nana’s Christmas cake and the sheer noise of my extended family but that’s okay. Because my breakthroughs, however small and however saccharine, have delivered to me one simple conclusion; that I shouldn’t think of what I don’t have, but what I do. That it is better not just to miss those on the other side of the world, but to make room to appreciate the people I have here. Because, and this is the final and most lovely fact – I am lucky enough, so very lucky, to have two homes and all of the comfort, warmth and love they bring. And that will always make for a very Merry Christmas, wherever I happen to be.

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Progress

I think I am slowly getting the hang of this cold Christmas caper. I am not saying I’m converted, I’m just saying I can live with it. If I have to. After last year’s intensive course in European winters, I vowed I would never go through one again. And yet, hilariously, here I am. Every morning, as I trundle to work at 6.30am, in the pitch black, fresh, icy rain tightening my pores, I think to myself, ‘isn’t this an experience! Isn’t this fun! Isn’t it wonderful to see how Northern Hemispherers live! Aren’t you a lucky girl!’ These thoughts usually descend at around 9.15am, when a glance out the window reveals jack all has changed since 7am and it’s entirely possible the sun actually never rose at all. But I don’t let them descend too far. Instead, I veer off down the ‘isn’t this cosy! Isn’t this just like all those English rom coms you have seen over the years!’ path.  You may wonder why I didn’t employ such forced enthusiasm last year. This is because last year, when I trundled to work every morning in the pitch black at 7am, I was concentrating on not falling on my cheese-padded arse in front of everyone at the bus stop and when I wasn’t doing that, I was saying to myself, ‘this is shit, this is shit, this is shit.’

To be fair, this year has been a little kinder. Nature has backed off a little and allowed me and winter some breathing space. Some time to get to know each other a little better. It is mid-December and it has only ‘snowed’ twice and both times for 5 minutes. It hasn’t rained that much (for Germany’s Rain Capital) and most days have remained above 5 degrees. Some have even snuck up to 9. There isn’t any ice on the streets and the nights aren’t so cold one’s nose detaches from one’s face. All in all, this has been a bearable start to winter. Debbie Downers may, at this point, mention that winter hasn’t technically started, that it starts on December 21st. Whatever. The weather has dropped below 10 degrees and it’s pretty much dark by 4.30pm. That, by my standards, is winter. End of.

There are several coping mechanisms I have employed – apart from repeatedly ordering boots and jackets on H&M online – to retain my sanity, embrace this icy beast and see the positives in spending another 4 months wearing half my wardrobe at once. The main one is to pretend I am in a movie, namely one set in NYC or London. One in which the women wear amazing knitted hats from which tonged waves of hair protrude,  and cup mugs of coffee or cocoa whenever possible. One in which menacing grey skies and rain seem romantic and whimsical. I have also taken to you-tubing some classic Christmas carols and reminding myself, whilst lustily singing along, ‘you are experiencing what they’re talking about’ … as a child, the lyrics of White Christmas fell somewhat on deaf, sunburned ears. And then, of course, the final coping mechanism, the food. The sheer abundance of chocolates, cakes, biscuits, lollies and nuts; the raclett; the impending Christmas fondue. It helps, it always helps. As does the advent calendar hanging on my wall, which yields something delicious everyday.

Of course, this optimism will last up until the first true snowfall, at which point all I have been repressing will surface in a wild moment of likely reckless abandon. But, and this is important to remember, when all else fails, there’s always the gluhwein.

Bist du blind?

The other morning my flatmate and her boyfriend were in the kitchen laughing like drains. So much so, that I went in to see what was going on. Dildo pool as it turns out. The TV show they were watching was replaying a 90s game show that set up celebrities by asking them to partake in unusual games and challenges. One of those challenges was playing pool whilst wearing a dildo, with the dildo, obviously, as a cue.

Hold that image for a second and allow me to take you back to a cold, dark night a couple of weeks ago.

I was walking home from work and came to a one way street with a crossing at which the walking man was red. I looked both ways, despite it being a one way street – I am just a careful jay-walker – and noting that, short of walking on my hands across the street, I was going to make it across the 3 metre crossing at least 3 whole minutes before a car made it to me, I crossed.

On the other side, a man stared at me as if I was casually skinning a squirrel and, as I passed, hissed, ‘bist du blind?

I raged the whole way home. The whole way. Am I blind? No, you gnarled old fuckwit, I am not blind, but I’m not going to stand on the side of the road for 5 minutes in the freezing cold twiddling my ice-block thumbs whilst waiting for the green man, when there is genuinely no traffic in a 2 km radius. It is my decision to do something so daring as to nip across a 3m side street and I am making it with my eyes wide open. Bist du ein dickhead?

Clearly, when I barged in the front door at home, I had a meltdown and boomed at SG, ‘I am so sick of being disapproved of when I break a rule, what is wrong with you people?’

I’m not sure if I have mentioned it before, or if the above makes it clear, but Münsteranians (and I suspect, based on SG’s behaviour, many other Germans) don’t jaywalk.  Oh you will see the occasional daring citizen leg it across an empty street, but they will be judged. By God. Who has long been fattened and feted by the German church tax. For me, jaywalking is a logical action if the circumstances are fitting. I’m not saying I do some Sydney-style running at slow moving vehicles and then spring bokking across their path, but I do cross the road if there is no oncoming traffic and it is perfectly safe to do so.

Anyway. Hold the image of me raging and allow me to tell you this little tale.

A friend of mine the other day was pulled over by a policeman and fined for riding his bike on a cobbled street before 4pm. Think about that.

Sometimes, Germans are so relaxed, so laidback, so ‘leave-it-to-mature-decision-and-discretion, we’re-all-adults-here’, it’s quite marvellous. Sixteen year olds can buy beer and wine.  There’s the autobahn that, for large stretches, has no speed limit. On game shows, if the contestent is a nude lads mag’s model, then it is no problem to flash through her, seemingly, entire portfolio on screen, as she jogs into shot. On prime-time variety shows, it is no problem to prance about in a dirndl and moon visiting celebrities (Jessica Biels’s face was funny). On that same game show, it’s no problem to host genuinely insane stunts that can and have put people in wheelchairs.

This is the same country in which you can get fined for giving someone the rude finger whilst driving. Oh sure, slip on a pair of kangaroo boots and try and jump across some ungodly stretch of cars, in the name of Saturday night entertainment, but don’t give a driver the rude finger!

Sometimes, when they’re not getting naked, drinking beer and enjoying a game of dildo pool, they are such sticklers for the rules it makes me want to scream and start breaking every single one I can. I want to ride a bike on cobbled streets repeatedly for the entire hour of 3-4pm whilst giving everyone the rude finger and swearing in people’s faces (fineable offence as well, apparently) and then I want to just go and stand in the middle of a road, point to the red man and shriek ‘you did this to me Germany.’

The great thing is, I would probably receive the utmost psychiatric care. My compulsory insurance premium’s high enough.

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