Tourist Info Desk

Welcome to Fernweh, a blog concerning the (mis)adventures of one Fulbrighter during a year spent in Europe teaching English.
If you'd like to know what's going on, please see the welcome message here.
If you're wondering what the book reviews are about, I direct your attention to the reading list/classic lit challenge here.
Thanks for stopping by. I look forward to hearing from you!

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Best City in the World

I really, really like London. Have you noticed yet?

But then, today was a good day. Not a spectacular day, just a good one, and you will find out why momentarily.

Yesterday was a walking day. I decided to go on the walking tour of London, which I've never done before, and since the meeting point was at Wellington Arch, just on the other side of Hyde Park, I decided to start my day with a nice stroll. I mean, how far can it be?

Hint: Hyde Park is REALLY BIG.

Because I was clever and left lots of time, though, I actually did have time to go slowly and enjoy the walk, although the pleasure was somewhat curtailed by the fact that it was really bloody cold. I smiled at swans, chuckled at coots, giggled at geese, and bought a map. (A pocket London A-Z, for any Sherlockians. Also, it said £3.99 on the back, but the guy gave me 30% off with no explanation whatsoever. Must be my feminine wiles.)

At the Arch, I met up with the gaggle of my fellow tourists and we all set off in a herd together to hear about London. Pretty much everywhere we went I'd already been--two or three times--but I learned a couple new things anyway. I learned, for instance, that some German guys once camped in the back garden of Buckingham Palace because they thought it was Hyde Park, and that a drunk Irishman (insert your own witticism here) once broke into the palace, thinking it was a hotel, and had a conversation with the Queen. (If you want to LOL a bit at the security guards, here's the Wikipedia page.) Also, it takes a crapton of money to get into and maintain membership in the Athenaeum Club on Pall Mall--if I remember correctly, there's something like a 15-year waiting list to get in, and you have to be recommended to get on the list and pay to stay there (something like £3,000 a year); it's like £15,000 to get in and then £5,000 a year in dues. Damn.

Our route took us to Trafalgar Square, with the leaping fountains sparkling in the sunlight (insert your own joke about sunshine in London here), past a whole bunch of English Civil War reenactors in plate armor with pikes (no joke), and to the Houses of Parliament, where the Clock Tower looked splendid in glittering gold as our guide explained to us, in careful detail, exactly what "hung, drawn, and quartered" means. Lovely.

A group of us then continued on after the official end of the tour to our guide's recommended restaurant for a late lunch. I ate my sausages, mash, and Yorkshire pudding quickly and headed into the wilds of Leicester Square to find a movie theater playing The King's Speech, which took some doing, but I managed it. I had some time until the showing, so I wandered a bit, said hello to Covent Garden, and bought dinner at M&S before returning to the movie theater cinema.

I'd heard good things about The King's Speech and I wasn't disappointed. It tells the story of King George VI, the current Queen's father, who was thrust suddenly into the kingship after his older brother abdicated to marry a twice-divorced American woman. (Those Americans, my goodness...) Poor King George had a stutter, though, a terror of public speaking (unsurprising), and no real desire to be king, if you can believe the movies. (Advice: don't.) Doctor after doctor had tried to help him to little or no effect, until his despairing wife finds an unconventional doctor who finally manages to do the King some good.

I realize that a movie about speech therapy probably doesn't sound like the best thing in the world, but it isn't really about speech therapy. It's about the lines that are drawn between royalty and commoner, even in the modern world, purely by virtue of birth. It's about the destiny that the then-future King George felt was inescapable, a role he didn't want but accepted anyway, even at the brink of war. It's about the personal courage of the King, a real person with real fears and real problems, and how he learns to make a friend.

Anyway, I'm sure much of it is dramatized, romanticized, and exaggerated, and not being a historian, I can't tell you how much. I can just tell you that if it's at all true, King George's personal courage was amazing, and watching him try to speak around his paralyzing stammer makes you writhe in sympathetic agony. If you get the chance to see it, I recommend it.

After that I went home, ate my dinner and went to bed, which brings us to today!

It took me longer than anticipated to get to the British Library today, because I was determined to take the bus and the bus was late. I did make it, finally, and got to see one of the things I'd been looking forward to this trip: the Evolving English exhibition, about English over the years. There were copies of Chaucer, and clips from My Fair Lady, and sound bytes from all over Britain, and a bookmark from oh-so-long-ago inscribed in Old English runes. It was lovely, and I spent far too much time there--just like last time. I'd been planning to go to the British Museum afterwards, but I was very hungry and rather museum'd out at that point, so I bought a book about British history and curled up in a Starbucks with a nice latte for a while. (No eye-rolling now; this is my first Starbucks since August!)

I bought a Big Issue and asked the seller for directions, and so took another bus to Waterloo Bridge. Walking on the South Bank is something of a tradition at this point, and the clear sky and setting sun made it all so lovely despite the cold. I even, after admiring Ben and the Eye for a while, went back to my Egyptian perch and sat between the Sphinx's paws until it got too cold to not be moving, at which point I came back here to have dinner and relax and watch Top Gear.

Now I've been typing for far too long and it's time for bed. Tomorrow I have to get up early-ish to take a shower and go get in line in the hopes of getting tickets for a musical, then Stephen arrives! Yay!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Welcome to London

Ahh, London. Hello again, my darling. I've missed you.

I can't explain what I love so much about London. It's a huge, busy, noisy city, unbelievably vast and completely apathetic. And yet, somehow coming here feels a little bit like coming home.

To my complete lack of surprise, I was drawn to the City and the South Bank--this summer's old stomping grounds--as soon as I dumped off my stuff at my hostel. It was full dark by the time I accomplished this, although still fairly early; the overcast sky was that curious shade of muddy purplish-orangish-grey that all city skies seem to have in common. I emerged from the familiar St Paul's Tube stop to behold the monolithic white edifice towering impassively, unchanged by my six months' absence, over the scuttling lines of traffic at its feet. I turned my feet toward the river, occasionally looking back to see the majestic dome rising over the dark shapes of its lesser neighbors, which stared at its gleaming pillars with unblinkingly envious yellow-green eyes.

Over the Millenium Bridge I went, now huddling into my coat against the cold instead of sweltering in the summer heat. As usual, the Thames was flowing serenely by, illuminated by the glow of the still-bustling city. To my left, the round tip of the Gherkin poked up among the more conventionally-shaped buildings, and off in the distance to my right, around the bend in the river, I could catch a glimpse of a curved row of blue lights high in the air: surely the London Eye. At the other end of the bridge, instead of turning my steps to the Globe, I headed towards an enormous but singularly unattractive square brick structure sporting a high tower: a former power house, now the Tate Modern.

Why the Tate Modern? Well, RFS recommends it, for starters. I'd wanted to go in the summer but hadn't got around to it. Also, on Saturdays it's open till 10pm, and it was already past dinnertime.

This is how I found myself standing in an enormous industrial building, looking at art displays that...well. It's modern art. What did you expect?

Perhaps most face-palmingly painful was the feature exhibit, entitled "Sunflower Seeds", which was an entire section of the bottom floor covered about half a foot deep in sunflower seeds. No patterns, no special designs, just millions of sunflower seeds. But wait, it's better--they're not real seeds, but fake. Not just fake: handmade, individually painted ceramic sunflower seeds. Millions of them.

It's supposed to represent something about the nature of uniqueness, and something about China (it was a Chinese artist who "made" them, although from the video they showed, it seemed that he kind of supervised and got a village to do all the actual work for him), and something about mass-production and the human soul. Or something. Mostly my reaction was in three stages:
1. "Is that just a really ugly carpet that everyone's looking at?"
2. "Holy shit that's a lot of fake sunflower seeds. Bet that took a while."
3. "Why do no modern artists ever do anything useful or constructive with their time?"

Pretty much the whole museum was like that for me. The amusing bit was the three-step process of incredulity and hilarity upon seeing the "artwork" for the first time, utter bafflement and confusion upon reading/hearing the entirely over-exaggerated analysis of its deep inner meaning and bold confrontation of the concepts of space, or sexuality, or time, or whatever, and then the absurdity that leaves you no choice but to walk away shaking your head. Highlights of WTF:
  • A giant American three-way plug made out of mahogany, hanging from the ceiling (and I do mean giant), which was supposed to challenge the inherent eroticism of everyday objects (?!?!)
  • A small, spindly tree carved out of a beam of wood, to find the younger tree within
  • A large piece of white cloth curved around a glass beaker, with no explanation
  • A piece of white octagonal paper glued to the wall, to challenge our conception of space and what makes a painting
  • A video of a naked woman dousing herself in blood and then rolling around in feathers
  • And a whole bunch of framed, honest-to-goodness museum pictures that "boldly experiment with shape and color" that all looked to me like various arrangements of blocks and lines painted by fifth graders.
Although my favorite bit was about a painter with a genuinely interesting painting (this one, if you're interested), featuring a rather creepy girl in a shadow-filled room; you don't notice until a second too late that she doesn't have eyes. Anyway, the funny bit was in the audioguide, which said that this Bonnard guy (he was French) would carry paints with him, and whenever he mixed a color he particularly liked or just came across one of his canvasses and decided he didn't like it the way it was, he'd just whip out his box o' colors and change stuff. Apparently, he once got a friend to distract a guard at a museum (no info on how, but I assume it involved cross-dressing or something) so that he could sneak in and change his own painting.

Anyway, having used up a week's worth of WTF?!?!, I staggered wearily back to the hostel where I now sit. The plan is to relax somewhat tomorrow, since this is, after all, my vacation, and then visit the British Library and British Museum on Monday. On Tuesday, I get to see Stephen and hang out with him for a couple days, then I'm flying off back to Germany to hang in Hamburg.

P.S. I'm surprised to find that this is the first time I've used the label "WTF". I feel like that should've happened already. Oh well.

Friday, January 28, 2011

England again

Well, I should be asleep now, but I'm strangely wide awake, so I thought I'd drop a line. Tomorrow morning I leave for England. I'll be in London for another five days, doing fun things like meeting up with my friend Stephen, and then I'll be back to Germany, but in Hamburg. I've heard lots of good things about Hamburg, so I'm looking forward to seeing it for myself.

The Fasching party with the students went very well. For those who don't know, Fasching is like the German Mardi Gras; everyone gets dressed up in silly costumes (like Halloween) and drinks copious amounts of alcohol (like every day). As you may remember, I was enlisted to sing a bit for the evening's program, so I'd been practicing with the student playing the guitar. I had no classes the day of the party, so I had the whole morning and most of the afternoon to sit around trembling and being nervous.

Turns out, the whole thing went pretty well. I messed up a couple times, but just little warbles--I didn't forget the words or start singing at the wrong time, thank goodness. And since then lots of people, teachers and students, have said that they enjoyed it. So, altogether, I'm pleased.

After the program, there was of course drinking and dancing; I didn't do too much of either. There was beer spilled all over the dance floor, and in combination with the polished stone tiles and my near-treadless Converse, it was a broken femur waiting to happen. About midnight I decided to head home, and got stuck outside the door talking to the smokers huddling together in the cold. This, it turns out, is where I should have headed in the first place, since there was enough quiet to hear and enough good spirits to have lively conversations--if not quite enough fresh air to breathe! It was another hour and a half before I finally made it back to go to sleep.

Now all the students are gone and the whole building--the whole town, really--is deathly quiet. I'll be glad to get on a plane tomorrow and find myself again in a big city. I can't really explain what it is that attracts me so strongly to London. When I'm there, I feel small and lost, but there's still something beautiful and awe-inspiring about the city itself. I don't know, I can't explain it, and it's probably just romantic notions from watching too much BBC programming. But anyway, I'm looking forward to being in the land of the Angles again.

Oh, and I didn't hear back about the Top Gear tickets, which means I didn't get them. Oh well--I've already put myself on the reserve list for this summer. Fingers crossed!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Recent Things That Have Happened To Me

So, last time I totally forgot to wish y'all a happy new year. I was a bit angry at the time, sorry. So: Happy new year! There.

Well, let's see. I started writing a summary of my holidays, so you could have an idea of what I did for Christmas and everything, mostly because it was all fun and cultural-y and stuff, and I want to remember it. That got stalled, so it's still the half-finished-draft stage, along with Sevilla and Tarifa and Morocco and stuff. Sorry about that.

Anyway, the last week or so has been a bit rough. Not because anything in particular has gone wrong, I've just been feeling down--a bit homesick, a bit listless. I think this is partly because I either have already passed, or am about to pass, my personal record for Longest Time Away From Home. Last time was, of course, Marburg, but that was only from mid-September to the beginning of March, so...six and half months-ish. I arrived in London on the 25th of June last year, which puts me at seven months on next Tuesday. And there's still a long way to go. I don't have any idea when I'll be home again, or, for that matter, where home is.

Anyway. I'm listening right now to a song "borrowed" from YouTube because the students have convinced me to sing some songs at their Fasching celebration next week. I don't actually know the music that my guitar accompaniment can play, so I'm learning it now! In fact, I need to go catch the bus to get back to the station to get back to Stadtroda so I can practice this stuff. I'll be back.

Hi, I'm back. I missed the bus and the train each by about 30 seconds, so I had to watch my train drive off into the darkness and then wait another hour until the next one, at 21:22. I hadn't eaten any dinner, either, so I was not a hppy camper. Oh well.

There are assorting things to tell you...let's see.

Last week was the full-year students' last, which was very sad because they're my favorites. On Thursday last week, we went out to Japanese food and then went to see a movie in Gera. We were going to see Narnia, but ended up in Green Hornet instead. Personally, I didn't like Green Hornet at all, partly because Seth Rogen is, by all accounts, an obnoxious jackass, and because there was an awful lot of shouting and slang in German that I didn't understand. My brain almost exploded.

On Friday they moved out, leaving behind addresses and promises to write. I haven't heard from any of them yet.

Last weekend was somewhat better. On Saturday evening, Bethany and I traveled to Ilmenau and went to see Rapunzel for the second time with Victoria. This is absolutely a brilliant movie. It is sweet and adorable and sarcastic and I love it. It is especially amusing in German, which once again makes me lift my fists to the heavens and curse regional DVD coding that means I will never be able to buy a German-language copy that will work with my computer!

On the following Sunday, a bunch of the other Thüringen TAs came to visit Ilmenau, and we all went for a hike together. Luckily, it was a sunny day, if a bit crisp--but hey, y'know, it's January. We hiked up to the Kickelhahn, a huge tower thing with lovely views down to red-roofed Ilmenau and the rolling, mist-covered hills of the Thuringer Wald. The first part of the hike wasn't very difficult, but about halfway up, we hit all the unmelted snow, and it was quite a slog from there. In some places, the trail was barely discernible, and we were clambering over fallen trees and wending through soundless forests. Being the warmhearted team player that I am, I pushed on ahead and made it to the top 17 minutes before the next people before me and felt quite pleased with myself. At the top, we tried to have a picnic but mostly shivered in the cold wind, at which point we opted to go into the restaurant up there for warm drinks before taking an easier way down.

Oops, it's Sunday now. I keep getting distracted! I've just been working on correcting some practice papers from one of my classes. They're working on giving directions, so I asked them to write some directions using a map I gave them so I could correct them and see how they're doing. Some highlights:

"The pub is on the left-hand side. I go inside trink a beer and go out. I turn right..."

"At the end of the street I'll find the hotel. My next station is the Hot Dog Stand because I am hungry and the eat from the Hotel is bad. So I go out of the Hotel..."

I also got to work with dem Wöhlbierchen (my mentor teacher's daughter) with more Japanese today. Have I mentioned that we're doing Japanese together? Well, we are. The sweet girl is a big anime/manga fan and wants to go to Japan someday, so we meet once a week to learn hiragana and other fun stuff. It's quite fun and good for both of us; she gets to learn some Japanese, and I get to talk about grammar, drink coffee, and practice speaking German. She's a friendly girl and a quick learner, so it's great fun to work with her--when I can remember enough of my atrophied Japanese to teach her something useful!

One hilarious event that I forgot to relate: I've been meeting with a student to practice our songs for Fasching (which is this Wednesday...augh, I get nervous just thinking about it!). I'd just come in and still had my coat on; his roommate was just leaving to go drink some beer in the TV room. This student, the guitar guy, is a very friendly guy who often speaks to me in English while we work on the music. Anyway, just as I'm getting settled and his roommate is leaving, he glances at me and says, "You can take your clothes off."

It took me a split second to go through surprise, bewilderment, and then realization (he meant, of course, "coat" and simply grabbed the wrong word). This would've been a nonissue if his roommate, who speaks fairly good English, had not heard him and burst out laughing. I started laughing too, at which point the poor guy realized what he'd said and bolted for the door to shout "THAT'S NOT WHAT I MEANT TO SAY!!!!" down the hallway after his cackling roommate. I later related the incident to Frau Wöhlbier, who then hinted about it to him in class. Facepalm. Although it still makes me giggle, thinking about it. Of all the times to mix up those two words...

Well, anyway, the job search goes on. Turns out that it's a serious disadvantage--more serious than I'd anticipated--to not be an EU national during a search for an English teaching job in Europe. I can't figure out if this is a legal visa/work permit thing, or just a euphemistic way of informing everyone that they don't want any non-British-dialect speakers intruding in their schools. Either way, it's irritating. I found one job posting that was exactly what I'd like to do--except it's run by Cambridge schools, and non-EU national need not apply.

Option B is grad school. I looked through the Edinburgh application today and discovered that I'd need to write a research proposal. Now, this is not going to happen anytime soon, because I'll have to do quite a bit more research into the areas that I'm interested in to figure out what kind of project I'd want to work on. Library, here I come. On the good side, there are no real application deadlines, so I can apply whenever I figure out what the hell I want to do for the next few years of my life.

Finally, I discovered this song on my iPod today. I have several CDs loaded on there that I've never listened to all the way through, and I found this one while walking home. It seems to encapsulate a lot of how I've been feeling recently.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Continuing Saga of the Drunken Idiots

So, here's the next installment in the ongoing saga of drunkenness and pillockry (I made that word up. World, you're welcome) in the Stadtroda Fachschule dorms.

Yesterday we had another instance of middle-of-the-night banging on the common wall between my room and the TV room, but luckily only once and while I was still awake. Far worse was what the Hauswirtschaft students reported from the first floor...

Hearing the ruckus out the hallways, they had decided to stay in their rooms, which is generally a wise idea. However, at some point, some of the drunks got the idea to tie a thick piece of cord from one doorknob to the other across the hallway. Since the doors are directly across from each other and open inwards, this effectively locks the doors shut so they can't be opened from either room.

As far as I can tell, there wasn't too much trouble about it; another of the Hauswirtschaft students noticed the cord and cut it. Just think, though, the special kind of stupidity/besoffenness that it would take to think this is in any way funny or okay. What if there was a fire, in the room or out--and with all the cigarette smoking that goes on, that is not an idle concern--or one of the students had a burst appendix or other medical emergency?

The problem here is that there is absolutely no supervision or accountability for the residents after about 4pm, when the dorm manager goes home. Sure, there's a ban on smoking indoors, and a quiet rule after 10 pm, but it's completely unenforced, and is therefore completely ignored. In the classroom, the teachers have no power to control or punish the students, so they talk, text, or read magazines in class or talk loudly to each other, and all the teacher can do is ask them to please stop. If they don't, there's no way to enforce the school's authority. The students are simply told and expected to act like adults, apparently purely on blind faith, and when they act like spoiled children instead, oh well.

This is only part of the reason that I am not going to apply for a second year with the program. It is possible to request a second year, and that would definitely fix the what-am-I-doing-with-my-life question, as least temporarily. But I would either have to opt to stay here, in Stadtroda, or risk the lottery of schools out there. After all the freedom and responsibility that my mentor teacher has entrusted me with, I wouldn't want to risk being stuffed back into a smaller capacity.

More than that, though...I am way past the point of being an assistant. I volunteered and did a practicum in EFL classes for four years, and at the end of this year, I will have had a full year as an assistant to plan, observe, and learn. If I'm not ready at the end of this year to teach on my own, I never will be. And why should I continue to be an assistant if I don't need it, when there are lots of bright, talented, optimistic young Fulbright applicants who will be waiting in agony for that letter to come with good news? My claim on this place is weaker than theirs, and I'd rather they take it, whoever that might be.

And finally, I don't want to stay here. Stadtroda is too quiet and deserted for me; I really don't enjoy living in the dorm (as you may have suspicioned); and I don't feel like my presence here is making any difference. I'm just the latest in a long line of assistants, none of whom, as far as I can see, have succeeded in inspiring their students to strive. Like I said, there are lots of applicants vying for this place; let them have it, and I'll go somewhere where I'm needed.

I'm trying not to sound petulant, and I'm not really succeeding, so sorry about that. I am perhaps a little bit resentful. But besides that, much more importantly, I want to work doing something that no one else can do; I want to work with people who want and need to learn. I want to make a better life possible for people who would not have the opportunity otherwise. I've been considering trying to find a charity to work with; I'm especially interested in the victims of human trafficking and slavery who are rescued and then need to be educated so they can make their own way in freedom. I'll let you know if anything comes of that.

In the meantime, the guitar and the bed call, followed inevitably by the warbling of the alarm clock bright and early tomorrow. Tschüß!