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Why I prioritise learning to listen

Poland, Teaching English

Stepping out of normal life, to be somewhere remote and just listen. It can be kind of special.

The Grandmother asked why would I want to go to Romania, a country I know nothing of, and do nothing for a week but converse with people who want to learn my language.

It’s hard to explain because it doesn’t tick the typical list of priorities that people have for their lives. I get a qualification, yes, but that’s kind of just a bonus. It’s not going to lead to a career, I love teaching English occasionally, but my ambition isn’t to be an English teacher.

It’s not just me though. In Poland, the woman I shared a room with had flown there from Canada. Not a girl in her twenties, a woman with a house and grown children. She wasn’t paid, she didn’t get an exchange of a qualification. She just wanted to spend her time listening to these people who were in the process of trying to change their lives.

Which is what I enjoy about it.

Some of the participants in Poland were people whose work had paid for their place and encouraged them to partake but a significant proportion had paid for themselves. Public speaking is terrifying to most people anyway, and speaking a foreign language which you know you’re not fluent in to a group of strangers takes some incredible nerve. At the end of the week every participant gives a presentation in English. You don’t turn up for a week of English immersion just because your boss thought it was a good idea. You can’t learn a language if you aren’t willing to commit to it. It takes guts.

There are many reasons people want to learn English, that as a native English speaker we take for granted. International business demands it. Travel is easier with it. Sales wants it. Machine manuals and health and safety documentation are written in it. There was a determination from those fed up of struggling through meetings in English, or having to have information translated.These were people who wanted to make change happen. If you speak English, you can have more influence.

One woman I met worked in a Polish only role in the lower levels of a big international company. When the chief executive gave speeches and talked about the company in English, she wanted to understand. She wanted to know what was going on. She cared.

Another oversaw implementing the health and safety requirements from a non-Polish parent company, and wanted to improve her English because she needed to convey Polish law and Polish health and safety requirements to the parent company in a manner which they could understand. Somehow she was going to make them listen.

And what about a grandmother learning to speak her grandchildren’s first language.

Or an office-worker who wanted to travel.

Or, one of my favourites, a woman training to be a coach. As the best textbooks on coaching are predominantly in English decided that she was going to learn to read them.

It’s an odd combination. You spend all day, everyday listening and talking. People open up.

Complete strangers sit and talk authentically and freely about anything on their mind: crumbling relationships, aspirations for their businesses, family, depression, death, neighbours, improvisational theatre, teenage drinking, moving to a foreign country, or the ordeal of having their son’s girlfriend to visit for the first time.

You learn more about a persons hopes and dreams in one week than you learn about many people you see regularly over years.

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A Polish bedtime story

I sit across the table from an older Polish man. He’s one of those people who stands out. There’s something beautifully genuine about him, but there’s also something unsettling in his haphazard coordination, jolting manner, frequent bursts of loud speech and the terrifying sincerity about his message. He’s one of those people who exhibit an odd unpredictability. He’s not quite aware of how he’s being interpreted, and is hurt easily because he doesn’t quite understand why people react the way they do. He’s difficult to converse with. If he started talking to you on the train, you’d feel uneasy.

He tells me about his life being full of sharp ups and downs, and he recommends the books and authors who gave him something to believe in when he wasn’t sure that he had anything at all. I listen, take notes and ask questions. Occasionally I correct his English.

And he shows me this video:

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Poland in the fog (near Zakopane and the Tatra Mountains)

Thursday afternoon and a free hour. My camera’s neglected, tucked amongst my belongings, under timetables, notebooks and scenario guides. I’m teaching English, constantly conversing and I’m exhausted. I’m scared because in only a few days I’ll be going home, and I have many things waiting for me when I get back which threaten to overwhelm me.

I contemplate sleep or reading. There’s a swimming pool downstairs, but I’ve only an hour.

Instead I pick up my camera and walk along the road to the church. Normally you can see the church from my bedroom window, but the fog here is too thick to see anything. Outside I follow the road. It’s straight and I can’t get lost. I watch for cars with a certain terror – ready to dive into the field should one come along because I know they’ll hit me before they see me.

The fog makes it impossible to focus. It’s not just the camera, but my eyes which relax then contract again and again, quite unhappily. I’m working hard just to see, struggling although I know resolving the far off streetlight or stone wall is impossible.

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The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee

Sicilian lemon grove

Lemon trees in Sicily. Many of the traditional lemon groves are abandoned because maintaining them is labour intensive.

Next time I pass through Savona, I need to stop and find myself a candied chinotti. It’s a type of citrus fruit used in the perfume industry and candied in panettone.

I told a friend that I was reading a book about the history and farming of citrus fruits in Italy. He laughed. But the more you see a land, the more you want to understand it. It helps that the book flows with a personal narrative and delighting anecdotes.

Perhaps I enjoyed the book more because I’ve eaten Amalfi lemons, lived a few weeks on the outskirts of Palermo and wandered lost, in the rain, through abandoned lemon groves. Perhaps it helps to have drunk homemade limoncello.

Surely it helps that I know what a citron is. When I was in Sicily last winter, I ate a slice of one. This beast is somewhere between a lemon and a rugby ball. Its skin isn’t smooth. You can’t find it in our supermarkets, and its juicy centre is pitifully small. Imagine the earth, with its small core, thick mantle and rough crust. The segments are the core, the pith is the mantle and the yellow surface rough with character. The juice is incredibly sharp. You eat it, and the thick white pith, with salt.

Before visiting Sicily, I’d never heard of this fruit. Along with the mandarin and the pomelo it’s one of the oldest citrus. The rest of the citrus family (which is much more extensive than just oranges, lemons and limes) is descended from these fruits.

I made lemon sorbet yesterday afternoon.

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Other books I finished reading in May

books

They say never judge a book by its cover, but I have to disagree.

Better Than Fiction: True Travel Tales from Great Fiction Writers edited by Don George

Much of the time, I’m oblivious as to why I travel. I know when I’m exploring a new place, being introduced to someone new and then having that incredible conversation where they open up and surprise you with their insight, I get a kick. I also know that I’m drawn to the sea, the mountains, forests and early morning sunrises across distant horizons which make the worship of the sun seem common sense. Sometimes, when I’m alone especially, the world feels like it’s trying to show me something more than my little human brain can comprehend.

“And I’ve begun to understand the purpose of travel; a few days of seeing the world in a different way gives us the confidence to face whatever waits for us at home. Even Mountains.”

Aliya Whiteley, An Alpine Escape

And yet travel is a lonely business. It’s often a quest to find that supposed ‘self-love’, happiness to be oneself and take comfort within that identity. Sometimes it’s a quest to define oneself, by comparing oneself to what one is not. Whatever the quest, it’s a quest that in the urgency of routine seems impossible. It requires a fresh perspective.

“Looking back, I think my trip to India was in part an attempt to cleanse myself of the need for her, to find an alternative route to peace or else a definitive reason to give up the search. This was a tall order, and it didn’t work, thank God – that woman is now my wife.”

Stephen Kelman, Mumbai: Before the Monsoon

The magic of travelling perhaps is a mixture of recognising oneself, the sacredness of the world, and what it means to belong.

And in those quiet moments of sunshine on park benches, reading how other people tackle the same mental agility course as I do is somewhat therapeutic. Hearing their stories of the wondrous and the exotic reminds me of the value of my own.

Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection by John T. Cacioppo

Reading this book lead to a fascinating conversation with a couple of fellow nomads about the difficulties in balancing the need for connection with the traveller’s urge for novelty.

“When we feel socially connected, as most of us feel most of the time, we tend to attribute success to our own actions and failures to luck. When we feel socially isolated and depressed, we tend to reverse this useful illusion and turn even small errors into catastrophes – at least in own minds.”

Perhaps everyone struggles with loneliness, but perhaps with travellers, it’s an expected condition. The isolation of being the only person like you, who knows you, who has felt for you, is one that a traveller should expect. You’re an alien walking amongst a tribe. You do not fit. You are a novelty. You do not belong. You are special and wondrous, but you cannot be understood.

And the more I think about it, the more I feel that the antidote to loneliness is being seen. Many conversations through instant messengers, or cheerful exchanges amongst strangers can’t do more that act as a distraction. Sometimes you need to be seen as you are. You need someone to be willing to look.

Sometimes, with travelling, you find the odd stranger who does look. I had coffee with a young man in Poland who used the silence between sentences to listen and see. He let there be space, a crack that allowed the light to get in.* Then there was a conversation I had with a woman who saw my fingers twiddling with my necklace, leant forward and asked what it meant to me. I hadn’t known the answer until I told her. In these moments, there’s a real connection.

But it can never compare to the level of connection that comes from someone who really knows you, knows you at your very best and at your very worst, accepts them both and is willing to know more. And that’s precious.

 

 

*The Leonard Cohen obsession continues.

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Poland: Navigating the public transport of Poznań

Poznań terrace houses

On Wednesday, when I took my camera, it wasn’t quite so sunny.

For me, it’s a bit of an awkward moment. You walk into a café past the seating that’s out in the sun on the main square of a quiet town at lunch time on a Tuesday morning, and ask to be directed to a toilet. The cafe is otherwise empty, and the waitress gives you an odd look. You promise what you really want is a coffee.

It’s not like I’m desperate or anything, it’s more a matter of security.  As a lone traveller who knows nobody in this foreign city, I have nobody who’s going to look after my bag for the duration of my expedition to the bathroom (where I find I don’t know the words for ‘men’ and ‘women’ in Polish). I don’t want to order a coffee and the waitress deliver it to an empty table. Who wants cold coffee? There’s a whole problem of not feeling comfortable leaving your handbag unguarded beneath the square table. I don’t even have a cheap coat or jacket which could prove this place is my space.

It’s a common inconvenience of being a solo traveller

In the sunshine, the old market square (Stary Rynek) in the centre of the old town of Poznań looks picture book worthy. Although the old town isn’t in the position of the oldest part of the town – that was on the little island close by where the Cathedral now stands – it’s here you find the old terrace houses, many of which are painted beautiful colours that remind me of a more subdued, elegant version of Cork, Ireland. Many of these terraces have become cafés.

I chose a cappuccino

Hoping nobody was staring at me, wondering what I was up to, I swallowed my little white lactase tablet. I know I shouldn’t be drinking a milky coffee. It’s the first one I’ve drunk in months. Worse still, I’m disappointed with the surplus foam, too much milk and there’s no chocolate sprinkled on the top. I’m no longer sure why I used to love these drinks so much in my pre-lactose intolerant days, or why they used to give me so much comfort. This choice is a symptom of the stress of the previous few weeks. I’m behaving irrationally.

And particularly the stress of the morning I’ve just had.

I’m staying with a wonderful woman, in the outskirts of the city, who, unfortunately, had no idea of how to use the local public transport. She is very much a car driver. Since I have no car I headed out, wandered through the housing estate where the houses stood proudly amongst their gardens (yes, gardens), past the yappy dogs and located the nearest bus stop. I’m not a fan of buses.

Getting a ticket was complicated

A kind Polish woman who spoke lovely English explained that there was no possibility of buying a ticket on the bus. However, she named the street and the newsagents where I could buy a ticket. Back ten minutes walk in the direction I’d just come.

The women working in the newsagents were gossiping

When I walked in, with my ‘I’ve got no idea what I’m doing but I’m happy to meet you’ expression. It’s been my experience that strangers in Poland do not pass in the street with a chirpy exchange of ‘morning’. They keep themselves to themselves. They do not exchange eye contact. A lovely Russian Theology graduate later warned that this is even more severe in Russia. To smile on public transport in Russia is as to walk around with a large billboard declaring yourself a fool.

I am a smiling fool. I did however manage to buy a ticket, thank the ladies, in Polish, and begin the trek back to the bus stop. The ticket was not, however, enough to cover me for an entire journey. The newsagents didn’t sell complete tickets, they only sold ten minute tickets. The sort of ticket that allow you to get on a bus and traverse to the nearest real, automatic, credit card accepting ticket machine. I said it was complicated.

I discovered the ticket machine

At the end of the bus route, where you change from bus to tram to get into Poznań centre I wandered around lost for a while and only came upon the ticket machine just as I was thinking of giving up and walking. I purchased a ticket that would last me for 72 hours and cover both the buses and the trams, but was cheaper than a day saver at home. Then, relying on luck, I climbed on a tram, assuming there was a good chance that all the trams went somewhere via the city centre. It was the number two tram.

Between the GPS on my phone, and my intuition of following the crowd, I hopped off the bus at what proved to be a convenient location. After gaining my bearings, I strolled down the cobbled streets towards the square, to find my coffee.

And so I ordered a cappuccino, and then wished I hadn’t.

 

Poznań terrace houses

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