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All Posts By Catherine Oughtibridge

Some books I finished reading in May

books

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

I travelled throughout May. This meant I was back to my ebook reader where I had started reading a wonderful series of short stories by Gabriel García Márquez some time before, and a series of short travel exploits* which happen to be the perfect size to fit between train stops.

Strange Pilgrims by Gabriel García Márquez

These stories were strange and all in their own way represented a search to satisfy some unsatisfiable need. In the prologue at the very beginning, García Márquez discusses the origin of the story collection.

“This has been a strange creative experience that should be explained, if only so that children who want to be writers when they grow up will know how insatiable and abrasive the writing habit can be.”

These twelve stories of South American travellers are not suitable for children, and I feel in this sentence, García Márquez isn’t speaking about young, half grown humans, but children as in the children of the craft. He’s talking about me.

Stories come into mind over time, and García Márquez seems to have collected them like how one sees grubby men collecting fag ends from beneath park benches. Compelled because it had become part of him. After accidentally losing his notebook, containing the key elements of the stories, he reconstructed those that remained strongest in his mind. The whole process took eighteen years, sixty-four stories became twelve, but he wrote the current result in ‘eight feverish months’.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan

Listened to the audiobook, borrowed from the library.

I am sadly susceptible to travel sickness. Not ideal for a traveller. Long coach journeys, bus rides and boats are my nemesis, for whilst on a train or plane I can quite comfortably read, but on these other forms of transport it proves icky. Audiobooks in the circumstances are a wonderful alternative.

The Silk Roads is non-fiction epic history. In its paper form, it’s a chunky book. In audio, it’s over 24 hours long. That’s some serious listening time. It’s also a huge amount of information. I liked it, because it provided a perspective on history that was different. It wasn’t that is wasn’t focused on the west (in parts it definitely was) but it gave an overall broader impression of the connected nature of the world, going from way back. It felt more complete than any understanding of world history that I’ve had prior to this.

Now I can’t remember most of the book, for which I’m blaming my ears. I’m every type of learner other than auditory. And in the bits I do remember, I’m not sure where they happened or who was involved. But I do recall thinking that I would have to, at some point, get a paper copy of this book and begin all over again. From what I do remember, it will be worth it.

My Life With Ewa by Tim Pratt

This is a love story between a young American boy, Tim, and a girl, Ewa, from communist Poland. It’s a story about visas, popes, speeding school buses, hitchhiking, love letters and a truly long-distance romance. It’s a delightful tale, in which tense arguments regarding guns at the border between east and west Berlin mix with the delightful account of the everyday. Moments like learning to queue, Polish style, or when your girlfriend’s mother asks how serious your intentions are towards her daughter.

But this story, candid and humorous, had a poignant twist for me. I borrowed my copy off Ewa’s bookshelf, in the room where I slept at night.

Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

I don’t care if you’re rolling your eyes you mathematical logical geniuses, I love this book. And I will keep on loving this book. I first read it seven years ago, borrowed from the Grump’s mother. This time I read the Mother’s copy, which I’d bought her, and which I’d lent to Jesse and then collected again on my detour through Germany. I read it laying on a bed in Poland, whilst hiding from having to speak to anyone.

Looking back, I’ve no idea why I liked it so much before. Back then my heart was whole and scratch-free. My Italian road trip hadn’t yet happened. I didn’t speak any Italian. I hadn’t taken up meditation properly. There was certainly no feeling smug when Gilbert explains the intensity and difficulty of Vipassana, as I’d never heard of it. Reading it again now, I must get so much more out of it. Reminds me there are other books I ought to re-read.

Gaining Visibility by Pamela Hearon

This book was a free gift from Kobo and everything you would expect from a terribly light romance set between America and Italy. I read it in a morning, whilst I was feeling exhausted and in need of casually sitting in a sunny park letting the world pass by. I wouldn’t particularly recommend it, but sometimes it’s nice to have something light and quick to munch.

 

Do you have any recommendations of short story collections ideal for the traveller?

*In part two…

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Germany: ein hund, ein cobra but no English

I’m not entirely sure how it came about as an arrangement. However, the deal was I’d write a blog post if Jesska took me to yoga.

Seeing that I was with Jesska, and that I was new, the super flexible soft spoken yoga teacher came over to say hello. Jesska introduced me as her friend from England

“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”

I know enough German to say ‘nein’, but in that moment, my brain failed.

There was a brief exchange of thoughts between Jesska and the teacher, before Jesska explained I should move mats so that I would have the best chance of seeing what was going on. Because yes, I’d agreed to do yoga in a language I do not speak.

Now I’d always thought of German as a harsh sounding language

However, in the mouth of the yoga teacher, it was soft. We laid down on our yoga mats to the sound of typical calming yoga music. Everything smelt of incense. Pretty soon I was feeling relaxed, and my pre-yoga nerves had dissipated. As I focused on what I was doing, it occurred to me that actually understanding what was being said didn’t matter so much. If I’d never done yoga before, I might have had some difficulties, but a downward ‘hund’ is a downward dog and a cobra is a cobra.

All I had to do was copy

In fact, sometimes I found myself ahead of the rest of the class as sometimes the verbal instruction followed the teacher’s movement.

It was all going well until she stopped demonstrating and started walking around the classroom. I’d focused on watching so intensely that I had completely failed to memorise the routine, so now I found myself having to copy the other students. Of course, all the students’ movements looked slightly different from one another.

As the teacher walked around she corrected our poses

I felt her hand on my back giving me some small prods and a gentle push here. Moving me into a better position. Then there was the additional helpful miming. She demonstrated ‘put your head on your folded arms’ with a purposeful stare in my direction.

Jesska says that occasionally she’s add a word in English. I missed these English prompts entirely. I had no idea the teacher had said them until Jesska asked if an up dog was the same as a downward dog in the car on the way home. No, but I appreciated the effort.

The surprise came right at the end of the session

We lay down, covered in our blankets, ready for the compulsory post yoga nap – chavasana – and closed our eyes. That’s when I heard the teacher putting on her hand-cream.

Odd time for moisturising your hands, I thought.

And then, suddenly, I found that the intense smell of this magic hand cream was making itself intimately acquainted with my head, neck and shoulders. I was being anointed.

Would you try a yoga class in a language you don’t speak?

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What the weather ‘should be’ according to The Mother

weather

The weather in Poland last week was everything from bright, burning sunshine, to torrential rain, to thick opaque fog.

There’s a little sun outside, enough to make the Crookes Radiometer twirl gently, but not enough to make it whizz.

“This is not right. It should be rain this afternoon. Light drizzle.” And with that final statement on the weather the Mother strides off down the corridor to go and consult her tablet, her computer or her phone on the matter.

It should not be that the weather forecast is wrong. But it is wrong and this bothers the Mother. I don’t mind, I contemplate a walk.

Yesterday it rained all day. When we sat down for lunch the Mother stated that she knew it would be rain all today and a miserable (weather wise) bank holiday Monday. Naively, for I should know better than to argue with the Mother about the weather, I asked how she’d known.

And of course this isn’t random guessing, this is the Mother. I have no doubt that the Mother is more knowledgeable about the weather than me. The weather is linked directly to the complex ordeal of the laundry, and the two of them, the weather and the laundry, are like ancient Greek gods in their eternal battle, with the Mother making impossible things happen in the midst of their chaos. Of course the Mother has understanding I don’t.

But when she replies, her answer makes no sense.

“I knew it would be a miserable day, because last week it was forecast to be glorious sunshine all weekend, right through to today.”

Now I wouldn’t be one to judge, but personally, I think there’s too much reliance on weather apps and not enough stepping outside, looking up at the sky, feeling the humidity on your face, and if you think it might perhaps rain, perhaps pocketing an umbrella.

You know, the old fashioned way.

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Like a comet that’s got lost somewhere in the Oort cloud

Flying home

That green you can see is Yorkshire.

Whilst, physically, I’m back in England, mentally I feel like a comet that’s got lost somewhere in the Oort cloud. I have a to-do list, which I started compiling a week ago. It gets longer and longer by the hour as I think of more and more things that, ideally, I ought not forget. This time, I’ve only been away just over a month, but it feels like longer. I’ve spent the last three weeks on buses and trains, living in different hotels and teaching English to teenagers, sofa salespeople, established lawyers and determined grandmothers. My 15.4kg suitcase and I have had quite the adventure travelling around Poland, and quite the education. The suitcase limped home, tyre-less and battered. I’m a little better off, but tired all the same.

When you’re travelling, you can just forget about all the stuff you left un-done back at home. Especially when your bed gets made for you, your towels laundered and your dinner served to your table, you can just focus on what you’re supposed to be doing. But now I’m home, and I have this to-do list of competing priorities. Important things, like voting, sit side by side with nice things, like sending a thank you for a little crocheted coaster one of my room mates made for me while we were away.

And I’ve made so many notes whilst I’ve been away. There’s a huge amount of consolidating of information and learning that I need to sit down and just do. I’ve got a fair few thank you notes to write too.

Loosening my grip on the end goal helps reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed. Having an end goal is crucial, but sometimes you need to stop staring at the horizon and work on what’s at your feet. What can I do without going anywhere, without any great plan, without thinking too much. Just do it. Bum on the chair and action. Often, when you’re overwhelmed, it doesn’t really matter what you do, only that you’re steadily making progress. Post travels, it’s more important to build momentum and get back into the habit of working.

Finally, to conquer this overwhelm that strikes me whenever I return, I know I have to let go of comparison. I’m me, not anybody else. Sure, other people might move faster, might recover quicker, might not care so much, might be better. But none of that really matters.

Small steady steps.

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Poland: Teaching non-native speakers business English

I went for a run this morning in the hotel grounds

We’re situated in the north-east of Poland, not so far from the border with Lithuania, by a beautiful lake. In the shade of the trees the air held a chill, but still the sun shone brightly, and soon I was sweating and glad I’d left my jacket back in my room.

We had breakfast. A buffet of cold meat, salad and bread. I had coffee and muesli, which oddly had chunks of chocolate in it. I’m not normally a chocolate at breakfast kind of girl, but neither am I a ham sandwich person.

Then I met up with my mentee

She’s working on a presentation which she’s going to be giving tomorrow on the salty snacks industry. I coached her for the hour. She’s nervous of course, but she knows what she’s talking about and she’s going to do just fine.

Then I found myself a mug of hot water with a few slices of lemon. I need to take care of my voice. And went outside with a lawyer who needed my assistance practicing negotiation. A lawyer who has taught lawyers, and who employs lawyers and who needed my help. We sat on a bench in the sunshine to discuss the situation. We covered potential problems of high unemployment, the challenges of persuading young people to stick around in a town with few job opportunities, and developed the arguments that he would need to negotiate with a farmer’s alliance for gain support for the building of a new supermarket which the farmer’s alliance were dead against.

At one, I took a break

A few of us hired bikes and went for a ride, picking up essentials from the village shop, like chocolate.

Then time for lunch: beetroot soup which, like cucumber soup, is apparently a very traditional meal, followed by roast chicken and buckwheat groats. With an accompanying conversation about jellyfish.

And now, with my tummy full, I have an hour or two of time to get on with my own work. Soon though, I must return to the conference room and begin a session on telephone conversation. With my wonderful accent this will be an excellent listening test for the people I’m coaching.

Teaching, coaching, mentoring, listening

This is how I’m spending my week in the sunshine and I am learning so much.

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