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Unravelling the story I'm trying to tell

Lessons from a not-so-little mermaid (why being a teenager sucks)

The Little Mermaid and I walk to the library to collect some pre-ordered books on the history of fashion. It’s bright sunshine, and I’m happy in my skirt and strap top, but she’s wishing that she’d worn something other than jeans. One of us has been lounging out in the garden and knows what the weather is doing today.

We pass the tennis court, where younger children are batting balls across the net, and flying paper planes. We talk, or rather she tells and I prompt and somehow despite working around the age gap and that weird sense of being family so knowing each other (and in odd ways being rather similar) whilst knowing nothing of each other we manage to get along.

She’s surviving the summer holiday; I’m having an education.

It strikes me that I assume all teenagers are teenagers like I remember from school. In my mind, they’re bigger. Furthermore, I assume schools are pretty much all the same – they’re not. The Little Mermaid has a locker and is encouraged to take a photograph of her homework assignments with her smartphone. I try and explain to her a Nokia 3310. She’s amazed at the idea of a phone without colour. It appears I’ve become one of those old people who grew up without modern technology.

I try and explain that we could do more than text. We had MSN messenger (the easiest way to put a virus on the computer). Surprisingly, she’s heard of MSN. It makes an amusing line in a very old French textbook. I learn a new word – télécharger (to download) – is how French textbook characters acquire music. The Little Mermaid is worried about the character’s ethics.

She’s also worried about me walking out in front of a car. She’s got that whole ‘stop, look, listen, live’ thing memorised whereas I’m still trying to shake of the influence of Cairo. That said, when she moves, she strides with purpose. I’m the one having to speed up to keep up.

Yesterday we visited an art gallery and saw some Wedgewood pots, some pre-Raphaelite paintings and some Japanese prints. She liked the painting of a goat and another in which a young woman was begging a soldier not to go to war. I liked one where an almond tree turns into a woman vexed with the inattention of her beloved. The young man looks quite taken aback by the ordeal.

I learn that being a teenager is hard work. Wearing the right clothes matters. As does having the right (read bountifully liked) social media. The most important thing is not to be trying too hard to be someone else. You must be authentically you AND on trend. There’s peer pressure, but also pressure from an abundance of very young celebrities. These are people achieving stuff right now. Or at least, having their picture taken lots.

My mind thinks of Einstein’s achievements at my age, and I say nothing.

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I know nothing about Romania

That is, I didn’t know anything until an hour ago, when I spoke with a lady I’ll be staying with while I’m there and had my first impromptu lesson in Romanian. I didn’t know that Romanian was a Latin-based language. Eu sunt din Anglia. So learning that it is made me smile. I might sometimes struggle to differentiate between my romance languages, but I can give their words a better guess than any slavic language.

Apparently, Prince Charles is a big fan of Transylvania. They have bears and some of the last true wilderness of Europe. And from my chat with my host, I get the feeling that I might be learning about folk music and dancing. Two weeks is not going to be enough, but it’s what I’ve got.

When you have an initial conversation with a host they have lots of questions. They’re doing a risk assessment (as are you). You both want to know that the other person is willing to be generous with their time and interest and isn’t going to cause you any trouble. When I travel somewhere, I want to stay with people who have a desire to share their lives with me. People who are willing to tell me about their opinions and experiences.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about where we get our ideas of ‘should’ and ‘ought’ from. We inherit our norms from our parents and the culture we ourselves live in. My logic therefor goes that unless we experience other cultures and ideas to compare our own norms with, we’re accepting our own blindly.

This cultural difference can exist even between neighbours. Consider how your family goes about having dinner on a Sunday. For much of the world, Sunday is just another working day. For some, like my host family in France, Sunday is special, defined by a mid-morning mass, followed to a trip to the bakery for treats. The children drink watered down wine.

I love witnessing this variety. The knowledge of how other people live their lives gives me a freedom, a choice of how to live my own.

Now to add a welcoming Romanian family to the mix who have recommended the following documentary:

 

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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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“She doesn’t binge.”

 

I step into the living room where the Blacksmith and the Midget are watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m red faced, you can probably hear my breathing from the sofa, and I’m wearing running shorts and a top I was kindly given after running 10km a few years ago.

“How far did you get?” the Blacksmith asks.

“5.8.”

There’s a moment of thought, and then he beams and starts excitedly saying how I’m getting to a good bit. I’m thinking 5.8km isn’t that impressive, especially since he knows how long I’ve been out since he passed me in the car as I was running up the hill. I look at the Midget.

My sister, always the chemist, corrects my absent units by clarifying that the Blacksmith is talking about seasons and episodes and I’m talking about kilometres.

“Oh, Buffy? I’m still on the second season.”

The Blacksmith looks surprised, confused and disappointed.

Despondently, the Midget explains: “She doesn’t binge.”

It comes across in a tone that suggests that there’s something alien about me, something terribly dysfunctional about me. The Blacksmith looks at me and back at the Midget as if wondering if the two of us are related.

“No, I don’t,” I say, contemplating that there was that one time when the Midget and I watched four episodes of Star Trek back to back… And still feeling guilty.

 

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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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