I don’t speak German

The first thing I realized when I landed in Pristina was that the wikitravel page had not lied to me, there was in fact no bus from the airport to the city center, or at least not one I could find. I had wandered around for a while out of pure stinginess, turning down the taxi drivers who stood at the arrivals hall. Eventually I accepted the truth and when the next man approached me, I asked the price. He responded in German and although I was fairly sure I knew what he was saying, I wasn’t entirely certain. He held up his hands, a thumb and a full hand. Ah yes, fifteen, that’s what I’d thought. So I agreed and soon we were on our way.

In the car, he continued to speak to me in German, cheerfully ignoring my English response that, I don’t speak German. Which I really don’t. I had taken a few classes the semester before but had committed to doing absolutely no more work than necessary, merely showing up for two hours and then promptly forgetting everything I’d learned in the intervening week. I didn’t do homework, I didn’t study, I didn’t really expect to learn anything. Two hours were all I could manage at the time and it was just another activity, something slightly more educational than watching a movie but still with no lasting impact. However, his persistence wore me down. The transatlantic flight hadn’t been kind to my mental acuity but I could understand a few of his questions, the ones that resembled the get-to-know you dialogue that constitutes the first lesson of every language class. It seemed less important that I actually answer with substance or sentences, he seemed content with my ja and nein responses and carried the majority of the conversation, pointing out landmarks along the way.

I hadn’t expected to use German in Kosovo to be honest. I hadn’t really expected to use German in the Balkans at all actually. Not that I didn’t think people spoke German but because I had assumed that people would speak English. But like many things, it’s probably a matter of generation and it brought me back for a moment to a similar experience in Slovenia two years and a half years earlier.

My roommate and I had planned a quick trip to visit our northern neighbors. Sure, we said, why couldn’t be go to Munich and Vienna and return to Ljubljana within a few days? They’re all so close on the map! And besides, these are orderly countries where the flowers are neatly tended and the trains run on time. What did we have to worry about?

One unlucky event after another and we were stranded at a village railway station, one of those sleepy affairs where even during the day you probably couldn’t buy a ticket inside. The train had been delayed from Austria and we had missed our connection through no fault of our own. Ok, we told ourselves, so it will be a little later but we’ll make it, a bit past bedtime but that’s fine. When the next train rolled in at the appointed time, I climbed on happily. Doesn’t it seem strange that no one else from our previous train is getting on, my roommate asked. No, I assured her, it’s the middle of the night and it’s the right platform at the right time, just as it’s listed on the schedule. I was being foolish of course. V Ljubljano? we asked once aboard, the wheels already turning on the rails, and the answer was no. Now gripped by a mild panic we explained our situation to the conductor and a fellow passenger. The thing was, my roommate needed to catch a flight that morning. As in, one departing less than nine hours from now and in a city that we were currently moving farther away from rather than closer to. Could we catch another train? Not at this time of night. Could we get a cab? Not out here in the country.

I didn’t expect a solution to appear and yet one did, as one always does. Taking pity on us, the conductor called a friend in a neighboring village and arranged for us to be picked up at the next station and driven home. You’ll have to pay him, he explained somewhat apologetically but we were simply glad that this nonsense would finally end. If we had to throw some money at the problem, at least it wouldn’t be the price of a new plane ticket. Besides the pressing need to be at the airport, it also suddenly seemed essential that we get back to our apartment on Vrhovčeva precisely because it felt so impossible to achieve.

When the driver finally arrived, we climbed into the car gratefully, thanking him in Slovene and chattering between ourselves in English. We asked him a question, or maybe he asked us, I don’t remember now. What I do know is that he responded with numbers. In German. Admittedly, I couldn’t debate the merits of the Common Agricultural Policy or discuss philosophy in Slovene and neither could she. Still, we definitely knew the numbers. Ne govoriva nemško, we answered, taking extra care to use the proper dual word in Slovene to tell him that we, the two of us, didn’t speak German. But he continued as before, repeating the numbers more slowly now, still in German. Which of course is one of those classic tricks that does absolutely no good when you really truly don’t know what the other person is saying. Perhaps he thought that German was closer to English than Slovene and that we could guess. Maybe he didn’t believe that we spoke Slovene. Or maybe he thought he actually did know German and were just being shy. In any case, it turned in to a quiet ride back.

So here I was again a few years later, at the opposite end of what used to be one country with a German-speaking former Yugoslav cabbie, attempting to communicate. As we drove we passed a few remnants of what was once a shared economy. A Slovenian applicance store sold washers probably just like the one I had and there was more than one branch of Nova Ljubljanska Banka, the bank whose evolution and controversy in the past two decades has mirrored the complicated negotiations of the Yugoslav successor states. I could picture the flagship location across from the Slovenian parliament building, standing between an upscale department store and a tall ugly tower that I nonetheless had often relied on for the weather and temperature readouts. I was tempted to pull out my own NLB card just to test out whether it still worked after lying dormant for so long. Entering Pristina, a city that I had never been to before and which was definitely not Ljubljana, I still felt a little bit at home.

Kristina, enkrat za spremembo vem zakaj 🙂


How I know it’s finals time

  1. Looking at cat pictures is even more amusing than usual especially because I know that if I post a link to Facebook, everyone else who is tethered to their chair trying to extract another page or two about nuclear proliferation or development policy from their brain will also find it amusing and appropriately distracting.
  2. That one meme about international relations people that made the rounds a while back (what society thinks I do, what I think I do, etc) is slightly less annoying than usual and the end picture of what I actually do of the person who is surrounded by books with their head down looks incredibly accurate.
  3. I’ve made a cheesecake and oatmeal raisins cookies this week. Nothing helps with paper writing like making even less time available for said paper writing and also stuffing yourself full of sugar so that you feel both mentally and physically bleh.
  4. I’m overusing the words efficiency, nuclear, deterrence, economic and social issues, security, development, and essential.
  5. I change positions around the apartment on a fifteen to twenty-minute basis. I can’t possibly keep sitting here, I’m so uncomfortable that I must sit somewhere else in a slightly more reclined position. Oh, I need to move my notes over. Oops, forgot a pen. As long as I’m up, I should probably make some tea. You know what goes great with tea? Cookies! I should make some cookies…
  6. Going to work has become my second least favorite thing.
  7. I suddenly have so many other things to do, apply to, clean, etc.
  8. I sleep in bursts of four – five hours until my sentences start getting garbled and then sleep for ten hours straight.
  9. I’m finally reading my textbooks in more depth. Turns out, they have some useful stuff to say. It’s almost like that’s why they assigned them in the first place. Weird.
  10. I’m writing this blog.


Small stuff (again)

The small stuff is what your life is made of. It’s the step you take off the curb, the raindrop that falls on your nose, the smell of toast and butter in the morning. When someone asks us how we are and we respond honestly, it’s usually this kind of feeling that we speak to. The milestones we choose in life are simply that, posts along the road of life that indicate a length or a direction but they are just one more step. That wedding or birth, it started with a smile or a kiss or just the briefest moment when you put your head on his shoulder and the whole world felt a little bit warmer.

That might be precisely why the small stuff is so big. I’ve told people lately that I’m not much good at being a server because I don’t have the best attention to detail for that kind of thing. Spelling mistakes? Sure, I see that. I got an email a week ago with the wrong type of your/you’re in the subject line and I still haven’t stopped thinking about it. Nuances of a conversation we had two years ago? I’ve got you. Extra ketchup…so sorry, I forgot but I’ll be right back with that. I try to add enough apology and humor to the situation that we’re all buddies in the whole debacle and it usually works out. However, the best service people can sense things before they happen, read the needs of a guest and respond before the person being served even knows that they wanted something.

Which is only to say that it’s not my calling in life and that’s ok. It speaks instead to something more pervasive in life. I’ve had trouble letting the little stuff go lately. I wake up at 2:30 in the morning and spend ten minutes convincing my sleep-deprived self that I really don’t need to go check on one of my tables. Sometimes I have to physically walk into the kitchen and get myself some water to realize that I am not in fact at work and if there were people at the restaurant, they’d have to wait quite a while for me to get them another glass of wine. That’s the small stuff that we shouldn’t sweat, the tiny demands of the day that accumulate over time and sometimes feel unmanageable when really they’ve been forgotten by everyone involved but you.

However, there’s another side to all that. After a long night when you feel like everything was a bit sub-par, a note on a check that says, “you were great” makes all the difference. A coworker who has just the right word to say. Making lunch with friends from the random food you happen to have there and spending a lazy afternoon watching movies? Perfect. A funny story from your roommate, catching the bus just in time, an email or text from an old friend. Not having to work when you’re on call. It makes a difference and definitely for the better.

I want to let myself breathe these in deeply, to acknowledge and be thankful for them. I did not feel particularly thankful on Thanksgiving and that’s a shame because I have a very blessed life. How could I not be grateful for the fantastic people in my life? I’m so lucky and I never want to forget it. Here’s to choosing the right small stuff to focus on and keeping some perspective.

The Other Washington

I thought that it was over. No more a nomad, I could put the blog aside, let it collect dust and return to a life of living in the three-dimensional world. Let’s be honest, I never posted very often anyway. And yet. If to peregrinate means to travel or journey, I haven’t really stopped. There are a thousand different ways that being back in the US is easy and comforting, things that feel like home. Now that I’ve been stateside for nearly three months it’s almost like I never left. But DC is most definitely not Seattle, mostly in small silly ways but in a few more meaningful cases as well.

More than anything for me the difference is language. I think language learning is fantastic even if I’m not great at it myself. There is something so satisfying about being “in” on the secret of a foreign language. However, there is something to be said for being comfortable with the daily sounds around you. I can discuss the meaning of memory and history in creating a national narrative or I can talk to someone on the metro platform about when the next train is coming. Bars and coffee shops and buses are just full to bursting with people who speak English! It hasn’t ceased to amaze me. Of course there is also a downside. If you can listen to and understand those people, sometimes you wish you couldn’t. As most people in my classes have heard, the shuttle that I take most days between the two campuses is both a source of endless amusement and of hair-pulling frustration. It hasn’t been THAT long since I was an undergrad but it sure feels like it. Although hearing a young fellow talk about his love for daiquiris can be side ache inducing when you have a fellow rider to laugh with, some days you just want to read in peace without hearing a discussion of how they pay sooooo much money that this school should just hovercraft them from place to place.

If language is something that unites DC and Seattle, fashion is not. Personally I like it when people are a bit more dressed up. If I could wear a cocktail dress every day I’d be happy (as long as I didn’t necessarily have to wear heels with it). If gentlemen want to look like they just stepped off the set of Mad Men, more power to ’em. I had to giggle the other day when a friend of mine said that he had gotten tired of the white and light blue shirts that all bureaucrats in DC wear. His response? A medium blue shirt.

All of which is to say that this area has a more polished and also decidedly more boring feel to it. Where are the men wearing women’s pants and gauges and tattoos? Someone commented on a girl’s glasses at the bar because you know, they were those large, black, thick-rimmed kind. You know, the kind that EVERY HIPSTER EVER has owned. They seemed unremarkable to me but I suppose that here they’re still rather novel. To each their own.

Which brings me to my last points: people and food. The DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia for you PNW-ers) draws from a different immigrant group than Seattle of course. To unfairly simplify it, Seattle is more Asian, DC is more African. I consider it close to a sin that I haven’t had Ethiopian food here yet. A sin! My neighborhood is not very diverse but I hope to explore more soon and test out the options available to me. It’s exciting and after two years of Slavic food, I was ready for a change of pace.

Topics to look forward to in future posts: being a student again, cool events and free food, working in the food-service industry again, vicissitudes of mid-Atlantic weather, and how adorable middle schoolers are.

Farewell Russia

My student approached me after class on the penultimate day of class and waited patiently for me to answer another student’s questions about the upcoming test. I assumed that she also had a question about the test and looked at the two equally as I responded. But instead she wanted to tell me an anecdote. She explained that recently at her job she had worked with two Chinese clients. Although one of them spoke Russian, the other “only spoke English.” I assume that he also spoke his native language but I understood what she meant.

My student told me that before she had understood a little English but she hadn’t been able to use it to really communicate in speaking. Now she said that when she needed to use English, she could. After some jubilant praise on my part she said it was thanks to me and wished me a good weekend before leaving.

She was giving me entirely undeserved credit of course. My students, especially the adults, were ultimately the ones doing the work. The other day as we trudged through some review I thought to myself that with the teacher’s book and the class CDs, they could practically have done the lesson without me. If I had been a terrible teacher, I could have obstruct their learning, that’s true, but even the best teacher cannot learn something on behalf of their students, the student must at least exert a modicum of effort. So the pride here should rightfully remain with the students.

Nonetheless, it made me incredibly happy to hear about this episode. Learning languages can sometimes be quite stale especially if you’re learning a language outside a country in which it is spoken. So the fact that she could use English in a direct and meaningful way was hugely gratifying for both of us. I am just happy to have played a small part in that experience. Maybe it sounds patronizing but it really was amazing to see the progress this class in particular made over the course of a year. It has also been a funny experience for me considering that I was younger than most of my adult students. Who knew that I would be jokingly admonishing forty somethings for cheating.

If I didn’t learn enough about Russia while I was here I have only myself to blame. I didn’t really try to learn Russian (partly because they didn’t have classes in my town) and that alone severely limited my options for understanding. Although I could buy things at the store, navigate transportation, and even transfer money internationally, I can’t hold even a basic conversation about books or music in Russian. I barely scratched the surface of that country’s history or politics and I can only claim to have seen a very small slice of Russian life considering the vast swath of the country that I didn’t visit.

However, I definitely learned many valuable things while I was there. I certainly know a great deal more about Russia than I used to and I don’t feel quite the same overwhelming fondness for Russia that I do for Slovenia but it left its mark on me all the same. I enjoyed the chance to play teacher and I can only think that it has been as much of a learning experience for me as for my students.

To end this somewhat disconnected post, let me list a few things that I will miss about Russia.

  • my students
  • buying 1.6 kg of over-ripe strawberries for 50 rubles from the market babushka
  • my nice big kitchen and room
  • having someone else deal with my bills, etc
  • making pizza and drinking wine at Patrick’s
  • seeing adorable Russian teenage boys do adorable things like share headphones on the metro or ice skate in packs
  • people thinking it’s surprising and cool that I played soccer as a kid and that I even drink beer while watching soccer
  • spring/early summer weather
  • looking up songs, doing personality tests, and listening to country presentations as part of my  job
  • a fair bit of autonomy in my work
  • being an “expert” on something
  • 25 days of paid vacation and a flexible schedule
  • sleeping in
  • Russian and Caucasian food
  • cheap public transportation
  • living abroad in general and having small adventures every day

Scars, scrapes, and bruises

St. Petersburg is quite close to Moscow (relatively) yet my return journey recently was slightly complicated. From the hostel in SP I took the metro, transferred to a bus, the plane was delayed meaning I arrived later than expected at DME in Moscow, then it was merely a bus, metro, train, and thirty minute walk to get home. Door to door about nine hours which is not outrageous but also seems a bit silly considering the flight is only slightly over an hour.

In any case, I arrived home and flopped onto my bed with competing urges. Shower, sleep, food? Every time I travel, I return depleted, even if it was a short trip. It reminds me of coming home from camp in many ways. After a week or a few months I’d come home my voice hoarse from singing, skin a bit darker than it used to be and crying about leaving my friends behind (also probably sleep deprivation). It’s as if I’m a character in the old Sims game and my fun and social meters are full to bursting while my hunger, comfort, hygiene, and energy needs are woefully low. Who has time to sleep when there is so much fun to be had? I also tend to book myself on the cheap flights that normal people don’t want to take because they mean arriving at the airport at odd hours when the airport shuttle isn’t running, etc. It’s a good reminder of how complimentary “real life” and traveling are for me.

Sometimes sleep wins out but if not, I want to immediately throw a load of wash in the laundry and hop into the shower. At that point I can assess the damage. I’m generally wary of buying expensive things because I’m notoriously hard on my stuff and I’ll probably destroy it. In the same way, my body gets thrown around a little. I come home and scrub my feet to find new calluses, blisters, or splinters and very often minor wounds appear in other places on my body. If this is the first time in a while that I’m taking inventory, the injuries can sometimes be mystifying. Where did that bruise on my leg come from, why do I have scratches on my arm, what kind of insect bit me? Contrary to what some of you may be thinking, most of them are not alcohol related, they’re just the result of being more active than usual.

So in a strange way, I appreciate the maladies. Occasionally they’re stupid as in, hm, maybe you shouldn’t have tried to climb that wall and broken off part of your toenail but most of the time they’re pretty minor. Even if I wear sunscreen, the freckles pop out from my cheeks with determination, my eyebrows are a veritable jungle, and I may or may not smell like a rose. But these things are now almost a barometer for how good a time I had. If I’ve enjoyed myself I accept these new scars as part of my ever-increasing catalog, a small price to pay for the experiences that brought them.

You know you’re an English teacher when…

…your ears perk up when you hear ‘if’ in a song and you listen intently to see if it will be followed by a good example of the first, second, or third conditional for later classroom use.

…faced with only a pack of cards and ten minutes of class time you turn drinking games into speaking games.

…your very limited Russian vocabulary is strongly influenced by things that your students often say in class including the Russian equivalent of shoot (or something stronger), I don’t know, come on, and that lady’s crazy.

…you read an entire trilogy of young adult fiction in less than a week to see if you can use them with your teenager class even though you decided after the first chapter that it was too difficult.

…your students ask you seemingly obvious questions like, do you like chocolate? Responding with a serious and thoughtful expression rewards you with…you guessed it, chocolate!

…you play Mother May I, even with sixteen-year-olds because everyone is so happy to be outside instead of in the stuffy classroom that they don’t mind if you make them look slightly foolish. A group of Russian children stop playing basketball or riding their bikes to stare at you.

…you get a little tired of “grading” your language and speak extra quickly and throw slang around with abandon when talking to people from home.

…you grin irrepressibly as you watch your elementary level class give rather sophisticated country presentations at the end of the year. You think back on the beginning of this journey when they were still learning the days of the week or saying “ye” instead of the letter “e” and the sheer volume of miscommunication that occurred in between.

…you sneak your favorite things into lessons. A single story from This American Life exhausts your students but several of them laugh which you consider a major triumph.

…you look forward to teaching the day camp as an opportunity to forget about grammar lessons for a while and teach repeat-after-me songs or build card houses.

…you’re even less forgiving about egregious grammar mistakes made by native speakers than you used to be.

…you troll the internet for articles about Kobe Bryant or Christopher Paolino to use for personalized homework, best ways to teach the alphabet to young learners, crafts for boys, or any number of random things.

…you laugh at the textbook listening when a British person is trying to do an American accent. You also laugh at most of the Practical English listenings because the situations are so forced and awkward.

…you’re grateful for all the past teachers who put up with your own shenanigans.

…you get misty-eyed about goodbyes.