Thursday, December 25, 2014

Back In Oxford

This is me hugging the Radcliffe Camera, because I love it. LOVE.

This post was written intermittently during my all-too-brief week in Oxford.  I got three weeks off of school for Christmas, and because Maurizio was going to be in Oxford that week, anyway (on his way to a ski trip, which he wanted me to join as well, but having never skied before and not being altogether certain I would like it, I thought I would save the money this year and maybe try it when we live a bit closer to some slopes), I decided to join him in my favourite city and then go home to New Jersey for the other two weeks.  My family assured me they could spare me a bit longer (though they would always prefer that I spend all my time at home!), and I found a flight that wasn’t too crazily expensive.  And I am so, so very glad that I did it!

Thistly Cross...thanks, Chequers!
It is possible that I had the rose-tinted glasses of fond memories—as well as a not-altogether-positive feeling about my current abode—firmly affixed as I traveled back to Oxford, but I was enough aware of them to be on my guard and to pay special attention to my feelings.  I was curious to see if things might have changed, if the absence of the majority of the people with whom I had studied would alter the face of the city for me.  They always say that a college town feels completely different once you are no longer part of the university, and I would say that is true for Oxford, but because I lived there for two years after I finished my studies, I was able to establish enough of a non-university network to sustain me even as those doing their various degrees came and went.  Of course, I was always attached to the university through the rowing team, as well as through an associate membership with the MCR, so maybe I am not entirely qualified to comment on the matter.  Perhaps all I can say is that visiting Lincoln and having Carmella remember my name was at the same time a comforting surprise, and exactly how things ought to be.

I am here and it is wonderful!  I have wanted to be back in Oxford since the moment I left it, and now I get to be here, albeit for a very short time.  Already my week in this beloved town is more than half-spent.  But I have had such good times, and I have been so very happy.  There has been rowing, cycling, meeting up with old friends, much drinking of tea and of cider (hurrah for The Chequers always having Thistly Cross on tap!), visiting of favourite haunts, admiring of beautiful buildings, greeting everyone and everything with a smile (“good morning, street sweeper!” “Good morning, Rad Cam!” “Good morning, Isis!”), and being welcomed back by people as varied as the lady at the bank, the man at Boots, and the gang at the Half Moon.

It turned much darker a day or two later.
There have been two major mishaps, which have served only slightly to detract from the joy of this trip. The first was on Sunday night after rowing, when I was cycling back up to the house where we are staying.  I was on the Cowley Road, going past what I thought was a parked car (no lights on or anything), when the door opened right in front of me.  I cried out and swerved but couldn’t avoid hitting it pretty hard, and I was knocked off the bike.  The man was very defensive when he got out, shouting that there was no way he could have seen me (despite my flashing lights) and that he had definitely looked in the rear view mirror before opening the door, but eventually he helped me up and checked my bike and asked if I were okay.  I had a bleeding scratch on my hand and my left arm was sore, but I said I thought I was all right, and I got back on the bike and rode away.  The shock of it had me crying all the way here, and everyone was worried about me, but Allan took care of my bike and Elaine fed me a delicious dinner, so things brightened up considerably.  My upper ribs are probably bruised, because it hurts when I stretch them, and I have a pretty serious bruise and scrape across my arm, which was swollen all that night and still hurts days later, but I will survive. 

Then, on Monday morning I was supposed to row at 6:55, and Maurizio set the alarm on his new phone, but I guess he did something wrong, because it didn’t go off, and we woke up at 7:45 and I had no way to contact anyone, and I was extremely upset, because leaving people stranded by the river in the early morning is the WORST thing for a rower to do and I never, ever do it under normal circumstances.  I sent apologetic emails and Facebook messages, and eventually found a phone number for the coach/coxswain, who was probably back in bed when I got through to him, and who accepted my apologies with a sigh and told me to get some rest.  The next morning I brought homemade peanut butter to the boathouse as a form of peace pipe, but I still felt terrible.  Thankfully, the Lincoln College Boat Club will always comprise the most classy and generous people in the world, so I was forgiven and permitted to row again.

Dear, dear friends.
One of the most wonderful parts about being back has been the opportunity to catch up with some of the incredible people that I became friends with during and after my studies.  I have told them on more than one occasion that I felt it nearly miraculous that we had all happened to be here together, because I had never before met people more in tune with my mind and way of thinking, more like me in a most fundamental and unconscious way, more naturally destined to be my friends by virtue of our perfectly kindred spirits. It seems silly to think of it in these terms, but it was like finding a group of soul mates from all over the world, who had, for some inexplicable reason, an innate connection with me.  Even more miraculous was the discovery that time and distance had not dulled this connection, and we caught up on each other’s lives and shared opinions and feelings with the same ease we had always had, and were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves so much in agreement.

Best hosts in the world!
Now I am in the plane flying home across the Atlantic, and though I am very happy to be seeing my family, I remain very sad to tear myself away once more from that ancient city of dreaming spires. Today I visited Lincoln and stumbled upon the wedding of an old acquaintance, and I saw that one of his groomsmen was my college adviser.  After giving them many hugs and congratulations, and telling them I might be back for a D.Phil (which plan both heartily endorsed), I stopped by the Radcliffe Camera and gave it a hug.  I told it that I would be back soon, and I hope that is true.  Finally, I had a coffee with Allan and Elaine, who have been the most excellent hosts to me and Maurizio this week, before getting onto the AirLine bus and riding off to Heathrow.

I have gloried in every moment spent in Oxford, and felt more than a bit of nostalgia and longing, but really a sense of coming home which I actually had not quite expected to feel.  I have spoken to many people this week about the possibility of applying for a D.Phil, and I think really I must do it, because I need to be back there, where I feel that I belong.
The final sunset, from Heathrow

In 1823, literary critic William Hazlitt wrote the following in an essay about Oxford:

"There is an air about it, resonant of joy and hope: it speaks with a thousand tongues to the heart: it waves its mighty shadow over the imagination: it stands in lowly sublimity, on the "hill of ages"; and points with prophetic fingers to the sky: it greets the eager gaze from afar, "with glistering spires and pinnacles adorned," that shine with an internal light as with the lustre of setting suns; and a dream and a glory hover round its head, as the spirits of former times, a throng of intellectual shapes, are seen retreating or advancing to the eye of memory...We could pass our lives in Oxford without having or wanting any other idea -- that of the place is enough."

Clearly, I concur.  Farewell for now, Oxford.  See you soon.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Peanuts at the Salad Bar

This is my view from the front of the room. Minus the children.
Finally, I have a moment to talk about what daily life is like at my job. Of course, I can’t go into very specific detail about some things, but I can tell you a few of the more interesting tidbits.

Despite its English branding, my school is not like most schools in the UK.  For example, the students are very physical with me—some of them give me hugs on a daily basis, and they often take my hand or touch my hair or try to play with my scarf (these last two I am trying to curtail).  I know this may seem pretty normal for primary school, but what is unusual is that we are encouraged to hug the children back; it is part of Colombian culture, and personal space is not often regarded as an issue.  I really like it, actually, because I don’t feel like I have to look over my shoulder any time I give a child an encouraging push toward his chair, or when I hug one of them who is crying, or (more recently) when I have to pin one of their arms down and lift them physically off the floor because they are trying to scratch and kick another student… That was an anomaly, and a particularly bad day for the girls involved.  Otherwise, it’s mostly hugging and holding hands.  I have one student who is still learning English, but one of the things she has learned to say is “I love you, Miss!” and she says multiple times every day, and she always wants a hug in response.

He only fell off the chair twice.
This buzzword is tossed around UK schools pretty much constantly.  "Can’t do that, Health and Safety won’t allow it.”  "That’s a Health and Safety issue right there.”  "No way, Health and Safety would be all over me!"  Here, while we are, of course, concerned for the health and the safety of our students, we don’t feel quite so strangled by the red tape.  My classroom is literally covered in paper, from the reminder charts to the pictures and posters made by students to the bookworms strung across the ceiling.  On Halloween there were ghosts and pumpkins and witches dangling from almost every structural feature—put there by students standing on chairs or on each other’s shoulders.  In the US, the fire marshall would have cordoned off the room as a huge hazard.  Here, we have earthquake drills instead of fire drills.  I am not required to wear a face mask and rubber gloves when helping a child put her earring back in her ear, or even when putting a band-aid on a paper cut.  My students regularly come back from PE class or Break-time with bumps and bruises and cuts; at least three of them have been in casts or slings since the start of the year; the other day one of them broke her chin when swinging upside-down on the playground.  Parents don’t sue.  They just accept that kids are kids, and sometimes they hurt themselves.

Food of the gods.
Another unusual occurrence, and the happy title of this post, is the presence of peanuts at the salad bar.  Whereas most UK (and US!) schools are frantically trying to prevent their students from ever encountering anything that might possibly trigger an allergic reaction—resulting in a frightening number of mandates about what can and can not be brought in lunch boxes or on field trips or for class celebrations—here we see on regular offer things like nuts, strawberries, fresh melon, fish, and lots of milk products.  In fact, allergies are quite rare here, and I am sure there are a number of opinion-polarizing reasons for that.  Of course, with peanuts being one of my favourite foods in the entire universe, I love this relaxed attitude, and I definitely add them to my tray every day.  I even had the pleasure of introducing them to one of my students, who had never tried them before and asked what they were when she saw them on my plate.  I gave her a few to try, and her eyes got really big, and she said, “these are awesome!” and I said, “I KNOW!”  We are now peanut buddies, and often have long conversations on the merits of the little legume.  However, on the flip side of all this joy, there is the fact that these South Americans are heavy-handed with the cilantro, and there is nary a day when I don’t have to avoid several of the selections so that I don’t accidentally consume some of the evil weed.  I consider it a fair trade-off.

Our school is out in the countryside, and so we have to get used to creatures like moths, beetles, spiders, and the occasional worm roaming freely about the classroom (not to mention the cow crossings outside the front gate of the school).  However, one of the fun side-effects of being located near a farm is the regular scent of onions in the air.  We are too far away for any effect on the eyes (thank goodness! My eyes are really sensitive to onion), so it is just the smell that travels.  I rather enjoy this, but it offends the nostrils of many students and teachers, especially on a warm day when the wind is blowing in our direction.  I think it is much better than those once-a-week days when (I guess) the farm burns its waste or its onion skins or maybe its chicken feathers (who knows), and we get an acrid burning smell all day long.

Yes, it is really like this.
Because the school is so far from the city centre (see reference to the countryside above), we are provided with transportation to and from the school each day.  There is a van or a bus that runs along specific routes, and the teachers are expected to be at their bus stops on time, because the bus will only wait exactly 60 seconds.  This differs starkly from the bus rules for the kids, who are picked up at their doors and who might take as long as six minutes to finally come out, as long as a parent has signalled that they are indeed coming.  My bus stop is at the intersection of 45th and 7th, while I live at 30th and 1st, so I have a bit of a hike to accomplish in order to be there at 5:55 a.m.  Fortunately, my devoted boy gets up with me at 5 each morning and drives me to the bus stop, because he is wonderful.  The bus ride can take anywhere from an hour to two hours, depending on traffic.  One day earlier this week we arrived at school at 7:45, and none of the students were there yet.  On other days, we arrive at 6:50 and they are waiting outside the classroom door—or worse, inside the classroom, having been let in by the maintenance man.  All of this madness means that, though school is meant to begin at 7:15 and I am meant to greet the students as they enter the classroom, it is almost impossible to accomplish.  It also means that I cannot stay late if I want to get some copying done, or some organising, or even some marking.  The bus leaves at 3:30 (4:30 on Wednesdays), and I had better be on it if I want to go home that day.  I find this both good for me (I have always been one of those teachers who stays at school till 7 or 8 pm to get everything done, which is not entirely healthy), and extremely frustrating (for the same reason). 

I am still amused by the many mispronunciations and misspellings my students attempt.  Some of them are really quite good English speakers, and because they are forced to use it to communicate with me, they are improving.  Still, I get a giggle when I read charming sentences like “There was a pan a time one mostro tat drink blod tof the children for the night and old of the days he gom to the cueva.”  Translation: "Once upon a time there was a monster that drank the blood of children at night, and every day he came home to his cave."

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Teaching Ten-Year-Olds

Working on Open-Mindedness: I wrote the quotes, the kids added the methods at the right

I am not trained as a primary teacher, nor have I ever, before this year, taught anything below Year 7.  You would think there wouldn't be much difference between Year 7 and Year 6, which I now teach...but there is.  The students are mostly about 10 years old, and they are still losing teeth and learning how to interact socially and searching for approval from me and from each other.  They cry, a lot.  Even the boys.  They argue and wrestle and betray friendships, only to repair them 20 minutes later.  A few of them are "dating" each other, and when they "break up" it polarises the group and interrupts lessons.  They interrupt, they grab my hand, they pick up every item on my desk, they talk constantly.  They are always asking to go to the nurse.  They need me to check their work every step of the way to make sure they are doing it right, and they are afraid to try anything they have not done before.

I can't legally show you their cute little faces,
but here they are giving presentations!
In addition to being young, my children are also not native English speakers.  They communicate with each other in rapid Spanish which I often don't understand.  When I intercept notes being passed in class, I have to take them to another teacher to help me interpret them (I can read Spanish pretty well; this is mostly because the notes are poorly spelled or written in typical tween shorthand, the Spanish equivalent of "lol" or "bff").  All but one of these students were taught in English last year, so they have a decent working vocabulary and can usually communicate with me when they need to; however, when they get angry or really upset, or are crying, they fall back into Spanish and I feel utterly helpless.

They are mischievous and playful, sometimes cruel (there has been some bullying, which we are working to stop), but usually loveable.  They threw me a surprise birthday party three days after our first meeting.  They are really good liars.  They are creative, and some of them are quite smart.  A few of them are really interested in learning new things, and the ones who work the hardest are not naturally bright, but their dedication will get them far.  They are adorable.  They are infuriating.  I have gotten to know their little personalities very well over the past two months, and I find myself worrying about them, dreaming about them, and working myself sick for them as if they were my own children.

Sometimes teaching ESL can be highly entertaining, because mispronunciations or mistranslations can create new and unexpected meanings.  In the past I have amused myself by sharing the funny misspellings and poor grammar of my older students.  These kids have many more valid excuses for their poor writing, but that doesn't stop me from laughing out loud when reading it.  An example follows.  We have just begun a new Unit of Inquiry in which the focus is on Past Civilisations.  We are concentrating on the ancient ones, like Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia, China, and the Indus Valley.  As an exercise, I asked the students to imagine what the first civilisation in any country would have to have (a food source, a form of government, a religion, etc.).

Assignment: read a description of the geography and culture of a modern-day country. Then write a brief description of what you think the first civilisation to have formed there would have been like.

Mexico: "They had to have works and a villa to survive of the predators and they got to survive winter and get food of the jungel and get materials. The jobs they had were agriculter, chicas, religion sacerdot. They eated bananas, chill pepper, beans, rice, and fish. The goverment was the rich one and the best one but the people had a little house and he had a piramids. They write aztec words. The religion of the aztec I thick it was the sun and the moon. The art were beautiful and they all ways do arts to the king and they all ways do the paint with fruits."

(The government always gets the piramids.)

Vietnam: "They country have diferents things that you can do for example food, ant that the art is popular because the persons draw to much and have creaciones."

(You can do food in Vietnam!)

Japan: "I think that the found a rat and put it in a stick and in Japan in the vilige they say to the most pretys girls and say like put that shoes on bad the feet of the girls are so big and the shoes ar small."

(Footbinding and rats on sticks = the basis for any good civilisation.)

Russia: "I think that the persons that go First to russia survive: They eat maybe the go to fishing. or they hunt. or they eat Fruits of the Trees. I think that a loin attact them and one of theme protect the others named moscow. there jobs are: Hunting. Fishing. protect the others. They comunicate by taking they language or biy a machine of write. they paint with mud, or the juice of the fruits, or the sap of the trees. they god: maybe the sun Because the sun Have light or the plants Because they smell well."

(Thanks for saving us from that loin, moscow!)

Antarctica: "Los penguins viven con fish, baby, mather y father. The pinguins do snow in Antarctic. They eat broke eggs and dead chicks. Penguins catch their food in the ocean. Some penguins can stay at sea for months. White rings around their eyes."

(Apparently the first civilisation in Antarctica would be made up of penguins instead of humans. Fair enough.)

Clearly we have some work to do, but I will continue to enjoy the silliness as much as possible while I work on improving their writing and their language skills this year.  As well as their math, science, social studies, and reading skills, of course, because primary teachers teach all the subjects--something else for which I wasn't fully prepared!  But colour me surprised, because I think teaching primary math is actually really fun, and you never would have convinced me of that a few years ago. So here's to my development, along with that of my students.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Cali and the Funeral

On the last Wednesday in July my official PYP training began at the school.  Two days into this workshop we got some very sad news: Maurizio's father had suffered a stroke, and had passed away.  We made immediate plans to fly to Cali for the funeral, and I obtained permission to be absent from the first day of orientation, which was the next Monday.  We arrived on Friday evening, and Maurizio's mother had prepared a lovely meal for us.  Despite the sad circumstances, she was very happy to see her baby boy and her adopted hija.  Over the course of the weekend she fed us, fawned over us, showed us Maurizio's baby clothes and photos of him as a little boy, and generally spoiled us.  I also spent some time at Maurizio's father's house, getting to know the other members of the family.

Mau has two half-siblings, Juan Carlos, who lives in Chile, and Anna, who lives in Rome, as well as one step-brother, Fernando, who actually lives near Bogotá.  It was lovely to see them all together, and they were very kind to me.  They told stories and jokes, and we drank wine and ate homemade pizza.  Maurizio's father, Giovanni Luigi Battista Tinnirello Menteone, grew up in Torino, but according to a story told by Fernando, he was adopted from Sicily.  I had met him and his wife, Nelly, briefly on my first visit to Cali in December 2012, when he told Maurizio that he "had better hang on to" me.  Maurizio did not often talk about his relationship with his father, but I knew this weekend would be difficult for him.  I wanted to be supportive, but I think Cali has some kind of strange effect on me, because both times I have been there I have been overcome by strange, uncontrollable bouts of crying, which I find intensely embarrassing.  Last time I was discovered by Maurizio's mother and aunt, who blamed him and tried to get me to tell them what he had done to me (he hadn't done anything; I was just overtired).  This time I lost it in front of everybody, and it was one of the most awful social faux pas I have ever committed.

On the way to the post-funeral luncheon Maurizio was joking with his sister and stepmother about me drinking wine the night before, and he suggested that I am, in general, a drunkie--which is completely untrue, but should not have been upsetting enough to send me to tears.  However, as I asked him not to joke that way with people who do not really know me, and he gave me an apologetic look, I was somehow filled with unidentifiable emotion, and the lump formed in my throat and the tears fell from my eyes.  I was horrified, because here I was with three people who had just lost a loved one, and I appeared to be crying over something very minor, but that very idea made me so upset that I cried even harder.  I tried to hide it, but I was in the back seat next to the two women, and they could not help noticing.  Being noticed when one is crying is, of course, a certain recipe for more crying, and I did my best to beg them just to leave me alone until it subsided.  We arrived at the restaurant, where I was unwilling to get out of the car because my face and eyes were red and I didn't want the entire family to know what had happened, but we were in a taxi, and I had no choice.  I greeted Fernando with my eyes downcast, and was trying to hide behind Maurizio as much as I could as we stood in front of everyone, when thankfully Anna directed me to the ladies' room, where I tried to calm myself down.  I have no idea what was going on, but there was just no stopping it.  I was not really upset by what had happened in the car, but now I was mortified and ashamed of appearing like a big baby in front of his family, and at a time when they were the ones suffering.  I let out a few sobs to try to clear my throat and washed my face repeatedly, but I knew there was no hiding the traces on my face.  As I walked out of the bathroom Nelly and Maurizio were waiting to take me to the table, but just seeing them there set me off again.  It was really awful.  Finally they dragged me over with promises that no one would say anything, and I tried not to let that knowledge make me cry even more.  Juan Carlos' wife was next to me, and the only thing she said was that my eyes were a beautiful colour--which made me laugh, because it is true that the redness of crying makes the blue-green of my eyes stand out, and it was sweet of her to try to cheer me up.  Finally I was calm enough to eat and converse a little, though the mortification remained and is still with me even now.  But the family was gracious, never saying a word about it, and I am grateful to them for it.

Near the top of the Trés Cruces

After a very full and very hot weekend in Cali (during which we climbed to the Tres Cruces, or three crosses atop a mountain, twice) we returned to chilly Bogotá on Monday and got ready for a busy week ahead.

That week entailed my orientation at Knightsbridge, and my first glimpse of my classroom.  We are now a good seven weeks into the school year, and I have lots to say about my new teaching experiences, but I they will have to wait for another post.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Missing Photos

Apparently, if you blog it, the photos will come.  Here are some pictures from the Chocolate event mentioned in the previous post.  First we see Maurizio making bread and commenting on the weirdness that is fresh yeast:

"Is so interesting...they sell you fungus!"
The country loaf and one of the three fougasse:

The first slice is cut...ready to eat!
Caramelized onion and camembert

And the three desserts!

Top to bottom: PB pie, cheesecake, tarte tatin (pre-flipping-disaster)

I wonder what else I can get people to send me....maybe I should blog about money?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Missing Posts

As usually happens, I got busy and didn't manage to write anything blog-worthy for the past few weeks.  My silence notwithstanding, there has been a lot going on, and I will do my best to summarise.  Some things I was actively trying to delay posting about, because I wanted people to send me the photos they took so I could share them here, but that seems like it may never happen, so I will tell the stories and post the photos if and when they ever come to me.

Beer Festival
Some photos I do have are from my day at the Beer Festival with Maurizio and his lovely, English-speaking cousin, Juan Pablo.  I don't drink beer, but Maurizio loves it, so I agreed to go with him to this event at the Museo del Chico. Fortunately, it was being sponsored by Carulla, one of the fancy grocery store chains here, so we were able to purchase some cheese and good bread and salami to snack on.  This kept the boys from getting too drunk, and me from getting too bored.

The beer selection wasn't all that amazing, and there were no ciders for me (I have yet to locate any in Colombia), but outside there was a pretty lawn with bean bags on which to lounge and chat, so that's what we did for most of the afternoon. It got colder as it got later, but we stayed till it was properly dark.

Raymond loves his food.
Maurizio has a lot of family here in Bogotá, and many of them have helped him or us in various ways over the years. So, we decided to say "thank you" by hosting Chocolate one evening.  In England, they have tea time; in Colombia, they have Chocolate (pronounced like "choco-latte").  We went to Chocolate at his aunt and uncle's house once, and it included hot chocolate (of course) with various types of pandebono (a sort of cheesy bun) and chunks of cheese that we were meant to place in the chocolate until melty and then eat with a spoon.  It was delicious.  Of course, Maurizio wanted to impress everyone, so instead of buying bread to go with our chocolate, he decided we would travel to the north of the city to buy fresh yeast and flour so that we could make homemade bread and fougasse á la Raymond Blanc.  He also wanted to make a cheesecake and a tarte tatin, while I was to make my healthy version of a peanut butter pie, for which I needed to roast and blend some peanuts, because we were getting low on peanut butter.  The grocery shopping bill for this evening was ridiculous, as we were hosting quite a few people, but we kept telling ourselves it was worth it for such a grand gesture.

We began working on the bread around 10 a.m., and I made my pie nice and early so I could freeze it (it's made mostly with blended bananas, so it has to be chilled in order to set up, or it will be soupy).  However, with the peeling and coring of apples for the tarte and the repeated attempts at making caramel, followed by adventures in cheesecaking and a slow-rising bread dough, somehow we were still working in the kitchen at 5 p.m. when family members were due to arrive.  Fortunately, thanks to the previously-mentioned concept of Colombian Time, no one actually arrived until around 7 p.m., by which point I had had a chance to throw on a dress and a bit of make-up to pretend I hadn't been in my PJs all day.  The evening was a great success, despite the apartment being so chilly that no one took off their coats or scarves, and despite the dearth of chairs requiring three people to sit on a sofa that had been pushed up to the table, and despite the tarte tatin not wanting to flip over when it was time, resulting in a bit of a tatin mess (a terrible pun on Eton mess, which Maurizio actually made recently).  The fougasse in three flavours were amazing, the peanut butter pie was a huge hit, and my hot chocolate and sweet iced tea (the latter concocted from one of the caramel failures in an attempt to salvage ingredients) won accolades from everyone.  We had a really nice time, and I think everyone else did, too.

Rowing on Lake Tominé
We got to row! In singles!  On a huge, windy, speed-boat-filled lake!  It is a miracle we didn't fall in.  But after four thousand meters we were both feeling quite pleased with ourselves and I wanted to keep going forever.  I have mentioned before that there is almost no rowing culture in Colombia, but Maurizio managed to make friends with a man who has built some boats on his own initiative (and at his own considerable expense), and these were the ones we got to row.  They were tiny racing singles, which meant that I was terrified when first getting in, but once I had taken a few strokes and my body remembered what it was doing, I had one of the best experiences that Colombia has yet been able to offer.  The lake is massive, gorgeous, and surrounded by mountains.  It is also home to a number of nautical clubs that offer sailing, water skiing, jet skiing, and other water sports.  It is almost two hours' drive outside of Bogotá, so being there gives us a nice break from the smog and the crowds, and after the row we got to eat a delicious lunch at the clubhouse, which is quite fancy and features a big fire right in the middle to help you warm up.  My lunch was a fish stew served in a coconut (!) which I asked to bring home afterward.

Since that wonderful Sunday on the water, the local government has closed down the lake to water sports, citing forty years worth of unpaid environmental permits or some such malarky.  This has, obviously, made a number of (wealthy and important) members of the nautical clubs quite upset, and we have high hopes that the situation will be resolved in the near future.  I want to go rowing again.  In the meantime, I am working on getting the club some more boats from the US, so that we can develop a rowing programme here.  I have found five at a good price in Massachusetts, but the challenge is going to be shipping them here!  If anyone has any experience with this kind of thing, please let me know.

I'll pause there for now, as we have a busy day today and I can't sit here typing away all morning. But stay tuned for Part II of this little catch-up to come soon!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Colombian Time

When I lived in Italy, I often joked with my classmates and friends about Italian Time.  Italians are never in a rush to get anywhere (unless they are driving; it's a whole different story on the roads), which is a wonderful thing if you are lost and stop to ask someone for directions.  This happened to me many times in my travels, and no matter what they were doing, nor how far out of their own way it would take them, I found that Italians would almost always escort me to my destination rather than just giving me directions. Sometimes it is not so wonderful: if you make a plan to meet with someone, you are a fool if you don't anticipate that they will be at least 30-45 minutes late.  They won't apologise or make excuses, either.  They will just stroll up and greet you as if they were perfectly punctual.  Being an Italian, myself, I am almost never on time, so I grew to appreciate the casual, "va bene" attitude with which the people viewed tardiness.  Late for class? Va bene; the professor is late, too, and probably still finishing his espresso down at the café.  Trying to catch a train?  Va bene; sometimes you can arrive 10 minutes after the official Departure Time and still get a seat.  Sometimes the trains don't run at all, and sometimes the train you got onto that said it was going to one place was actually going somewhere else, and they just hadn't thought to inform you of the change. Va bene.

Colombians are similar to Italians in this temporally challenged respect.  Unlike Italians, they are generally apologetic for their lateness, but what is even more amusing is that, more often than not, they lie about it.  For example, let's say you are supposed to meet a friend for dinner at 6, but at 6:30 there is no sign of them.  By 6:45 you are worried, so you call.  They will inevitably tell you that they are "just five minutes away," and that the "traffic was worse than they thought."  Now, in Bogotá, the traffic is always worse than you think.  It's just plain awful, and there is no way around it, so people are happy to give some leeway in that respect.  However, Maurizio says that when a Colombian tells you they are "five minutes away," it really means they have not yet left home, and they are counting on your lack of accurate time perception to cover their delay.  Of course, when they finally do arrive twenty minutes later, they will complain loudly once more about the traffic, and then you will have your dinner and all will be forgotten.

Friends aren't the only ones who are late.  The day our furniture was due to be delivered, we were told it would arrive between 12 and 1 p.m. We stayed in all day, and finally greeted the movers around 5 p.m.  One morning I was supposed to have a Skype meeting with one of my employers at 8:30 a.m., but at 8:15 I received an email saying she had to go out and would return around 10--she did apologise, but I was miffed because I had gotten up at 6 to shower, dress, and prepare for the meeting.  I was told by the human resources manager that I was going to be picked up at 10 a.m. the next day to go to Migración and apply for my cédula, which is an ID card that everyone must have in Colombia. Some time around 11:15 the driver arrived.  It is clear to me that, like in Italy, you have to be very flexible in Colombia and not make any plans that depend on precise timeliness.

We won't even talk about the lengthy process of applying for the cédula, which, if you are not prepared, will involve various comings and goings in order to procure properly-sized photos, photocopies of passports and visas, correct methods of payment, and even a blood test, after which you have to fill out the form (bring your own pen!!), stand in a queue, go upstairs to get digitally fingerprinted and photographed, sit in a waiting room for what seems an absurdly long time, and then get your passport back with instructions to check back in four business days to see if the ID card is ready.

It won't be. Va bene.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Lady, Lady, Leidy

Yesterday was the first time I have been here when the cleaning lady came.  It seems as though everyone in Bogotá who can reasonably afford it (that is, everyone in the four upper strata of economic class) has an empleada servicio or muchacha who comes on a regular schedule to thoroughly clean their home, do their laundry, wash their dishes, and sometimes prepare their meals as well.  It was once emphasised to me that this is not because people here are lazy or unwilling to do the housework themselves, but because having such a person is good for the economy: for many of the people in the two lower strata, it is their only means of employment.  I am not sure whether this is the truth, or just a way to make oneself feel better for paying a girl less than $15 for a day's work.

I have never been really comfortable having someone else clean up my messes.  (Well, my mother would probably beg to differ, but I  don't mean the messes I made as a child!)  In Oxford I had to get used to a scout coming in a couple of times per week to clean the kitchen and bathroom and to empty the bins, but I always felt super uncomfortable just sitting there while he or she cleaned.  Sometimes, when I was home all day working on a paper, I would attempt to make chit-chat with one of them, but I never knew what to say beyond "good morning" or "how are you" or "quite the storm we had last night; it was tipping down when I got home! Sorry about the muddy tracks in the hallway…"

Man-eating spider, with toilet for size comparison
There was that one memorable morning when a scout saved me from a giant, vicious spider that appeared in the bathroom, chased me into the hallway, and was clearly attempting to eat me when I trapped it under a large plastic bowl, where it remained (with a note on top warning my housemate not to move the bowl under penalty of spider-induced, shrieking death) until I shanghaied Dmitri, the aforementioned scout, into removing it.  He intrepidly lifted the bowl, swept the monster into a dustpan, and carried it outside to be deposited in a bush some safe distance from my door.

Our cleaning lady here has not yet had a chance to rescue me from blood-thirsty fauna, but she did do an excellent job of cleaning and waxing the floors, scouring the bathrooms, washing all the dirty dishes in the kitchen, and vacuuming all of the upstairs carpets with our brand new vacuum.  She even helped me to practice my Spanish a bit, because I couldn't bear to sit at my computer and ignore her, but felt equally awkward standing in the kitchen just staring at her.  She is very sweet, and pleasant to talk to, and patient with me, like most people here are when I try to speak their language.  Her name is Leidy, which is pronounced just like "lady," and which caused some confusion and amusement when Maurizio called me by his usual English epithet ("my lady") and both she and I responded.  She is a little tiny thing, quite young, not much more than a girl, and she told me that she lives a good two hours from the city centre, which suggests that she inhabits one of the poorer barrios in the south.

I am told it is common for the cleaning lady to take meals with the family she is serving, especially if she has done the cooking.  We offered Leidy some arepas (corn pancakes) when we breakfasted, but she would not take any.  Later she accepted a cup of coffee, and after she had been here nearly four hours she let us share with her some (rather greasy) empanadas and (rather pulpy) orange juice and (rather dry) pain au chocolat. It was the best repast we could do for the moment, having very little fresh food around the house, though our refrigerator was finally delivered later in the afternoon, so I hope to do better in the future.

There is a good reason for the overalls
We probably won't have Leidy back for a couple of weeks, because we aren't quite that messy, and because we are trying to stick to a budget.  Then again, it is possible we can't afford her any more at all, after the exorbitant rate we were charged by the plumber who came to fix the sink after she had left.  He turned up (late, of course) in a leather jacket and swishy tracksuit bottoms, and had no tools with him.  The only thing that signified him as a plumber was the traditional exposed buttock cleavage when he leaned over the sink to examine it.  He did a bit of fiddling, and then he shoved the faucet in hard and twisted it down with his hands, which was exactly what Maurizio had done as a temporary fix when it first started to leak.  The whole process took about 5 minutes.  He then asked for 15,000 pesos.  Maurizio made a disbelieving sound, and the plumber lowered it to 10,000, which we paid, but after he left my boy was fuming. He seemed to think the job was only worth two or three thousand at most, and said that in a country like this the service industry is very cheap (for example, Leidy made only 30,000 for her day's labour in our house, and here this man had tinkered for a few minutes and demanded half of that).

Never mind that in the States you would have been charged a base rate of at least $50 just to get him to your house, plus a surcharge for any work or parts.  Never mind that that very evening we bought 20,000 worth of groceries for a homeless woman and her son on whom we took pity, or that we later paid over 100,000 pesos for a sushi dinner that was definitely not in the budget.  It is the principle of the thing.

Monday, July 14, 2014


When my boyfriend has been speaking a lot of Spanish (which is pretty natural when he is living in a Spanish-speaking country), he sometimes slips into a habit of pronouncing his English according to Spanish rules, and I find it hilarious.  He is perfectly capable of making the "J" sound, but this morning when he woke up and eagerly suggested we go "yogging" again, I could not help repeating the word as he had said it.  "You want to go yogging?"  And he didn't notice.  "Si, my lady!"  So we went.

This morning comprised the second attempt at yogging that Maurizio and I have made since I got here. The other was two days ago, and neither was a great success.  I am not much of a runner in general--as a rower, I like to say that I prefer to do my sport sitting down.  However, I am relatively athletic, and I had not noticed any strong symptoms from the change in altitude in the week that I had been here, so I thought I would be fine.  (Bogotá has an altitude of 2625 meters above sea level, which is about 8612 feet.  My home in New Jersey is, at its highest point, only 11 meters above sea level, or about 36 feet.)

Photo stolen from TripAdvisor; we don't run with cameras
We did not want to run by the roads, where the exhaust-belching buses and cabs would deprive us of oxygen, so we headed for the Parque Nacional, a quite large and pretty park full of playgrounds and tennis courts and walkways, but also a very hilly one, and a great favourite among skateboarders.  I was fine on the flat bits, but the moment we started mounting those hills, I felt the first pangs of altitude sickness.  First it was just shortness of breath, which I could have accounted for with lack of fitness, except that I had raced three times in a regatta a week and a half earlier, and had not felt this kind of lung-bursting oxygen depletion.  By the second incline I was breathing like a 90-year-old lifetime smoker with terminal emphysema.  My head and muscles ached, and I had a wretched feeling in my stomach, as if I had ingested poison.  I stopped, but Maurizio urged me on, so I attempted to tackle one more hill.  I couldn't make it even halfway up.  I slowed to a crawl, and trudged with my head down and my lungs heaving, my body very upset with me and occasionally trying to drown me by coating my throat with mucus.  It didn't subside quickly, either.  I had to stand there, panting, for a good five minutes before my breathing calmed enough for us to continue.  I didn't want to; I was almost crying from the awful feeling, but my partner was pushing me and my personal pride wouldn't let me give up.

We really didn't run for very long, and when we finally collapsed onto the grass for stretching and I was able to slow my pounding heart, I had the disconcerting sensation of being extremely exhausted while simultaneously feeling like I had hardly worked out at all.  The lengthy, uphill walk back to our flat was a good cool-down, though the final, steep road plus the stairs to the building were a bit painful.

Both that day and today I needed to eat and rehydrate immediately, and the best way to do the latter was to drink coca tea.  This all-natural beverage is made by steeping dried coca leaves in hot water, and it is a traditional method for defeating altitude sickness.  (Actually, the real tradition is to chew the leaves, but I prefer the tea!)  And before you ask, no, there is no cocaine in the tea, and it has no connection to cocaine other than that both substances come from the coca plant; however, one is produced by man via a chemical process and the other is the natural leaf, no more stimulating than a green tea leaf or a coffee bean.

Today's run was worse than Saturday's, because we went before breakfast, and I barely survived the first real incline.  Fortunately, Maurizio led us around the flatter areas for most of the run, and only included two hills in the middle. I let him go ahead and sprint those, while I made progress where I could.  I was embarrassed to see some guards watching me hyperventilate and hack my way around, but there was nothing I could do.  That awful sick feeling returned, and this time it didn't subside until long after we had returned home.  I am hoping that, with continued coca tea consumption and a few more of these runs, I will finally acclimate to the altitude.  Then we can tackle our next challenge: climbing Monserrate on foot, to a height of 3152 meters, or 10,341 feet.

Me after today's yog, but before coca tea

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Piggy for Pesos

Yesterday, Maurizio and I walked down the very steep hill atop which our building sits and did some grocery shopping at a local Éxito. We have to do this with relative frequency right now, because we are living without a refrigerator.  My school is meant to supply us with one, as well as a number of other appliances and pieces of furniture (part of their employment package, and an attempt to draw foreign teachers to the school by making it easy to relocate), but these will not arrive till 17 July at the earliest.  So, at the moment, our spacious apartment contains nothing but a table and two chairs, a mattress, and a small styrofoam cooler which we must half-fill with ice every two or three days to keep our cheese, milk, and the occasional chicken breast cold.  The boy has already done this for a month now, poor thing, and he is getting a bit tired of it.  For me, it is not all that terrible, though we have found ourselves eating a lot of eggs, bread, pasta, lentils, and other things that don't have to be refrigerated--but, as you can see from the photo, we also consume a lot of fruit!

The apartment remains cold, because there are no rugs or curtains to warm it up yet, and because the enormous windows that give us such a lovely view of the mountain and the adjacent university campus and let in so much daylight also let in the draughts and let out anything resembling heat (not that we have a heater).  There is a little fireplace, but we haven't got anything to burn at the moment, so we regularly spend our days at home wearing at least three layers apiece.  Aside from the picture of Oxford that I mentioned in my last post, which is still leaning against the wall in the bedroom, there is one decorative item in the house: a giant blue vase of long-stemmed red roses, which Maurizio had waiting for me upon arrival.  They have not wilted even slightly in the six days I have been here, a circumstance I attribute to the fact that it feels like a florist's display case in here, and they add some much-needed colour against the white walls.

In addition, since yesterday, we also have a new pet hanging around the house: a little piggy bank named Wilbur, which we purchased for 6,000 pesos (about $3) from a dapper old man with a snappy fedora, the proprietor of a blanket spread out on a street corner and topped with various bits of pottery.  Mostly piggy banks.

He's Some Pig.
Wilbur is a classic piggy bank--or alcancía en español--that is, not one of those modern pretty porcelain ones with a rubber-corked hole in the belly through which you can access your money, but a smiling sphere of continuous clay with only a tiny slit in the top through which to pop your pesos.  If you want to get the cash out of this cow (pig), you need to smash him with a hammer. (HAM-er!) I am told it is a very satisfying feeling, but I think it would take some dire financial straits to get me to do it, which is, of course, the point.  You aren't supposed to be willing to crack his cute little skull any time you need to top up your Transmilenio card; he is keeping that money safe for when you really need it.  I haven't been able to get a direct answer as to why there are so many piggy banks in Colombia (I saw them all over Cali as well as here in Bogotá), but as far as I can tell, the piggy bank is both a symbol of patience and perseverance, and an educational tool to teach Colombian children to save their money for a brighter future, rather than spending it on their immediate desires.  Sounds like a good idea to me!

Monday, July 7, 2014

A New Country

A new continent, too, if you grew up in the US and learned that North and South America are two separate continents.  And of course, a new language!  Hola todos, from Colombia!

View of Monserrate from my chair
I am here in Bogotá, where I spent this past February learning Spanish and getting accustomed to the area, because I knew that I would soon be moving here.  And now I have!  Three days ago I was with my family, complaining about the overbearing heat and humidity of the New Jersey summer, and now I am drinking hot tea and eating a mango as I watch the chilly morning mists rise up to encircle the 17th century church atop Monserrate.  Why on earth am I in Colombia, when what I have wanted since the day I left my beloved Oxford was to return there?  Well, there are two main reasons.

First, my boyfriend has taken a job as a titular professor at the Universidad Jorge Tadeo Lozano, and it looks like he will be here for a couple of years.  I had not found a permanent position in the US, and we were both tired of carrying on a long-distance relationship over Skype (internet-dating, as we jokingly called it), so I decided to join him for a while, with the added bonus of experiencing some of his culture (he's an Italian-Colombian mix) in the mean time.

Second, I have been hired to teach at a London-based international school here, and I have been led to believe that, when my two-year contract expires, they will assist with my transition to any of their other campuses, if I am so inclined.  London is close enough to Oxford that I should be very happy teaching there, and if I must take the long, roundabout route back to Europe, then so be it!  Fortunately, my boyfriend wants to be back in Europe as much as I do, so we will both be working toward that goal over the next two years.

He had a photo of the Radcliffe Camera framed for me,
so I could have a bit of Oxford here in Bogotá!
I am not quite ready to change the name of my blog to "A Rainy Day in Bogotá," though it does rain an awful lot here, and because of its altitude it remains quite cool year round.  So really, it won't feel all that different, weather-wise, though it is a far cry from Oxford in other respects. But I hope to use my time here as an opportunity to reflect on my past travels and experiences, to learn from them, to grow in new directions in this unfamiliar soil, and to carve out a life that feels a bit more intentional than that of my haphazard twenties.

I hope those of you who have followed me this far (and have stuck with me through eternities of silence and random bursts of productivity!) will continue on the journey.  I will try to keep the posts brief and interesting, but you know I can promise nothing.  Skim if you get bored.  Otherwise, enjoy, and feel free to comment.