Friday, September 23, 2011

we are such stuff as dreams are made on

we are such stuff as dreams are made on


When I was a sophomore in college ('university' as they make us say here, or 'uni' as I like to say when I'm pretending to be British), I had a professor named Peggy.


The class was Shakespeare Histories and Tragedies. Now, as an English major, I was required to be ludicrously fanatical about one Billy Shakespeare (still am, in fact – still working on my goal of reading all the plays, though I have been plateaued at 17 or 18 for a good while now, and I already know Titus Andronicus is going to give me nightmares). However, I tend to run afoul of the academic world in the fact that I actually prefer the comedies and romances. Give me the bickering of Beatrice and Benedict over the backstabbing, blindings, and bloodspilling that pervade the tragedies any day. Besides Hamlet, which Amanda and I read in a freshman writing class(, a class in which we discussed, in-depth, Snakes on a Plane and how, when Shakes didn't know what to do, he brought in the pirates!), most of the tragedies I'd read had been either in high school, where approximately three out of twenty-five students actually cared, or on my own, where I had no one with whom to discuss the difficulties in the text. In fact, my preferred method of making sure I knew the sense of it was to Netflix an adaption right after I'd read a play.


My overdue point though, is that this professor opened up a new world to me. Suddenly, the tragedies were not just plays where all the characters ended up dead and there were no respectable female characters to speak of. They were exciting. And goodness gracious, the histories! I hadn't even realized they existed! Wonders awaited in these stories I had foolishly overlooked.


It's impossible for me to give a sense of Peggy. The best adjective I can think of is 'sprightly,' because I always think of how she'd bike to campus in these long skirts she'd wear. And what is more fun than watching an older professor pedal across campus, knowing her bag holds the secrets and marvels of Shakespeare and Marlowe and Jonson and Chaucer? She's someone you just have to meet in order to understand the magnitude of her personality. She's not a person who strikes you immediately, with her unassuming, easygoing, friendly demeanor. Instead, she's one of those people whose intelligence and passion sneak up on you, catching you off-guard. In a moment, you go from simply needing to understand the material for one course to wanting to know everything she has to offer, because you've suddenly understood that there is this brilliant person standing before you, sharing their time and knowledge, and you know you have to make the most of it.


When I say Peggy is brilliant, I don't mean she is simply an expert in her field of medieval and renaissance literature. I mean she has knowledge about every subject – literature, history, science, you name it. There are a lot of people you can talk to and think, "Oh, hey, this guy/girl is smart." But there are only a few people whom you can talk to and know, "Oh, wow, this is someone special." When you talk to Peggy, it's not just a conversation between a student and a professor. It's an exchange of knowledge, and as much as you want to sponge up what she's saying, she also wants to learn from you, from your ideas and opinions. Because of this, her classes were always my favorite, so much so that I would take classes just because she was teaching. If it hadn't been for her, I never would have taken a renaissance drama course and read plays such as The Revenger's Tragedy or Volpone or The White Devil. I never would have taken the course on Chaucer and learned to read Middle English (I'm not fluent, but this is a life goal of mine). And I never would have recognized the relationship between Faust and Battlestar Galactica, because she is the only professor I know who could seamlessly weave together a comparison between science fiction and renaissance literature.


I looked forward to her classes every week. They were the first thing I looked for when the next semester's schedule came out. They made me excited about literature, introduced me to authors and stories I never would have found on my own, connected me with students with similar interests. Just listening to her talk about Shakespeare or Chaucer would motivate me to want to learn as much as I could about them myself. I'm grateful for that.


Because now, I find the tables have turned, and I'm the one who has to motivate and inspire students. Teaching – especially in a different country, in a different language – is a frustrating, chaotic, confusing experience. Thankfully, however, I've had some fantastic examples, Peggy among them. I know from my personal experience with her and with my other teachers that students respond to passion, and if I can tap into my interests in order to motivate myself, I can in turn motivate my students and hopefully inspire them to want to learn English. I haven't made much progress as of yet, but it's only three weeks into the school year. Hopefully I will find ways to reach at least a few students.


Right now, though, I would just like to thank all the teachers who have inspired me over my life. I've had a lot of teachers, even in just 23 years – from music teachers to softball coaches to friends and relatives to good old 'regular' teachers in brick-and-mortar schools. I've learned something important from each and every one of you, whether it be something academic, like the value of pi (and the importance of Pi Day!), or a skill, like throwing a fastball, or something a bit more abstract, like how to have confidence and courage in every step you take. Thank you for all your lessons. Thank you for your encouragement. Thank you for your examples that I now follow as I take baby steps in this profession and in my adult life.


And just because Kaz is turning my heart to mush ('emotional wreck' is what Emily and I call it), I have to thank everyone who sends me letters, missives, notes, packages, etc. I appreciate that you take the time out of your day to do so, whether it's posting something on Facebook just to say 'hi' or sitting down to be my penpal every few weeks. When things get lonely here, it's nice to know I'm being thought of somewhere. :) And always know I'm thinking of you, too.


What I'm Reading: Reread The Hunger Games in about two days. I'm still obsessed about it. The awesome thing is that it's one of those rare books that reminds you how wonderful reading can be – how it can transport you and challenge you and sweep you away. The only bad thing about reading this book here? Do you realize how often they talk about food? I need to learn to think about something other than school and food, thank you, and it doesn't help that you're waving lamb stew and hot chocolate in my face every few pages.


On an extremely different note, I've been delving into a book called We Two, about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. It's riveting. Did you know that Victoria had two older half-siblings? That Albert was pudgy and awkward before he grew into the handsome, slim-wasted Rupert Friend? That Vic had a cousin who may well have been queen, or the mother of kings, if she hadn't died a few years before Vic's birth? I'm absolutely hooked, and thoroughly convinced that I don't belong in this era.


Also, because writing this has made me remember my goal, I've started reading All's Well That Ends Well. Not far into it yet though.


Song of the Blog Post: "Opening: The New World" from Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World. This song is exactly what all of us are going through right now. "Nobody told you the best way to steer when the wind starts to blow."

Monday, September 12, 2011

Six Months

Six months ago yesterday, 55 slightly delusional Americans stepped off a flight from Frankfurt and onto Kazakhstani soil. It was one in the morning, we'd been traveling for over a day (not to mention the 11-hour time difference and the resulting jet lag), we had to be up at 8 AM for breakfast, and we could barely make sense of the sanatorium grounds that were lit up like Heartwood Acres at Christmas time. In honor of six months here, I could go and buy a celebratory beer. But if I did so, my entire village would know within ten minutes. (You think I jest, but I do not.) Instead, I'm going to give you some month-by-month highlights!

Month 1 – March
- We celebrate Nauryz, complete with eating horse meat, and take our first steps inside yurts.
- Host sister teaches me a crochet stitch. My unofficial introduction to babushka-hood.
- First big purchase in-country – a dombra.

Month 2 – April
- We watch Serenity for movie night and Nail teaches us the word for 'shiny' in Russian (sounds like, 'blisteshi') and I convince everyone in the Russian class to try to make this a trend here. So far it has not caught on.
- We take a trip to the Golden Man museum, where the elderly yet energetic archaeologist tries to make one of us females his fifth wife.
- Dombra lessons begin, but my teacher is more interested in flirting with Tommy than really teaching me.
- Emily and I realize that we were probably separated at birth.
- We see Romeo and Juliet at the ballet in Almaty.

Month 3 – May
- Elizabeth falls in an outhouse, to the amusement of all.
- We climb 780 steps at Medeo. Kat falls into the river, to the amusement of all. Everyone gets sunburned.
- We meet other, non-PC Americans in town. They feed us pizza and give us free wi-fi. Their 8-year-old is not impressed by me and my Star Wars knowledge.
- We take 22+ hour train rides to move to our sites. We pass the time with euchre.
- I go to the disco in town only to find out that only the high schoolers go.

Month 4 – June
- My cousins send me Legos and a Star Wars coloring book for my birthday. No one in my village quite gets it.
- Emily sends me a Tamasha Tunes mix for me to dance to on my down days.
- I pocket-dial my country director.

Month 5 – July
- A TV news crew shows up at summer camp and catches me on camera red-faced and playing soccer with the kids.
- Arthur, Maggie, Cody, and I go to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 in Russian. "Maladyetz, Draco" becomes a catch phrase.
- I play on the village basketball team for a tournament and manage to not embarrass myself too much.
- A friend from college sends me peanut butter.
- We celebrate the Fourth of July in Borovoe, with multiple games of Salad Bowl to make up for the lack of fireworks.

Month 6 – August
- Emily, Brian, Justin, and I meet a bull while hiking. No one gets gored.
- We spend our time in Almaty hitting up Pizza Hut, Hardees, American Bar & Grill – all the restaurants that serve American food.
- I pocket-dial my country director again, and finally learn to lock my keypad.
- Autumn begins – a whole month and a half early, but without the apple cider and pumpkins and multicolored leaves unfortunately.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

No Bull About It


No Bull About It

I’ve spent the last two weeks down south for the second part of PST (pre-service training). This is the first time they’ve split it up so that, instead of doing a full 11 weeks starting in March, we had nine weeks of PST, went to site, and had this two-week refresher just before school started. I liked it, because it gave us a good review for language and lessons at just the right time, although the transition from light summer schedules to 10-hour days again was tough. All 50+ of us volunteers gathered here in one hotel for sessions during the day and catching up during the evenings. We got to go out a few times, namely to places that served American food (like cheeseburgers!) and Pizza Hut! Delicious.

However, we don’t get many days off here. The only day we had off was Sunday (not even a half-day on Saturday!), and we made the most of that time by taking a hike. There’s a nearby mountain (how tall does it have to be to be considered a mountain? Also, is there a standard snow line for mountains, or does it depend on sea level?) called Kok Tobe. It was really close to the place we were staying, so we decided to simply walk in the direction of the mountain. This is our typical strategy, although I’m thinking we should find a new one (like maybe one that involves a compass? a map? or, you know, my handheld gps?), because the last time we went hiking it took us two hours to reach the mountain and this time . . . well, we were wandering around for a bit before we found the way, only with a little help, of course.

We took a few wrong turns as we were trying to gauge which road would lead us closest to the mountain base, and ended up in an area that seemed to be a dead end. However, right when we were scratching our heads and wondering what our next move would be, a man popped out of his fence and, knowing exactly what we crazy foreigners were looking for, pointed toward a tiny, hidden, grassy path and said something like, “That way!” He spoke Kazakh, which I don’t understand beyond “hello,” “goodbye,” and “I don’t understand Kazakh!”, but thankfully two others in our group did. Emily was even able to comprehend that he said, “Say hello to the mountain and ask how it is,” which I found quite poetic. From now on, every time I go hiking, I will say hello to the mountain.

Once we set out upon the grassy path (never would have found it on our own), we dipped down into a valley, crossed a little stream, and climbed another hill, where we spotted a hen and her chicks hiding in a bush and then came out into a family’s driveway. I’m sure they’re used to weird Americans trying to get to the mountain by now. After traipsing our way through a few more streets, we finally made it . . . to the highway. Yes, we had to cross the highway to get to the mountain. Here is (hopefully) a visual:

So it didn’t take us two hours to reach the mountain this time, but our adventure was only beginning! We found a path pretty easily, but it wound around the mountain instead of straight up. Because we were so close to the city, we had a great view of the landscape. I have a bad habit of having to stop every ten vertical feet to take more pictures of pretty much the exact same view, but in this case, the view was pretty great. The city is very interesting, because it’s just so spread out. I’m not sure of the exact limits, but the buildings seem to go on for miles. So much different than where I live, where it’s just steppe and grass as far as you can see.

Then we ran into a shepherd and his flock! I imagine this is not too unusual, but we were pretty excited (at least I was), and then we saw what the shepherd also had with him – a bull. A young one, to be sure, but a bull nonetheless. They were a little ways above us, but we wanted to go up the path toward them. And then the bull started straight down toward us, and we got locked into a stare down. The shepherd didn’t really help, because he herded his sheep down so we were blocked on two sides by them, one side by the way we’d come, and the fourth side by the tumbling-down slope of the mountain. This is one of those awkward moments about life here where you understand that you need to do something, but don’t quite know what exactly to do. But then the shepherd waved us by and we were able to squeeze by him and his sheep. Um, maybe I’m not such a big fan of sheep after all.

At the top of the mountain is a tourist boardwalk area, with restaurants, a kids’ park, a little zoo, souvenir booths, and even a statue of the Beatles! However, apparently most people don’t reach the boardwalk by walking to it. There are buses and even a gondola ride for that. Only crazy people like us try to hike to it, which is why, when we got to the top, we ran into a rollercoaster. This would’ve been fine if it had just been a rollercoaster and we could’ve followed it to the sidewalk, but there was a fence around it that blocked our way to the boardwalk. We followed the fence (which featured a cow skull?) the wrong way and ended up in a valley extremely far away from where we wanted to be. The fence ended because the brush on the hill was so thick that no one could climb up. So we had to retrace our steps and go the other way, which led us to the back of the boardwalk, and we ended up popping up through the woods and onto the sidewalk. Yes, there were a few stares. But we finally got there and the view from the top was pretty grand.

Then we went exploring a bit. I took a picture with a cutout of the snow leopard. We browsed the wares. At the far end of the boardwalk, we stopped at a restaurant overlooking the city. We didn’t want to have a full meal, but after perusing the menu, we agreed that the prospect of milkshakes had won us all over. So we dined on milkshakes (with water as an afterthought) and listened to a sweet 90s mix while the rest of the patrons ordered full-blown, delicious-looking meals and endured our overenthusiastic singing to No Doubt and the Backstreet Boys.

There are actually two sides of the path, so on the way back, we hit the zoo, which was mostly birds, but they also had some goats and an adorable llama, who rolled around in the dirt to scratch his back. You could buy some feed for the animals, and a few kids fed the llama cookies. Adorable, I’m telling you. Then we stopped at the Beatles monument, which features the band members sitting on and standing around a bench. I have no idea how popular the Beatles are here, but this statue was like a photo shoot set. One family was like, “Okay, the daughters, now this daughter by herself, now that one . . .” That, combined with the fact that there’s no concept of waiting in lines in this country, lengthened our wait just a tad.

Well, if we had thought getting up the mountain was difficult, we assumed getting down would be much easier, since we could theoretically follow the same path. Theoretically. But days off can never be that easy. We took a wrong turn on the way down and follow a path alongside the length of the mountain which some of us thought we recognized (Okay, I admit, that was my bad! But to be fair, there was a pipe that I actually did recognize. It must just have been a different section of it). It took us past a tree that had board seats nailed into it, for nut picking, is our best guess. Emily climbed up there to test it out, but it wasn’t sturdy enough to sit on. We continued past it until we got to a house, which was impossible to pass because of the landscape (hill on one side, valley on the other), and finally realized we were on the wrong path, so we had to turn back.

We got back to the fork and took the only other path down we could see, but that wasn’t the right one either. Turns out we had missed the real path earlier, but we only figured that out once we were down the mountain and could see clearly. We were following a pipe line, which was maybe not a good idea, because this new path, though, was steep. Like, ‘your toes will feel crushed by the end because of how your feet are tilted’ kind of steep. Not only steep, but the tall grass was slippery, making the way down perilous. But we made it, and not too far from where we started, so I count that a victory, especially given our typical modes of navigation. All in all, the day was very enjoyable. It felt great to stretch our legs and get some exercise on our only day off.

That evening, we decided to go out for dinner (well, second dinner. We were hungry! And Justin’s appetite resembles a hobbit’s). We’d heard about an English place called The Shakespeare Pub, which turned out to be pretty great, if a little expensive. The atmosphere was pleasant, the staff (and customers!) spoke English, and customer service even popped up. I don’t think any of us knew what to do when the owner stepped outside to ask us how our meals were. Josh and I got Special Shakespeare Burgers. I have no idea why they were called that, but they had barbeque sauce, bacon, and pineapple on them. Yum. Maybe that’s the business for me – going to different countries and opening Edith Wharton-themed restaurants. House of Mirth burger, anyone?


Just a few more tidbits. I’ve been back for a week, and things have been relatively uneventful. The 22-hour train ride passes pretty quickly when there are eleven other volunteers on the train to help you pass the time. A few of us played some hands of Durak (meaning, ‘fool’), which is a local card game. I lost all three hands! Luckily, no one has taken to calling me ‘fool’ yet.

School starts on September 1st, which means not a lot of free time left! (Or maybe none at all if I don’t get around to posting this soon.) However, just to give you an example of how we feel our free time, Josh spent Thursday night dolling out riddles and word games via text. And I at least took the challenges very seriously.

I started the Insanity workout program! It’s brutal, and my calves have never hurt so much in my life, but Shaun T is an excellent motivator. I think I’m going to turn him into my personal motivation coach, haha. Emily, Cat, and I have decided to become workout buds, so I plan on taking advantage of their optimism on those days when my butt needs to be kicked into gear. Also, the Kazakh teacher who lives in my building is finally back from vacation. She’s already asked me to go running! Oh no.

It’s August, and it’s freezing already. They told us the winters would be horrendous; they just didn’t tell us that winter would be so long. Apparently there are only two seasons in this place – a very short summer and a very long winter. It’s not exceptionally cold temperature-wise, maybe in the mid-50s, but the chill is certainly in the air, and the fear is in all the volunteers’ eyes.

That’s all for now. Hope all is well back home!

What I’m Reading: Finished The Hollow Hills. Loved it. I just love Mary Stewart’s style so much. It’s so . . . earthy, I think is the best word. Working on George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords, the third Song of Ice and Fire book. I’m also rereading Our Mutual Friends. The best thing about rereading Dickens is that you get to skip the boring bits. :P

Song of the Blog Post: “Turning Tables” by Adele, because a friend and I watched a Glee episode in which Gwenyth Paltrow sang it, and I love it now.