February to April, 2010
A nine week tour…just like the good old days.
A summary of what I did
I began in Germany, then went to Dubai, Turkey, England, and Austria. After each country I went back to Hungary for a few days. It was a working tour.
There were some very demanding jobs to do during the tour, for example, new plenaries and workshops and preparation for them took over all the preceding months. I don’t worry about lectures for teachers and working with children but I am always anxious to do my best and not waste people’s time. Preparation for me means wandering in the subject, circling my prey through landscapes I have never been in before, in case they might give me new perspectives, fresh glimpses into new ways of looking at things. November, December, January and February largely went on such safaris.
One key talk was the plenary I was asked to do in Turkey. It was my established talk on the centrality of stories in society and in our individual lives but with the addition, ‘in times of change’, in order to make it fit in with the conference theme. Those four words contributed to the four months of preparation. Apart from anything else I got wrapped up in the notion of change and specifically in the way that nothing is fixed and the present habitual tense is misleading: given that we lose or modify one million synapses in our brains every second of our lives and all our body cells are replaced within every seven years, ‘I’ and ‘me ness’ is a fictional notion.
I read several books on the human brain and gathered far too much interesting information. Wandering and gathering must be accompanied by massive sieving! My mind was focused in the hotel the night before my talk in Turkey. After all those months it was only in the moments before I was introduced that I managed to find a reasonable balance between the notion of constant change and the more pressing concerns of language teachers about the potential of stories in their teaching. It was the opening plenary to 1000 people at the ISTEK conference and was on line to another 50,000 as well as having some other peripatetic speakers there waiting for their turn.
So huge preparations and some anxieties to do my best and not waste people’s time. Talking to 1000 people is no problem for me in itself and particularly if I am confident in the subject but anxiety to do my best haunts me and normally has me awake in the hotel the night before so that I get up, stretch out the covers on my bed and completely re organize and re write my talk laying the pages out so I can see them all and live in the sequence.
That is a taste of the work I was doing.
When people ask, ‘How did it go?’ I never know what to say. Did it engage the listeners? Was it of any value to them? Only the listeners can say. All I can say, at best, is, ‘I think I managed to say what I wanted to say and didn’t make too much of a mess of it.’
Glimpses of the countries and social events…
I love being in the company of fellow traveling lecturers…I met Alan Maley in Germany and then in England. I met Jeremy Harmer in Dubai and then in Turkey and in England. There must have been 100 people at IATEFL in England that I have known over the last 20 or 30 years. It is such a pleasure to catch up with, at least, some of them.
And then there are the pleasures of the individual visits…here are random memories…
Alex (Alex is 13 and has autism) came with me and had an exhibition stand of some her 600 typed and illustrated books between the Longmans table and the OUP table and opposite Macmillan. She sold more copies of her first published book than all 3 publishers together. Many teachers visited her stand and admired her books including Stephen Krashen, the linguist and Peter Usborne, the publisher.
She was a lovely traveling companion and was extremely independent being willing to stay at her table most of the time. She did disappear once of twice which was nerve wracking but she turned up OK.
I enjoyed spending time with Stephen Krashen after all these years of knowing his work. He is a very funny man and generous with his time and energy.
Here is a story I heard from him…
An old man was walking down the road when he met a frog. The frog said, ‘I am not a frog. I’m a beautiful princess. You only have to kiss me and I am all yours.’ The old man bent down, picked up the frog and put it into his pocket. The frogs muffled voice came from his pocket, ‘I think there is a misunderstanding. I am not a frog. I am a beautiful princess. All you have to do is to kiss me and I am all yours.’ The old man said, ‘Listen. When you get to my age it’s more interesting to have a talking frog.’
Julia also received an invitation from TESOL Arabia which meant we could go together.
Two nights before we were due to leave to go to Dubai Julia realized that, as a Hungarian, she should have a visa. We phoned Jo, the organiser. We phoned the hotel in Dubai. We talked to a lot of people and the only way of getting the visa quickly was to get the hotel in Dubai to do it…but the visa did not arrive in time and so Julia took me to the airport and helped to check me in. I had to go by myself! As we said goodbye at the passenger entry point Julias phone went. It was a call from Dubai to say that they had just emailed the visa. IF she had had the visa and her suitcase she could have come with me.
We went across to the Air France desk and an employee offered to change Julias ticket without cost so that she could fly that evening! It was so kind of her! And so Julia went back home, packed her case, did last minute admin in the school, organized a baby sitter to live in the house for a week and caught the flight that evening. She arrived next morning in the hotel in Dubai for breakfast with me! So it worked out wonderfully well, thanks to lots of people pulling their fingers out on our behalf.
One disgraceful memory which I must record…
When we checked in with Air France in Budapest we were told that the change in Paris would be very short and the distance in the airport, rather long. Julia immediately said, ‘But Andrew has a heart condition!’ They offered me a lift across the airport and I assumed it would be on one of those electric cars but when I got out of the plane in Paris there was a small round woman with a wheel chair waiting for me and I found myself in it before I could say it was a misunderstanding. I soon found out she was a Yorkshire woman married to a Portuguese and living in Paris. She was puffing and straining to get me up the green carpeted ramp. I said, with my full Yorkshire accent, ‘You sound right puffed! Why don’t you get in the chair and I’ll push you.’ ‘Ooo!’ she said, ‘You are a one!’ I felt it would be less shameful if I tried to look older and sicker so I hunched up one shoulder, and half opened my mouth, hooded my eyes and tried to drool and twitch. I could twitch quite successfully but I didn’t manage to drool any saliva. We chatted away and I really enjoyed her company though I continued to feel ashamed when I heard her wheezing and struggling to push me along. The last section was the worst when she had to take an elderly couple to the same flight but they had no chair. The old man must have been twenty years older than me with one foot in the grave and the other just about dragging him along. I could not resist speculating about the word ‘terminal’ in Terminal D, which we were heading for. On the flight I had to remember to drag myself along the aisles in case the elderly couple saw me. Really shameful.
Julia did two talks and they were packed with people!
After my talks in the TESOL Arabia conference in Dubai I did some teacher training work in Abu Dhabi, about two hours drive away and some for the British Council. I was paid for this work AND enjoyed it very much.
On the social side…
Twenty years ago Dubai was a gritty grey desert. Now it is a jungle of skyscrapers including the highest building on earth. It makes us appreciate our lovely green Hungary and our house and big garden and the forest next door.
But we met many very warm hearted people including Jo and her husband Bear who were central to our being there in the first place and also Konrad Cedro who generously spent time and energy driving us around so that we were able to see some of the more interesting places.
Turkey April 2010
The initial invitation came from Istek Schools but my fees and expenses were funded by OUP and it was OUP colleagues who looked after me most of the time.
Istek Schools put on an international conference attended by 1000 people. It was high class but, at the same time, organised on a warm, individual, human scale. The key organiser was a young woman of 31 called Burcu.
I was asked to give the opening plenary. My subject was: the centrality of stories in a time of change.
Normally, I am not nervous but some of my globe trotting colleagues were there and in particular Jeremy Harmer. I don’t know why but he unnerves me. He and I know each other quite well but I always have the feeling that he feels negatively about me and always avoids my sessions.
Once you hear yourself being introduced there is no going back and I found myself up on the stage, my neck radio mike switched on and waiting to pass my thoughts to 1000 people with Jeremy Harmer on the front row. It makes me grin every time to think that a thousand people are going to listen to me for an hour whatever I say. I cant believe my luck.
Neck mikes are perfect for me. I don’t have to stay in one place but can move around and mime and act with complete freedom. Also good mikes allow me to whisper as well as to change my vocal tones and this fits in very well with my theme as well as my personality, once I get going as a lecturer. My theme was that change is continuous even if particularly striking in technology in recent years: Google, now an international verb, is no older than Timi ie 15.
I put forward the idea that the next major change might be the way in which developing technology in brain scanners will allow us to get to know ourselves for the first time in history…already each one of our 100 billion neurons can be observed…how long will it be before they can be changed and new connections set up? That would be a major change. Our brain could be re-set so that we no longer need stories.
But I was conscious that the 1000 teachers were probably not so interested in my laymans summary of the human brain as in stories …so I got stuck into the way in which food makes our bodies but stories make our minds.
Well, if you want to follow more of my ideas on this you can look at my website (www.andrewarticlesandstories.wordpress.com).
As I gave my plenary talk quite a lot of people were twittering either on their mobile phones or on their computers! To my surprise and to some extent to my pleasure I was told by several of these twitterers that they had been discussing my talk and they showed me twitters from people in other countries who were watching my talk ‘on line’ as I was giving it! (All the plenaries in the conference went out directly on line to the whole blooming world.) All the twitters I saw were complimentary about my session and were from South America, Japan and America…the ones I saw.
Quite a lot of my books were sold and I signed and drew a picture in every book. I like doing that. It seems to give so much pleasure and it is such an innocent thing…not commercial because they have already bought the book. I normally insist they tell me what they would like me to draw and I do my best…some of my drawings make me gasp because they are so economical and vivid…others are clumsier. Interesting that the secret is for m to become totally visual for those moments…if the teacher talks to me the visual image of the animal or other subject just disappears and I am left with blank paper. One teacher asked me to draw her, playing the violin, riding on a horse, galloping through a forest in the night. No problem I said and had a go.
I am always struck by how very kindly, warm, informal and full of fun my Turkish colleagues are. At the same time they must be quite an efficient team because OUP UK has now put them in charge of 41 other countries in Asia, the middle east and in Africa.
They always look after me so well making sure that every moment I am supported by someone, picked up from the hotel, taken to the schools, taken to lunch or dinner and so on.
We had an evening meal. I sat next to Haluk. Haluk has been ‘in charge of me’ for some years. He is very senior in OUP Turkey. A gentle man. I asked him about his life. He told me he had been born and brought up in a village; his mother was illiterate. His father only had primary schooling benefitting from the social changes brought about by Ataturk. Haluck’s father became a trades union representative and so disturbingly for the authorities that Haluk said his family name, Sengec, is still a liability. Before one of the military putches he was imprisoned. This glimpse into my colleagues life is SUCH a privilege. I admire him so much.
Haluk invited me back to his home where I met his wife Deniz and his two daughters. How lucky I am to have had such a glimpse into their lives.
A fellow speaker at Istek was called Rackesh. He speaks English like an Englishman but he was born and brought up in the Punjab in a village. Like Haluk his parents had limited education but amazingly Rackesh finished up in higher education in the UK. He told me so many stories which were fascinating in themselves but also shudderingly, centrally, symbolic and representative of social movements in the twentieth century that I became angry with him for not writing them down and particularly so because I caught him justifying his inactivity by referring to talent and to…wait for it…literary quality. I was so angry. I couldn’t sleep. The next day I told him that he simply had to come to Hungary for 3 days minimum and I would record him…quizzing the details out of him. He has no right not to share his stories. They do not belong to him but to everyone who cares.
Rackesh has retired. He publicly points out (at dinner to all and sundry) that I was an important influence on his thinking as a language teacher, indeed more important for him than any of the lecturers at the Institute of Education in London. He remembers my language teaching activities and remembers my jokes, from 40 years ago. Now he has retired and I am still working! Funny. Rewarding. Reassuring. I am so lucky.
After the conference I worked in schools for OUP. It was challenging because the schools directors decided that all the younger children should meet me so I was given 150 to 200 children in each session. I was asked to do story making with 200 children in each session. I managed reasonably well by doing a collective story with everybody accompanied by stories in groups at the same time. But it is not ideal. Only in one session did I simply fail to hold about 20 children who either slept or chattered about other things. That was hard work. It is always the case that a few children who are not engaged can undermine the whole spirit of the majority who are. I tried every technique in the book to bring the wandering 20 into the occasion but failed.
I didn’t see much as a tourist…one morning a bit of country side which looked just like North Derbyshire and once, far away, the Black Sea. The best was 30 minutes drive along the Bosphorous, that narrow but history packed waterway and we had fish lunch overlooking the Bospherous. Near my hotel I saw a boy half lying on the pavement with a weighing scale in front of him…offering to weigh people for a few pennies. Such a scene reminds me of Mayhew’s London in the mid nineteenth century (mind you…quite a few images from contemporary London remind me of Mayhew as well!).
One school wants me to return for their book week in January 2011 and Surreya at OUP wants me to do a three week tour of Turkey as a storyteller in March 2011 and Yetis is considering my contributing to a two day conference on stories in language teaching. Nice things to look forward to. An excuse to work with these friendly folk again, to eat Turkish food and to see a bit of the country…as well as to enjoy doing my job.
The following text under, Hungary, was written at the time.
4 April 2010
Just back from Miscolc in Eastern Hungary and a visit to my mother in law. We call her grandma although she is younger than me. We spent an hour or more at the cemetary where Attila, Julia’s brother, is now buried with his father. I remember tears on Attila’s strong face and pale skin when his fathers body was lowered into the grave. Now Attila’s body lies dead and decomposing in the same grave. The grave is made of concrete, there is stony soil in the trough of the grave. We bought a lot of pansies and planted them and pulled off the yellow artificial roses from the wreathes still on the grave and we thrust their wire spikes into the soil so they seemed to bloom, leafless. Timi helped with the de potting of the pansies and the planting of them. Alex walked around, hunched, one shoulder higher than the other and her left arm straight as if pushing something away. Julia wept. There is no space left in the cemetary; scarcely space to walk between the thousand grey graves to get to the family grave in the middle. Dead huddled close to dead. On either side the valley rises into forests. A few hundred metres away are the four remaining towers of the castle. Back in time, forty thousand years ago, people lived in this valley and on the surrounding hills. Some perfect stone tools have been found in the stream nearby.
Julia’s father was a lorry driver; a small man with a big nose and always a warm welcome for me. He was frightened of dying and wouldn’t go for check ups and died on his bed, alone.
Attila had a lung x ray and took it to his doctor who told him to go to the hospital next day ignoring the information staring her in the face that his lungs were blocked. He went home and died on his bed. His partner found him rigid and cold in the afternoon. He was 38. Attila had wept on his fathers grave a few months before and now he is in it.
Julia’s mother is mentally sick. Always has been. Julia brought up Attila. He was like a son as well as a brother. She feels responsible for letting him die, so unecessarily, at the age of 38. Julia’s mother is fat and walks unsteadily on her legs and mutters to herself. Her hair is pure white.
Now Attilas ex wife has told Julia that little Dani can no longer see us nor his Grandma.
Dani loved Attila.
Dani is so small but so self contained and so brave.
We are keeping Attila’s thick leather biker jacket to give to Dani when he is older.
I was exhausted. I lay on Attilas bed in the sitting room and fell asleep with Alex. Before I slept Alex said, ‘This is Attilas bed. This is where he died. ‘
I slept deeply and dreamlessly.
Now back home…and I must re write all my notes for my work in England. I go on Tuesday.
Only one day to get everything ready for England but more importantly Timi says the man she has been talking to on the phone for several hours everyday for the last two months may be coming to see her. She warned me that he is disturbing. He has dreadlocks down to his waist and a dreadlock beard. ‘Not because of fashion but because he is a Rastafarian!’ He lives in a small village north of Budapest. Timi says his father is in the secret service.
I have just made myself a Raki. Day by day moments are such a challenge.
This visit to England was principally for the IATEFL annual conference in Harrogate. I hired a car in Luton and drove to Harrogate, arriving at midnight at the hotel. Having worried myself for 48 hours about every single detail of the journey I arrived at the conference centre on the Wednesday morning, only to find out that the conference opened the next day…I was 24 hours early. I suppose that is funny but I didn’t find much joy in the funniness of it.
I had a good conference…my session was OK, I think, and I met many old friends.
I had dinner with David Heathfield, the storyteller. I think we should consider doing some work together in future. Also I was delighted to have dinner with Yetis from OUP Turkey. He is such a nice man and manages to combine great experience as a publisher with real feeling and experience as a teacher and researcher into the use of stories in language teaching.
I also had a wonderful English breakfast with Alan Maley and Jaya from Malaysia.
I left the conference on Saturday after lunch so that I could go to visit Tom, Susan, Dylan and Alice in York and was just about…more or less…in time for Alice’s second birthday. It was great to have some fun with Dylan and Alice. Then off again, on Sunday, driving to Luton and then back to Budapest and, to my great pleasure, Julia there to collect me.
I arrived home from England on the Sunday and the next day took the train to Linz in Austria where I stayed overnight in the university hotel and then met class 2L and the two teachers Margit and Petra on the Tuesday morning and drove to Spital am Phyrn by coach. This was the first of two project weeks.
I have done project weeks for LISA Auhof Gymnasium for 17 years. And I love it.
For the last few years our topic has been Otzi, the man found in the ice 5000 years after he died. We research his life and death with information from books and the internet, then climb from 650 metres to 1200 metres and the snow line at that time of the year…so that the children can have a taste of climbing a mountain in the early spring like Oetzi…but he climbed to 3200 metres…and he was shot in the back with an arrow. They spend the week, researching, studying the facts, imagining what happened and why and then write it all up and illustrate it. They are 12 and 13 years old and do all of this in their second or third foreign language. We never give marks, never choose the ‘best’ one but publish all the stories. I never entreat them to do their best or urge them to write in correct English. I just tell them that I could never throw their book away and that their grandchildren will look at the book and ask, ‘Wheres yours grandma?’ And they are desperate to do their best with a good story, richly written and carefully illustrated.
I do two project weeks and I stay in the same huge matronly shaped house where in the intervening weekend I go walking in the mountains and watching the town football team. And I get well paid! And my room is just above the constant rush of the millstream racing from the mountain above to any place which is lower down.
I loved doing the work this year as much as any before.
On the last Friday of the second week I went back to Linz with the children in the bus and was dropped off at the main railway station. I caught the train to Vienna Westbahnhof and then took the tram to Pearl’s flat in central Vienna.
TEA Teachers of English in Austria
The TEA conference was that same weekend so I couldn’t go back to Hungary. Although the conference people booked me into a hotel it was much more interesting to meet Pearl and Bonnie Tsai who was also staying with Pearl and attending the conference than it was to stay in a hotel.
Pearl is extraordinary. Having run a private language school in Vienna for many years she managed to change from that work to working as a teacher in a hauptschule in Vienna and then developed a special niche within teacher training focused on non verbal classroom management. She is now so successful that her teacher training schedule is booked up for the next year or more and in many countries. Pearl is a lot of fun and we exchange stories at a good old rate and experience one emotion after another, one moment horrified and the next roaring with laughter.
Bonnie is another extraordinary woman. Bonnie is plump and now her legs don’t work very well and she has to walk very slowly. Her face is sad a lot of the time although a warm and happy smile can suddenly burst through the clouds just as it used to do. Bonnie works in Business English and, undaunted, manages to use all kinds of humanistic techniques from her NLP training and her own natural creativity.
My sessions at the conference seem to have gone down well. I was so sorry that Mark Fletcher with whom I had a long and interesting and friendly talk during the day chose not to come to my plenary. I don’t think he has been to any of my sessions…indeed I wonder if he knows what I do. I was really sorry because I would so much value being appreciated by my fellow travelling lecturers but they rarely come to my sessions even though I usually go to theirs. Once more, my session was on stories, this time, ‘Your Stories for Them and Theirs for You.’ Because it was the last session of a long day I made it more of a storytelling than a workshop for teachers and I think this was appreciated. There were times when I felt the huge presence of utter silence. It is so special to have a hundred or a thousand people in one room and to experience such moments when nobody moves, hardly breathes, as they live in a reality which is in their minds and not in the room they are in.
Fortunately, the conference leader, Candy, came and seemed to really like the session…to my great relief.
Then, at last, Sunday and back on the train from Vienna to Budapest and so nice that Julia managed to find time to come to fetch me from Keleti Station.
We didn’t go home immediately but went to a wonderful exhibition of paintings from St Petersburg…paintings I have known in reproduction but now, at last, on the wall in front of me.
It was like a holiday.
At long last no more worries about getting to places on time and doing a decent job. Or that is what I felt.
But there was a hatful of other things to worry about, waiting for me at home.