Bits of Bulgaria

My good friend Hannah has been living in Bulgaria this year, teaching English in a secondary school. Since I never got around to visiting Hannah while she was doing Peace Corps in Georgia, I decided it was high time I visit her in Bulgaria. She’s finishing up her first year and will stay on next year to work with the BEST (Bulgarian English Speech and Debate Tournaments) Foundation, which organizes speech and debate tournaments — modeled on the American format that some of you may have taken part in during high school — around Bulgaria. Anyway, I spent a lovely few days with Hannah both in Sofia, the capital, and in Pravets, the town she’s been living in. What follows are a few cultural observations and a number of photos of my trip.

I didn’t know much about Bulgaria before traveling, other than a few tidbits I gleaned from reading the Wikipedia page and that I have a Bulgarian learner at work. My expectations were based mainly on my experiences living in Ukraine; I wondered how Bulgaria would feel in comparison, especially as it has been part of the EU for 10 years (and Ukraine has not).

Firstly, language: Bulgarian, like Ukrainian, is a Slavic language and written in the Cyrillic alphabet. I felt strangely at home wandering the streets of Sofia and being able to read signs both in Cyrillic and Latin script. I picked up a number of Bulgarian phrases in my few days there and could understand some, too, thanks to my background in Ukrainian. Hannah’s Bulgarian sounds really good after only ten months there.

Sofia felt both like a Ukrainian city — corner shops selling a random assortment of snacks and alcohol, a good deal of chunky Soviet-style architecture — and much more western — an Asian noodle restaurant, many signs in English, and most cafe/restaurant staff speaking English. It was a fascinating contrast for me.

In terms of food, there’s a good deal of international cuisine in Sofia. Bulgarian cuisine features banitsa, a tasty cheese-stuffed filo pastry snack; lots of yogurt; ayran (a salty kefir-like drink); and fresh, colorful salads (that are not covered in mayonnaise!).

Pravets, the town Hannah lives in, is about 60km north of Sofia and has a cozy population of 4,500. Hannah teaches at the language high school, which draws students from around the region. There’s also a big hotel and golf course that bring in some tourism. It’s in a valley and is surrounded by beautiful green mountains. A peaceful spot.


Singing Bach’s “St. John Passion” in English

This weekend saw a culmination of an exciting project taken on by the Crouch End Festival Chorus, of which I am a member. Last August, the chorus recorded Bach’s St. John Passion (SJP) in English for the first time in 45 years. Alas, I wasn’t part of the recording, but I had the privilege of performing the piece with the choir this weekend in St. John’s Smith Square, a concert that coincided with Chandos’ release of the CD.

First, some background and thoughts on language: as you may know, Bach’s St. John Passion was originally written in German. It’s a magnificent oratorio, musically and dramatically. So why bother translating it into English?

As our music director David tells it, he saw a performance of SJP in English a few years ago and was at first scornful, being someone (like myself) who prefers pieces to be sung in their original language. But David said that hearing SJP being sung in English brought him much closer to the story and moved him in ways that the German version didn’t…because he could understand the words!

Sunlight streams over music. Yes, we were told to write “turbo charge” in our scores. I had to cross out some of the German so I wouldn’t sing in the wrong language.

In last night’s pre-concert chat, translator Neil Jenkins argued that the Bach Passions are acts of worship: they are, after all, oratorios set to Biblical texts about the Passion of Christ and thus often performed in the run-up to Easter. Jenkins made a similar remark to David’s revelation, in that hearing SJP in English brings the audience closer to the text and thus allows the audience to better perform the act of worship. The Bach Camerata’s lead cellist, also on the pre-concert chat panel, noted that for her and the other instrumentalists, hearing the choir sing in English allows the orchestra to add extra feeling in the right places — again, because they can understand the words. Jenkins talked about earlier English translations of SJP and how they tried to stick to literal translations from the German and the Bible’s actual words; but this meant that some words and phrases felt and sounded awkward to sing. In his translation, Jenkins made a point of retaining the meaning but also choosing words with comfortable vowels for the singers (thank you!).

Pre-Concert chat with Neil Jenkins (translator), David, and the Bach Camerata’s lead cellist/founder.

While I was initially skeptical of singing SJP in English, being a proponent of singing in the original language, I must admit that I got a lot out of the piece. Although I do speak German, it was exciting to experience the SJP’s story unfold in my native language and feel the immediate effects of the drama. It was also brilliant to sing with the Bach Camerata again; they are a fantastic period-instrument ensemble, complete with funny-looking wind instruments and a beautiful viola da gamba.

In rehearsals for this concert, the texts of the choruses sounded a bit random on their own. When we got to the dress rehearsal and concert at St. John’s Smith Square, though, everything came together with the addition of the soloists, led by Robert Murray as the Evangelist, or narrator, of the drama. The choir, I realized, acts many parts throughout the oratorio: the crowds of Jews, the priests, and the contemporary (in Bach’s time or ours) congregation commenting on the action. Despite not being a believer, I found some parts of the SJP quite moving.

Overall, the concert went well and the audience was enthusiastic; choir members in the audience gave us good marks for our diction. We had brilliant soloists in Murray along with Andrew Ashwin as Christ, Grace Davidson (soprano), Robin Blaze (countertenor), Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), and Ben Davies (bass). Some of the soloists, along with the Bach Camerata, are also on the recording that just came out.

I could go on, but I’ll let you read David’s blog post for more and send you to buy the CD here or here if you are interested. Thanks for reading!

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Birthday Wisdom 2016

Another year older, another birthday reflection post! I turned 28 this week and F baked me the best cake anyone has ever made me:

IMG_2976

Last year I wrote about completing an MA and DELTA and starting a new full-time job. I offered a word of wisdom on prioritizing and finding balance. This past year has tested those words of wisdom on more than one occasion, but I like to think I tried my best to stick to them.

Looking back on this year, I’m coming up on two years as an ESOL and Functional Skills English teacher to migrant women in a deprived area of east London. I’ve taken on responsibility as a line manager and am completing a leadership and management course through work to help me develop in those areas. Teaching continues to bring its joys and challenges; switching to a new exam board for our ESOL courses has helped our students’ achievement rates, but there are still kinks to work out. I have an incredible set of colleagues, inspirational women all.

Ready to get married! 8 April 2016. Photo credit: Fotomanufaktur Wessel (www.fotomanufaktur-wessel.de)

Ready to get married! 8 April 2016. Photo credit: Fotomanufaktur Wessel (www.fotomanufaktur-wessel.de)

This year was big because F and I got married! It felt like the right time. He proposed last summer on Cape Cod, a memorable and meaningful spot for my family and for us, with fond memories of cycling, swimming, running, pastry eating, and relaxing. We got married in Germany this April, in a small civil ceremony with parents by our sides.

This past year has also seen a good deal of choral singing, with highlights being Rachmaninov’s Vespers at St. John’s College Chapel, Cambridge; Mozart’s Mass in C minor; Bach’s Mass in B minor; and even recording a Christmas CD. F and I saw Steven Isserlis in a solo recital and we attended a few other concerts, theatre and musical theatre productions. We must take advantage of London cultural life while we can!

Running and sport(s) have been up and down. I did run a 5k PR/PB last September  but slowed down after that, due to busyness and stress in other aspects of life. I’m currently focusing on rebuilding my running fitness base and starting to incorporate speedwork again. I also did my first multisport event this past year: a team duathlon! It was a blast and I could see myself doing more run-bike-run events in the future.

Recent political events in the UK/EU and the USA made me gravitate towards the following quote as my word of wisdom for this year:

We all have a responsibility to now seek to heal the divisions that have emerged throughout this campaign – and to focus on what unites us, rather than that which divides us.

-Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, after the ‘Brexit’ vote

With that, I wish you all a tolerant year of unity.

At the theatre: English National Opera’s “The Mikado”

When my parents visited in May, we took them to see the English National Opera‘s (ENO) production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.” It was such good fun that last weekend F and I attended another Gilbert and Sullivan production at the ENO — this time, “The Mikado”. Here’s my review:

Whereas the ENO “Pirates” took a minimalist and period approach to its setting and costumes, “The Mikado” took the cast and audience back to the 1920s. The set was a cream and white space on a tilted stage platform. The performers wore pristine suits and flapper dresses while speaking with über-posh English accents (plenty of diphthong!). There were even six male and six female dancers, dressed as waiters and maids, that added to the 1920s feel with tap dance and the Charleston. The only inconsistency was that, at least according to the libretto, they were still supposed to be Japanese.

Musically, “The Mikado” is a strong production. Anthony Gregory played Nanki-Poo with the right dose of romanticism and sang with a solid tenor voice. Mary Bevan’s Yum Yum complimented him well, although I was more impressed by Rachael Lloyd’s Pitti-Sing; she has more opportunity for comedy and has quite a few solos for a supporting character. Graeme Danby’s Pooh-Bah, however, stood out the most. Danby had solid comic timing in his (literally) multi-faceted role and his rich, agile bass voice and excellent diction were a joy to listen to. A musical highlight was listening to the above four singers join forces in Act II’s quartet, “Brightly Dawns Our Wedding Day” — beautiful.

Fergus Macleod led the ENO orchestra to a great performance that complimented the singers without overpowering them. The men’s and women’s choruses had good intonation, although their diction could have been better. There was more spoken dialogue in “The Mikado” than I expected and it gave me a chance to revel in the wittiness and precision of Gilbert’s libretto.

Trust the ENO to inject some present-day politics and pop culture into Gilbert and Sullivan — the operettas already use parody, after all. The ENO used Ko-Ko’s opening monologue, “As some day it may happen” or “I’ve Got a Little List,” to get digs at the English rugby team, the VW emissions scandal, and even David Cameron’s “close encounter with a pig.” Brilliant.

Overall, the ENO’s “Mikado” is well worth seeing. The setting is fun, the singing is strong, and the libretto is spot-on. It makes a great way to escape and enjoy a rainy weekend afternoon. Go see it if you have the chance.

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Singing Mozart & Britten at the Barbican

As a member of the Crouch End Festival Chorus, I was kept busy for the past six weeks as we spent one to two nights a week preparing to sing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Mass in C minor, K. 427/417a (1782-83) and Benjamin Britten’s Saint Nicolas, Op.42 cantata (1948). With a shorter rehearsal period than usual, we all had to put in extra effort, but I’d say it paid off in our concert at the Barbican on 18 October.

Photo credit: FZ

Photo credit: FZ

It helped that we had the London Mozart Players as our orchestra for the evening. They are an incredible group of professional musicians and it was an honor to sing with them. The soloist lineup was also impressive, the highlight being Grace Davidson, who sang the Monteverdi Vespers with us in February. Fellow soprano K referred to her as, “she who cannot be faulted” — yes, she is that good. Julia Doyle, Ed Lyon, and Dominic Sedgwick blended well with Davidson in the Mozart mass, and Ed Lyon performed a dramatic Nicolas in Britten’s cantata.

But on to the music. I would venture to say that Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor is one of the few well-known pieces that Mozart wrote in a minor mode, and it carries every bit of weight and drama you might know from works such as his Symphony no. 25 in G minor, Symphony no. 40 in G minorRequiem Mass, and parts of his opera Don Giovanni. Our director, DT, believes the Mass in C minor is even better than the Requiem — the latter, of course, is more often performed and enshrouded in the tragedy of Mozart’s early death before finishing it. But the Great Mass is glorious (and also happens to be unfinished). I love singing Mozart because it suits my voice well; the soprano parts sit comfortably in my upper register and I’m able to bring out my operatic vibrato sound, cultivated back in my Oberlin Musical Union days thanks to exposure to many talented voice majors. My favorite movements to sing in the Mass in C minor were the opening “Kyrie” and the powerful “Qui tollis”:

Along with the heavy and dramatic bits, Mozart’s mass has plenty of tricky runs and a couple of fugues that hearken back to Bach, Handel, and Monteverdi. Much of the solo writing foreshadows Mozart’s late operas. I just love it.

Photo credit: FZ

Photo credit: FZ

In contrast to the Mass in C minor, Britten’s cantata Saint Nicolas can only be described as “quirky.” Britten wrote it in 1948 for amateur singers and musicians (plus a solo tenor part for his partner Peter Pears to sing), so it has choral parts for boy sopranos, and small choruses for childlike soprano and alto voices. We had three school choirs join us for those parts, which created a lovely balance of adult and children’s voices. Based on the life of Nicolas, who became the patron saint of sailors and children as well as Santa Claus, Britten’s cantata tells a compelling story of Nicolas’ life, works, and piety before he becomes a saint. The cantata has drama, journeys to Palestine, a storm at sea, and even pickled boys. Britten has also embedded two hymns in the work, which DT rehearsed with the audience so they could join in at the right times.

An Oberlin friend, who is an accomplished musician himself, came to the concert and said that the chorus was “really quite impressive,” especially for an amateur group. Thanks, S! I think the concert went really well and it was incredible to sing with the London Mozart Players. Some audience members complained that the Mozart Mass in C minor was “too much of a sop-fest,” but I didn’t mind a bit. Britten’s cantata was a nice contrast to the mass and highlighted our chorus’ ability to make musical connections with school choirs as well as professional musicians.

Next up: Bach’s Mass in B minor at the Barbican in January. Get your tickets now!

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Book Review: Diane Chandler, “The Road to Donetsk”

I was recently contacted by Blackbird Digital Books to read and review a new digitally published novel, Diane Chandler’s The Road to Donetsk. I received a free digital copy of the book and no other compensation. All thoughts and opinions below are my own.

Photo from Google Images

In May 1994, fresh-faced 26-year-old Vanessa arrives in newly independent Ukraine from Manchester, England for her first international aid stint. From Kyiv (Chandler spells it Kiev, the Russian transliteration) Vanessa will oversee the implementation of a £3 billion program to help set up job centers and training to battle rising unemployment after the fall of the Soviet Union.

One of the first non-Ukrainians that Vanessa meets in Kyiv is Dan, an American working for USAID in Ukraine. Before Vanessa is properly introduced, we find ourselves in a propellor plane with her and Dan, on a last-minute trip to Donetsk for a coal mine tour. (Donetsk and its people, we quickly sense, will become a central part of the novel’s narrative.) Vanessa is immediately attracted to Dan’s relaxed American charm, and it does not take long before a romance develops. However, for the first third of the book the romance feels forced and awkwardly dropped into the otherwise fascinating and insightful commentary on Ukraine in its early days of independence.

Chandler vividly and accurately depicts Ukraine in its many guises: simple, sparkling yet laborious village life alongside grim and grimy underpaid miners; expat communities in Kyiv; vast steppe and birch forests; crumbling balconies and garish curtains; complex people who are hard to get to know. Chandler knows her stuff, having managed aid programs in Ukraine around the time she sets the novel. Vanessa’s story at times reads like Chandler’s memoir, so accurately and sensitively does the author portray Ukraine.

Vanessa begins her time in Ukraine as a stereotypical self-professed altruist; she feels a need to “help improve” the lives of the Ukrainians and yet shies away from learning from the people, about the people. Dan emerges as her mentor as well as her lover, feeding her astute commentary such as:

…it’s the way it is here. They expect you to come up with the answers. They always come prepared with their set piece, they toss a problem in the air and then they sit back wanting you to fix it for them. [..] Look, in the Soviet Union, you didn’t speak out, you didn’t offer solutions… (69)

Myriad cultural differences lie under the surface, differences so ingrained into each culture that Vanessa needs all the help she can get to begin to understand them. A surly Ukrainian colleague on the aid program staff helps dispel Vanessa’s naivety:

But do you really expect that we should welcome you here as missionaries? To show us the right ways? If so then you are misled. Because we are more clever than you. Have you any idea of the intelligence we needed simply to survive under communist regime? (355)

This could not be a more timely book, highlighting Ukraine’s precarious position between Russia and Western Europe that has been the case for much of history. This position is particularly relevant since the Euromaidan demonstrations starting in 2013 that have led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine. In the context of the novel, a Ukrainian tells Vanessa at one point that Ukraine stands “at the crossroads between East and West, we are the prize which you and Russia fight over. It is like a tug of war” (354). How times have not changed.

As Vanessa struggles with her position as a western aid facilitator in a complicated country, her romance with Dan also develops its own complexities. The novel’s romantic elements start to feel less forced as Vanessa’s attraction to Dan develops a balance between Dan as a more experienced mentor in the aid world and Vanessa’s fresh, somewhat naive take on it. Recalling that this story is told as an older Vanessa’s memories, we start to sense that something may happen to doom the relationship. Will Ukraine get in the way?

Overall, Chandler’s novel is insightful and enjoyable to read. There are some inconsistencies, such as when Ukraine’s Independence Day is stated as August 25th (it is actually the 24th). I  also found some of the British slang stilted: Vanessa sits “keening silently”; why not just “weeping”? Despite these rough patches, The Road to Donetsk improves greatly after the first third and illuminates important and timely aspects of the aid world.

My reading experience was further enhanced by having lived in Ukraine for over two years as a US Peace Corps Volunteer. I often identified with Vanessa’s feelings and observations about the Ukrainian people and their lives. For example, I never did discover the answer to this conundrum:

…the young for the most part attractive and svelte, while the older peasant women had become almost tubular with age, their skin gnarled. At what point did this transformation happen? I wondered… (150)

Discussion of how Vanessa’s aid program impacts the country and people at the grassroots level also struck a chord with me, as this is what the Peace Corps aims to do in sending out volunteers to communities around a country. Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) strive to “walk alongside” the people to foster cross-cultural connections and transfer skills. I remember having similar feelings to Vanessa upon reading this passage near the end of the novel:

That we expect a programme to bring about a lasting and yet so radical change in three short years is unfathomable for me – although I did genuinely expect this back then. […] All those people who came into contact with our programme took with them skills and experience into the local economy, into their future… (383)

Many PCVs begin their service with expectations like Vanessa’s; however, we soon learn that despite all the grants we write and trainings we lead, implementing something sustainable in a country with such a different history, culture, and mindset can be nearly impossible. But the people who do come into contact with a PCV or other aid program take away skills and experience, along with memories, into their futures. The exchange is mutual and it changes us for the better.

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The Road to Donetsk has been named a Finalist for this year’s People’s Book Prize. You can purchase Diane Chandler’s novel from Amazon UK and Waterstones. Many thanks to Blackbird Digital Books for the opportunity to read and review this fascinating novel.

 

Summer Singing: An “All-Night Vigil”

This month I participated in wrapping up the Crouch End Festival Chorus concert season with two performances of Rachmaninov’s Vespers, Op. 37, also known as the All-Night Vigil (or Всенощное бдение, for those of you versed in Russian).

Composed in 1915, Rachmaninov’s Vespers is a monumental work: 15 movements of Russian Orthodox texts set a cappella with lots of lush, thick harmonies. As our director DT pointed out, recordings of the piece can last anywhere from 50 to 75 minutes, depending on who is conducting. DT opted for us to sing a speedier rendition, clocking in at 50-53 minutes.

Interestingly, Rachmaninov kept the texts in an older form of Russian, which was more phonetic than modern Russian. For example, in today’s Russian the letter о would be pronounced as а after some consonants. In the Vespers text, the о‘s remain о‘s. (Side note: in our first rehearsal of the Vespers, my brain got quite confused because I could read both the Cyrillic and transliterated texts so didn’t know where to look. I opted to cross out the English transliteration and read the Cyrillic instead. I had to put in some pronunciation reminders for myself, though, since even the older Russian is less phonetic than Ukrainian. It was fun to brush off my Cyrillic-reading skills.)

Language digression aside, the Vespers are much harder to sing than they sound. Lots of hairpin swells, dynamic changes, and sopranos having to sing high and ppp — not to mention the Russian. All those elements together meant I didn’t enjoy singing the piece quite as much as I thought I would, but it was certainly a good challenge and I did like singing in Russian. Have a listen while you’re reading the rest of this post:

We bookended the Vespers with four short a cappella works: Grieg’s Ave Maris Stella, de Victoria’s O quam gloriosum, Gabrieli’s Jubilate deo, and Lotti’s Crucifixus a 8 (total musical orgasm — just have a listen below — also that guy is impressive).

We performed this musical program twice: first at Southwark Cathedral in London (where we sang summer concert #1 last year) and then at St. John’s College Chapel in Cambridge. Southwark has great acoustics, but the concert there was tough: it was a Friday evening, so everyone was tired from the workweek; the cathedral was way too warm; there were a lot of us positioned close together but facing out (naturally), which made it hard to hear the other parts.

The concert in St. John’s Chapel was completely different: it’s smaller than Southwark and has incredible acoustics — probably the best I’ve ever experienced as a singer. We performed in a horseshoe shape, which made it easier to hear the other parts. It was also much cooler. There’s a benefit to performing the same program twice (and the second time on a Saturday) — we were all more rested and relaxed, and it was inspiring to sing in such a beautiful and resonant space.

The St. John’s audience was very appreciative and the Rachmaninov harmonies sounded glorious. F said it was his second favorite concert of ours, after February’s Monteverdi Vespers. I’m glad to have finished the concert season on a high note (ha!). Stay tuned for the new concert season…

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Book Review: “The Essence of Jargon”

Just a quick note to point you towards my most recent book review for Full Stop, of Alice Becker-Ho’s The Essence of Jargon. A teaser:

Slang both communicates and protects: those who understand slang — in this case, the “dangerous classes” — receive and absorb straight information, while those who are not part of the groups using such slang — i.e., policemen and other “adversaries” — are deceived by the double or covered meanings in the language.

“Reflections in Lifelong Lifewide Learner Journeys”: RaPAL Conference 2015

Some of you may know that, in addition to being a runner, amateur cook/baker, (former) literature student, and singer/enjoyer of music, I am also a teacher of English as a foreign language. There have been hints of that on my blog, from my experiences teaching English in Ukraine as a Peace Corps Volunteer to blogging about my journey through the CELTA course a couple of years ago. Last fall I slogged through the DELTA course but didn’t blog about it since I was working full time in parallel.

Anyway, at the moment I am an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher for the Women’s Project of an east London charity; we work with settled migrant women in the community and I teach courses from basic English and literacy to accredited ESOL courses. I love it. As part of my job I was fortunate enough to attend a half-day conference last week in London, put on by RaPAL (Research and Practice in Adult Literacy). The theme for the annual colloquium was “Reflections in Lifelong Lifewide Learner Journeys.” Here’s what I got out of it.


Jim Crowther, a University of Edinburgh Senior Lecturer in Community Education, gave a keynote speech on embracing the uncertainty of a learner’s ever-changing, continually unfolding journey. He talked about Scotland’s Social Practice Approach in literacy and numeracy, which 1) starts with learner strengths, not weaknesses; 2) makes the material relevant to the learners; and 3) fosters and supports critical thinking in an “informal” (i.e., community education) setting.

Crowther said:

Education is about a relationship built on trust.

We may learn things we didn’t want to learn or things we didn’t think about learning. He also said:

Risk and trust are important ingredients in learning.


Claire Collins gave a presentation on Practitioner-Led Action Research (PLAR). I had to do a bunch of action research for my DELTA course and this session helped remind me of its importance and usefulness for self-development and professional practice as well as to keep exploring what my own “best practice” is.

In short, PLAR aims to improve and involve teaching practice while increasing the understanding of practice by practitioners. PLAR helps us to engage in real problems and can be useful to other teachers in similar situations. It’s useful for critical reflection and linking theory and practice.

We did a group activity to brainstorm what we would consider carrying out research on:

I would consider carrying out research on...

“I would consider carrying out research on…” (view larger: https://www.mindmeister.com/550860722)


My favorite part of the conference was Julie Furnivall’s presentation on applying the Reflect Approach to professional practice in adult literacies, which she calls Reflect ESOL.

Reflect ESOL is a learner centred approach with the following characteristics:

  • It addresses power relationships between teacher and students
  • The teacher steps back to listen for the students to have more say
  • The teacher empowers students rather than forcing things on them
  • It gives students a voice
  • The teacher uses his/her facilitation skills

This approach works to help students create their own meaning through sharing experiences, which produces language that can be developed. To use Reflect ESOL you start with a visualisation of issues. This could take the form of a map, photo, or diagram. Furnivall showed an example of a tree image in which the trunk represents a problem, the roots describe the cause, and falling fruit represents issues that arise.

We did a Reflect ESOL taster with a river image: where will we go (flow)? My colleague and I decided to use our river to represent a woman’s journey through study at our centre:

Reflect ESOL River: Women's Project learner journey

Reflect ESOL River: Women’s Project learner journey

Here’s what some of the other groups did with their rivers:

Reflect ESOL: Rivers

Reflect ESOL: Rivers (view larger: http://padlet.com/bexferriday1/rapal2)

The Reflect ESOL approach reminded me a little of the Dogme ELT approach, in which the teacher presents the class with a discussion topic — or, in Reflect ESOL, a drawing project — and uses that as a jumping-off point to share thoughts and opinions before the teacher identifies a language point or two to help his/her students develop.

I am excited to try and implement some mini Reflect ESOL sessions in my classes, both to help my students develop creativity and autonomy, and to help me better recognize and cater to their learning needs.

In sum, I took a lot of useful tidbits away from the RaPAL Colloquium that I can share with my colleagues and think about trying out in my own teaching practice. Thanks, RaPAL!


At the Theatre: English National Opera’s “The Pirates of Penzance”

I grew up attending the occasional community theatre production of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, the most memorable being HMS Pinafore, The Mikado, and The Pirates of Penzance. That’s partly why discount TimeOut London tickets to the English National Opera (ENO) production of The Pirates of Penzance caught my eye. Even better, the dates coincided with my parents’ visit to London last week. My parents always enjoy a bit of theatre and music — after all, they’re the ones who dragged me to those community productions as a kid — so I snapped up some Saturday matinee tickets for Pirates. As if I needed further incentive, I also hadn’t yet been to see the ENO. Here’s my mini review of the production.

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The ENO’s The Pirates of Penzance was hilarious and good fun all around. We all liked the colorful, minimalist stage set: bold orange, green, and blue sliding half-circles, stairs, and a half moon “ship” worked effectively and kept the focus on the acting and singing.

Vocally, Claudia Boyle’s Mabel stole the show. Her effortless runs, pure tone, and range were particularly evident in the first half’s “Poor Wandering One.” The female chorus — playing the Major General’s daughters — produced a lovely one-voiced sound, and the male choruses (the pirates and the constables) were also strong.

While the singing was solid all around, unfortunately Robert Murray’s acting as Frederic was flat and couldn’t match Boyle’s comic timing as Mabel. Luckily, Jonathan Lemalu’s performance as the Sergeant of Police was spot-on and complete with a great Cornish accent; the character worked well alongside Rebecca de Pont Davies’ comically tragic Ruth.

David Parry led the orchestra well through the light and hummable score, although occasionally it took a few measures for the orchestra and singer(s) to settle into the same tempo.

I hadn’t seen a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta since before my days of musicology courses in college. With a much greater knowledge of 19th-century opera, I really appreciated the parodies of Romantic opera that Gilbert and Sullivan slip into Pirates: the overdone melodrama, impossible-to-fulfill promises, and an improbably (but pleasingly) happy ending.

In short, The Pirates of Penzance makes for a hilarious, rollicking afternoon and I’d highly recommend that you see the ENO’s production before its run ends.

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International Women’s Day 2015

“The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights” -Gloria Steinem

Happy International Women’s Day (IWD)! Today is the day to celebrate the achievements of women around the world but also to recognize barriers that many women continue to face and emphasize the need to keep pushing for greater gender equality.

I wasn’t really aware of IWD until my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in Ukraine, where IWD is a national holiday. (I’ve written a bit about how IWD is celebrated in Ukraine here and here.) The holiday isn’t really celebrated in the US — I was talking about this strangeness recently with Hannah, who is currently a PCV in Georgia. Perhaps because it started in Europe, it has never really been adopted by the US (correct me if I’m wrong — I haven’t lived in the US for a while!). It’s only an official holiday in a handful of countries, but today the United Nations recognizes and issues remarks about it.

Anyway, Women’s Day is one of my favorite holidays because it does have a two-pronged effect of celebrating women’s achievements and also drawing attention to the still-rampant inequality across the world and what work still needs to be done to ensure that women have the same rights and opportunities as men.

Along those lines, there are two great initiatives worth learning about and supporting: Emma Watson’s HeForShe campaign, “a solidarity movement for gender equality,” echoing Steinem’s quote above that gender equality is a human rights issue, “not only a women’s issue.”*

The second initiative is Let Girls Learn, a US government initiative “to ensure adolescent girls get the education they deserve.”** The even cooler part of this is that Michelle Obama just announced that The Peace Corps is partnering with Let Girls Learn to continue expanding the areas and ways that girls are encouraged and educated around the world. There will be more targeted trainings for PCVs,  grants for gender-related projects, and more PCVs trained to focus specifically on “advancing girls’ education and empowerment.”*** So good.

Women’s Day also holds a special place in my heart because the work I currently do is exclusively with women. I work at a charity in one of the most deprived boroughs in London; we provide settled migrant women with the opportunity to learn English (my role), learn new skills, gain confidence, and train for future study and work. My students inspire me every day and I am proud to be making even a small difference in the lives of other women.

How do you feel about IWD? What are you doing to make a difference in the lives of women and girls?

*http://www.heforshe.org
*http://www.usaid.gov/letgirlslearn
***https://letgirlslearn.peacecorps.gov

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Recipe: Kholodnyk (Cold Beet & Buttermilk Soup)

vibrant

vibrant

While I was visiting my parents in Rochester, T invited us over for Sunday brunch on the cozy back patio (S was away hiking). As usual, T provided a delicious spread: blueberry cake, salmon quiche (have to get that recipe!), and this incredible kholodnyk. It’s a traditional Russian/Ukrainian/Polish cold buttermilk and beet soup — it made a delicious first brunch course on a warm morning. I immediately asked T for the recipe, which she said came from epicurious and was really easy. She was right — this takes 10-15 minutes to whisk together and makes a vibrant, healthy summer soup. It works well as a brunch accompaniment, as we enjoyed it, or as an appetizer before dinner. It received full marks from F when I made it back in London. I went heavy on the beets and forgot radishes — it still tasted great. Feel free to take this recipe as a base and modify ingredients and amounts for a chunkier or thinner soup.

IMG_5822

 

Do you have a favorite cold summer soup? Share it in a comment below!

Kholodnyk (Cold Beet & Buttermilk Soup) (adapted from epicurious; serves 3-4)

Ingredients

  • 3 cups buttermilk
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2-3 cups (~250g) grated pickled beets
  • 1/4 cup beet liquid (if not using pickled beets, use 1/8 cup water + 1/8 cup white wine vinegar)
  • 1.5 – 2 cups English cucumber, grated
  • 1/2 cup chopped radishes
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh dill

Procedure

  • In a large bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, sour cream, & salt.
  • Stir in the grated beets, beet liquid, cucumber, radishes, & dill.
  • Cover and chill for at least 15 minutes, then serve cold as an appetizer or light main course.

Enjoy!

Xeraco & Valencia, Spain

A few weeks ago F and I ventured to southeastern Spain for some R&R in the midst of an already-busy summer. We had been invited to S&I’s wedding — hence the location — so decided to make a proper vacation out of it. The vacationness was enhanced by the fact that we stayed in a beautiful flat on Xeraco (say “Sheráko”) Playa that overlooked the beach. Xeraco is a town about 60km south of Valencia; we spent most of our time on the flat’s terrace, reading and enjoying the sea breezes. We dipped in the water when it was hot (watch out for jellyfish — I got stung in the warm Mediterranean) and walked on the beach’s soft sand in the cooler evenings.

The day before the wedding, we took the train an hour into Valencia to explore the old city center. It is beautiful, with lots of Arabic/Gothic/Moorish architecture dating from the 15th century or so. It was really warm — 34C — the day we were there, so we strolled slowly around the city center, through the cute winding streets and into the beautiful cathedral and a couple of galleries. We particularly enjoyed walking through the huge indoor Mercado Central (central market) while gazing at the huge jamón hocks, colorful vegetables, and super fresh seafood.

The market made us hungry, so we found our way back to a cute little square and sat outside in the shade at Bar & Kitchen/Mercat de Tapineria. There we enjoyed a light lunch, with the highlight being a delicious beet and tofu gazpacho: cool, refreshing, and a little bit sweet-sour.

Well-fortified, we made our way across the center to the Valencia Fine Arts Museum (Museo de Bellas Artes de Valencia), which had free entry. It was nice to spend an hour or so inside during the hottest part of the day, and we discovered a remarkable artist whom neither of us had ever heard of: Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) was from Valencia but traveled a lot around Europe and won many art prizes for his portrait paintings. Upon his death, he bequeathed most of his works to the Fine Arts Museum in Valencia (which may explain why few have heard of him). His portraits, mostly of regular Spanish people, are remarkably realistic and impressionistic — just beautiful.

Sorolla’s “Academic study from life” (1887)

The museum pretty much concluded our Valencia visit. After resting in some gardens, we made our way back through the city center and took the train back to peaceful Xeraco. We spent another day relaxing until the 9pm-4am (!) Spanish wedding, which was beautiful and a lot of fun (congratulations, S&I!).

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