Category Archives: Musings

Year in Review: 2017

Happy New Year! Frohes neues Jahr! З Новим Роком!

I haven’t written a “year in review” since the end of 2014, but this year I felt the desire to do so as 2017 becomes 2018. While there are plenty of awful things that happened globally in 2017 – politically, environmentally, etc. – I would like to focus on the more personal positives in this post.

Running and fitness in 2017:

On the way to a 5-mile PB at the Perivale 5, Dec 2017. Photo credit: Bespoke Photos.

  • Distance run: Strava tells me that in 2017 I ran 973.1km =  604.66mi. This is about 39 more miles than in 2016, so I’ll take that as a slight improvement.
  • The first half of the running year wasn’t great, as I had a really nasty virus over the Christmas holidays so had a slow return to fitness in early 2017. I had a brief return to the track in the summer before developing some plantar fasciitis. Since then, I’ve focused on building up my fitness base with tempo work and longer runs. That has seemed to work, as in fall/winter I ran my fastest 10k since 2015 and a 5-mile PR/PB!
  • In 2017 I discovered how much I love trail running/racing. Now that I have invested in trail shoes, I hope to do more trail running in 2018. I ran in Trent Park for the first time and loved it.
  • Racing (running):
  • Distance cycled: 2,760.3km = 1,715.17mi of commuting to/from work in London. About 200km/124mi more than in 2016.

Favorite books read in 2017:

  • In 2017 I read about 21 books. I didn’t love everything I read but here are some books that have stuck with me after finishing them:
  • Tracy Chevalier, At the Edge of the Orchard. I’ve loved Chevalier’s writing ever since reading Girl with a Pearl Earring as a teenager. Chevalier also happens to be an Oberlin graduate and I was fortunate to see her speak when I was in college. At the Edge of the Orchard is a historical novel of migration to the American West during the Gold Rush in the 1840s and ’50s. The human characters are interesting but much of the novel is actually about trees: apple orchards and then California’s redwoods and giant sequoias. It has really stuck with me and I’ve recommended it to a number of people.
    • I also read Chevalier’s newest novel, New Boy, this year. It’s a chilling retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello set on a school playground and I’d recommend it to any English teachers for their students to read alongside the original play.
  • Somehow in all my study of English literature, I had never read Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. My parents recommended it to me after reading it for their book club a couple of years ago, and I was impressed with this early detective novel. It has all the good stuff – missed messages, mistaken identities, charming villains – while remaining accessible even for those who aren’t used to reading 19th-century novels.
  • I absolutely love Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes series (the first one is called The Beekeeper’s Apprentice) and this year I read the seventh and eighth books back to back. Every time I open a Russell-Holmes novel, it feels like coming home. Something about King’s writing style just sits well with me. The novels are at once historically dense, character-driven, and detailed but not slow-moving. My dad first got hooked on the series years ago, and I would recommend it to anyone who, to use Netflix-speak, enjoys “historical novels with a strong female lead”. There’s also plenty of mystery and detective work involved!
  • I loved Robin Hobb’s 4-book series, The Rain Wild Chronicles, recommended by a fellow choir singer. Hobb creates a fascinating and robust fantasy world – realist but with touches of the magic and mythical – and tells a good story.
  • Rachel Sieffert, A Boy in Winter. A poignant WWII novel set in a small Ukrainian town. Sad but beautifully written and worth reading for a slightly different perspective.
  • Darragh McKeon, All that is Solid Melts into Air. Wow was this good. A close family friend – my Belgian “aunt” – recommended it and I loved it. It’s set in Soviet Ukraine/Russia/Belarus in the late 1980s around the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The shifting perspectives never felt jarring and it’s quite timely, despite being a historical novel. Highly recommended.
  • F and I finished reading Walter Moers’ Die 13 1/2 Leben des Käpt’n Blaubär, an epic fantasy-type novel that we took turns reading aloud. It helped my German a lot and was good fun! I also finished a book of short stories in German – Karen Köhler’s Wir Haben Raketen Geangelt – that were almost all depressing but I loved the writing style and it was accessible enough for me to understand most of what was going on.

Other highlights & achievements, in no particular order:

  • Singing Bach’s St John Passion in English with the Crouch End Festival Chorus and Bach Camerata at St John Smith’s Square in central London.
  • Visiting my close friend Hannah in Bulgaria, where she’s working as a Fulbright ETA.
  • Spending a lovely long weekend with F in Bath.
  • Family and friends descending on London for our post-wedding celebration in July. It was lovely to have a casual party in a local pub and that so many people made the effort to come from near and far.
  • Spending a week walking in the Cotswolds with F. We stayed in a little AirBnB in the village of Longborough and spent each day walking a different loop, stopping for pub lunches and enjoying our escape from big city life.
  • After three years teaching ESOL to migrant women at a charity in Tower Hamlets, I got a new job at a charity in Hackney. I’m still teaching ESOL mainly in Tower Hamlets but also learning about and sharpening my skills in project management and partnerships. It was hard to leave my old team – a close-knit group of amazing women – but it was the right move to make and I’m enjoying my new role. It’s also interesting to see how two charities in the same sector operate quite differently.

Cotswolds walking

I’m not big on resolutions but my main intention for 2018 is, as usual, to find a healthy balance between work, exercise, time with F, and other things. We hope to travel a bit more this year and I’d like to build up my running mileage to 10-mile or even half marathon fitness.

In some blog-related reflecting, here is a listicle of of my top posts via views in 2017:

Wishing you all a happy, healthy, and successful 2018

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International Women’s Day 2017: Be Bold For Change

Today is one of my favorite holidays: International Women’s Day (IWD)! On this day, people celebrate the achievements of women past, present, and future, and also raise awareness about gender inequality that still exists today.

IWD holds a special place in my heart because I first learned about it during my time as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine. The 8th of March is celebrated in fine style in Ukraine, with women receiving flowers, chocolates, gifts, and many well-wishes from others (mostly men but also pupils/students, if you happen to be a teacher).

Every year IWD has a theme, and this year it is “Be Bold For Change,” focusing on how people — women and men and everyone in between — can help forge “a more inclusive, gender equal world” (IWD website). I can’t complain about that theme! Teaching English to all women, with all women means we talk a lot about empowering women. This term, my ESOL Entry 3 class has had a number of lessons about volunteering, work, and employment and we’ve had a few discussions about gender (in)equality in the workplace. My Functional Skills English Level 1 learners spent part of a lesson reading about the suffragettes and discussing women’s rights historically and now.

Today, we had a lunchtime IWD event at work for our learners to come and celebrate with us. We encouraged staff and learners to wear traditional dress from their or another country. Many of my colleagues wore beautiful saris, and I rocked up in my Ukrainian vyshyvanka (embroidered blouse), recalling fondly the two Women’s Days I spend in Sniatyn:

Wearing my Ukrainian vyshyvanka on IWD

Tutors designed a number of activities for our learners to engage in. These included “find someone who” with positive and empowering elements: Find someone who has run a marathon, who has made someone smile today, who has fixed something at home, who has give someone advice, etc. There was also a gap fill quiz with facts about women’s rights around the world, a map to identify where you are from and write what you like about your country or another one, and places to record a dream job and personal strengths.

Over 60 of our learners attended the event and had a great time chatting, snacking, doing activities, and watching speeches by inspirational women like Malala Yousafzai. I wish I could post pictures of our learners all dressed up and mingling, but many of them are vulnerable and so you must imagine instead!

I like to take International Women’s Day as a day to celebrate all the incredible women in my life, from family to friends to colleagues to students and more. You inspire me to be stronger, fitter, kinder, and more thoughtful. You inspire me to push myself and to encourage others. You inspire me to keep life in perspective and move through it with joy. You inspire me to persevere. Thank you, and keep fighting for equal rights for all humans.


“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!


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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What’s Been Cooking?

Hello, everyone — long time no blog. Apologies for my blogosphere absence; I have been lacking in motivation recently, still a bit burnt out from last fall’s DELTA course (I passed all three modules on the first go, thank goodness). I’ve also been wondering what the point is of re-blogging recipes that I haven’t changed all that much. And, if I do continue blogging, in which direction I’d like this blog to go. More musical? More sporty? More education-related? I’d love to hear what you enjoy most about my blog, so please leave a comment and let me know what you’d like to see more of.

Now to today’s topic: what’s been cooking in my kitchen? I’ve tried some great new recipes lately (okay, in the past six months…) but haven’t modified them much, so I’ll just link to the original recipes below. Here are some highlights:

parmesan, kale, & white bean soup + tortellini

parmesan, kale, & white bean soup + tortellini

  • Parmesan Broth with Kale, White Beans, & Tortellini (smitten kitchen). F and I collected parmesan rinds in the freezer for an entire year before we had enough to make Deb’s soup. It was worth the wait — umami-salty, warming, and satisfying. We added tortellini for some extra heft.
  • Miso-Coconut Chicken Soup (i am a food blog). I made this one way back in September. Unfortunately, F was sick that weekend so I ended up eating most of it myself, but I loved it and look forward to making it again at a time when we can both enjoy it. Creamy but not too rich, great over rice.
  • The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies (i am a food blog). These. are. SO. good. Crispy edges, moist and chewy insides. F dubbed them “maybe the best cookies I’ve ever had.” Now that’s saying something! Use whatever chocolate you want (I used extra dark) and don’t leave off the sprinkling of sea salt on top. I passed this recipe onto J, whose family devoured them in no time.
lemon poppy seed muffins

lemon poppy seed muffins

  • Double Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins (Cookie +  Kate). In my mind, it is hard to beat the combination of lemon and poppy seeds. Let’s be honest, lemonanything is pretty great. I had combined lemon and poppy seeds before in pancakes but not in muffins. This recipe presented great flavors, although the muffins were a teensy bit dry for me.
  • Lemon Cornmeal Cake with Lemon Glaze (Bon Appétit). F was away last weekend and I wanted to surprise him with something tasty upon his return home. He loves lemon cake, so I tried out this one, which had been sitting in my “make this” bookmarks for ages. It was fantastic, remaining moist for a couple of days. I took a bunch to work and four of us devoured it pretty quickly. F’s only comment was that it could be even more lemony, so next time I’ll use the zest of 2 lemons in the cake batter.

Of course, those aren’t the only things I’ve been cooking. We’ve done many of the usual dinner rotations, like pizza and roasted root vegetables and various stir fries. I reprised chocolate beet cake for dinner with friends last month — this time adding a tasty pink cream cheese frosting — and whipped up an apple dutch baby pancake for a Sunday brunch.

What have you been cooking up recently?

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Living Abroad & Perspectives on the US

This week has brought some interesting perspective on life and living abroad. I’ve been back in the US for my grandmother’s 80th birthday party/family reunion and a brief visit to my parents (and also some quiet time to work on my MA dissertation). It was fantastic to see all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins in California for the birthday party — I’m really glad I went. It has also been nice to be in Rochester and not have any official household duties — of course I help out, but visiting the parents is different from living with F like a “real” adult; here, I can be a bit like a kid again, albeit a grown one.

almost the entire family on my mom's side, gathered in Ventura, CA for my grandma's 80th birthday. Photo credit: Nancy R.

almost the entire family on my mom’s side (missing a couple cousins and partners), gathered in Ventura, CA for my grandma’s 80th birthday. Photo credit: Nancy R.

I lived at home for two months last summer, but that felt normal as I had only been in the UK for six months beforehand and was still on the heels of transitioning from Peace Corps/Ukraine life. Peace Corps was so different that returning to the western world was an adjustment in and of itself — it didn’t matter where I was, and there were so many changes that I had to take each one as it came.

But this year, I’ve become settled in my UK life and haven’t been back to the US for almost a year. Being “home” has felt different, in part because I’m here for a vacation-y 10 days rather than a long period of “living” time. Here are some things that have struck me about the US after living in the UK/Europe for a year and a half (of course, the following things seem extreme because I live in London, a city of 8 million, and am comparing it to Rochester, a much smaller city of 300,000. But I think I’d feel some of these differences no matter where in the US I was):

  • Open space. Americans often take for granted how much space this country has. On the flight from London to LA, my British seat-mate and I marveled at the hugeness of the land, particularly in the southwestern US, and at how much of it is uninhabited (and uninhabitable. And beautiful).
so much space!

so much space!

somewhere in the Southwest

somewhere in the Southwest

  • Traffic and driving. Okay, so LA has crazy freeway traffic, but the Rochester streets are so peaceful! My dad and I were driving to Panera the other morning for breakfast (and endless coffee refills, yes!) and I remarked on how quiet the streets were. My dad replied, “Oh, I was just thinking it was pretty busy.” That’s perspective for you! It comes from living in London, where traffic is dense no matter the time of day. In a similar vein, driving has felt really easy here after cycling in London, where I have to be hyper-aware on the bike so as not to be run over by aggressive drivers. Cruising around in a car here feels quite calm in comparison.
  • People and friendliness. Maybe I’m becoming more like a reserved European, but Americans are so friendly and open…sometimes overly so, it seems to me. I’m happy to strike up the odd amiable chat, and do it regularly in London with our fruiterer shopkeepers. But many people here seem a little too in-your-face-potentially-forced friendly. It’s fine, and I do appreciate the openness, but it’s funny to come at it now from another perspective — if anything, it reflects how living abroad has changed me. I will say that it’s refreshing to go into a store here and be able to ask an employee about what I’m looking for, because I know that they will provide good customer service and help me find what I need. In the UK and other parts of Europe it sometimes feels like people are mildly annoyed when you enter their shop…but I sort of like that, too — or at least am used to it by now!
  • Short distances. Again, this is me comparing two cities of vastly different sizes and areas. But still, it is so easy and quick to get around Rochester. In London I have to plan and map out where and when I want to go somewhere, taking into account the time and money and clothing I’ll need. Here, pretty much everything is a 5-20 minute drive away. I could get used to that again…

Oh, the cross-cultural life is always fun and interesting! I wouldn’t have it any other way — it has opened my eyes to how different people live and how different societies function, and has brought me a hefty dose of perspective along the way. I love it.

———

Birthday Wisdom 2014

Another year gone by…this one has certainly flown. My 26th year (yes, I turn 26 today but — as my dad has pointed out — it’s actually a celebration of living through my 26th year) has been a busy one and filled with new experiences and people.

the most recent picture of me (taken last week by Sarah)

the most recent picture of me (taken last week by Sarah)

Over the past year I’ve settled into my London life with F; having more “productive” things to do has helped. Gosh, how to begin without dissolving into lists? I’ll try to hit on the highlights and leave you with my family’s traditional Birthday Wisdom at the end.

The big event in my 26th year has been working on my MA in English here in London. It has been challenging to re-enter academia after three years out of formal education, but after the first term I started feeling more comfortable and have met and begun socializing with some great people from my program. It has also been great to work two part-time jobs in different areas of EFL/ESOL teaching/tutoring — I’ve built my own skills and have worked with some really inspiring people. That has led me to realize that — at least for the foreseeable future — I would rather teach English as a language (as opposed to literature). In the athletics arena, I’ve run twelve races over my 26th year. Half of those were cross-country, another fun new experience for me. All those races probably caused me to get injured, though, and I am slowly working my way back to peak running form while enjoying more swimming and cycling. I’ve also joined an incredible chorus and love having a musical outlet again.

All in all, it has been a busy and eventful year — I’ve been challenged mentally, physically, musically, and socially, and feel that I have grown in all of those areas while integrating further into my little corner of London and starting to feel like part of the Crouch End-area community. My Birthday Wisdom this year comes from the always-inspiring (and recently-deceased) Maya Angelou, who has said:

“You only are free when you realize you belong no place—you belong every place—no place at all.”

I wish you all another year of challenging yourself and belonging in all places.

Singing in Southwark Cathedral & Waltham Abbey

It has been a busy few months in the Crouch End Festival Chorus (CEFC) world. After singing big choral-orchestral works at the Barbican in March, we’ve been rehearsing hard for a completely different style of concert: 75 minutes of (mostly sacred) Renaissance-y a cappella music. This week we performed the same program (in a different order) twice, in London’s gorgeous Southwark Cathedral and in historical Waltham Abbey in Essex. On the program:

  • Three motets by Anton Bruckner (1824-1896): Locus isteOs justi, and Ave Maria. You may look at Bruckner’s dates — or be familiar with his symphonies — and ask, “Renaissance-y, really?” Oh yes. These three motets are unaccompanied, three- or four-part wonders of expressive harmony and modulation. I had been familiar with the motets from my “Music of the Romantic Era” musicology course at Oberlin (thanks, CMcG!) and always wanted to sing them. When our conductor, David, added them to the program partway through our rehearsal schedule, I was thrilled. If some of the modulations in Os justi don’t give you chills, I don’t know what will…
  • …except maybe the final cadence of Ralph Vaughan Williams‘ (1872-1958) Mass in G minor. Yes, another Romantic/modern-era composer writing a piece that sounds much older than it is, using Dorian and Mixolydian modes as well as plainsong-like passages in addition to “normal,” non-modal keys (thanks, program notes). This mass is written for two choirs and four soloists (which David turned into a semi-chorus), which means that at some points, 12 different parts are singing. It is a more challenging piece than it seems at first reading — lots of tricky rhythms and time signature shifts. And though it sounds older, there are moments of characteristic Vaughan Williams harmonic progressions that will draw you back into the 20th century.
  • Annunciation and Song for Athene by John Tavener (1944-2013). Written in the Orthodox tradition (Tavener converted in 1977), each piece uses a semi-chorus to great effect and each is heartbreakingly beautiful. Song for Athene is best-known for being performed and broadcast at Princess Diana’s funeral. Tavener wrote some remarkable music — David thinks he’ll become known as one of the great late 20th-century choral composers.
  • Thomas Tallis’ (c.1505-1585) 40-part Spem in aliumYes, 40 parts: eight choirs of five voices each. Though this would traditionally be sung with one person on each part — that’s how I’d seen Collegium Musicum sing it at Oberlin — CEFC is large enough that David put 2-5 people on each part. I sang in Choir 4 with three other sopranos on my part. This piece is incredible in its complexity and interwoven parts — even moreso because it dates from the 16th century. Give it a listen and let the glorious sounds wash over you. I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to sing it.
  • A world premiere of Salve Regina by Bernard Hughes (b. 1974), which was commissioned by CEFC for its 30th anniversary this year. Written in memory of a chorus member’s husband, this also requires two choirs and, like the rest of the program, it is beautiful and quite challenging. I think we pulled it off well and Bernard seemed pleased.
  • A strange arrangement of Paul Anka’s Buddy Holly song It Doesn’t Matter Anymore by Orlando Gough (b. 1953).

That’s the music — I haven’t even told you about the venues yet. Both venues were places where CEFC had never sung, so these were exciting opportunities for us.

inside Southwark Cathedral, post-concert

inside Southwark Cathedral, post-concert

We sang the first concert at Southwark Cathedral, which sits next to Borough Market near London Bridge. Apparently Southwark is the oldest cathedral building in London, and it is beautiful, with high vaulted ceilings that made for lovely acoustics with great reverberations. I had stepped into it a few times while visiting Borough Market but it was even more incredible to sing in it.

Southwark Cathedral

Southwark Cathedral

For the second concert, we traveled outside the M25 to Essex (is it still London? That’s up for debate) and historical Waltham Abbey. Someone told me that the Abbey’s foundation dates to the 11th century and the building dates to the 12th. It is best known around the UK as the place where King Harold II is (probably) buried, after being shot in the eye at the Battle of Hastings (or something). Less than half the size of Southwark, Waltham Abbey made for a more intimate concert setting — fitting for much of the music we were singing. Its acoustics weren’t as grand, but I think Spem sounded better in the smaller space.

IMG_20140621_160925

Waltham Abbey

Waltham Abbey

inside Waltham Abbey

inside Waltham Abbey

In terms of how the concerts were received, I leave you with an email David received from an audience member after the Tuesday performance:

We went to see CEFC at Southwark Cathedral two nights ago. Probably the best I’ve ever heard them. 
The acoustics of the cathedral were superb and their version of the Tallis masterpiece was sublime. 
I was wishing I could get to Waltham Abbey on Saturday, but alas other commitments.
Well done, all!

Modal Verbs & Cross-Cultural Moments

Over that past couple of months, I’ve been occasionally teaching ESOL classes for an amazing organization in east London called The Arbour. The project I’m teaching on offers free ESOL and Life Skills classes for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women who have been in the UK for less than two years and are on the path to settlement. I’ve been teaching the same class of E2 (upper beginner/low intermediate) women every week and have loved getting to know them, learning about their cultures, and seeing their English improve. This particular class has about eight women from Bangladesh, two from Morocco, one from India, and one from Thailand. All of the women from Bangladesh and Morocco are Muslim.

So last week I was teaching part of a lesson on modal verbs (can, could, should, may, must, might, etc.) and had the women practice asking each other polite questions using modals (e.g., Can you please tell me where the next bus station is?”). When I called on one pair to demonstrate a short dialogue, one women indicated the other’s headscarf (hijab) and asked, “Why must you wear this?” This sparked a clamor for responses from most of the Muslim women, each wanting to explain why they wear the headscarves. I made them take turns as they explained about the rules of Islam requiring head covering unless a woman is with her close family members (only one of the Muslim women’s doesn’t wear one — nowadays, the women acknowledged, it’s more a matter of personal choice).

Though the conversation was interesting — I’m a sucker for cross-cultural moments — I thought it was getting off-track until one woman started to say “It is necessary to wear the hijab because…” A lightbulb went on in my head and I immediately stopped her and asked, “How can you rephrase that sentence using a modal verb?” She quickly figured out that “it is necessary” can be turned into “must” and made a beautiful modal verb sentence. The conversation continued, with me making sure that the women used modal verbs to explain the rules requiring them to wear the hijab.

I felt elated afterwards, thrilled that we could learn about each other’s cultures and religions while also practicing essential English grammar points. The women I’ve been teaching are incredibly smart and motivated to learn English so they can live, work, and navigate London more easily.

In sum: I love cross-cultural moments, especially when they happen to work perfectly with teaching English grammar.

Singing at the Barbican

After thinking about it since September, I finally plucked up the courage to visit and audition for the Crouch End Festival Chorus (CEFC) just over a month ago. Meeting people who sing in the chorus and hearing their positive reviews helped convince me to give it a try, and I’m particularly grateful to those who encouraged me to audition despite my reservations about Friday rehearsals and the general time commitment. Luckily, I passed the audition and was placed among the 1st Sopranos. CEFC is an amazing group of ~130 singers, led by the dedicated and passionate David Temple. Many chorus members are in the 23-33-year-old age range, which makes for a nice mix of energy, experience, and socializing. CEFC also appealed to me for the range of repertoire it sings: from Thomas Tallis to Bach to Mahler to premieres of new commissions. Not to mention they rehearse just up the road from where I live…hard to beat that in a city as big as London!

I had missed singing in a big chorus — aside from brief stints with the Sniatyn teachers’ choir in Ukraine and the UCLU Symphony Chorus last term, I hadn’t sung in a “real” chorus since my Oberlin Musical Union days (on which I still look back very fondly). CEFC has more than adequately filled the gap in my musical participation.

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My first concert with CEFC was singing at London’s Barbican — home to the London Symphony Orchestra, no big deal — along with the Forest Philharmonic. On the program(me):

  • The world premiere of a piece by contemporary composer Will Todd, “Rage Against the Dying of the Light,” with text based on the Dylan Thomas poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”
  • Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor “Resurrection,” which I sang my senior year at Oberlin with Musical Union and the Oberlin Orchestra, in a memorable performance that left me with an adrenaline rush for an hour or two afterwards.

After getting over a burst of nerves and lightheadedness during the afternoon rehearsal, I felt calmer for the performance and remembered how amazing it is to finally perform pieces that have been meticulously rehearsed for weeks. The orchestra sounded great — the Todd piece, which many of the chorus members seemed either to love or hate, was greatly enhanced by the instrumentation that we had little sense of when rehearsing with piano accompaniment. The Mahler was thrilling to sing, as always — sitting through an hour of intense orchestral music to finally stand and sing the finale feels incredible.

Next up for CEFC, a total change of period and pace: sacred music by Tallis, Vaughan Williams, Tavener and others performed in Waltham Abbey and Southwark Cathedral in June. I’m already looking forward to it.

Unrest Continues in Ukraine

At the end of November, Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych backed out of signing an Association Agreement with the EU. Pro-EU protestors took to the streets in Kyiv and around the country. (Read my post about the early days of protest here.) Two months later, protests are still going on and have become increasingly violent, especially in the wake of Yanukovych signing in laws that “severely curtail media rights and regulations on public gatherings,” which Sweden’s foreign minister called “the most solid package of repressive laws that I have seen enacted by a European parliament for decades.” This article has a clear explanation of the legislation, and this poster has begun circulating on the Internet:

New articles, essays, and editorials are appearing every day as the world keeps a close eye on the rising tensions in Ukraine. Ukrainians are taking to the streets and occupying government buildings in other — mostly western Ukrainian — cities (including Chernivtsi and Ivano-Frankivs’k, the two cities between which I lived during my time in the Peace Corps). Last week, two people were killed during protests in Kyiv. Here are a few particularly good write-ups on the current situation:

At this stage, however, the United States and Europe need to do more than hand out treats. They must make clear their opposition to violence, as the State Department did on Wednesday when it urged everyone to calm down, faulted the government for not engaging in serious dialogue and for approving anti-democratic laws, and criticized the extreme-right group Pravy Sektor for aggression.

Now that blood has been shed, there is a real risk that the clashes could spread beyond central Kiev, rendering a peaceful solution less viable. But the West must also make abundantly clear to Mr. Yanukovich and his lieutenants that they will pay a price if they try to use the talks simply to gain time, or if they order a bloody crackdown.

If you want to read beyond what’s above, I’ve posted lots of good articles and editorials on my Google+ page. Please keep Ukraine and her people in your thoughts.

Year in Review: 2013

Happy New Year! Frohes neues Jahr / Guten Rutsch! З Новим Роком!

2013 was a year full of changes and new experiences for me, like moving to a new country/city, getting an English teaching certificate, and starting an MA program (back to university after three years out). My German improved — and my Ukrainian waned. I also joined an amazing running club in my area of London and was able to spend much of the summer at home in the States with my family and F. Overall, 2013 was a really good year. Here are some more fun statistics summing up the year:

2013 by the numbers:

  • blog posts published: 155
  • books read: 19 for fun, plus >30 for my MA (including some short stories/poetry/essays)
  • visitors hosted in London: ~19
  • miles run: 931.89 (76.71 miles less than in 2012, but I cycled and swam more in 2013 so overall probably racked up more mileage)
  • qualifications received: 1 Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults
  • countries been in: England, Belgium, Germany, USA
  • memories made: too many to count

Are you satisfied with your 2013?

Looking back, I am satisfied to have achieved most of my intentions for 2013: learning my way around London, living frugally, cycle-commuting, “me” time, exercise time, healthy eating, starting an MA program, and staying in touch with people . I didn’t take advantage of as many free/inexpensive opportunities as I could have, but we did visit quite a few of London’s free museums and markets with visitors.

Here is my non-exhaustive list of intentions for 2014, in no particular order:

  • Successfully complete my MA degree
  • Expand my skill set in teaching/tutoring, writing, and editing work
  • Keep improving my German
  • Stay healthy and fit:
    • Run a half marathon or two and take part in as many running club events as I can
    • Get more comfortable with road cycling by riding or spinning consistently
  • Keep exploring London via free/inexpensive activities
  • Get a job and work visa after my MA so I can stay in London
  • Stay in better touch with friends/family in all parts of the world (make better use of Skype, WhatsApp, etc.)

What are your intentions for 2014?

Unrest in Ukraine

The protests started when Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s president, announced at the last minute that he wouldn’t sign an association agreement with the EU. There had been build-up to the Vilnius summit for months, and things looked positive for Ukraine’s signing the agreement, which would have granted Ukraine free trade with the EU and done other good political things — until Yanukovych abruptly backpedaled. He claimed that pressure from Russia (i.e., Putin) was too strong and he was afraid that signing the agreement would piss Putin off. Yet as I see it, Ukraine would benefit much more from free trade with the EU, and from the agreement’s implication of moving Ukraine closer toward integration with western Europe.

Apparently many Ukrainians shared my thoughts, because they took to the streets in Kyiv and around the country to protest Yanukovych’s backing down from signing the agreement. At the end of last week, the peaceful protests turned violent when riot police showed up in the middle of the night and started beating protestors. That only made people come out in greater numbers. More than ten days later, the protests are still going on; hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are out in the streets. Protests are still going on in Ukraine and elsewhere — even London.

Media is playing a big role in aiding the protests; tons of stuff is being blasted out via Facebook and online news platforms. The main marker being used for the protest movement is Євромайдан (“Euromaidan”), to represent people gathering in “maidans,” or squares — most largely in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) — to protest in favor of moving closer to Europe.

It’s thrilling to watch the Ukrainian people fight so hard for democracy and freedom that being associated more closely with the EU would represent. Part of me wishes I were there to join in — living and working in western Ukraine for two years during my Peace Corps service definitely turned me into a big supporter of the country and its people. Sniatyn even had their own pro-EU gathering a couple of days ago, which I would’ve loved to attend. I am rooting so hard for the Ukrainians, following the news closely, and hoping that things turn out well.

That’s a very basic summary, but there is a lot of history behind the current movement — most notably the 2004 Orange Revolution, but also going further back to Soviet and pre-Soviet times. If you want to read more about what’s been going on and why, check out some of the articles below; I’ve tried to pull out the most interesting bits, but many of them are worth reading in full.

  • For some backgroundThe New York Times ran a clear, succinct opinion piece near the beginning of the protests, called “Ukraine on the Brink.” I recommend reading that first to understand where all of this comes from in Ukraine’s history. Business Insider‘s “Why 1 Million Ukrainians are Protesting” also gives a relatively non-biased overview, complete with media, of the protests and the history behind them. Forbes published another great overview, “Why Ukraine Matters” (for a lot of reasons!), in neat sections.
  • “Ukraine’s Battle for Europe” focuses on the younger generation of Ukrainians leading the protests and how mass media has aided the movement. The writer of the piece, Oleh Kotsyuba, puts it well:

The protesters have at times called for resignations, impeachments and new elections. But what’s most striking is their association of Europe with a set of values that results in absence of corruption, a strong social safety net, an inclusive health-care system, fair wages, a stable currency and a responsible government that delivers reliable services and treats citizens with respect. For them, these were even more valuable than the tangible benefits of joining the E.U., like the right to work in other European countries and the prospect of big European investments in Ukraine.

What the European Union and other Western nations can do is to start looking into ways to make an “association agreement” with Ukraine less threatening to Russia. It’s worth exploring, for instance, whether Russia itself could be brought more closely into the European fold. Another possibility is to see how freer trade with Europe could be made compatible with Ukraine’s eastern trade ties. Once Ukraine is ready to start looking around, it should not again have to face a brutal either-or choice that Mr. Putin seems determined to impose.

Six months ago, a dozen Ukrainians would have been unlikely to rally for the pro-EU agreement. What changed? Certainly, Friday’s crackdown provided a spark.

For that, Yanukovich may have no one to blame but himself. The president’s own propaganda machine spent months touting the benefits of the EU agreement, raising the hopes of millions of Ukrainians who want to see their country as part of a European, not Russian, frontier. Whether Yanukovich intended to sign the accords or was negotiating with Putin all along is irrelevant now. Dashing the hopes of millions of people is a dangerous game.

[…] When fear of a strongman begins to melt, so does his power. Seeing hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets of Kiev may have emboldened members of the country’s elite to begin to move against the president. Ukraine’s rapacious [oligarchs] may—for the first time—have found common ground with their increasingly impoverished compatriots in getting rid of a tyrant.

  • Here’s an interesting angle: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s Kyiv Patriarchate, traditionally tied quite closely to the government, is actually supporting the pro-EU protestors. Read about it in “Kiev Protestors See Potent Ally Under a Spire.”
  • Masha Gessen, one of my favorite opinion writers for The New York Times who also happens to be Russian, wrote “A Whiter Shade of Envy” about how the Russian intelligentsia are amazed at — and admire — what the Ukrainians are doing and (hopefully) accomplishing. Gessen’s essays are always worth reading.
  • In “Amid Unrest, Ukrainian President Defends Choice on Accords,” you can read about the lame excuses (lies?) that Yanukovych made up about why he didn’t sign the EU association agreement.
  • “Crackdown in Kiev: Battle for Ukraine” in The Economist focuses on the violence that broke out last weekend, initiated by special riot police at the cowardly hours of early morning.
  • For fear of seeming totally biased in favor of Ukraine (which I am, but still), there was an op-ed published this week in the New York Times taking a more pro-Russia — or at least anti-EU — stance in terms of Ukraine’s position. The author or “How the E.U. Pushed Ukraine East” does make some interesting points about how Russia isn’t totally to blame in Yanukovych’s failure to sign the EU association agreement. Worth a read, if you’re interested in another perspective. Though I don’t agree with all of it, I do see the value of the claim that “Instead of adopting a strategy that would have allowed Ukraine to capitalize on its close cultural, religious and economic ties with Russia, and which could have also served to build deeper ties between Western Europe and Russia, from the outset European negotiators went out of their way to turn Union association into a loyalty test.” 

Things are happening fast and there are tons of news updates every day — way too many for me to follow them all, but I’m trying to stay as up-to-date as I can. Hopefully my overview will give you a better sense of what’s happening and spark your interest to pay more attention to Ukraine, now and in the future.