Category Archives: religion

Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen: Hot Cross Buns

Welcome back to my casual series, “Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen.” Last time we got sticky making pita bread. Today, we’re making cardamom-laced hot cross buns in celebration of springtime and a four-day weekend over Easter. 

Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen #7: Hot Cross Buns

This recipe comes from The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook‘s section titled “Short and Sweet: Quick Breads and Holiday Breads”. This includes classics like banana bread but also special occasion breads like Stollen, a bread for Día de los Muertos, and these hot cross buns. The chapter’s introduction notes that the holiday breads are “recipes passed from generation to generation, often scribbled on note cards…rooted in old traditions and sure to inspire new ones)” (232). Well, I didn’t grow up eating hot cross buns, but they are abundant in UK shops around Easter-time and F and I both enjoy them as an afternoon treat with coffee or tea, so I decided to try my hand at homemade ones.

Hello, my beauties!

The hot cross bun recipe looked pretty straightforward: it uses an enriched dough with egg and milk, as well as some sugar and both raisins and currants. The bonus ingredient is cardamom, which adds a lovely scent and flavor to the buns. You could leave the cardamom out if you’re not a fan, but I would recommend keeping it in.

You don’t need to know much about bread-making to create these hot cross buns. The dough gets mixed until the gluten is developed — this always gives me a good arm workout, as we don’t have a stand mixer — and then rested for an hour. To form the little round buns, you’ll need to practice your boule-making technique of folding, pinching, and tension-building. I found this less fussy than making sourdough bread: the dense hot cross bun dough is easier to work with than looser sourdough bread dough.

After lining up the little buns on a baking tray, you rest them for another hour before you brush them with egg wash (I could’ve been more generous with my egg washing) and bake them for 30 minutes. (Use the non-convection setting on your oven.) Unfortunately, I thought I’d started my timer when the buns went in the oven, but realized after perhaps 10-15 minutes that my timer had been inadvertently paused! I therefore had to estimate how long the buns had been in and may have overdone them by a few minutes. Despite that, the hot cross buns turned out really well, sweetened just a bit by the icing crosses (I left out the cardamom — pure laziness) and delicious with salted butter. The whole process took about four hours (not including cooling time). F approved and we were both happy!

How do you like your hot cross buns – with butter? Jam? Marmalade?Have you ever made them yourself?

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Singing Brahms at the Barbican: “Ein deutsches Requiem”

It’s October again, which in my world means singing in the first Crouch End Festival Chorus concert of the new season! Last year, we sang Mozart’s Mass in C minor with the London Mozart Players (LMP). This year, we were lucky to be joined by LMP again, back at the Barbican for Johannes Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem (“A German requiem”). Soprano Erica Eloff sang Strauss’ Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) to open the concert, as well as the soprano solos in the Brahms. Baritone Benjamin Appl took on the male solos in the Brahms. Brahms’s requiem is unique in that it is not set to the traditional Latin mass, but rather Brahms chose selections of German text from the Luther Bible. Even for a non-believer like myself, parts of the libretto are quite moving.

Didn't get any pictures during rehearsal, so here's a City of London shot on my way to the Barbican.

Didn’t get any pictures during rehearsal, so here’s a City of London shot on my way to the Barbican.

Now I’m not sure you you feel about Brahms, but I’ve had mixed feelings about his music ever since first hearing and attempting to learn his clarinet sonatas back in high school. It took me ages to understand what seemed to be a lack of melody and get used to the irregular, dancelike rhythms. A track teammate at Oberlin introduced me to Brahms’s symphonies, numbers 1 and 4 of which grew on me. His piano concertos are great fun to listen to. But I’ve never felt quite the same connection with Brahms as I have with composers like Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach (what can I say? I like the traditional stuff). While I did go through a period of enjoying sweeping, Romantic-era orchestral music, I’ve always come back to my three favorites for their melodiousness and simple complexity (is that a thing?).

All of the above goes to say that I looked forward to singing Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem, but it didn’t enrapture me as much as it does some, including our chorus director (DT) and many fellow singers. But the piece grew on me, and I loved singing the rich, dark moments — like those in the second movement — where I could let out my inner mezzo soprano:

I also enjoyed singing in German, and we had a good language coach to help smooth out the choir’s tendency towards English diphthongs. Fellow soprano SG, also a German speaker, and I shared a few chuckles about how selige Toten (“blessed dead”) came out a bit like selige Torten (“blessed cakes”) at times! Overall, our hard work on the German paid off and the choir received many compliments on the clarity of our words — although F pointed out that we still had trouble with the “ch” sound, pronouncing Stachel more like “stackel.”

The performance went well. The LMP were incredible, as usual; Eloff’s singing was lovely (despite not having great German diction); and Appl’s diction was impeccable — it helps that he’s actually German — although he made a few mistakes, which I’m willing to forgive after seeing his busy event schedule. DT was very pleased, given the email he sent around to the choir afterwards, and I enjoyed finally getting a sense of the requiem’s story and drama when we sang it in full with the orchestra and soloists. My parents had come over to London for a week, in part to see the concert, and they loved it. A few current and former choir members in the audience were equally impressed. I’d say we pulled it off!

Next up: Sing Christmas! 2016 at St. Michael’s Highgate. Get your tickets now!


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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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.

3 Days in Portugal: Lisbon & Sintra

Last week, I met my mom and grandma in Lisbon for a great three-generation vacation. We spent about two and a half days in and around Lisbon, which none of us had ever visited. In the few weeks before going to Lisbon, I got only positive reviews of the city from people I’d tell about my upcoming trip. The city lived up to the recommendations and the trip was really fun. Lisbon has a fascinating history — earthquake, monks, eggs, castles — that I won’t go into here; instead, I give you a brief summary of what we saw and did.

Note: if you’re planning to visit Lisbon, invest in a Lisboa Card — it’s totally worth it if only for the fact that it covers all public transport in the city (and also many of the museums). 

Sunday

Starting at Praça do Comércio, we walked away from the river and up hills and steps to Bairro Alto for great views of the city. Another hour and a half of wandering up and down Bairro Alto looking for a restaurant (we never found it) landed us at Ribadouro for a delicious late dinner of 1 kilo of shrimp, frites, and salad.

Monday

We took the train to Sintra, an easy 30 minute ride outside of Lisbon. The main event here was the Pena National Palace, which looks like a Disney castle. King Ferdinand II apparently couldn’t decide which style to build his palace in, so he chose to go Romanticist and mix together a bunch of different styles and colors. It was great fun to explore and photograph from all angles.

Walking downhill from the palace, we strolled through the Queen’s Fern Garden in Pena Park — a peaceful, green sanctuary that was a welcome respite from the sun and the bustling city. We kept walking back to Sintra, semi-accidentally down the path (much) less traveled. It was a bit of an adventure, but we all made it down safely and rewarded ourselves with a tasty fish dinner back in Lisbon at Solar dos Presuntos.

Tuesday

We took a tram to one of Lisbon’s highest points, near the castle. We opted not to go into the castle grounds and instead wended our way down narrow cobblestone streets and steps, through the Alfama neighborhood, eventually stumbling upon the old and beautiful Sé Cathedral. Once we made it back to the center of Lisbon, we enjoyed a lunch of coffee and pastries at Pastelaria Suiça. Try the pastel de nata, traditional Portuguese egg custard tarts that the monks invented because they had easy access to eggs and sugar.

Well-fortified, we visited the Coach Museum in Belém — amazingly ornate carriages and coaches from the 15th-19th centuries — and the Tile Museum, which displays the long and intricate history of traditional Portuguese tile making. We rounded off our three days in Lisbon with a big dinner followed by port tasting (when in Rome/Portugal…).

There was much more we could have done in Lisbon, but three days was a good length of time to get a feel for the city. I loved wandering the cobblestoned streets and mosaic-lain sidewalks, discovering beautiful tiled buildings and other gems of this unique city.

News Roundup: Running, the Arts, (Sex) Education, & Comic Relief

I can hardly believe it’s been more than two months since my last news roundup. High time for an update. This roundup includes a variety of articles and blurbs that caught my eye over the past couple of months. Topics range from running to language/linguistics to sex education to gun control, obesity, and more. As always, I’ve categorized the articles as best as possible so you can troll for what interests you the most. Click the links to read the full articles, and feel free to leave a comment or email me (whereveriamyouaretherealso@gmail.com) with your thoughts on any of these.

Running

  • I love running and do it willingly, but some days this is the only thing that gets me through: Runner’s World Motivational Poster #45.
  • Most runners, especially anyone who has ever run track, will appreciate this.
  • My Oberlin track coach preached (and still preaches) “PMA” to all his athletes. What’s PMA, you ask? That would be Positive Mental Attitude. In a nutshell, believe in yourself / be optimistic and good things will happen. I was skeptical for a time, but then started to mentally prepare myself for long marathon training runs by positive self-talking, telling myself the run would be fine, go well, I’d be strong and feel good. Guess what? It works! This Runner’s World article, “Train Your Brain to Run Your Best,” proves the point further and is worth a read for any athlete.

Language & Literature, Art & Music

    • Confession: I love opera. Okay, that’s not really a confession because I am not ashamed of it. True, my appreciation for opera didn’t come until college, but while at Oberlin I was able to see some amazing singers perform in a wide variety of operas and opera scenes. Oh, and I took a musicology class on Mozart’s last five operas. Yes, it was awesome. Anyway, if you are an opera lover or are just wondering what the heck all the fuss is about, check out this fun BuzzFeed article, “What Happened to Opera?” It’s fun and you can watch some videos of incredible singers.
    • Speaking of Oberlin, Amanda, a good friend of mine and fellow Obie, writes for Critics at Large and last month wrote a beautiful piece on Andy Warhol and her experiences of learning “from the artworks themselves” that began in the Allen Art Museum’s print room. Here’s an excerpt (though you should read the essay in its entirety, just to sink into Amanda’s outstanding prose):

“I learned quickly, but not from lectures or textbooks – I learned from the artworks themselves. Entire movements, periods and cultures – Japanese woodblock prints, the satiric eighteenth century engravings of Hogarth and Grandville, loose pages from medieval illuminated manuscripts – communicated themselves to me as archives without histories, until pulling prints became not unlike a daily descent into a dark, empty movie theater where all you could see were images, images, images flickering in the shadows and sublimely untethered from narrative.”

  • “Looking for Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin” is an interesting piece from the NY Times‘ Travel section; its timing was particularly good because I had just read Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, two fictional memoirs of sorts about the author / his protagonist’s years in Berlin in the early 1930s. (The second story is what Kander and Ebb based their musical Cabaret on.)
  • If you’re part of my generation, you probably speak with slashes, as in “I was thinking we could go to the movies slash do something else together this weekend.” “Slash: Not Just a Punctuation Mark Anymore” is a smartly-written piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education by a professor who asks her students to teach her two new slang words at the start of every class. She goes on to discuss the use of “slash” in spoken conversation. A fun piece worth the read.
  • Staying in linguistics territory, I read a great blog called The Inky Fool; this fool is Mark Forsyth, who has also written two books (The Etymologicon and The Horologicon), both of which I’ve read. This blog post, entitled “Plumbing with Aplomb,” is a particularly good example of Forsyth’s intelligent and witty discussions of linguistics.
  • This is just for fun: maps that show “the deepest linguistic conflicts in America.” The maps show how people in different regions of the States pronounce the same words, or the different words they use to mean the same thing. It’s pretty interesting; I (not surprisingly) found my hometown of Rochester, NY to be more midwest-leaning in some pronunciations and more New England-y in others. In terms of my own pronunciation, most of it matched that of other Rochesterians but some didn’t match how I speak. How do your pronunciation and vocabulary match up with your home region?

Children & Education 

  • NY Times “Sunday Dialogue” recently asked “What Makes a Good Teacher?” They present a letter to the editor to which readers are invited to respond. I even sent in a response for this one; though mine didn’t make it into print, it’s worth reading the original letter and its responses for all of the diverse ideas and thoughts people have about what makes a good teacher.
  • On a similar note, an opinion piece called “No Learning Without Feeling” argues against the US’s new Common Core State Standards and their (ridiculous) focus on standardized tests. The author makes a good point that this isn’t the way to get kids excited about learning and literature:

“The truth is that high-stakes standardized tests, in combination with the skills-based orientation of the Common Core State Standards, are de-emphasizing literature in the English classroom in favor of “agnostic texts” of the sort familiar from test preparation materials. These are neutral texts created to be “agnostic” with regard to student interest so that outside variables won’t interfere when teachers assess and analyze data related to verbal ability. In other words, they are texts no child would choose to read on her own.

  • NY Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow does an excellent job of providing his readers with shocking statistics about what is wrong with our (American) society. This piece, “The Kids Are (Not) All Right,” is no different, and props to Blow for alerting us so we can try to change them:

“…according to data released last month by the Children’s Defense Fund, each day in America:

2 mothers die in childbirth.

4 children are killed by abuse or neglect.

5 children or teens commit suicide.

7 children or teens are killed by firearms.

67 babies die before their first birthdays.

892 babies are born at low birth weight.

914 babies are born to teen mothers.

1,208 babies are born without health insurance.

1,825 children are confirmed as abused or neglected.

2,712 babies are born into poverty.

2,857 high school students drop out.”

  • The above piece is from April. Just last week, Blow wrote another op-ed, “These Children Are Our Future,” in which he gives us a “statistical portrait of the high school class of 2013” and what the class would look like if there were 100 students in it. It’s a really powerful set of statistics that everyone should be aware of. Blow notes that,

“We have not sufficiently prioritized some fundamental safety structures for children in this country — fighting child poverty; supporting all families (including single-parent ones) and their children through policies like paid family leave and early childhood education; insulating children from a culture soaked with violence; and educating children fully about sexuality and pregnancy, and allowing them open access to a full range of safe sex options (which would reduce our extraordinary rate of sexually transmitted disease, prevent more unintended pregnancies and reduce the number of abortions).”

Sex & Sex Education

  • Taking Blow’s last point above, about sex education, there have been a few well-written essays floating around about that. This NY Times “Room for Debate” collection asking, “At What Age Should Sex Education Begin?” is particularly worth reading. Many of the contributors made excellent arguments for why/how/when (at what ages) sex education should be taught, both at home and in schools. One such contributor wrote,

“Irrational fear – the cultural belief that teaching young people about sex will cause them to have sex – keeps administrators and educators from doing what they know is best: providing young people with developmentally appropriate, sequential and honest sex education. Never mind that 30 years of public health research clearly demonstrates that when young people receive such education, they are more likely to delay sexual initiation, and to use protection when they do eventually become sexually active, than those who receive no sex education or learn only about abstinence. Withholding information about sex and sexuality will not keep children safe; it will only keep them ignorant.”

  • There’s a new book out called What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire by journalist Daniel Bergner. Salon recently published an interview with Bergner about the book, which made me really want to read it. The piece is aptly called “The truth about female desire: It’s base, animalistic and ravenous,” and I recommend that every woman and man read the article. Here’s a short excerpt to pique your interest: “One of the scientists, who was really influential in calling attention to the size, put it this way: the reason we’ve ignored this is because we’ve managed to convince ourselves that one gender is all about reproduction and the other is all about sex. That is, women are all about reproduction and men are all about sex. Again, a complete distortion.”

Gender, Culture, & Machismo

  • Having lived in London for about six months now, I have already noticed plenty of linguistic, cultural, and social differences between Americans and Brits. This “Short Cuts” essay from the London Review of Books seeks to explain some of these differences in a humorous way. The essay is worth a read for any American or Brit who has spent time in the other country. Here’s a sneak peek excerpt about something I have found to be absolutely true:

“In the English manner, he apologised several times that night for joining my friends and me at our table. An Englishman will apologise to you twice in the course of inviting you to dinner when you are friendless and desperate and couldn’t feel more grateful for the prospect of company. ‘No doubt,’ Eagleton writes, ‘the British will soon be apologising for being stabbed in the street.’ Americans apologise only when they’re overwhelmed by guilt and want very much to be forgiven.”

  • Moving from cultural differences to gender differences, this Science Daily paper entitled “Men Are from Mars Earth, Women Are from Venus Earth” explains how “From empathy and sexuality to science inclination and extroversion, statistical analysis of 122 different characteristics involving 13,301 individuals shows that men and women, by and large, do not fall into different groups. In other words, no matter how strange and inscrutable your partner may seem, their gender is probably only a small part of the problem.” My dad has also done some research and teaching in the area of sex/gender differences, so he brought this to my attention.
  • And now onto differences in sexuality, with this op-ed on “How Latin Culture Got More Gay.” The essay can best be summed up with this quotation: “These developments not only undermine stereotypes about machismo, but also the assumption that the prominence of Catholicism makes progressive change impossible. Same-sex marriage is legal in Belgium, Portugal and Spain, and Ireland recognizes civil unions. As the United States Supreme Court debates same-sex marriage, perhaps it should consider the precedent set by other nations of the Western Hemisphere.” Seriously. Get with the program, USA.

Obesity & Food

  • “Research: Childhood obesity is a product of environment” looks at three new studies that point to environment over genetics as a greater cause of obesity. In their words, “Childhood obesity is a disease of the environment. It’s a natural consequence of normal kids with normal genes being raised in unhealthy, abnormal environments.” Worth reading the entire article.
  • Perhaps even more worthy of your precious reading minutes is the essay, “Fat City — What can stop obesity?”  by physician Karen Hitchcock. The piece is subtitled “Why obesity is not your doctor’s problem” and goes on to explore social constructs and thought patterns contributing to the obesity epidemic, serious health problems caused by obesity, and much more. It is an emotionally powerful, excellently written piece that I cannot adequately summarize here, so I beg you to go read it yourself.
  • On a food-related note, Michael Pollan has a new book out, that Mark Bittman (one of my favorite food writers) discusses and excerpts in his Opinionator piece, “Pollan Cooks!” Among other things, Bittman quotes Pollan as saying, “Cooking is probably the most important thing you can do to improve your diet. What matters most is not any particular nutrient, or even any particular food: it’s the act of cooking itself. People who cook eat a healthier diet without giving it a thought. It’s the collapse of home cooking that led directly to the obesity epidemic.” I completely agree.

Ukraine

  • I always keep an eye out for Ukraine-related news, since I feel a tie to the country after spending 2+ years there in the Peace Corps. So you can imagine how happy I was that Ukraine recently held the first gay rights rally in Kyiv. Brave people, those 50 demonstrators; clearly still a long way to go toward tolerance and acceptance.
  • Another big issue that, like homosexuality, is highly stigmatized in Ukraine, is HIV/AIDS. This Ukrainian girl, featured in a BBC article entitled “Ukraine’s youngest HIV campaigner,” is a heroine for speaking out about her experience living as HIV-positive in Ukraine. This also helps explain why Peace Corps Volunteers’ work with PEPFAR and HIV/AIDS education continues to matter in Ukraine.

Miscellaneous US-Related

  • Every American should read “10 Things Most Americans Don’t Know About America.” I hazard to guess that Americans who have traveled a bit won’t be surprised by most of the statements made in the article, but it’s important for the less-well-traveled to read and understand the astute points the author makes.
  • And now onto gun control…a touchy subject, yes, but read Todd May’s Opinionator piece, “Is American Nonviolence Possible?” and that’ll give you some perspective on why the US needs serious gun control. I’ll start you off with this set of statistics:

“Clearly, we are a violent country.  Our murder rate is three to five times that of most other industrialized countries.  […]  Moreover, and more telling, our response to violence is typically more violence.  We display our might — or what is left of it — abroad in order to address perceived injustices or a threat to our interests.  We still have not rid ourselves of the death penalty, a fact that fills those in other countries with disbelief.  Many of us, in response to the mindless gun violence around us, prescribe more guns as the solution, as the Republicans sought to do during the gun debate.  And we torture people.  It is as though, in thinking that the world responds only to violence, we reveal ourselves rather than the world.

  • With the above in mind, read this excellent op-ed by former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who herself was the target of gun violence a couple of years ago. In “A Senate in the Gun Lobby’s Grip,” Giffords states about the Senate gun control votes, “I know what a complicated issue is; I know what it feels like to take a tough vote. This was neither. These senators made their decision based on political fear and on cold calculations about the money of special interests like the National Rifle Association, which in the last election cycle spent around $25 million on contributions, lobbying and outside spending.” Shameful.

Whew! That ought to keep you busy for a while. What have you been reading lately?

In Solidarity with Oberlin

On Tuesday, 5 March, my alma mater made the front page of the New York Times — the article popped up as the third most-emailed.

Oberlin's Finney Chapel, May 2006

Oberlin’s Finney Chapel, May 2006

But, unlike what you may expect, Oberlin did not make the front page for some great achievement in environmental design or for some students doing amazing service trips during Winter Term or for having tons of alumni serve in the Peace Corps.

Oberlin made the front page because the College canceled classes on Monday, 4 March for a “day of solidarity” in light of a series of vandalism acts — mostly in the form of hate speech written on walls and posters — targeting Oberlin’s black, Jewish, and LGBT communities. These acts were brought to a head when someone wearing a KKK outfit was spotted early Monday morning on South Campus near Afrikan American Heritage House, a safe space where a large population of Oberlin’s students of color live.

These events are not only scary and threatening; they are shocking and sad at Oberlin, a place with such a progressive tradition of liberal values and openness to people of all races, religions, and sexual orientations.

Due to these events, Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov and the deans decided to cancel classes on Monday, 4 March in order to come together for what Krislov called “‘a different type of educational exercise,” one intended to hold “an honest discussion, even a difficult discussion.'” (read the NY Times article here.)

I’ve gleaned from Facebook posts that the turnout at the Finney Chapel convocation and the Wilder Bowl rally were astonishingly huge. That is a hopeful thing to come from all of this: whoever has been committing this vandalism, Obies still gather together in solidarity to keep working toward a more equal, hate-free (or at least tolerance-focused) world. Although I am saddened by what has happened on campus, I am still proud to have attended Oberlin College and I am proud to be part of a community that sticks together and provides support from near and far. I stand in solidarity with Oberlin, now and always.

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To read more details about the incidents and response…

  • Another Obie alum wrote a nice response here.
  • Huffington Post article and short video here.
  • A short CNN video here.
  • …it even made news here in the UK.
  • And a provocative response to the incident here.

What are your thoughts? Post them in the comments section below.

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Highlights of the Month: March-April Edition

Long time no post, I know — it’s been a busy and exciting month. For time’s sake I shall provide a bullet-point list of highlights from the past month or so, with links to follow, where appropriate.

  • In the past month or two my Peace Corps Partnership Grant has begun to be implemented at my school here in Sniatyn. Thanks to many wonderful donors, the grant was funded and my school was able to buy multimedia equipment for the English classroom. We bought: a laptop; speakers; laser printer-scanner-copier; a projector & ceiling mountings; a projector screen; a dry-erase board with markers & magnets; a teachers’ table; and various connection cords. It’s amazing how far just $1800 can go here in Ukraine. If you’d like to see pictures of my classroom’s transformation, click HERE. It has been so wonderful to be able to use the projector and screen for my English clubs and classes — it makes learning English so much more fun and interesting for both the pupils and me.
  • At the end of March I set off on a week of travels to London and Prague (with an overnight stop in Warsaw on the way home).
    • In London I spent four days catching up with good friends Sam (a high school classmate now living in London) and Hannah (a fellow Obie studying abroad in London). The weather was gorgeous the entire time, so I walked between three and four hours every day, exploring different areas of the city and falling in love with the bustling-yet-relaxed vibe and beautiful architecture. Hannah and I went for a lovely run in Regent’s Park and cooked some tasty kale-based lunches. I was also able to tag along on her history class’ walking tour of South Kensington / Exhibition Row and got to attend part of her English class — it felt so comfortable and fun to be around Obies again. Sam and I spent a great day together exploring Greenwich and the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea; we also had delicious fish & chips at the third-oldest F&C establishment in London. I could go on and on about what I saw in London, but instead I’ll let my pictures narrate the trip.
    • Prague has a totally different feel from London, but is an equally as fascinating city. The city’s architecture is astounding and almost fairy-tale-eqsue: red roofs, tower-topped churches, a castle on a hill. I took a great (and free!) walking tour with a pleasant Czech guide; she told us a lot about Prague’s history and taught me what all the Czech letters sound like. (The Czech language is not dissimilar from Ukrainian/Russian; I could understand quite a bit.) My main reason to visit Prague, however, was to run the Hervis Prague Half Marathon (along with 10,999 other people!). The race went up and down the Vltava (Moldau) River, across cobblestones, tram tracks, and bridges. The energy from so many people was amazing. So amazing that I ended up running a 4-minute personal best for the distance: my finishing time was 1:47.01. I met some great people at my hostel — including an elite (sub-1:20 half marathon) runner and three girls traveling through Europe after studying abroad in the UK. Pictures HERE.
    • The above link also has a few pictures of Warsaw, where I spent 20 hours on my way back to Ukraine. If I’d been there longer and not on a Sunday, I would’ve loved to explore more and visit the Warsaw Uprising and Chopin Museums. As it was, I walked to the beautiful Old Town center and ate some tasty dumplings.
  • I’ve been perfecting my soy-lemon poached chicken recipe and have cooked Ukrainian borshch twice in the past week — I’ve updated the recipe HERE.
  • This week, the whole town — and country — has been preparing for Orthodox Easter, which falls on 15 April this year. Today is chystyy chetver,” or “clean Thursday,” the day when everyone is supposed to clean the house and bake paska, the traditional Easter bread. I’ll celebrate with Halya and her family on Sunday.
    • At school this week, in preparation for Easter, the pupils hosted a yarmarok (market). Each class sold cookies/cakes/buns and handicrafts like Easter eggs (pysanky) and embroidered towels. The money they earned will go to the school.
  • Today Tamara, the TEFL Lead Specialist for Peace Corps/Ukraine, came to my school to talk with my director and English teachers about how to apply for another Peace Corps Volunteer for after I leave. She asked my colleagues for their impressions of me/my work, and I was extremely flattered by their kind words and appreciation of my work here. Sometimes I feel like I don’t do nearly enough, but it seems that they are certainly happy with what I’ve done. Of course, I’m also their first PCV and so they have nothing with which to compare my work. But I was flattered nonetheless.
  • I played some table tennis with two 11th-formers this afternoon before playing volleyball at school. They taught me the proper paddle grip and it was fun to whack the ball around a little (though I am not good by any means).
  • I continue to write periodically for Full Stop. You can read my latest book review HERE.
  • The Literature GRE approacheth! I’ll take the test in Kyiv on 21 April and hope not to totally bomb it. You can see what I’ve read over the past six months HERE — feel free to leave book recommendations in the comments section.

What have you been up to this Spring?

колядки

What are колядки (kolyadky), you may ask? Why, carols! Christmas/New Year carols, to be exact. Ukrainians have many traditional New Year and Christmas carols, some really beautiful. Many sound similar, but maybe that’s because Ukrainians songs use similar harmonies. The school choir sang a few carols to us teachers this morning. I took some video clips to introduce you to Ukrainian holiday greetings and carols:

 

This next one, “добрий вечір тобі,” (dobryy vechir tobi = “good evening to you”), is a classic. As in I’ve heard it so many times already that I almost know all the words. But I like it.

 

And this one’s called “Нова радість стала” (nova radeest’ stala = “discover the joy”). Also a popular one.

 

Happy singing!

Highlights of the Week: Mid-November

  • I’ve been featured in an Alumni Profile on the Oberlin Athletics website. So proud to be an Obie!
  • My Peace Corps Partnership Project (PCPP) grant has been posted online! Please consider donating a little money so my school here can get some multimedia equipment for the English classroom.
  • I was asked on Wednesday by my school director if I could teach some English to my town’s police in preparation for the 2012 EuroCup that Ukraine is co-hosting…starting on Thursday. (I didn’t actually end up having to teach today, but we went to the police station to meet the vice-director.)
  • I introduced the game UNO to my English clubs this week — with an English-task twist. They loved it and were all amazed that I can shuffle cards what I see as the “normal” (“poker”) way. (Ukrainians shuffle by holding the deck in one hand and mixing the cards in that way; the “simple” way.) I told them most Americans shuffle the way I do — that’s how we learn. Funny, the little cultural differences that appear out of nowhere.
  • I’m reading Milton’s Paradise Lost and it is awesome. Dense but fascinating, and Milton’s writing is gorgeous. I’m learning a lot of religious/biblical history (though it’s slightly fictionalized/Milton-slanted).
  • I found dried cranberries at my grocery store! Those of you who know what I eat for breakfast almost every morning know that this is a big deal.
  • My school director said my hair looked pretty when I had it scrunched to be a little wavy. A compliment on appearance is a tall order in Ukraine — I’ll take what I can get!
  • TODAY IS MY DAD’S BIRTHDAY. IF YOU SEE TERRY PLEASE GIVE HIM A BIG BIRTHDAY HUG! LAST WEEK WAS MY BROTHER’S BIRTHDAY, SO FEEL FREE TO GIVE DANA A BIG HUG, TOO.

I leave you with some autumn colors:

Kosiv, Ukraine. “Pre-Carpathian,” Hutsl land.

My walk to school.

Fall colors, church. Sniatyn.

School no. 1, Sniatyn.

Containing sad things

On Friday, Janira and I had lunch with our colleague Natalia Mykhailivna from the Methodological Cabinet. The MetCab director has been sick for a few months with stomach cancer, so I asked Natalia how she (Tetiana Petrivna) was doing. Natalia said better.

On Sunday, Janira was at my place to plan some trainings when Natalia called to remind Janira to tell her sister “happy birthday.” Natalia then told Janira that Tetiana Petrivna died that morning.

Needless to say, the mood at school on Monday was somber. We had a last-minute teachers’ meeting after the second lesson which ended up being mostly about Tetiana Petrivna’s funeral and arrangements to go to her village and pay respects. My school director was matter-of-fact about it all, but his face was distressed and sad. Tetiana Petrivna died much sooner than expected. Everyone was in a bit of a shock.

On Tuesday, Janira and I joined the MetCab members, directors of district schools, and many other people for Tetiana Petrivna’s 3.5-hour funeral. Three and a half hours. The first hour at her house: people who wanted to went inside to view the body — I chose not to — as the male brass band played. The priest and male band-turned-choir went inside and we heard some intermittent singing. Eventually they brought Tetiana Petrivna’s body out in an open casket and an entire service was performed. Before leaving her house, some people lined up to kiss Tetiana Petrivna. The next hour and a half consisted of a procession — a very large procession, Janira remarked, to which I replied that as director of the district MetCab Tetiana Petrivna touched many people’s lives — around the village to the church. As the procession began the casket paused not far from Janira and me. It didn’t even look like Tetiana Petrivna; I think in part because her eyes were closed and those held so much sparkle and personality when she was alive. At the church, which Janira and I did not enter, there was another hour-long service. Finally they emerged from the church and we processed to the cemetery for a quick, final, 25-minute ceremony.

The hardest part for me was watching her husband and daughters — Tanya is 16-17 and Olha, my pupil, is only 12 — follow the casket for hours, ending at the cemetery where they — and many others — broke into loud sobs as the casket was closed and lowered into the ground. Grief. I remarked to Janira that when I die, I’d rather there be a very short funeral — or none at all — and a long, joyful memorial service celebrating my life.

I haven’t written much about Tetiana Petrivna, but she has been a constant welcoming presence and fantastic resource since Janira and I arrived at site last December. (I include Janira because the MetCab is for the entire Sniatyn region/district and Janira’s village is in the district.) One of the first Ukrainian celebrations we attended was the MetCab’s holiday “concert.” Tetiana Petrivna had also been an English teacher and so spoke good English; she was always inviting Janira and me to visit the MetCab, if for nothing else than a cup of tea and some chocolates — an open door policy at its best.

I was so looking forward to working more with her this year. But life goes in different directions sometimes, doesn’t it? The MetCab is still a fantastic place and resource, and Janira and I will continue to work closely with Natalia (who herself was pretty torn-up at the funeral; Tetiana Petrivna was like a second mother to her, she told me).

Janira, Tetiana Petrivna, me, & Natalia Mykhailivna last January.