Monday, August 4, 2014

Day 338: Living the Dream?

 I write this while sitting on a patio in Venice, a canopy to protect me from the brilliant sun, jazz music playing, a cup of tea steeping on the table, Italian waiters at the ready to bring me milk, or more hot water, or anything else I should need. 

I'm living the dream, apparently. 

Except, at the risk of sounding like the biggest spoiled brat in the history of the known universe (barring Justin Bieber), my life is no dream. 

Over this past year I've done so many things and been so many places that I've always dreamed about. Scotland. England. Ireland. Holland. Italy... the list could go on and on, but those are some of the main ones. Basically, for the past year, I have been quite literally living my dream. 

But, of course, this little thing called like tends to get in the way. The dream Britain is full of rolling hills and fish and chips and cups of tea with the Queen, but the real Britain involves wind and rain and supper in crowded MacDonalds and overnight busses breaking down at 5am.

The dream Italy involves relaxing on a balcony over the Mediterranean sipping wine, then taking a gondola ride through Venice and eating bowls of gelato in expensive florentine caf├ęs. The real Italy involves grabbing meals in overpriced supermarkets and riding on crowded trains and getting hit on my creepy middle aged men and suffering blistered feet and sunburns. 

I'm not saying this to complain. Italy is amazing. All my travels have been fantastic. I wouldn't give up this past year for anything. But I just want to make it clear that my life is about as different from a travel magazine as a real life relationship is from a romance novel. 

Yes, I love my life. But it's really not a dream. That's why it's called life. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Day 332.2: Rome!

I love this place! I'd been warned that it was a bit of a dump, and yeah, it kind of is, but the sheer number of beautiful buildings make up for the crumbling ones and the  illustrious history compensates for the mediocre present.

After the thoroughly tiring plane flight, I made it to Rome a bit before 9am. Dragging my little green suitcase behind me I set off to find the hostel, which was apparently just seven blocks away. Well, it wasn't far, but it wasn't exactly easy to find, as it was on the top floor of a normal looking apartment building and there was no sign whatsoever! Thank goodness I had printed out a map with the address or I never would have found it. 

When I rang, the door was opened by a middle aged Turkish man who turned out to be a traveller in the same predicament as me- he arrived too early to check in. We left our bags in a side room, then set off together to the Colosseum. 

The first sight of the Colosseum was surreal. I've seen hundreds of pictures of it in history books and tourist guides... and then to have it rise up in front of me... Crazy... Unfortunately, the effect was diminished slightly by the fact that half of the main facade was covered by scaffolding. Still. So cool.

Admission cost €12 and also included the nearby Roman Forum and Palatine hill, which I thought was reasonable. Going in was so bizarre, thinking about the thousands of Romans who flocked there 2000 years ago to watch the gladiator fights... Strangely, the arena itself was much smaller than I expected. The outer walls, which look so thin in photos, are actually really thick to allow for layers and layers of seats. This means that the actual fighting ring is comparatively tiny. 

After grabbing some lunch from a cafe manned by a lanky Italian guy with long hair and a bored expression, I returned to the hostel to check in. I had reserved a six bed dorm, but it turns out I was given a room with just two beds, the other taken by an eccentric but friendly Hungarian woman who grew up in the US and now lives in Germany. She's a tad odd, but fun to chat with, and definitely an improvement over a dorm full of strangers!

I took a quick nap to make up for my sleepless night, then set off for the Roman Forum. This was certainly a highlight of the trip and one of Rome's most underrated attractions. It's the original site of the Forum, the Senate, the home of the Vestal Virgins, half a dozen temples, and Augustus's place. Basically, anything you've read about Rome- it's there. Of course, all these things are in ruins, but the site is actually an active archaeological dig, so you can see what they've discovered and what they're still looking for. I spent three hours wandering around here and ended up getting kicked out at closing time. Definitely recommended. 

At this point I was tired and hungry, so I returned to the hostel and got to sleep early. I wanted to be good and ready for the next day, touring the rest of Rome and the Vatican!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Day 332.1: Farewell Romania, Hello Rome!

It seems like most of my travel experiences involve being ridiculously tired. This is probably because the budget airlines always fly at inhumane hours of the morning, like the flight I'm waiting for right now, which leaves for Rome at 6:35am. That's why I got up this morning at 3:30 to be at the airport by 4:30, where, fortunately, the check in desk and security queues were quite efficient. 

I'm waiting at the boarding gate now, slightly before 5am, so I've got awhile to go yet. Boredom, combined with extreme tiredness, of course puts me in the blogging mood. Apologies, internets. Whenever I'm awake enough to write coherent blogs I'm probably off doing something more exciting.

Passport control was a tad awkward, since the guy kept flipping through my passport, looking from my photo to me and back again. I have got my hair cut fairly drastically since that photo, so that was probably the issue. He also asked me about my trip to Ukraine, about who I went with and was it safe. After chatting for a bit and actually joking a little he let me through, so I don't really know what the holdup was at first. 

(Have I mentioned I went to Ukraine? Don't think so... Well, I did. The day after the plane got shot down. Definitely genius planning on my part. But I survived, and some interesting blog posts will come from it, at any rate.)

So, I'm going to Rome. In fact, by the time I actually post this, I'll be in Rome. That's pretty crazy. I'm not quite sure why, but Rome has always been one of the top places in the world I've wanted to visit. A lot of people have told me that it's overrated and actually kind of a dump, but I'm still excited. It's got the colosseum, for Pete's sake! And the catacombs! And the Vatican! There are quite literally thousands of years of history standing right there-- I don't see how that can not be exciting.

And now, time for a power nap, and then I'll start praying the boarding crew doesn't ask me to put my bag in the sizer...


I'm in Rome! And I've been in the colosseum! And St. Peter's basilica! And I'm not going to visit the Sistine Chapel because it's really expensive, but I've been close. And I've seen so many beautiful buildings... I love this city! 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Day 330: Romania is a Wrap

On Friday I finished my second (and last) English teaching placement in Romania. We had a party, handed our certificates, and had a celebratory water fight... and then it was over. A few hugs, some thank you's, and I said goodbye-- perhaps forever-- to the group or students and volunteers who have filled my life for the past few weeks.

(Edumax, the first school I taught at)

It's a bit cliche, but it hasn't sunk in yet that I'm done. I've gotten so used to waking up at 7 every morning to plan lessons, to walking into the staff lounge and greeting the other volunteers, and to teasing Georgiana (my hostess/student). I'm pretty used to life in Suceava, and, despite it not being the most interesting city on the planet, I have enjoyed living here. 

(Photoshoot by an abandoned barn)

It's been a great month. Teaching certainly hasn't been without its challenges, and neither has been adjusting to such a different culture, but on the whole it's been really rewarding and a lot of fun. 

Before I came, last year's volunteers told me that Romanians were really friendly-- that's certainly proved true. I've loved spending time with my host families and the Romanian volunteers at the school. Together, we've explored Suceava, climbed a mountain, and spent countless hours chatting in pubs. 

(The top of mount Ceahlau, 1800m up!)

I can't say I'll be sad to get back to Britain in a week. As much as I'll miss the beautiful countryside and the friendly people and the great restaurants, I'm looking forward to getting back to a familiar language and a shared heritage and cleaner public places. At the risk of sounding horrendously snobby, I will be happy to return to a higher-income country, leaving the cracked pavement and the stray dogs far behind. 

But before Britain, Italy! On the 29th I fly out to Italy, where I'll spend a week visiting Rome, Naples, Florence, Pisa, and Venice. It's going to be a whirl-wind tour, but I'm definitely looking forward to it. 

(A monastery)

Just one more month travelling Europe. Three new countries left, bringing my total for this year to 20. Being on the road again will be tiring, but there is just so much more to see and do. I'm gonna make the most of this year. 

Romania, farewell. I couldn't live here-- I'm definitely too accustomed to my western standard of living. But even if Romania isn't as comfortable as the West, there's something more real here, a genuine vibrancy and warmth that made my stay so memorable. Hopefully I'll return some day. But even if I don't, Romania will always be part of me. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Days 288-293: The Mikado

On June 21st, a few days after mum went back to Canada, I performed as Peep-Bo in Gilbert and Sullivan's most famous operetta, The Mikado. Set in Japan, the story follows Ko-Ko, The Lord High Executioner of Titti-Pu, on his quest to obey the emperor, the Mikado, and find someone to execute... or be executed himself. 

It's somewhat of a dark comedy, with a lot of the humour revolving around characters planning each other's deaths, and it's often been accused of racism because of its portrayal of Japan. However, I think that the over-the-top situations and the caricature of Japanese culture are used to satirize the British political system, rather than poking fun at Japan, and the sheer strangeness of the story makes the satire more effective.

(Three little maids from school- I'm on the left, looking rather pleased about something)

The production came about in a sort of roundabout way. The performers were all members of the G&S society at St. Andrews, but it wasn't an official production. We just happened to have all the right people this year, performers who exactly fit the roles for the show, so we decided to put on a semi-staged version during the week before graduation. 

Since most of our society members were gone from St. Andrews by grad week, the chorus was sung by the audience, and we ran workshops throughout the day for people to learn the music. The principle roles were all cast by our lovely director without auditions, since she already knew who she wanted for each role. 

I got to play Peep-Bo, one of the 'three little maids from school.' Normally it's the smallest role in the show, with only a dozen lines and small parts in a few songs. In our production, however, we switched things around to even out the three little maids parts, so I ended up with quite a few lines and some substantial solo singing. It was a fun role for me, one I could bring a lot of energy to, with some pretty amusing emotional highs and lows. 

("I will instantly perform the happy dispatch with this dagger!")

Our rehearsal period was less than a week. We began rehearsals on Monday and performed Saturday evening. This meant that everyone was expected to attend 9-5, and sometimes long into the evening. I was a little apprehensive heading into rehearsal week, but the condensed time period really brought out the best in people. We all knew it would be hard, and we were determined to make it work.

Show day was certainly stressful. Due to availability of two of our principles, we never actually managed a proper dress rehearsal- the performance was our first (and only) full run! However, as we saw a good twenty people show up for the chorus rehearsals, and as around a hundred enthusiastic audience members turned up for the show, we knew it would all work out.

And it did. The show was by no means perfect-- I think I managed to somehow mess up every one of my vocal solos-- but it was fun. We were having a fantastic time and the audience was laughing and cheering and clapping and calling out 'encore!' I remember, near the end of the performance, sitting backstage and thinking how being in The Mikado, my favourite G&S, was quite literally a dream come true. 

(Behold the Lord High Executioner!)

My career in St. Andrews drama is basically over now. The Mikado was my final performance in St. Andrews, and in August I'll perform The Sorcerer in Harrogate with the society. Due to an unexpected job offer, one of our cast had to drop out, so I've been given the role of Hercules, which is a small but funny speaking role.

I'm so excited to have one more show with the society. Performing in St. Andrews has been an amazing experience. Eight shows later, I'm definitely a better, more confident performer, and as enthusiastic as ever. 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Day 308: Week one of English Teaching

My first week of teaching English in Romania is officially a wrap. It's really satisfying to have finished a full week, but it's also a little sad to think that a quarter of my time here is already up, with only one more week until I switch schools and host families. 

This week has gone pretty much as well as I could have hoped. Monday was certainly a low point: I was tired from my first day of teaching, I was really confused about what was going on because I don't speak any Romanian, I was lonely because I wasn't able to meet up with the other student teachers, and I just really wanted to call my mom but I couldn't find an app that would let me call phones.

The thing is, after last year in Quebec, I've learned that adjusting to a new place is hard. I know that I'm likely going to feel miserable for the first few days. And that's okay, because now, one week on, I'm so glad I came. 

My host family is great. They have a large house on the edge of Suceava, so I get my own room and bathroom. The food is amazing- we've had shrimp and calimari, homemade schnitzel, goulash, stuffed pastries, and, of course, plenty of Romanian traditional dishes. My main problem is knowing how to politely decline food because I'm already way too full!

As for the teaching, it's been better than anticipated. I was a bit upset because I was allocated my last choice of group, 9-14 year olds in the afternoon, when I wanted to teach 15-18 year olds in the morning. However, when I first walked into class, I discovered that my students are mainly 13-16, and their English is fantastic. They're young enough to be pretty enthusiastic (I was worried about a 'too-cool-for-school' attitude, but it hasn't been a problem) but old enough to be taught at a fairly advanced level. 

The teaching isn't really conventional classroom style. I don't give them workbooks or expect them to memorize lists of irregular verbs. Instead, the point of the summer school is to have fun in an English-speaking environment. Most of the lessons are much more like games, and if the students aren't enjoying a particular exercise I don't drag it out. I don't make a concrete lesson plan for the day; instead, I come to class with a list of games and choose whichever one seems to flow naturally from the mood in the classroom. As a former homeschooler, who worked one whatever subject I felt like at the time, I love this more organic approach. 

The school also puts an emphasis on learning about other cultures. Tuesday July 1st was Canada day, so I showed up to school in a big Canada hat, showed the kids photos about Canada on my iPad, and passed around some Canadian money. Since that was my first Canada day ever out of the country, I was so happy to share the occasion with my students. 

On Friday, instead of our normal teaching hours, we held a ceilidh (a Scottish dance, pronounced Kay-lee) in the morning. Since the other teachers weren't as keen, I got the job of 'calling' the ceilidh, meaning I would teach the kids the steps and then yell them out while they danced. I was impressed by how fast the kids caught on, especially the little ones, and I'm looking forward to next Friday's last day of school ceilidh party. 

Suceava itself isn't the most interesting place to spend a month- it's not a touristy place at all, so there isn't much for us to other than sit in pubs and enjoy the cheap cocktails. The weather has been fairly cool for Romania, which I'm quite happy about, as it's been consistently mid-20s. I was worried it would be ridiculously hot, but instead it's been pretty comfortable. 

I'll write more about Romanian culture later. For now, I'm off to visit a monastery with my host family, then tomorrow I'll hike up a mountain with the other student teachers. After a week of teaching, this weekend will be a fantastic holiday. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Days 298-301: Cluj

It's been a whirlwind few days. The weekend in Cluj was one of the weirdest and most wonderful experiences of my life. Weird, because a year ago I never would have imagined I'd be spending a weekend in Romania with a group of students from around the world. Wonderful, because the experience of doing something so out of the ordinary gave me a real sense of freedom and the joy of simply existing.

Rather than wax awkwardly philosophical on the benefits of travel, I'll give you some more concrete observations about Romania, since the average western reader likely won't know much about this country. 

While it's not a rich country, Romania is actually known as a medium-high income country on a global scale, meaning that the quality of living isn't all that different from what we'd experience in the west. While shops and restaurants are generally cheaper, many of the same items and brand names are available. My western clothing doesn't look out of place and neither does my iPad. (Also, I must say, my host family's house in Suceava is way nicer than mine in either Canada or Scotland, so I by no means want to give the impression that all Romanians are poor, because the flat screen tv in my guest room definitely says otherwise...)

At the same time, it's still obvious the country isn't rich. The sidewalk is often cracked and the roads are potholed. Many of the buildings are covered in graffiti and need a new coats of paint. There's a fair bit of litter, and smoking is extremely common. Most of the nicer houses are surrounded by metal fences and electric gates. 

On Saturday afternoon, we visited a church near our hostel and chatted with the caretaker for a minute. We asked him if he had ever been to Scotland, and he just sort of laughed and said it was far too much money. This really changed my perspective-- to have a middle aged man admit that he couldn't afford to pay for the flight which I thought was so cheap. To say that he didn't have enough money to stay in Scotland, when I managed to pay rent for a year in one of Scotland's most expensive towns. That an established adult had less disposable income than I do. 

Because of the income difference, our weekend in Cluj felt like living like royalty. We could afford to eat out multiple times a day at the best restaurants in town while paying less than we would at a fish and chips place in the UK. We could buy earrings at the midsummer market or pretzels from the streetside stand, because even 10 Lei was still pocket change to us. 

It was so amazingly freeing and fun... and yet, somewhat unsettling. I've never been so comparatively rich, and I'm not quite sure how to deal with the feeling.

And I said I wouldn't wax philosophical in this blog post. Whoops!