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!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Day 298: Romania!

I have arrived in Romania. I may be a little bit tired and hungry and more than a little bit in need of a shower, but I have safely arrived in the formerly communist country that will be my home for the next month. 

It's been a pretty long road getting here. I left before 8am yesterday, catching a bus from St. Andrews to Dundee, then the megabus down to London. Because of delays, we didn't reach London until 9:30 pm, meaning I didn't get settled into my hostel until past 10:30. That wouldn't have been an issue, except that I had to wake up at 4:30am in order to catch the bus to London Luton airport in time to make my 8:30 flight. Things were a tad hectic and rushed at the airport, but I made it in time and they didn't make me check my carry-on bag (despite how I'm nearly positive it was too big) and I slept through most of the three hour flight. 

The Romanian airport immediately made me miss Britain-- they don't seem to understand the concept of a queue here! Everyone just sort of jostled together to get through passport control, which was pretty lax. 

Once through, the uncertainty began. I had been told that someone would likely be there to pick me up, but I had no idea where they'd be or what they looked like. I didn't immediately see anyone holding a sign with my name on it, so I wandered around the airport, got some money from an ATM (yes, I did go to a new country without a scrap of its currency on me. No, this didn't stress me out at all... maybe it should have?) attempted to locate a bus that would take me into town, and eventually decided to ask at the information desk, where I finally found the woman who was supposed to pick me up. Apparently she had been at the airport all along, with a sign, but we must have just missed each other. 

She drove me into the centre of Cluj and dropped me off at the hostel where all of us TEFL volunteers will stay until Saturday night. Cluj is Romania's second largest city with a population of 450,000. It's a lovely place-- not too busy, with some picturesque buildings and slightly mountainous countryside visible just beyond. The overwhelming colours are adobe beige, yellow, and pink, with a bit of stone and stucco. 

This afternoon I got the chance to explore a little bit. I set out without looking at the map and wandered along some old walls, climbed up to a university building, and visited a market square complete with cathedral and craft fair (I bought a lovely pair of earrings featuring little bronze ballet dancers). The hostel also had a party to celebrate their 12th anniversary, so I enjoyed the free cake and wine. 

On Saturday, the other TEFL volunteers and I will all be sent out to our placements. I'm going to Suceava, a city of around 90,000 people, in northeast Romania (about half an hour from the borders of Ukraine and Moldova). I'm looking forward to seeing the city, meeting my host family, and starting work teaching English! 

Friday, June 6, 2014

Day 278: Update from the Continent

(Urquhart Castle on the shores of Loch Ness)

Apparently I haven't blogged in a few weeks, not since exams. Whoops... So much has happened since then that I could have blogged a dozen times, but I've been so busy living through all this exciting stuff that I haven't had time to blog.

Hopefully I'll get a chance to write more detailed posts about some of the travelling I've been doing recently, but in case I don't, here's a brief look at everything that's happened in the past few weeks. 

1-  I finished exams! My own exams went decently, I had fun soaking my friends after their finals, and when I got my marks back just yesterday I found I passed all my modules with quite a decent average. Perhaps my marks were a tad lower than they would have been in Canada, but I'm still happy, considering how busy I was, and how I had to get used to a new academic system. 


2- Mum came! A few days after my last exam, mum flew out from Canada for a visit. She's here for a full four weeks, which means we're just a tad over half way right now. I loved showing her St. Andrews and introducing her to my friends, and she's a great travelling companion.

3- I moved out of St. Andrews. :( While I haven't said goodbye for the last time (I'm back for a bit in June, then for the last weekend in August before finally flying home September 1st) I have moved out of my flat and said goodbye to many of my friends. This, not surprisingly, was really hard, but having mum here definitely made things easier, since she helped me pack up my stuff, and travelling with her has helped take my mind of what I'm leaving behind.

4- I've visited four countries: Scotland (up north, so basically completely different from St. Andrews), England (Durham), the Netherlands (Friesland, Gouda) and now Germany (I'm writing this on the train just over the border from Holland, but we plan to visit Cologne, Manheim, and Heidelberg). It's cool to add a new country to my list (Germany makes 15), and I've really enjoyed seeing new places in countries I've already visited. 

(The house in the Netherlands where my great-grandparents lived)

That's life now. Another week of travelling, then a week in St. Andrews performing in The Mikado (a Gilbert and Sullivan, what else?) and then I'm off to Romania for a month! I have the feeling this summer is really going to fly by, since I'm constantly busy. The month in Romania will probably be the quietest time I get, since August will be spent dashing across the UK. 

As I mentioned in number 3, I do have a flight home now on September 1st. I'm flying Edinburgh to Toronto, which means that I'll leave from St. Andrews, which I think is fitting. Unfortunately, flying straight to Toronto means I won't have any time home in PEI this summer, so I won't get to see my family, friends, or the beautiful Island. On the other hand, I do get to spend the maximum time here in Europe, and I'll still be here when my BFF, Sharon, comes out for her exchange next year. Then, when I finally do leave, orientation for my MA program starts the very next day. It'll be busy, but I won't have time to miss Scotland if I throw myself right in to life back in Canada. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Day 263: Soakings

It appears that every tradition at St. Andrew’s involves getting cold and wet. Raisin Weekend, the May Dip (more about that in another post), Pier jumps, and now Soakings.

Soakings are a bizarre combination of celebration and revenge. After you finish your final exam of your final year (which, for me, was at 11:30 on Monday) your friends waylay you outside your examination venue and douse you with water (and occasionally glitter. Or champagne. Or flour. Or flowers. But technically it’s supposed to be just water). This serves as a wonderfully amusing way to celebrate the end of your undergrad degree.

A friend's soaking this afternoon, with an unconventional soaking implement.
I’ve been to a bunch of soakings, some by friends’ houses when they were writing take-home exams, other times in officially designated ‘soaking areas’ by the main exam venues. The ones at houses tend to be a little crazier, since they aren’t subject to the water-only regulation, but the ones at official venues are fun because there’re often multiple people getting soaked at the same time, like when the medics all finished their final exam on the same afternoon.

A friend's soaking in her backyard. Water was followed by several containers of glitter. :)
Being soaked is the oddest mix of feeling so hated and so loved at the same time. Although getting doused with water isn’t exactly pleasant (especially with Scotland’s temperatures, wind, and rain), you’re so elated to be done your degree and so pleased to see that all of your friends have come to celebrate with you, that you welcome the buckets of ice-cold water (although your nicer friends bring warm water to help you avoid hypothermia.)
Group photo after my soaking. Love these people! <3

My soaking is one of my favourite St. Andrew’s memories. Four years of intense study at four different universities, all culminating in a few minutes of dodging streams of water and giving friends big wet hugs. A huge thanks to all my friends who came to my soaking and helped make the ending of my undergraduate career really memorable! St. Andrew’s really was the perfect place to spend the last year of my undergrad.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Day 259: Last Night

It's my last night as an undergraduate student. Tomorrow, at 11:30 GMT, I'll have finished my last exam. Maybe I won't formally graduate until November, but I'll be done.

Tomorrow I'll write a lovely, long, nostalgic post about my past four years in university. Now, though, I just have to say that it feels bizarre.

Done. Complete. Finished.

It hasn't sunk in.