Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The Unfamiliar Familiars

This week's blog post is dedicated especially to David HaRomani, a friend and a very special member of my ulpan class.

Apparently, when David is bored in class (as is wont to happen to us all, sometimes), he reads this blog for entertainment. Nice one, mate - this one's (kind of) for you.

In the past week, I've experienced three things which, back in England, were so familiar to me that they were surefire sources of confidence, comfort and positivity. Here in the Middle East, these things, which had previously been ways of making me feel better, or assured, at the very least, have now been turned on their heads and left me a bit befuddled. There are still shreds of recognisable aspects within them, but these familiar things have now become less so - the 'Unfamiliar Familiars', as I've dubbed them.

We begin with a leisurely activity, before moving on to more serious (and troubling) UFs:

1. The Belly-dance balagan

Belly dance, as you must know, is a Middle Eastern art form. Back in England, I was hooked after taking only one lesson. That was 6 years ago. Since then, I've tried to practise as much as possible, mostly as a way to keep fit (it's the only form of exercise, other than walking the dogs, which I enjoy) but also because it's incredibly fun to do and an expressive outlet.

I decided it was time, partly out of boredom, partly out of a desire to start up again, to find a belly dance class in Jerusalem. Facebook led me to a highly recommended teacher who spoke English. We spoke, and she asked me about my dancing experience, and then she asked if I'd like to try out for a show she is putting on in September. I said I'd try my best, thinking it would just be nice to get back into a dance studio, at the very least, and off I schlepped to the other side of Jerusalem to audition for her.

Well. It was a bit different, to say the very least. Mostly older women, of rather varied (and at times highly rotund) sizes were also to audition. And all were wearing croptops. Yes. All.

I was rather taken aback. Yes, we were all women, and I'm all up for women being comfortable in their bodies. Maybe I'm a prude, but I didn't want or need to see any of that. I think I was also expected to schlep up my tshirt, but refrained from doing so (especially as I had just eaten a large meal. Noone needs to see my post-food tummy, thank you very much).

Long story short, the entire introduction and set of instructions were in rapid-fire Hebrew. Trying to understand what was happening, while learning a routine - with veils (I've never done the veil stuff before) was tough. The others  (all Israelis, all danced with the teacher before)in the audition managed to pull it off beautifully - I got the idea eventually, but was about five seconds behind everyone else in my delivery. When the music was turned on, I couldn't help but laugh at my baby elephant-esque stumbling around, trying to keep to both the beat and work out what I was being told to do.

Needless to say, I left the audition early. I suppose I always have my dance DVDs, even if my DVD player won't connect to my laptop. At least they're there if I want them.

2. My apparent lack of teaching experience

Ah, teaching. Something I don't necessarily enjoy anymore, but which I know I can do with my eyes closed (and which I did once, with my eyes closed as I had an awful headache).

As I've mentioned before, I'm going slightly nuts what with all the free time, and have started looking for jobs. I didn't really want to return to teaching, but that soon changed when I realised that I was, erm, going nuts. I therefore applied for a post, advertising for 'native English speakers' to teach English to Israelis (teaching experience preferred).

So off I schlepped once more, to another far corner of Jerusalem, to meet with the woman who'd placed the advert. A middle-aged American lady, she seemed to like my 'energy' and 'enthusiasm' (I'm pretty good at faking it, when I'm in desperate need, you see), but refused to believe I had that much experience. Here I produced my various degree certificates. It was going pretty well, until she told me that she was only looking for people for November, for 3 hours, one day a week and the pay was measly. And then she asked me to explain the different tenses in English.

Now, both as a learner and a teacher in the English education system, I know for sure that our charming language is not taught like that. The closest I ever came to learning about strange tenses - the present perfect? The past continuous? The dreaded subjunctive? - was during A level French. I had almost no idea what she was talking about, but gave it my best shot, before admitting that I didn't know about tenses but would pick it up. She told me that she would have to spend a lot of time training me, and that I'd only be able to work as a student teacher, if at all.

She then followed this by loudly doubting my quality - at times, soul-destroying- teaching experiences, or that I'd ever taught non-native speakers at all. That particularly irritated me - most of the best, most impactful and rewarding teaching I ever did was with kids who were newly arrived in the country, and they sure as hell didn't pick up English by learning ridiculous tenses unknown even to native speakers.

I can take being patronised, but that really took the biscuit. Teaching English to non-native speakers here may be delivered in a different way than I am used to, but that doesn't mean I have to wait around for 3 more months just to have a shot at doing it. I mean, anything can happen in that time.

And while we're on the subject of education gone crazy:

3. 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' - the brash, gurning American way

One of my personal favourites (and the last Shakespeare play I taught before making aliya), 'AMSND' is  a bit complicated but also wonderful - it has 3 narrative strands, with something for everybody - romance, comedy and fairies. Particularly fairies. The fairies are very important.

When I heard that a theatre company were staging an English language version in the park, for free, noch - I jumped to attend. I always thought good theatre would be just one more thing I'd have to forgo post-aliya, alongside the likes of Tesco, Primark and Starbucks.

Now, I've been lucky enough to grow up seeing excellent quality plays of all sorts, as I come from a city with world-class productions. I recently saw 'Titus Andronicus' at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre - one of the goriest, most enthralling plays I've ever seen - I'd highly recommend it. Good, solid quality there.

When teaching Shakespeare (which I've been doing for years, to pupils of all abilities), it's absolutely imperative that pupils understand (to a very basic level) what is being said, and why. There's not really much of a point in reading or seeing Shakespeare if you've no idea what's going on, however good the body language/costume choices/delivery of lines.

And this was the issue I had with the production in the park. It was an excellent idea - I used to watch 'AMSND' in the Open Air theatre in Regents Park every year - but it was absolutely ruined by the fact that the actors mostly seemed to be clueless about what they were saying. Lines were delivered with an overcompensation of face-pulling, shouting, reading in a rhyme, strange and misplaced inflections and more. Where did all of the subtle humour and clever language techniques, not to mention the iambic pentameter Shakespeare so carefully crafted into his work, go?

Other people seemed to enjoy it, which was good. Maybe I am just snobby, or spoiled, or have a low tolerance for bad Shakespeare, or maybe I'm just a horrible person, or an ex-English teacher, but it actually upset me. I had to leave halfway through the production.

This week has been a little bit of a test - for the above reasons and others. But, despite all of this week's Unfamiliar Familiars (and more to come, I'm sure), I'm still happy to be here. Nothing worth doing or having is ever going to be easy.

On another note, I seem to have acquired a Russian accent when I speak Hebrew. To be discussed, anon.

But I leave you with a famous quote from the aforementioned 'AMSND' -

'Lord, what fools these mortals be.'

I agree - especially when these same mortals don't understand the (not so complicated) lines they're publicly acting out.

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