My neighbourhood is the best in Berlin. The argument is closed.
My neighbourhood is the best in Berlin. The argument is closed.
Above: The gorgeousness of Sapa in January. I went on a trekking trip with Sapa Sisters to escape from the real world, before the delightful experience which was a 26 hour, 3 leg flight.
I actually didn’t mind the flight. I’m one of those weirdos who loves flying and airports and I was excited to be going home 🙂
Takeaways from the experience:
Upon arrival in Heathrow, I should probably have been knackered. Darling parents, who had been up since obscene o’clock, probably hoped I was knackered. But I wasn’t. I ate two breakfasts (might have been three, actually), at their expense, and proceeded to give them a run down of my entire learned impressions on the TEFL industry in Vietnam.
Parenting is so rewarding.
Much grammar learning. The novelty of cold weather rapidly wore off, then just as rapidly, my nervous system remembered it was British and I got used to it again. Snowdrops came out. I passed the one month mark of landing back in the UK and wondered if Vietnam had all been a dream. I joked about my single status to my brother and sister in law — and they came back from their Valentine’s day date with a gift from Lush #pityplayforthewin
Suddenly realised I only had 2 weeks left in the country. Last few friend dates. Read my teenage diaries. Occasionally laughed, mostly felt horrified. Plotted the best way to destroy said diaries. Crocuses came out. Realised that I really don’t travel light. Ever.
Moved to Berlin. Colder than the UK. Started the CELTA course, stopped doing everything else.
Officially registered as resident in Berlin. Finished and passed CELTA. Stayed out til 4am with coursemates and had to leave the school’s accommodation the next day. Moved through three different flats and started taking German classes. Started working as a cleaner in a fetching black t-shirt.
First visit from a UK friend. Finally moved into an apartment where I can stay for more than a month. Started teaching my first class since the CELTA course. My old colleagues/interns from Vietnam who stayed on another semester started posting pictures of goodbye parties with their classes and their next adventures…felt even more like my Vietnam had been a dream.
Here were are. Where are we? What happened?
This month, another lovely friend and my lovely parents will be visiting, the UK will be having a general election (yes, I am voting, don’t panic), and I will be turning 27 the day after the Myslexia Women’s Pamphlet Competition deadline — and I’ve sort of made myself promise to enter.
Along with doing lesson plans… wish me luck!
But I’ve decided to start blogging here again, because the lack of writing in my life has been bothering me. Writing is just something I need to do, the way some people practice yoga or do basket weaving or paragliding. I need to write to maintain a semblance of sanity so here, my blog, is where you can keep an eye on me, and tell me off if I’m not writing enough 🙂 I am drowning in German homework and job applications and all the things I need to do to legally be here…but I just need to write. I don’t want to get to the end of my life and have notebooks full of scribbles but no poems that I’ve laboured on and crafted to the best they can be.
Hoping you have time for the things that keep you, you
1. A twentysomething girl stares out of bus windows in countries far from her home and daydreams about stopping and living in one. About the specific kind of grit it would take, like trying to take root in sand, and yet how completely possible it seemed once she had imagined it. How people really had no more cause to stay in one place than a sycamore seed pod.
2. A girl in single digits, on a beach, filling a carrier bag to breaking point with pebbles and shells because they all seemed too unbearably beautiful to leave behind.
I started this morning feeling sad for a bunch of reasons and as the sadness cooled it turned to anger and irritability.
At 3.40 I was fantasising about being the kind of person who can just grab their passport and walk away without a backward glance.
Then as 1 500 children began filing back to their classrooms, I began to hear high-pitched English words.
‘Hello teacher! Hello!’
These weren’t the students who I was about to teach; they were my Tuesday students who only yesterday I subjected to the charade that is my employer’s testing system. They had absolutely no reason to remember or acknowledge me and yet they noticed me and greeted me as if I were someone wonderful. Their ‘hellos’ chirruped across the courtyard like birds and I no longer had to feign smiles, they were genuine. I am aware that a 6-year-olds standards for ‘person who makes me happy’ are probably not terribly high but those kids reminded me why I do not walk out, why I chose to do this in the first place and I will be grateful for that long after my face has blurred into the endless rounds of foreign teachers they will encounter over the next (hopefully) 12 years of school.
I walked past that school again tonight. It’s at the opposite end of the street to a vegan restaurant; not a drinks-in-jam-jars, cheeseless pizza vegan restaurant, a real no frills Vietnamese buffet where you can gorge yourself on lovely, healthy food for 20k đ (about 80p), a place where families and students come for dinner. Walking around Hanoi at night — and I mean my little neighbourhood as much as the bustling centre, is such a treat I often invent errands at night, and I fritter 1000’s đ drinking juices and coffees in the evening. Shops and cafes are draped with bright lights, friends sit at street kitchens and bier hois and park benches just passing the time of day, people power walk and play badminton and meditate, toddlers wobble their first steps. It probably seems odd to Asians how obsessed with their street life Westerners are, but we mostly come from cold countries where the outdoors is a route and not a destination (except for that one week in September, or May, or June, where it hits 25°C!) so it never ceases to delight me. It also gives me a feeling of independence; I don’t need to worry about ‘is this the kind of place where a woman can walk on her own?’ because most places are the kind of place anyone can walk, from dawn until about midnight.
And I was walking home, belly full of good food and a teasing thought reminded me how easily this could feel like home, jarring as it sometimes is. With a bit of effort, I could make this a home.
I won’t of course. At least, not now (never say never). It probably only seems doable in the way that living in India or Cambodia or, erm, here seemed doable 2 years ago — because it was just a daydream, I’d never be stupid enough to actually DO it, right?
Whether I come back or not, I think I’d have been stupid not to.
Home is where you make it
How delightful, to be in a country where the celebration of Christmas doesn’t begin as soon as you’ve discarded your Jack’O’Lanterns from Hallowe’en!
Er, about that…
The syllabus demanded that we get our students to pour their little souls into crafting Christmas cards before taking their masterpieces off them to be judged by our esteemed employers. The winner gets a prize. Place your bets here that it’s a pen emblazoned with the company logo… Now that December has arrived, though I feel like it’s partially acceptable to start counting down to Christmas… even if it is 24°C.
I got another wedding invite. I’m not sharing it cause that’s kinda personal, but safe to say that I’m looking forward to a summer next year bookended by the weddings of two lovely, beautiful couples and I hope it’s the start of all the stupendousness they deserve. PLUS CAKE AND GRAN-DANCING!!!* THANKS GUYS!!
I wasn’t actually in Hanoi. It took a bus ride where we picked up a drum and a puking baby, but Sam, Ceri and I reached the gorgeousness of Mai Chau last weekend. Stilt houses, rice fields, much less traffic and light pollution ♡♡♡
Sooo…. that’s it. Sorry it’s not my usual essay (or maybe you’re relieved? answers on a postcard) but I’ve been having a duvet day and this was all I could muster 😉
*I mean I dance like a Gran, not actual Grans dancing, although I imagine that will happen and they will put me to shame.
…two months without a blog post. Let’s just hastily make eye contact, vaguely enquire about one another’s health and then stare at an interesting piece of wall.
Nah! This is the internet, the realm of no social niceties. Let’s dive in.
I’m in two minds about what to write about in this post. I know that I tend to read travel blogs for escapism, jealousy and stunning photographs. However I read basically every other kind of online writing for funny, real, relatableness. So I’ve been procrastinating because I doubt that what I have to write is what you want to read.
It’s been hard to think of what to write the past couple of months because at times it’s been hard the past couple of months. That’s possibly not what you want to hear — you want me to say that I have basically transformed into the love child of Ms Honey from Mathilda and Ghandi. That everything is wonderful and when I’m not effortlessly teaching 50 children the correct pronunciation of ‘sheep’, I hop on a motorbike and have dinner in a rice field with a family of farmers, or climb mountains on uninhabited islands and volunteer at Monkey sanctuaries.
I don’t want to whinge, but by way of an explanation — my confidence took a dip, and when I was among the interns not offered a contract extension, I took it a little too personally and as evidence that I am a crap teacher, will always be a crap teacher, and since this was my last grasp at something approaching a career I will always be crap at everything and am destined to live out my days serving pints to UKIP voters. And being crap at it.
I am beginning to accept that every few months my brain is just going to do this to me, regardless of external circumstances.
Brain: Hey, you know how you’ve confronted multiple fears to do this really cool thing that you daydreamed about for, like millenia?/ been holding down a job?/ got really cool feedback on this poem you worked hard on?
Brain: YOU’RE A WASTE OF SPACE! HAHAHA!
Me: Getting real tired of your shit, Brain…
So there’s that.
Now I’m feeling more positive though, I’m going to make two lists; things I’m loving about living in Hanoi, and things I’m looking forward to experiencing again in England.
-Brightly coloured flowers, just everywhere…
-Yesterday our Vietnamese lesson was in a cat cafe. I love that I live in a city big enough that there are always new places to discover….
-…and that I can walk around to discover them. Attacks on women do seem to be increasing in parts of Hanoi, but our district is still ridiculously safe. I love that I can just pop out to the shops or a cafe at 10.30 and not worry about my safety.
– Cà phê sữa đá. That is all. (It isn’t all, sorry…that’s Vietnamese coffee, served iced with condensed milk)
-Being called beautiful. Not so much by men, cause it’s often accompanied by such blatant checking out that it feels squirmy, but women and children call you beautiful, too. It’s still awkward because I’m enourmous compared to Vietnamese women and I constantly have angry spots around my mouth (pollution? MSGs? Who knows!) but at least I can say ‘thank you, so are you!’ or ‘aaaw, thank you!’ and actually mean it. (Side note: I should compliment people more out loud. People can be lovely. They need to be told.)
-Teaching. My current job is pretty cushy, I’m aware of that — 40 minute lessons and weekends off, but even with more hours I think I’d enjoy the sense of working to actually help people in some way. Particularly when those people are adorable.
-Random temples. Every shop, business or home has a little shrine in it, where fruit and incense sticks are left as offerings. There are also temples squidged among the hotels and shops which make up daily life here; some are tiny, some are huge, but they’re all pretty beautiful. I feel like in Europe, we kind of gave up on building attractive churches a while ago, and a lot of churches are now pubs or something…that’s not a criticism of either religion or country, just an observation. It’s nice the way that temple life is kind of part of the nervous system of Hanoi and also the beauty, even when it’s faded, provides a little relief from the austere high rise buildings and the utilitarian houses…
-…although the architecture (and lack of/decay of it) here does fascinate me with its own kind of beauty.
-The other interns. I’m not one of the ones who is in the Bier Hoi every night and being super sociable, but their friendly faces and the fact that someone is usually pissed off about the same thing that’s pissed me off has kept me sane! On a more positive note, they are a lovely bunch of people; funny, smart and supportive, and I hope some of us will keep in touch after we’ve gone our separate ways. I know they’re all going to do interesting things with their lives, anyway.
-Mum, you’re not going to like this: Xe Oms. Xe Om means hugging bike/hug the driver, something like that, and it’s basically a motorcylce taxi. My bargaining skills aren’t up to much and I’m on a budget so I usually order them through Grab, (SE Asian Uber, although you can get Uber bikes, too) They are much, much cheaper than a taxi if you’re going somewhere on your own which was initially why I got them…but now I just enjoy the ride. A lot. I never love Hanoi more than when I’m sailing through it on the back of a motorbike (WHILST WEARING AN APPROPRIATE HELMET, MUM! LOVE YOU!!!)
-‘The ladies’. There’s a place on the street we live where everyone goes for fried rice, because it’s the best on our street, and a bakery everyone goes to for bánh mì and nice breads, because it’s the best bakery. The women who run the shops are referred to as ‘the rice lady’ and ‘the banh mi lady’ respectively, despite the fact that their whole families work in their shops, as in ‘I’m going to the rice lady for dinner.’ In fact, there’s a ‘lady’ for just about everything in Hanoi, and I will miss the way their icy reserve occasionally breaks into a gorgeous smile and the fact that they patiently serve 300 people at once, giving them all the correct change.
-On Monday one of my students asked me ‘Do you like cheese?’ literally right after ‘Hello’. As far as openers go, it’s more original than ‘how are you?’ :’)
-Also on Monday, I saw a pregnant lady wearing a smiley face t-shirt so that she had a big smile on her bump. This made me happy, I don’t know why.
-Actually needing a duvet.
-Beans on toast. You heard me.
-Cornflakes. You can get them here but they’re like £5 and many cheap and delicious breakfasts and snacks are available so it seems silly.
-Cuddles, and the people that give them. I could cuddle here but I’d rather cuddle people I know really, really well. I’m a bit funny about intimacy.
-Sooooo many people who I won’t cuddle physically, but whose presence soothes me anyway. Uni friends. Emma and Adel. Mouthy poets and various writer friends. Not to mention my literal family who I share DNA with.
-London and Nottingham.
-Walking in the Peak District.
-Baking, and having an oven.
-Libraries, particularly Bromley House and Derby Central.
-Potable drinking water. In fact, the general water and sanitation arrangements of the United Kingdom make me happy.
-Pedestrian crossings. I’m being cheeky now…
-My books, and the eternal possibility of buying more. Obviously there are bookshops here, but the only English language one I know of doesn’t have a massive poetry selection.
What do you miss about where? What do you love about where? Feel free to comment or message, as always.
My instinct is to say ‘I survived!’ but that implies that my first week of teaching was this dreadful ordeal or death-defying act, and it just wasn’t. And yet, it kind of was in my mind.
We were here for over 2 weeks before we actually started teaching, so I’d become really, really nervous about it.
Then I saw this video. It’s actually for dealing with panic attacks, and although I can’t say I know what a panic attack feels like, the rising sense of being out of control — in a bad way — which I experience any time I do anything other than reading* is a bit of a pain, so I found myself trying to apply the advice when I was being shuttled to my first teaching job with a slightly metallic taste in my mouth.
I live in perpetual fear of being found out. Now, hold the violins, I’m not asking for pity. Thirteen years ago, pity might have been nice, because I earnestly believed that I was the only idiot having to fake it. The simple, gradual realisation that everyone and their aunt feels the same way lifted a weight off my shoulders. The world isn’t divided into people who cope and people who don’t. It’s divided into people who seamlessly fake confidence and those who don’t.
So. I told myself I was excited — or rather, I reminded myself. Because the sad thing about the panicky feeling is that, for example, here I am at the beginning of a fantastic adventure, a totally new and exciting way of life for a few months, something I’ve wanted for so long. And yet I’m thinking — just 5 months. You can get through it. By Christmas it will nearly be over. By February it will be over….I DON’T WANT IT TO BE OVER!!! What kind of numpty would?! What I want, dear reader, is to know that I can make it through the next 4.5 months without a big, red arrow landing on me saying ‘You! You’re the fake! Get out!’
I have this in everything. The red arrow is there in my head all. the. time. It’s the reason I hate taking permanent jobs. It’s probably the reason I shirk relationships (uncertainty) but fantasise about weddings (validation). It’s the reason I clock watch at parties. And it really, really has to stop, because although I was perfectly happy being 22, the onward march of time has other ideas and I really need to start ENJOYING life, rather than SURVIVING it.
Yawn, Beccy, I hear you say. I wanted to hear about life in Hanoi, not your C- Philosophy essay.
All right, keep your hair on.
Luckily, we get TAs in all our classes (well, in theory!) So mostly the disciplining is left up to someone else. The TA also translates which can be a blessing and a curse. It’s helpful when you’ve got 40 rowdy six year olds who don’t all understand ‘Ok, sit down!/Look this way!’ But it also means that the rowdy six year olds just ask the TA to translate everything rather than beginning to understand English. Our job, mostly, is to get the kids using English, copying our pronunciation and playing games. It’s A LOT of fun. Even when the kids are jumping out of their seats and chattering and every five minutes the TA or I have to quiet them down, I still think they’re brilliant. Kids don’t know how to be ‘cool’ or artful. If they love something, they go nuts over it. They march up to us foreign teachers and say ‘hello!’. They high five their friends when they win stars. Each class has four teams and at the end of the class the team with the most stars gets a smiley face stamp on their hand or in their book. Some kids look at the smiley face on their hand and start giggling with excitement after I’ve given them a stamp and I just love them for it. There’s plenty in this world to be grumpy about if you want to look for it (and even if you don’t). Kids expend the same effort looking for things to be excited and curious about. It’s really not a bad idea. But I would say that — I’m basically a big kid. Smiley faces make me want to dance a little bit, too.
Before you want to punch me for sounding like a motivational poster, obviously it’s not all a montage from the credits of a Roald Dahl film adaptation. Kids hit each other. Sometimes they’re more interested in toys and sweets than what I have to say. My throat hurts from shouting. Worst of all they can be cruel to one another. Possibly verbally, although obviously I can’t tell for sure which is a problem in itself — but they also hit one another. The TAs hit the kids too. And I hate how SEN kids are kind of ignored here…but I’m seeing this all as an opportunity to learn to deal with new challenges, to become a kinder, wiser, more capable person. To adult, basically. Or try 😉 (remind me of that when the company I work for takes me to the wrong school in the morning and I’m on the verge of tears 😛 !)
Anyhoo. One of my lovely fellow interns and housemates volunteered herself for the collossal task of organising a group trip to the Perfume Pagoda, a couple of hours drive outside Hanoi (I’m pretty sure that this is the company we went with, if you’re interested, and they were nice, gave us free water and the guide spoke really good English) to be honest the fact that it was a couple of hours outside of Hanoi was probably many people’s motivation for going but it was a wonderful trip…watching the concrete get sparser and the views get greener in the bus, then the slow, relaxing (but rainy!) hour long paddle boat trip to the pagodas was an experience in itself, and the trip to the Perfume Pagoda and Perfume Cave (so called because of the flowers that grow in the valley in spring, apparently) was fascinating too. A welcome change of pace, and our guide told us a little bit about the mishmash of Taoism, Confucionism and Buddhism which many Vietnamese people practise.
Shout out to the ladies who paddle the boats between the bus stop and the temples. They’re so strong and if they were born in G8 nations they’d probably all be medal winning rowers.
*Just kidding! Sort of…but it feels like that sometimes.
Seems bizarre that little over 18 months ago I was writing on this same blog about my experiences backpacking through Vietnam, and now I’m back. In my previous trip, Hanoi was my last stop before flying to New Zealand to meet Mum and Dad, so the familiar-but-differentness of my surroundings for the first few days floored me a little and compounded the homesickness. Homesickness perhaps isn’t an accurate phrase — by the time I left, I was desperate for a change of scenery, but there are some faces and hugs which I didn’t like the thought of going 5 months without.
I like to think I don’t LOOK as roly-poly as I did when my Mum used to call me Weeble*, but emotionally I do always seem to tip back up. So two weeks post landing, although I’m no less nervous about my adventure, I am at least sure it was the right move now and Hanoi has even begun to feel like home. About 90% of this is thanks to the 79 other interns I’m with (I’m a firm believer that home is people more than place), but if you’re thinking of doing something similar, Facebook is a massive antidote to expat-alienation, particularly in countries where a different language is spoken.
We’ve got it cushy, though. The company we will be working for shipped us to the hospital for our health checks, organises our work for us and accommodates us near one another in a suburb of Hanoi, so I have five lovely flatmates and a whole bunch of people to have a therapeutic moan to about difficult lessons, kitchen-dwelling cockroaches and the constant humidity. And if I’m giving you the impression that life in Vietnam is something to be ‘coped’ with, forgive me — we complain because we’re still adjusting. I’ll try to explain what makes adjusting worth it.
Picture your nearest town or suburban centre. Now picture the pavements and sides of the roads taken up with baskets of tomatoes, lettuce, coriander, custard apples, dragon fruit, carrots, mushrooms and many different kinds of rice. Meat is being carved in metal slabs or basins on the pavement, as are snakes of fresh tofu. Jars of pickled vegetables sit next to bras and socks and plastic sandals and tubs of live fish or crabs. There’s no such thing as a shop window; the shops spill onto the pavement, including those filled with tiny plastic chairs and benches where food is cooked while you wait. You don’t know whether to feel hungry or nauseous as you walk along; one minute the stench of raw meat or fumes is overpowering, then the smell of baking bread, fried rice or fresh herbs catches you. The tangle electric wires sag low, as if they don’t know how much longer they can keep working, and vines creep over them, concealing some completely behind a green curtain.
With all this commotion, you have to walk in the street but it’s ok, so does everyone else. If the streets were clear two cars could probably pass, but they’re not, so cars and taxis snake through at a painful pace, honking irritably. Most people go by motorbike or bike, weaving through pedestrians and pulling over when they get to the shop they want, sometimes without the rider even getting off to buy what they want.
This is my new home.
I may not be able to pass small talk with the shop keepers as I would back home, but we do chatter to each other — they in Vietnamese, me in English, with the mutual understanding that the only person we are talking to is ourselves. (Hopefully I will learn to understand a little Vietnamese while I’m here, speaking it is another matter, as meaning is completely altered by intonation in a way which is difficult to retrain your brain in!)
Bat Trang pottery ‘village’, now basically a suburb of Hanoi but still thriving on pottery
I posted on Facebook this week that I survived my first trial lesson, thanks to my lovely TA Hoa, and the post quickly got over 60 likes (Wtf? Anyone would think I climbed Kilimunjaro, not played word games with a bunch of 7-year-olds!) We all know that social media is a bit of an edited view of other people’s lives and how dangerous it can be to compare yourself to other people based on their photographs, and I have to confess I felt a bit complicit on Wednesday! If you saw that post and thought ‘WHAT am I doing with my life, pouring pints/ making lattes/ studying/ changing nappies/ cleaning litter trays???’ PLEASE KNOW that the trial lesson was simply an excercise in getting us interns used to being in front of a class. Hoa said Sophie, the girl I observed and was observed by, did well for a first lesson, but I was no Confucius and I was painfully aware that I relied heavily on Hoa to keep the kids anything resembling focused. I know I’m lucky to be here, but I’ve got a steep learning curve ahead of me and I’m going to have to roll my sleeves up to be worthy of it. Just like anything in life.
Now would possibly be a bad time to mention that we calmed our frazzled nerves at a rooftop pool and cafe 😛 but from Monday, I will be teaching full time and writing lesson plans when I’m not at school…so feel free to think of that, next time you’re cleaning the litter tray!
*Before you call NSPCC, know that I was a baby 😉