Thanks Dudes.

At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.
— Albert Schweitzer

So here I sit. In a tiny little room, in a great big city. Beating myself up, as I am wont to do, for not writing more, for not enjoying my work more, for not doing more traveling while I’ve been here. For not getting out in the sun; not reading enough books; not writing enough letters.

Forgetting, of course, that I am healthier now than I have ever been. That I’ve been running along the Thames every other day – something I never dreamed I’d be strong enough to do. That I’ve published five articles in the last month, and made a lot of progress on other creative projects close to my heart. That I’ve met countless amazing kids and touched their lives. That I’ve been to Paris, crossed the English Channel, seen Stonehenge. That I’ve wandered one of the greatest cities in the world, explored its nooks and crannies, blended into its cosmopolitan crowds – and even voted for one of its MPs (Labour, if you’re curious).

I’ll be heading home in almost exactly a month. I’ve got a few more adventures on my calendar before then, but as this first leg of being a Londoner winds down, I find myself in a reflective mood (I mean really, is there any other kind?). And it occurs to me that I owe some shouts out to my geographically diverse, but universally amazing, tribe. This experience has been a life-changer, and all I’ve accomplished, personally and professionally, does not belong to me alone.

  • It belongs to my mum and dad, who believed that I could do this even though they knew how much I’ve struggled to figure out what to do with my life, and without whose moral and financial support I wouldn’t have lasted this long.
  • It belongs to all of my aunts, Rita and Georgia and Kathy and Diane, and my cousin Stephanie, who have been incredibly kind with their comments and emails about my writing and my adventure. Knowing that I am part of such a loving family has always been vital to my sense of self – but being so far away and still feeling that love has been incredible.
  • It belongs to Aliesha and Andrew, whose handwritten letters have made me laugh and cry and have been something to hold in my hands, a tangible piece of home.
  • It belongs to Janet, who laughs at all my jokes even when they’re incredibly lame, and always makes me feel like a superstar. It’s a rare gift, to be able to bring out the awesome in other people. I hope that I do it half as well as she does, as a teacher and a friend.
  • It belongs to Eli, who helped talk me down when it was three hours before my flight to Italy and I had a fever but wanted to go anyway because I was afraid other people might think I wasn’t making the most of living here. As always, he is a shining example of doing things because they’re part of being who you are, not who you think other people want you to be.
  • It belongs to Kim, whose strength has always sustained me, and whose pleas that I come home already, so she can kidnap me and make me stay forever, make me feel incredibly loved.
  • It belongs to Neigele, who put up with my cranky as I fit her into my solitary routine, and who is an incredibly upbeat travel companion, even after 15 hours.
  • It belongs to Slav, who IMs me almost every day to gossip about TV and politics, and who makes me feel closer to home. Thanks dude. And yeah, what DID happen to Mr Eko, anyway?
  • It belongs to my brother. It just does. Because he’s in the middle of figuring out what the hell he wants to do with himself, too, and excelling at it, but he still has time to just hang out with me from half a world away and while away the hours watching videos and laughing, just as if we were still roommates.
  • And it belongs to Marty and Carolyn, and Jen and Rhiannon, and every teacher that helped me become one. Including Marley, who got me my very first teaching job, and has supported me through every professional step I’ve taken since. I learned invaluable techniques from each of them, and getting to put those into practice and experiment with them has been one of the true joys of living and working over here.

And my success here also belongs to my new friends:

  • Anita, who I met in a cafe across from the British museum, like something out of a movie, and whose kindness and creativity was the first thing to draw me out of my protective shell in this strange new country.
  • Dave and the crew at LOTNA, who welcomed me into their club with open arms, and introduced me to my very first Doctor.
  • Janine and Clare, my Glee girls, the first people here to make me feel truly at home – and in Janine’s case, creator of the tastiest meal I’ve had since Paris, the spinach/mozzarella/pinenut/onion chutney panini. You should really come up with a snappy name for it, darling.
  • Pete, who has great taste in movies, and can talk about them for even longer than I can – and always has something interesting to say, which is more than I can claim.
  • And it belongs to the teachers I’ve met and learned from: my current co-teacher Gaynor; all the ladies of the English department at Bishop Wand Secondary; Katie and Mike at the agency; and a devastatingly handsome English teacher at a certain west London school who, while he’ll remain nameless here, will always be my hero for stepping gracefully into the breach the first time I really lost it with a class.
  • And of course, the students. With a few exceptions (and hey, everyone has bad days), they have been sweethearts to a boy and girl. They have continually surprised and delighted me with their intelligence, their humour, and their individuality. They remind me, every day, that they aren’t just bundles of energy to be kept under control, but people, trying to learn what they can and enjoy themselves while they do it. I’m incredibly proud to have been even a small part of their school experience.

So that’s my big, scmaltzy love letter to everyone – including me. A huge part of this experience has been me being with myself for long chunks of time, and as many of you know, that’s not necessarily an easy task. But we have learned from each other, me myself and I, and plumbed depths of strength and inspiration I didn’t know I had – and never would have found if I didn’t have such an amazing network of friends, family, mentors and colleagues. Thanks dudes.

Here are some photographs from the past month, including some friends, new and old. Rest assured, there are fewer than fifty pics in each set – I’ve finally gotten a handle on my photo fever. As always, be sure to read the captions for a few little stories about my wanderings:

And here are some links to Schmapp, who selected two my photographs to be in their new guide to London:


“Hell of a Damn Grave. Wish it Were Mine”

I write the above quotation not to scare the crap out of any of you – rest assured that I am healthy and happy and have many cheery stories to tell about springtime in London so far. And I will, I promise. But right now I’m going to take a moment and finally tell you about a little pilgrimage I took back in early April. The line above was spoken by Gene Hackman as the comically pathetic Royal Tenenbaum in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. I quote it here simply because I was reminded of the quiet, surreal brilliance of that film the afternoon I finally went to visit Douglas.

Just about a month ago now, before I left for Paris, I headed up to Highgate Cemetery in Islington to do something I’d been unconsciously avoiding since I got here just about three months ago – visit the grave of my favourite author, Douglas Adams. Many of his books are set in Islington, a borough of North London, as were the last years of his life – so it was a neat experience to just wander the streets… I looked around and thought silly thoughts like, This must be what Kate Schecter’s house looked like; here Dirk Gently could have dived behind that very car to escape a maddened giant eagle; Richard MacDuff might have eaten at this very Pizza Express; in short, Douglas walked these streets. And now here’s me, walking them too.

At the top of Highgate Hill, I veered left and entered Waterlow Park, which I immediately loved. The strong smell of almost-spring floated on the cool air; the contrast of the trees against the grey London sky, the sloping hills, the birdsong, the water… It was full of what Douglas loved best: life, doing what life does. I stopped and ate my lunch, watching pigeons waddle and children play, still oddly reluctant to do what I came here to do. It’s a cliche, but it’s the reason that makes the most sense: seeing the gravestone will make it real. It was upsetting enough to lose my favourite author nine years ago from half a world away… to see the evidence up close… I wasn’t quite sure how I’d react. I loved the memorial lecture in March; Clive Anderson was a genial host, I got to contribute about twenty-five pounds to Save the Gorilla, a charity close to Douglas’s heart (indeed to all of those who have read Last Chance to See… his brilliant treatise on endangered species), and I met a very nice German girl with whom I whiled away the pre-lecture period trying to spot the Janes (his wife and sister) or catch a glimpse of young Penny Adams, now nearly twenty.

But this, somehow, was different. Both more real, and less. More because I would be alone, just me and a huge graveyard and the reality that he is really gone; less because I am acutely aware that Douglas himself was a confirmed and committed atheist, and might have found my feelings about this visit more than a little silly. I am generally of a scientific mind myself, in no small part because of his influence… but I also believe that there is more to each of us than meets the eye, or the microscope – and that if strange and terrifying events are to occur involving someone who is dead, then the scientific precept of Occam’s Razor would seem to suggest that their grave would be a likely setting.

In short, I was feeling overwhelmed. But I was here. So I strode up to the gate of Highgate East, handed the man my three pounds’ entry fee and the scrap of paper I’d been carrying around since February with Douglas’ plot and square numbers on it. I was promptly and Britishly told that there are 55, 000 graves in Highgate East, and there isn’t a map, and they don’t just point you in the right direction. You can write a letter requesting a guide to help you find a specific grave – this takes weeks and a minimum thirty pound donation to the Friends of Highgate. My heart sank. But I was there, and I’m here, in this country, to SEE things, after all – so I went in anyway, determined to make the most of the afternoon.

It was magnificent. This is no cemetery – it is a graveyard, pure and simple and OLD. Graves here are overgrown with ivy and moss, and engraved with phrases like “Went to Sleep” and long, eloquent verses from the Bible. In addition to the very old, there are also some newer graves; there’s a whole section given over to artists and writers and teachers and scientists, some of their stones truly magnificent. I held out hope for a while that I might find him here – I checked plot number after plot number as respectfully as I could, but no cigar. It was a beautiful afternoon in any case, and I came away satisfied and with a trove of photographs that I’m quite proud of (there’s a link below).

But as I made my way toward the entrance once more, a strange thing happened. Having been in a sort of meditative daze for much of the afternoon, I suddenly found myself focussing on the conversation of a group of strangers clustered around a small, shabby collection of gravestones at the side of the main path. I can’t tell you what they said to grasp my attention, but something in their manner resonated with me. I chanced a glance in their direction, not wanting to shatter the quiet of my afternoon with human contact – and there, just past the man with the telephoto lens, to the right of his bored-looking son, was a small blue rectangle, covered in dust and topped with a collection of cheap-looking knickknacks. In the dirt before it lay a pile of pens. And in stark, simple letters it was inscribed:

Here was the reason I’d come here. And what did I do? I turned on my heel, and began to walk briskly toward the other end of the graveyard. I will readily admit that I cried. Not nearly as long or as hard as I did in May of 2001; nowhere near the way I did when I lost each of my grandparents, of course. But nonetheless, tears were shed. I didn’t know him, and at any rate he wasn’t here now. But seeing solid, physical evidence that someone so influential in my life was here and now is not was a traumatic moment, more than I thought it would be.

Eventually, I collected myself, waited for the other pilgrims to leave, and returned. I took some photographs, cued up Douglas’ voice reading The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul on my iPod, and tried not to be a snob about the obviously heartfelt but incredibly tacky plastic toys and pins left by fellow fans atop the stone. They, like me, were simply reaching out to someone who had touched their lives. Earlier in the day I had found a small, smooth stone – careful to choose one from the centre of the path, and long-buried, so as not to usurp someone else’s tribute for my own purpose. I had carefully cleaned it off, and now I placed it on the edge of Douglas’s headstone, slowly, carefully, to show that I was here. He wasn’t Jewish, and neither am I – but neither of us are anything else, either, and the custom of showing that someone has been to a grave by leaving a solid, weather-resistant stone has always made an elegant sense to me.

I left and quietly travelled home, listening to Douglas read and wishing I could have met him. I also thought a little about his great passion for nature and animals, and how beautifully that passion was rendered by Hammer and Tongs in the 2005 Hitch Hiker film. It surprised me to find nothing growing around his grave – so many other stones in Highgate have ivy crawling all over them, or daffodils planted around them. But his just has a bit of grass and a lot of dusty dirt. I get it, I guess; he wouldn’t have cared, most likely, and his family are probably doing other things to keep his memory alive that make more sense to them. I deliberately avoided going on his birthday because I didn’t want to disturb anyone who might be there that day and be visiting not a hero but a husband or friend. But something tells me that his people don’t visit that often.

Yet I still find myself thinking that something should be growing there. That some part of the beauty he celebrated in his writing should be there with him, or at least there to greet those who come to see. So before I leave I may quietly and respectfully look into what it would take to plant something. Even if it only makes me feel better, there are worse outcomes.

To see some photographs of the beauty of Highgate, click here.

Neigele’s Visit

Another momentous event (and another set of albums) I want to share is my first “crossover”, so to speak – my good friend Neigele came to see me on the last leg of her European tour, and became the first part of my Canadian life to overlap with my English one! It was so wonderful to see her, and I think that it was an interesting experience for both of us. On the one hand, it was an incredible comfort to see someone from home, someone we could relax with and speak in shorthand with; on the other I think it really made both of us think about how much we’ve changed, even in this short time away.

Of course our experiences were very different – she was jetting about to different countries (the girl covered Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Greece and the Greek Islands in under three months!), while I’d been spending my time delving deeply in just one place, living the day to day life of a resident. But it seems that both of us have learned a lot about our own values and priorities, and we had some really interesting conversations during her stay. I don’t know about her, but for me it was really good to get to share my thoughts with someone who already knows me so well, and has been going through some of the same things – exploring and battling homesickness and pushing yourself to get out there and meet new people and do new things.

And we got to share bits of our new lives with each other: I met Neigele’s friend Nathan, who joined us in Paris and journeyed on to London with us as well; and she got to meet some of my new friends. And of course, I got the thrill of getting to play tour guide, showing both of them the sights and sounds of London. I think I did well – as you’ll see from this post’s photo albums, we covered a lot of ground in a short time!

But I think the highlight, for me, was our day trip to Stonehenge. It was a way for Neigele and I to share our travels, going to a place that neither of us had been and discovering it together. Rather than describing it in detail here, I’ll oh-so-casually refer you to my first published article at “The Stonehenge Tour: A Review” (creative title, right?). Suffice it to say it was a beautiful day. You can see the pictures here; warning, like every tourist before us, we took an obscene amount of shots of the stones themselves, from all angles… you just can’t help it, once you’re there.

I’m incredibly proud of Neigele: it sounds like she had an amazing trip, and even in the short time I spent with her I could see that she has become a seasoned and knowledgeable traveller, well able to take care of herself. And she’s become quite the photog as well… Her shots are gorgeous, and if you’re her friend on Facebook you should check out the albums she’s been posting.

More from me soon… There are still plenty of photographs to be shared, and plenty of English experiences to document. I’ve been making more friends (yes Mom, mostly nerds from the nerd group!); exploring more of the city; and I just purchased my ticket to see Henry IV Part One at Shakespeare’s Globe! For now, here are some photos from Neigele’s visit:

Paris with Neigele (we met up after my first day there and spent a day exploring together before heading to England. The highlight of these pictures is definitely the food – and the Louvre!)

The Dover Ordeal (I haven’t really covered this in the above post, as, to be honest, it was an exhausting day and parts of it were quite unpleasant. Basically, because of all the flights being grounded due to the Icelandic volcano eruption in mid-April, what should have been a five hour journey from Paris to London via train and ferry wound up taking around fifteen hours. Luckily, we had each other for company, and there were so many good-humoured Brits in even tighter spots than us that it was hard to stay sour for long. Check out the photos and their captions for more details)

Westminster (the political district of Central London: Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and more)

The British Museum and Hyde Park (Hyde Park, which I’ve mentioned here before, is one of my favourite places in the city… It’s London’s Central Park – or maybe Central Park is New York’s Hyde? At any rate, it was a beautiful day – and there were ducklings! The end of this set also has some really nice pics of Neigele and I.)

Stonehenge (there are a few videos here as well, to give some scope… and the countryside itself was just gorgeous)

I See London, I See France…

Go straight to this post’s accompanying album here; but as usual, it’ll make more sense after this:

I friggin’ love Paris. Not the most original sentiment in the world, I know – but for me, a new one. When Marley and I were there in 2005, I was ill, I was homesick, I was overwhelmed and underprepared. We were young, and it was a first visit, and that means frantically trying to fit the entire city into a few days. Which, ironically, inevitably means that you’ll do less, and remember less, than if you tried less. So this time, I was determined, would be different. This time would be about me and Paris and the places where we overlap. Which turn out to be not so much the big grand things of the City of Love, but rather a few smaller, more pedestrian things. Food. Beauty. Language. And men. Ah, these Parisian men.

The first night I was there, admittedly, I didn’t exactly eat like a queen. I spent so long wandering along the river taking pictures that although my first taste of France was indeed a crepe, I was still hungry and the only place still open near the hotel was a Chinese restaurant. But it was GOOD Chinese food – and eating it while sitting cross-legged on a giant hotel bed watching House in French was still pretty danged awesome. Dunno who the French v/o actor is, but damned if he doesn’t capture Hugh Laurie.

Here’s an excerpt from my travel journal, dated the next day.

“Just ate the best salad ever. Officially beats the spinach and corn with Bavarian smokie from The Cup in Squamish. Even though the sweet Australian girls there let me sub the mac and cheese for spinach. Because I don’t think the lads at the Brasserie where I got the new king of salads would mind subbing… which is kind of the point. The French see flavour as a universal human right. I’ve always found Paris quite visually bland; from a purely visual standpoint I’ve never really ‘gotten’ its rep as the City of Love. But this trip, less than a day in, I’ve already come to the conclusion everyone inevitably comes to. By definition you have to get there on your own, and it is this: It is the FOOD that makes this city such an emotional place. My first stop today was a little bakery on Rue de Sevres for breakfast. I had a ham and cheese croissant. I use that name for it, but the thing I ate for breakfast today bore little relation to the dried up log of bread with processed meat and cheese-flavoured sludge inside that we call a ham and chese croissant. This thing was actually flaky, for one. Crisp and soft and buttery. Filled with fat slabs of real cured ham, just salty enough, and then covered in cheese, the whole shebang, and baked just enough to be crispy and brown. Delicious.

Next stop, Patisserie Laduree. The strawberry and pistachio tart I had, sitting on the side of the cobbled Seine path, was amazing. Not too sugary, not too creamy – but filled with sugar and cream. The pastry, again, actually flaked – didn’t move all as one overmixed unit, didn’t crumble. Clue number one this was actual food! The berries were tiny ornaments, but each one was perfectly ripe. Inside, beneath the cream, more slices of berry, along with custard and more fresh, cold cream. Crisp, sweet, flaky… It was like the whole thing grew on some hertofore undiscovered tart tree known only to the French.

And then this salad. For under 5 euros, I got a huge bowl filled with fresh lettice, cucumbers, tomatoes, sweet crunchy, punchy cornichons (pickles), sweet, fresh corn, fat slices of cheese, soft bowtie pasta, and roast chicken. And when I say roast chicken I don’t mean the dry, tasts-like-chicken sprinkling you’d get on a Safeway salad. I mean moist, seasoned, cooked just enough, barely breaded on the edges poulet.”

I know I sound a little dramatic there, but man – we do food pretty well in Canada, and the English certainly have their moments… but it’s just not the love affair for us that it is for the French. Maybe we just feel too guilty all the time… If so, I think we have a fighting chance. Our relationship with food is getting better all the time, our choices smarter and fresher. And little trips like this one can’t hurt our move in that direction.

When I ate the salad in question, I sat in a little park just down the street from Dehellerin, an amazing kitchen supply store once frequented by Julia Child. It was sort of out of the way, and filled mostly with college students and corporate lunchers rather than tourists. As I sat there, squinting at the children climbing all over a remarkable-looking statue of a disembodied head and hand, I discovered the key to making this city seem less hazy and grey. Maybe, back in the mists of time, this is where Parisiens got their reputation for exuding excess cool. You know how sunglasses turn up the contrast on a spring scene, making it just a little sharper, bringing colours into sharper relief? Bingo. Good thing I got a pair that fits over my specs.

The rest of my day alone in Paris was just as lovely. I took a boat cruise along the Seine (there are lots of pics in today’s Flickr album. Link is below). And I found that I didn’t really need the sunglasses after all, once I got into the rhythm of the sights… Who cares if I’m smoggy and old, the city seems to say. I’ve got charm.

The final highlight of the day wasn’t culinary but linguistic. I’d been enjoying using my French anyhow, all that vocabularycoming back in dribs and drabs. But then I wandered into Forum les Halles, an underground mall, as much a product of chic, modern Paris as the Cathedrals and galleries are of the historical city. I sat in the film library a while, flipping through a French biography of Peter Weir… then I wandered into the cinema next door and ended up with a ticket to seeIl Bidone, an old Fellini film noir about a group of con men in the Italian countryside. It was dubbed in Italian and subtitled in French, and absolutely beautiful. I felt so very Parisienne, riding the metro at night, listening to the buskers (there are some videos in the album below), walking the streets in my sandals, and heading home to eat groceries I’d picked up at La Grande Epiceree at the Bon Marche. Which I suppose brings me to my last point – mabe it was just how damn cheerful I was to be there, but I’ve never had that many adorable young men lock eyes with me in a 24 hour period. I sat across from a cutie on the train from the airport; smiled back at a few handsome twenty-somethings along Rue de Sevres; and when I headed downstairs in the evening to get a corkscrew from the landlady, a very nice-looking tall drink of water in the lobby ignored his friends to have a halting conversation with me, smiling and trying to get me to take his place in line. I’m pretty sure he winked when he said au revoir. Maybe they’re just more affectionate here – whatever it was, I like it.

For more, and for some truly beautiful sights, check out the album.

Oh. My.

DSC06552, originally uploaded by samantha.vimes.

Gosh. In a way, more has happened in the time since my last post than in my entire time here. And I want to share it with all of you – but I don’t want to overwhelm! So today’s post is just the bullet points. Over the next week I’ll be posting lots of photos and telling more stories about all this craziness. I’m finally back to work this week and back to my normal routine, which I think will help with blog regularity! (Plus I’ve been eating more fibre…).

I am still in love with this marvellous city, and I’m meeting more and more interesting people every day. London is just so alive, so steeped and stewed in all flavours of history and culture. But enough with the poetry – let’s get to the meat, shall we? Here are some of the stories I’ve been a part of in the past few weeks:

-I had to cancel my trip to Italy, and four days of work, due to a nasty flu-type business that left me lying awake with a fever about two hours before I was due to leave for the airport. Sucked, but it was uphill from there…

-When Easter break had officially begun, and I was finally starting to feel better, I started to wander around the city again. I did a literary walk through the posh streets of Picadilly; strolled the quiet banks of the Thames; and had a quiet, beautiful afternoon in Highgate East Cemetery in Islington, soaking in the beauty and the history and visiting Douglas Adams’ grave.

-With my flu dissipated and time on my hands I decided I should go and do something a bit bigger. As Mum is fond of reminding me, I have Europe on my doorstep after all! So Paris it was. And it was an amazing trip. I remember being so overwhelmed my first time there five years ago – this time I feel like I was really THERE. The food, the river, the lights, the food, the men, the food… did I mention the food?

-My good friend Neigele had long been scheduled to come and visit me at the end of her European tour, so we met up in Paris and had a lovely day together, and planned to head back to London as a team.

-But with peaks, there come troughs… things took a turn when the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted, spewing ash across Northern Europe. We had already been planning to take the ferry back to England, but with everyone else grounded and forced to use lower altitude methods of transport, the train, bus, and ferry systems were completely clogged. A trip that was supposed to cost about 70 pounds and take about 5 hours wound up costing a good 130 and taking from 11am at Paris Gare du Nord to a 1am kebab around the corner from my flat in Hammersmith. But we saw the White Cliffs of Dover from the sea, and witnessed the quietest most English riot ever – by no means a wasted day.

-And then we bounced back! I showed Neigele London, and in the process discovered even more of it myself… parades through Westminster, fuzzy little goslings in Hyde Park, and a bona fide hog roast in Baker Street! Not to mention a stop at the Camden Head pub in North London to see my new friend Pete perform at an event called Nerdgasm. Awesome.

-From the city we ventured outward, and spent today at Stonehenge. An amazing experience, and an economical one – an 18 pound ticket gets you a tour bus to and from the site with hop on/off service all day, admission to Stonehenge itself, as well as a visit to William the Conquerer’s Salisbury stronghold. And it was a BEAUTIFUL day – we got some great shots.

So stay tuned in the coming week – I’ll be expanding on each of these adventures with a new set of stories and pictures every couple of days. After all, I’ve got to start clearing the backlog away to make room for the new. I’ve been spending time with my wonderful new friend Anita (including a trip to a Rumi poetry seminar yesterday), getting more involved with LOTNA (a scifi fan group here in London) and just generally soaking the city in. I should also be getting some articles published soon through an online freelance collective I’ve joined – I’ll let you all know when they’re available to read. I want to thank all of you again for your patience, your readership, and for all of the conversations and messages and moral support I’ve gotten throughout my journey here in England. I love you all.

Wherever You Go, There You Are

[Click here for this week’s photos – they’re pretty closely connected with the stories below, but you can view them before or after reading – your choice :)]

I’ve been thinking a lot about Marty lately. For those of you who don’t know her, she was my Faculty Advisor during my teaching practicum at SFU (Hi Marty!). Without her support, I don’t think I’d be having this amazing adventure. And I’ve been thinking about her because, amid all of the bits of paper I accumulated during my education training, the one I always keep with me, taped to the inside of my teaching portfolio, is Marty’s Discipline Ladder. Before detentions and phone calls home, Marty’s number one tip for creating a safe and effective working environment is simply this: Be present in the classroom.

I’ve been to quite a few more schools in London now: I’ve taught Year 7 dance classes and Year 11 math classes; drama and science and art and hey, even a little English. And the one thing that all of the situations I’ve encountered have in common – in the classroom and in all of my wanderings here – is that they are all made richer, more meaningful, and more successful, by the institution of that one little rule. Be present.

I have a line I use with my students when the noise level starts to climb. I tell them that there is a subtle but important difference between the hum of a room full of people who are focused on the work at hand, and the roar of a room full of idle conversation. It’s an important distinction when your goal is to create a safe and efficient working environment. But either way, particularly from a supply teacher’s perspective, it’s still a roomful of people all talking at once – something that can easily become very intimidating experience. And the more intimidated you are, the more tempting it is to retreat. Yet in teaching as in life, in the words of another heroine of mine, “Sometimes you just have to punch your way through.” Despite any personal fears or insecurities, despite the volume and the unfamiliar faces, a teacher has to set her teeth, remind herself of her responsibility to set the tone in the classroom, and forge ahead. Because being right there with each student, shoulder to shoulder, paying attention to their needs, acknowledging their accomplishments as well as their shortcomings, is the only real way to earn their respect and cooperation. By staying present you show each person in your charge that you really are there to make their school experience as meaningful and painless as possible. Only when this intention has been communicated can the students feel safe enough to leave their personal demons aside, roll up their sleeves, and get to work. But hold back, cultivate distance, drift away from the moment – that’s when they’ll eat you alive.

Granted, some days they’ll eat you alive anyway – but that can be an important experience as well. Because the bottom line is that everyone has bad days, and that lessons don’t go as planned and fire alarms get pulled and students get in fights. And getting all tangled up into knots of blame over the chaos of the everyday is exactly the way to become one of those stodgy, frozen disciplinarians I never want to be. So instead I’m learning to care and to be present, but also to cultivate a professional distance. This means taking a more realistic view of my own importance. There’s a line I love from the final season of Six Feet Under, that describes exactly how tempting it can be to blame yourself for things that, objectively, cannot possibly be your fault – particularly when you’re only in a particular school for a day, a particular classroom for an hour. “I don’t know why I [blame myself]. It’s so narcissistic. ‘I am the asshole at the centre of the universe.’ Forgetting how vast the universe is.”

Just as the roar of directionless chaos is never the fault of just one person, so the productive hum of dedication can only be achieved through a whole network of competent professionals.  And each teacher and staff member I have met at the schools I’ve been to in the last two weeks has been more than competent. To a (wo)man they are strong, kind and dedicated people. Their rules and regulations make sense, and are not enforced without a modicum of compassion. Waldegrave School for Girls is a shining example of this. The students there are polite, calm, studious – not zombies by any means, but rather young people who buy in to the rules and routines because they understand their purpose, and draw comfort and stability from them. Case in point, the Year 9 form I was in charge of for a day last week. I was dreading it, knowing how hormonal and moody Year 9s can be, hoping with crossed fingers that they would at least quiet down enough for me to take the register in good time, that at least no one would throw any books at anyone else… And then when I walked into the room, every single one of them stood up. And when I asked for quiet for the register, you could hear a pin drop but for each girl saying “Good morning, Miss” as I called her name. An extreme example perhaps – but proof that there is such a thing as a functional school system.

St Marylebone School in Baker Street, where I spent a large part of last week, is perhaps an even better example – because it isn’t necessarily cream of the crop, the way Waldegrave obviously is, but it still functions smoothly, and teachers and students there are on the same page. I spent three delightful days there last week, getting to know many of the girls and learning what it’s like to go to school in the heart of downtown London. They were lovely young ladies, polite and goal-oriented – I had a few run-ins, a few moments of doubt, but nothing like my first couple of weeks. The girls at St Marylebone are even encouraged to support students in other years – much to the delight of their supply teachers: I got to spend half the day sitting in the Royal Academy of Music watching a Year 8 dress rehearsal, because all of the Year 7s and 9s I would have been teaching were there too, learning the importance of being a good audience. There are some shots of this in this week’s flickr album.

These schools are places that not only don’t scare me away from teaching, but actually make me want to do all those unpleasant, uncomfortable, teachery things, establishing routines and enforcing sanctions – because in these schools, you can see them actually working. One of the more interesting routines I’ve observed is that many schools here don’t use a bell system – classes are scheduled to end at a particular time, but it is left to the teacher to wrap up loose ends, address concerns, and then dismiss the students on her own terms. This sounds like it would be chaotic, and I’ve certainly seen it backfire – but mostly, it seems to work. And it restores some of the authority that a teacher loses when the students start to pack up five minutes before the bell and then leap out of their seats are rush out the door at its toll – whether the teacher is done teaching or not.

Because these schools are so well run, such strong communities, it’s a little less intimidating an experience to join them as a stranger. And the less intimidated I am, the easier it becomes for me to stay present, and to be effective at my job, to have more good days; and the more good days I have, the less intimidated I am the next time around. Sort of the opposite of a vicious cycle.

So I’m feeling good about my time here. Sure, I get lonely at times – but I’m learning so much, experiencing so much, that I sort of need the mental and physical space that we often label loneliness just to process everything. I have one last story to tell today – agin, all about being present. I’ve been spending quite a bit of time in Hyde Park, and the other day I met a really interesting dude, name of Paras. He was dressed in full on Scottish warrior gear, the whole nine yards – you can see him in this week’s album. We got to talking, and it turns out he does a lot of work researching the history of the Scottish clans, teaching people where their families come from. But he’s also a traveller, a searcher, like me, and we had an interesting discussion about setting off on your own, figuring things out about yourself.

Of the stories he told me about his travels, one in particular stands out. He was on the train in London, getting a lot of looks and queries as usual, when he fell into conversation with a young man from Ghana who now lives in London. The young man’s eyes lit up at the sight of Paras’ outfit, and he started asking him all sorts of questions about Scottish culture, professing that he is fascinated with the history of the clans and their wars, and wants to get himself a kilt. Paras says he could tell that this man, despite his faraway origins, obviously had a real resonance with the idea of Scotland, with its history full of folks who staunchly (and bloodily) defended their identity, their idea of what they were and what they could be. At the time, Paras happened to have a traditional Scottish shirt in his bag, along with a video of Rob Roy – they had been a gift for a friend he wasn’t able to see on his trip. Now, he could have stayed aloof, stuck to his original plan and saved the gifts for their intended recipient. But instead he looked into this man’s eyes, saw the inspiration there, the potential for meaningful connection – and he gave him the shirt and the film, and some good wishes, and sent him on his way.

In relating this story to you it is not my intention to glorify Paras – I’m sure he has just as many flaws as the next man. Rather, his story is a quintessential example of a “teachable moment” – seeing an opportunity right in front of you to make a connection with someone, to help them along in their journey in some way, even if that means changing your own plans. It is this sort of… flexible selflessness that is essential to being not only an effective teacher, but also an effective person. One of the administrators we worked with during practicum had a favourite line, which he quoted so often that I’m sure half the Burnaby Community Module has it permanently etched on their brainpans. I know I do:

“Our job is to teach the students we have – not the students we used to have, or the students we wish we had, or the students we have in our dreams.”

I think that goes for all of us, everywhere, in every part of our lives. Instead of constantly reaching for perfection, for this tidy little boxed up existence that we can never have, I think it’s a much better goal to start from where we are each day. Not just accepting the world around us, and the people around us, but also ourselves.

I’ll leave you with one last borrowed thought. I was listening to a podcast by Oriah Mountain, and was struck by one particular idea of hers. Essentially, it is this: The question is not why you are so infrequently the person you want to be, but rather why you so infrequently want to be the person you are. Self-improvement is not about dragging your self toward some unnatural and unattainable goal, but rather about improving the way that you care about and appreciate your self as it is, at this moment.

I’ll see you all in a week with some photos from my impending trip to Italy. Til then, take care, and give yourself a break. I guarantee you, you deserve it, even if you don’t think so. ❤

City of Paradox

It’s the little things that remind you you’re living in a foreign country: the bananas are from the Cote d’Ivoire, not South America; the strawberries from France. You have to be very careful crossing the street – especially if you have my tenuous grasp on the concepts of “left” and “right”. And god forbid you should forget yourself and say pants instead of trousers! But the most fascinating things about life in London are the contradictions.

From a teaching perspective, puzzling pairings abound. The children are, in many cases, incredibly rude – they swear, they scream, they litter and spit. In my limited experience thus far, it’s unusual to have a class in which no one throws anything at anyone else. Yet they’re also incredibly articulate, strong writers and clever speakers. The point has been made that we North Americans now “own” the English language – and perhaps it’s a valid one. Not only are we the ones still pushing its linguistic envelope (go on, look up Jedi in the OED), but it’s also more likely for a Brit to be able to understand a Canadian’s accent than the other way around. But then you listen to these children speak, all the considered little pauses and inflections in their speech; you read their writing, see their command of vocabulary and punctuation; and it all belies the easy familiarity and breadth of the native speaker.

Some of this may have to do with the school system here, yet another contradiction: It’s more prescriptive, yet also more supportive than the BC system. The National Curriculum here dictates many more details than our provincial systems in Canada – right down to country-wide rubrics and teachers checking each other’s marks. Yet despite the temptation this creates for treating students even more like numbers, it comes hand in hand with another national policy: that of having “tutor groups”, wherein a teacher is assigned 20 or so students for the year and is responsible for ensuring that they are cared for each day. The tutor takes attendance first thing in the morning, before any formal classes, and often again in the afternoon; she provides relevant announcements in order to keep her pupils connected to the school community, and ensures that they are keeping their uniforms tidy, using their agendas, bringing their equipment to school. If behaviour or other problems arise the tutor becomes involved as a mentor, along with subject teachers and administrators. It’s a formalized advocacy system, essentially, and while of course it works better at some schools, with some teachers and children, than others, I think it’s impressive that it’s policy. Impressive – or perhaps worrying, that it HAS to be policy, and can’t just be the unspoken professional responsibility it is back home. Hmm.

The paradoxes of London life are evident in the wider city as well. Londoners take immense pride in their national history, much of it incredibly bloody, racist and nationalist – while simultaneously welcoming a growing immigrant population from every nation under the sun. I’ve talked a little about the food here, but when you look at it from this perspective it starts to make sense – the English don’t need a strong national food; they’ve got everyone else’s! I haven’t had sushi here yet, but surprisingly, it abounds, alongside Chinese, Thai, Jamaican, Indian, and various flavours from the nearby regions of the Continent. I never go a day’s travel on the tube without hearing at least half a dozen different languages. I’m also starting to learn that the reality of English food can escape the stereotype, depending on where you go. There really are a whole host of native flavours – fresh bread, organic produce, Cumbrian cheese. I visited Borough Market recently, and while on the surface it reminded me a little of Granville Island, the sheer abundance and variety of food, the crush of the crowds, and the Cockney calls of the merchants created a real Old World market feeling, something straight out of a period piece.

This is, as I’ve pointed out before, a city of rules and regulations. And, incredibly, they work. The museums and galleries here, gloriously, are almost all free – yet they’re cleaner, more secure, more current and better staffed than most of ours. You often feel as though you’re being managed as you move through this city – managed deftly, but managed nonetheless. The tube system is especially indicative of this, with its innumerable reminders about minding the gap, its constant service updates, its tight security (including, rather disturbingly, the fact that there are no trash cans, only metal rings holding clear plastic bags, because the IRA used to plant bombs in the metal cans). Yet amid all this utilitarianism there is a flourishing love of art, and history, and music. Londoners seem prouder and more supportive of their role as cultural mecca than many of the world’s other major cities. In Athens, from what I saw, it was unusual to run into locals at museums or performances – here, it’s perfectly normal to tour the Science Museum or attend the Opera alongside people who live here, but don’t take here for granted.

Even the very act of experiencing this great city is fraught with contradiction. I find myself wanting to see everything, all at once – and often trying to do so much in a single day that I hardly remember where I’ve been when I get home. And taking photographs isn’t always a good way to create lasting memories – I often have to stop myself, put the camera away, and remind myself to stay in the moment, to experience rather than just record. It is an overwhelming place. As a newcomer it’s necessary to carve out space for yourself here and there, manageably-sized chunks of city that you can wrap your mind around, claim as part of your experience. And my favourite, so far, is the River Thames.

It’s one if the parts of the London experience that makes it manageable to wrap your mind around this much history. Buildings change, roads shift, culture takes unexpected twists and turns, some of them disappointingly in sync with the rest of the world. Because hey, we expect England to be jolly and cobbled, not to live down the street from Coca Cola’s London headquarters (seriously, it’s like two blocks away). But, as far as the human conception of time is concerned, the river has always been here. Everyone who’s ever lived in London,  has walked along it, skated on it, thrown up into it, written about it, gazed across it as moonlight twinkles or the sun rises. It’s a size we can comprehend, and, like all great rivers, it’s the reason there’s a city here in the first place. And of the few things I’m sure will stay fresh in my mind, long after I give up my old-timey keys and turn in my train pass, is the simple, tangible, manageable memory of sitting by the Thames. I’ll remember gazing out at the deep dark twinkle of city lights on cold water, breathing in the rivery smell that reminds me just a little of home.

Here are some things I have committed to film for posterity – take a gander when you’ve got the chance. (And while I’m on the subject of posterity, I’ll be framing this sometime soon – congrats Andrew and Aliesha! Can’t wait for the wedding!)

Hyde Park (31 pictures) – very beautiful, and some really interesting structures, not least the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain and the Prince Albert Memorial with its… um… less than PC depictions of the four corners of the Empire.

The Victoria and Albert Museum (58 pictures) – Arts through the ages. Only scratched the surface, but snapped some shots of the most beautiful things I saw, and had a nice old gentleman take a shot of me on a gorgeous wrought iron bench.

The Science Museum (57 pictures) – Completely amazing. The best bits were definitely the NASA bits and pieces, including mission gear from Apollo. The history of technology displays, each a different era in a nutshell, were also fabulous… I took a short video of each. It’s amazing that we can get such a sense of time and place and memory just from some bits of plastic and metal.

North Ealing (5 pictures) – This one’s really just for Bryan, and anyone who’d like to see where Bryan worked when he was here in the 70’s.

PS: I notice that no one’s had a gander at last week’s “Literary City” album yet, and I’m curious (but in no way offended!) – have you not had time? Did the update not come through? Is Flickr hard to use? Can you see the captions I added to the photographs? Gimme some feedback – it makes me feel less like I am whistling in the dark! 🙂 Love you all – I’ll be back with more soon.