Saturday, May 28, 2011

Hands Off!

What I REALLY wanted to write about was my afternoon at school on Thursday.

I am going to go in on Mondays and Thursdays from 2 - 3 PM to work with some children on special projects of interest.  Which loosely translated means I got to say that I wanted kids who consistently behaved well and that I get to do some creative extension work with them.  (The school already has a number of programs in place to deal with remedial help and behavioral issues.  Plus, this is the fun part!)

The program is originally meant to be part of Lawnton's 'Gifted and Talented'  program but Andrew's head is swelled enough already as it is.  And on Mondays, I asked if I could work with some kids who might not be excelling academically but who were consistently trying and would benefit from some creative work.  Which means I get to work with Ryan too.

Today the boys and I worked on the library computers on some Power Point presentations. 

And, already, I have learned something. 

(What?!  You thought this was about the KIDS?!)

Now, in order to make a presentation you need: a topic, a refined manageable topic, an idea of the points in your topic, a plan to research your topic at home, in the library and on the internet, a first draft, a tighter second draft, then an idea of layout and photos and font.  With key words and not your entire essay.

What we did was write whatever we felt like and play around with fonts a bit.

Which at first made me SLIGHTLY nervous since I feel I owe it to the teachers to come up with SOMETHING tangible out of this experiment.

But I remembered the kids I was working with were nine years old.  They (there were only two today, Andrew and another classmate) had never been told just to sit and write about ANYTHING they wanted.  They had never played with layout and font and clip art.  And so I let them experiment.  Andrew's buddy seemed to focus immediately.  On the NFL.  But then also showed an interest in tattoos - when he found the clip art.  And on Indian hip-hop.  Which I personally REALLY wanted to learn more about but.....remembered it was NOT about me!  He spent a LOT of time on font and layout. 

Andrew, in the meantime was writing about Sports.  All about sports and its health benefits and about hand sports and leg sports and then the rules of baseball and.....he was vomiting it out faster than his mother!  I was DYING to reign that boy in.  I mean, there was no TOPIC.  He was EVERYWHERE!

Good thing he gave me attitude and I backed off.

I DID try to end the session with a brief remind to pick ONE topic for next week and to think about what points we wanted to mention with regards to that topic.  (Next week I get six kids!)

Andrew's buddy was so thrilled to just have been allowed to let his mind roam.  "Can we do this on other days than Thursdays?" he asked.  Mind you, he wasn't playing computer games.  He was writing about his favourite things.  My hope is that just letting them write a bit - without immediate requirements and editing - will allow them to FIND their own topic.  And, really most importantly, to learn to love writing, a skill that most people have been taught to despise.

Andrew came home and spent the two hours I was still up at the school talking to Ryan's teacher and watching Aidan and Matthew's sports program on the computer working on his presentation.  And you knowwhat, it is actually coming together on its own.

So that lesson one for me is : HANDS OFF!

Trust that the kids will find their way.  (And remember, I am lucky enough to be working with kids I can do this with!)  Let them find their way first, before guiding them all over it.

I'm scared.  Like I said, I do have to answer to their teachers at some point.

But I feel lucky - and I think the kids are lucky - to be trusted enough to try this out.

Let's face it.  I'm just there.

You let kids loose and I have no doubt they will amaze us!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Nicht alle Kinder koennen ins GYMNASIUM, Frau Connor!

Refugees from the German school system.  For we are young and free!
Even though I dislike writing the rants almost as much as you must dislike reading them....again....I am reminded of why I have to.

It serves to clear my head.  And while I don't HAVE to PUBLISH all the first-draft nonsense that comes into my head, well you aren't OBLIGATED to READ it either when I do!  (Believe it or not, there is stuff I DON"T put up here - imagine what THAT must be!)

It also serves to remind me of how good I have it here.

Because the truth is that I am forgetting already.  Forgetting that the quote wasn't about all kids not getting into university but about all kids not being able to go to GYMNASIUM.

This, friends, is much much worse.

Because, you see, GYMNASIUM, despite what it sounds like to English-speakers (what, you're sending the kids to gym-class?!), is where the Germans send their 'smart kids' in fifth grade.

So that the SYSTEM doesn't even TRY to get the majority of students into the top track.  They believe that as early as the age of ten (and let's face it you know much earlier than that) you can already decide who is going to do what with their lives.

It is just assumed that most kids will be too dumb for it and the best thing to do is to sort the smart from the dumb as soon as possible and teach them different things.

Germans hate it when you use the words 'smart' and 'dumb' though.  I guess they think it makes them look bad. 

But what else are you telling a kid when you discuss with him at the age of ten what his opportunities are for a future career - bank teller, store clerk - since he didn't make the cut for Gymasium?

The reality is, funny enough more so here and in the USA than in Germany, that socio-economic differences will make a difference into whether or not a child does well in school or not.  But that doesn't mean that we should sanction this and make it policy.

These kids should be reaching for the stars. Not being told what they can't do.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

"Not all children can go to university Frau Connor"

"Let us all rejoice - even if the British have us wearing these goofy Easter bonnets!"
We've had some gems from the children lately, mainly as we've been discussing how great the school is here.

For example:  We NEVER saw Frau Pfitzenmaier (the school principal in Altdorf) in the classroom.  Ms Egan comes out and talks to ALL the kids.  This from Ryan.

You'd also never catch Frau Pfitzenmaier (who is actually quite a nice, caring lady, only hampered by a very natural and human inability to reach beyond the narrow confines of what she knows) chatting with parents, patrolling the school yard at lunch, playing games with the children, having weekly tea with selected children, making time for coffee with the parents, giving out her email information to parents AND answering emails, let alone actually dealing with parents' complaints and suggestions. 

One time, when I had had enough, I asked her why it was I was bothering sending my kids to school if I wasn't at all informed about what they were doing there - and about when they would be coming home.  This because Ryan hadn't told me - again - that they were being let out an hour early.  And because Frau Pfitzenmaier insisted that a second grader should be writing this down in her notebook herself.  And if she doesn't?  Why exactly am I bothering to send my child if you are doing nothing to help her or to communicate with me?  And if all the other 21 kids in the class ARE writing down their assignments on their own, why is it so damn unreasonable to ask her to help MY struggling child with it?!

I was not seen as an engaged, caring parent.  I was seen as a meddling pain-in-the-ass who was too ambitious for a less-than-average student. 

'Not all children can go to university, Frau Connor.'

People I tell this to here are as appalled as I was.  But shouldn't all children have the opportunity?  And hasn't anyone in Germany heard that early intervention - prep through year 2 - is the most important for improving outcomes? 

Improving outcomes wasn't a goal in Germany.  It was labelling and sorting.  Getting the top third to university track in fifth grade and letting the other two-third find their proper roles.  Bricklayer or prostitute for someone like Ryan.

How dare I have other ambitions for my child - or any other child for that matter!

Aidan.  No child left behind.  Not even a DREAM in Germany.  It's a POLICY to leave MOST of them behind.
The German education system was as hush-hush as everything else I found in German society.  Written and published guidelines and expectations?  Certainly not available to the parents.  I had a hard time getting them to share the results of Ryan's IQ tests with me.  Really.  Not that taking the tests mattered since they were going to do nothing with the results anyway.

No remedial programs.  No small groups.  No attention at all to the individual needs of a student.  It is fit in or drop out. 

I'm not even angry anymore.  It is just so unbelievable.  Teachers in Germany are doing their best.  They know no other way.  They haven't been taught to teach.  They have been taught to present.  Kids who pick it up do so.  And those who don't are relegated to the lower school system at fifth grade.  (Never mind that the kids excelling in the German schools are the same kids who would be excelling anyway.  I mean, honestly, give Andrew a computer and he'll teach himself.  The measure of a good educator would be one who is able to teach those who struggle, not aid those who can do it themselves.)

And everyone is okay with it.

Except the UN who has gone so far as to label it a violation of human rights, adding that it serves to reinforce a status quo based on a medieval heirarchy.  Recent immigrants and foreigners are most commonly shoved into the bottom rung.   Children of university-educated parents succeed.  And if they don't the parents shove them into private school in fifth grade.  You are not going to see a lot of white, German middle-class kids in the bottom rung.  They can pay to get out of it.

But that's just the way it is.  And the Germans shrug and move on with it.

Ryan playing flute in an area-wide two-day symposium.  Opportunities for growth?

I digress.  During my last telephone conversation with Frau Pfitzenmaier I actually SWORE at her.  Damn did THAT feel good!  I had called to ask her the procedures for UNregistering the kids for school since we were leaving.  And she responded by reminding me that homeschooling was illegal in Germany and that all children were obligated to go to school there.

Goddamnit it!  I did not ask you about my obligations to a system that isn't even trying to meet my needs.  (My goodness, I am obviously WAY too American to have even TRIED living in Germany!)  I did not ASK your permission. 

Frau Pfitzenmaier made us come to a formal meeting at the school to sign the required paperwork.  Of which there aren't any.  Since you aren't allowed to UNregister your kids from school.  She didn't even show up.  We wrote the address of a hotel in Brisbane on the back of a napkin and walked out.  I never felt better about a decision in my life.

I have to believe these people KNOW there are much better systems out there than their own and juts choose to ignore it out of sheer pig-headedness.

Andrew on drums.
Which is why I have to try to be kind - the people it is hardest to love are the ones who need it most.  It must be hard being the country the rest of the world looks at in wonder and shakes their head at in disbelief.  "Not that there is a German stereotype" a British comedian started with recently - and the audience was ALREADY rolling in the aisles!

Robin Williams says he talked to a German commentator once about the state of comedy in Germany.  "Why do you think it is that Germany has such a difficult time with comedy?" the commentator asked.  "You ever think you might have killed off all the funny ones?" Robin responded.

"No." came the straight-faced reply.

I mean, come on Leute, you make it WAY too easy!

Another gem from the kids comes in regards to the "Hands Off" policy at our school here.  Straight to the principal's office.  There is also no bullying, verbal harrassment.  And children are reminded to be kind to one another and to play together.  To the point that if they see someone looking lonely they are asked to go over and ask that person to join them.

"How would you feel if you were left all alone?"  asked Melinda, our VP.

What a contrast from " well, we let the kids exclude one another from games because we don't all get along as adults in real life and we think it isn't fair to teach the kids that we do."



Any questions on why Germans have a hard time fitting in in the international community?!


Uh - heads up Leute - maybe try TEACHING the kids about respect for others and about getting along with others - about caring for someone besides themselves and about working as a team.  But then again, how do you teach something you haven't been taught yourself?

Selbstaendigkeit comes first in Germany.  Translated as self-sufficiency.

I'd like to see that replaced with "be kind to others."

Pipe dream?  Come on over!

I keep wanting to write a blog Australia as the "Please and Thank-You" Nation.  You have never seen politer, nicer folks.  Damon has rowdy drunks at the bar slurring out please and thank-you as they order drinks.  He's had people thrown out for disorderliness who have come back the next day to apologize! 

It'd be a start Germany. 

SO Lawnton is a "Hands Off" school. 

Ryan called Altdorf's school a 'Hands On' school!  And obviously not in a good way.

People here look at me like I am crazy when I tell them what school was like for the kids in Germany.  They really don't seem to believe me.  In this day and age.  In a nation that is always well-regarded for its engineers.  (Big remind - just because the top third do well doesn't mean they have done squat for the rest!)

So that once again I have to apologize for digression.  I had a fantastic time working with some kids at school today and talking with the teachers afterwards.

The contrast is just too great for me to go on about the merits of one without remembering the deficiencies in the other.

We are SO lucky here.  And willing to help if Germany were just willing to accept it.

(PS - been meaning to get onto Amnesty International here about the campaign for homeschooling in Germany and Sweden.  Got a bit sidetracked by the illegal migrant issue in Malaysia.  No more Dateline for me!)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Mothers' Day in Oz

Picture perfect at the park on Mothers' Day 2011
But what I REALLY wanted to talk about - before I got sidetracked by all that collective guilt - was Mothers' Day.

It was truly awesome here.  The best holiday so far.

It was bigger than Easter - which was celebrated more like we celebrate May 1 in the USA - with picnics and beach.  It was bigger than Christmas.  Maybe because it rained for the entire month of December and into January and noone knew what to do without their traditional Christmas camping trips.  And then we have had the floods to recover from.

EVERYONE WAS OUT CELEBRATING THEIR MOTHER.  Restaurants were pre-booked.  Parks and beaches were packed.  And it was a holiday that every race and ethnicity seemed to call their own.  Damon's native Australian customers told him that - because of their huge respect for ancestors and elders - they started the day at 6 AM and went on until evening, visiting mothers, grandmothers, aunts, tribal mothers and more.  Ancestors are also highly revered in Asian cultures so I was hoping they embraced the day as well. 

Although he DOES look exactly like his DAD, not his Mum!

It wasn't a commerical thing like what I remember from the USA. 

And it wasn't some lame obligation where the kids had to make a cheap trinket in school like it is in Germany. 

Australians REALLY celebrate their mothers!  It wasn't a marginalized, second-hand holiday.  It was THE REAL THING!

And so I holiday that I have always found rather lame and extraneous has become my favourite one here!

We went down to the beach on Bribey Island and found a table at a Fish and Chips joint.  How great to walk with my four children and have everyone smile at me and wish me well.  How great to see other families all out enjoying eachother.  How fantastic that families are truly respected and treasured here, not seen as some obligation as in Germany.  How great to not be judged as somehow second-class for having a large family.  How great to feel the joy in it.

I still got my daughter!  AND a free table for Fish -n- Chips!

The Mothers' Day stall that the PandC ran at the school was incredible.  I gave each of my kids one dollar to buy me something.  Thinking great, another crappy wooden picture frame or some lame piece of sewing I have to keep in the kitchen for the next two years.

I got a package of fudge, some bath salts, a cool refrigerator magnet and a bead decoration that hangs over my calendar.  The kids were so truly happy to have picked these treasures out themselves - to see that they WERE truly treasures and not just some crap they had to make for me that I had to like because that is what you do on Mothers' Day - and they were so happy to make ME happy.  Better than a birthday.  Better than Christmas.  Because my kids got to feel really good about themselves making me happy.  Thank you for that, PandC!

My two hip-hop dancers perform for me.

And thank you for this holiday Australia - and for the general sentiment.

There is JOY in being a mother. 

And I finally get to live that joy, rather than wonder where it all went.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Don't Get On The Boat?!

Extra baggage?  No, lucky enough to be considered people.
I've only seen the bumper sticker on one Ute so far.  But it's parked outside our school every morning so I get to see it often.

And, honestly, it makes me laugh.  It's just so AMERICAN!  And, being one of the fortunate few to be here legally now, I too have jokingly said that they can close the ports and keep this fantastic country with its unlimited possibilities and hope for the future to ourselves.

Shhh!  Just don't remind them that we're here.  This country is the best kept secret in the world!

The bumper sticker has an outline of the Australian mainland.  With the words "Fuck Off.  We're Full." printed over it.  I mean, that's kinda funny.  IF you are already here.  And if you have already seen the same words printed over an outline of the USA mainland. 

The Australian Dream.  For us, attainable.

And if you aren't one of the 800 illegal refugees the Australian government had decided to send to Malaysia to ease overcrowding in their facilities here.  Most of these people come from war-torn countries, mainly Burma but also Sri Lanka, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan.  They were desperate enough to risk their lives and the lives of their children to come here.  Only a few months ago a boat of 50 refugees was filmed smashing into the cliffs at Christmas Island.  To be fair, the Coast Guard did try to rescue them, but conditions made it impossible.  They died violently, crushed on the rocks, in their desperate quest for freedom from violence and oppression.

It's like the Haitians in the USA who have risked everything to climb into wooden fishing boats, come over shark-infested waters and arrive on our shores only to be told that 'sorry, you folks are just a little too dark for us.'  If you were Cuban you might stand a chance, politics being what they are.  But Haitian?  Eh.  We got enough of those. 

Qantas over Singapore.  Video games and DVDS.  Do they have those on the shipping boats?

I admit that neither the USA or Australia can become home to everyone.  But I do argue that anyone desperate enough to brave death in a rowboat to make it there should be allowed to stay.  I've been in one of those boats.  To cross to an island for a wedding reception.  And while the Haitians in the boat thought it was really funny when the Best Man stood up and said 'next stop, Miami'  I couldn't laugh.  I was already thinking about what would happen if this boat tipped over and I was surrounded by 100 people panicked people who didn't know how to swim.  Mind you, we were in sight of shore. 

The argument is that people-smugglers are profiteering from these poor souls.  And that sending them to Malaysia - which is a developing country that doesn't recognize their rights as UNHCR refugees - sends a message.

Layover in Singapore.

'Don't get on the boat.'  says Julia Gillard.  'Or else you risk going to the back of the queue.'

THE BACK OF THE QUEUE?  THE BACK OF THE QUEUE?  With all respect Ms.  Gillard, I don't believe there is a queu for illegal migrants in Malaysia. 

I don't have all the answers. 

But I do believe we are sending a message.

'Don't get on the boat.'  Because we don't give a shit about you either.

THIS, Leute, is a burger!  Only a car ride from Germany - in England - and already world's away!

Do countries like the USA and Australia and Canada and countries in Europe owe it to refugees to take them in?  Obviously there has to be a sustainable policy.  But obviously those more fortunate DO have a moral obligation to help those less fortunate.

I say this as a legal immigrant here.  Because I was fortunate to marry an Aussie, have enough money to pay for VISAs and plane tickets and because I fit the bill of what Australia is looking for in an immigrant.  I mean, really, if we HAVE to let anyone in, let them look and act and be like us. 

But I also say this as someone fortunate enough to be born a USA citizen. 

Look into these people's faces.  And imagine it could be you.

The 'ship' we came in.  The same day another Qantas plane lost bits of itself over our airport in Singapore.  As we were landing.  Ignorance is bliss, folks.  We thought it was a goat on the runway!

'Don't get on the boat? Go to the back of the queue? '

Go to jail, go directly to jail.  Do not pass 'Go'.  Do not collect $200.

These are people.

Please, let us be human enough to treat them as such.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Sorry Day

The boys at a War Memorial in Kallangur.   Don't worry, they've all had the 'war is bad' pacificist speech over and over.  Weapons still seem to be part of the XY mentality!
I don't know if I've publicly admitted that the holidays down here have taken a little getting used to.  The old ones you are used to in the Northern Hemisphere, like Christmas and Easter, aren't the same down here.  Dare I complain about too much beach and sun and barbeque and fun dampening the spirit of the holidays?!!  Nah!

And the uniquely Australian ones make up for it.

ANZAC day was nice.  Mostly because Aussies (and New Zealand) are truly able to thank their soldiers for protecting them and for helping others - the good mates who come to the aid of other countries in World Wars and regional wars alike without being called either imperialistic like the USA.  Or without actually BEING the bad guys, like Germany.  You can honor individual German soldiers who died for their country in private, but you can't really dedicate a national holiday to a group of people who were trying to take over Europe and wipe out the races that weren't quite up to par.  And America has Vietnam.  Australia was there too.  But it doesn't hold the same 'hush-hush oh - goodness our government was doing something wrong and should we have supported the nineteen year old boys who were over there dying even though we may have felt the government had no business sending them over there in the first place' kind of angst that the word still conjures up in the USA two generations later.

It's nice to be able to be proud of your country, without all the moral ambiguities.  (And I AM going to argue, at some point, that everyone deserves to be proud of their country, and should work on that!)

The kids marching on ANZAC Day.  (Ryan has the flowered hat on and Andrew is right behind her.)

Aussies get a little nervous when I say this, because they do have the 'aborginal issue' to deal with.  Something I may be a little less sensitive to as a newcomer - here's a race of people MY ancestors DIDN'T oppress and/or try to exterminate!  But yeah, the native Australians in Tasmania were rounded up and exterminated.  Those everywhere else were marginalized at best, and killed outright at worst.  Mixed-race children - the 'Stolen Generation' - were forcibly taken from their homes and 'reeducated'  to fit 'their proper roles' - as servants of course - in white Australian society.  For their own good.  Because the white in them was worth saving. 

So that none of us is generationally free from original sin. 

Of course, the original white Australians that came here didn't want to be here either.  They, too were the marginalized classes of Britain - the poor, the Irish (and it REALLY pisses me off that there WAS food to eat during the Potato Blight but that the English were shipping it all to their estates and leaving the Irish to starve).  The tired and poor and the usual outcasts.  And the soldiers.

Here come the Veterans.  One older gentleman had tears in his eyes.  I did too.

This month we have 'Sorry Day' coming up.  Which I believe is known as Reconciliation Week officially.  And while I am not so sure I would be big enough to be able to forgive white Australians for the past, especially for something as recent as the 'Stolen Generation', I admire those native Australians who can. 

And I admire Australia for officially, as a nation, admitting their guilt and apologizing for their collective role in it. 

"We are so truly sorry for what happened.  We are so terribly sorry that our ancestors did this to yours.  There is no making up for it.  It was truly horrible and truly wrong.  But we can work together from here to make this a country for ALL of us TOGETHER now."

XX for peace!

Shouldn't Germany be doing this for the Holocaust?  (There have been some small apologies, all rather lame and none of them speaking of true, national repentence.)  What about the USA and THEIR native Americans?  The problem being that if you apologize and admit you were wrong you would probably have to do more to change the current situation than let your native Americans rot on their reservations in marginalized lands - ie the desert that noone else wanted - and let them upon up casinos to fund their AA programs. 

The past can't be changed.  All we can do is accept responsibility and do better from here on out.

New Aussies.  Goofy but well-intentioned!


Such a little word.

But such a big start.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Your Family Speaks WHAT Language at Home?!

German pride last June 2010 during the World Cup Soccer  (The night Germany won, the USA tied England and I believe Australia won as well! )
I remember this time in Frankfurt, when my parents were visiting us from the U.S.A. 

After taking our orders the waitress finally worked up the courage to ask what was on her mind.

"Where ARE you people from?"  she asked.  (Or would have if she spoke English.)

My Dad is a native German speaker, originally from East Germany, who has spent the last thirty odd years in the USA picking up an American flavour to his German.  My Mom studied German at school, to the point where she sounds native European anyway,  possibly Swedish.  Because no AMERICANS can speak German that well!  Damon has picked up enough of the southern dialect to have politer folks ask him if he is Dutch.  Because, once again, no AMERICAN would speak German that well.  I speak German fluently, and with enough native touch - it WAS my first language, after all - to confuse the heck out of people.  Another region perhaps?  Ryan's German was pretty good.  The twins were only two but speaking a mix of English and Schwabisch, the southern German dialect Germans down there like to consider German but Germans anywhere else - like in Frankfurt - refuse to understand. 

Andrew tries ou the bucking bronco at the Dayboro Rodeo on May 1, 2011

And Andrew had that really thick southern dialect down pat.

So that we're pretty used to sounding like a hodge-podge of foreigners thrown haphazardly together for a convention.

Not that our nuclear family is going to sound any LESS like a multi-national corporation when we speak English than when we speak German.

Cowgirls, Aussie-style.  With a salute to that OTHER cowgirl country.

I think it's been pretty well-established that Damon and I come from North America anyway.  Canada perhaps.  Because Americans don't tend to wander this far away from their military bases.   The kids are losing their German accents - which noone here ever picked up on since they assumed it was American.  Andrew finally sounds American now.  Ryan too.

And although the speech therapist has told us she thought Aidan and Matthew had a German accent rather than a speech impediment, we NOW have problems differentiating their 5-year old errors from their AUSSIE accents.  Was that an R or a W?  Or just an accent? The twins can count to thirty.  Except they pronounce it thewty.  Very carefully.  A result of the speech therapist and lots of work to come up with an accent that sounds like a speech impediment to a North American.

Meaning that the kids pronounce Justine Bieber, Justin Biebah.  And Usher, Ushah.  And we all have to pronounce the neighbouring town of Kallangur as Kallangah in order for anyone else to know what the heck we are talking about.

Aidan and Matthew are yelling at me because their girlfriend's name in Saphyre.  Pronounced Saphiah unless I want to be accused of mocking them.

And I still have one friend - who sounds like she comes out of a Dickens novel herself, or at the very least the Broadway version of Les Miserables (hmmm...why all those British accents for a French novel?!) - who still laughs out loud everytime she hears me say 'tomato.'  Or coffee for that matter.  Which I apparently pronounce KAFFEE.

So that I have taken to speaking in my American accent MOST of the time, but changing little bits and pieces here and there just so that people will understand me.  And so I don't get mocked.

(Do you call this a mobil phone, I asked at the phone store when we first got here.  Uh yeah, we call a mobil phone a mobil phone, I got as a reply.  Smart -ass.  Because it's called a cell phone in the USA and a Handy in Germany.  So pardon ME for asking.)

Ms.  Dance was taking roll call before the Prep Class field trip a while back.  Heah.  Heah.  Heah.  All down the line.  Until they got to me.  Would I sound funny if I said 'Heah.' too?  And so I decided to go with "here" in my native American.  All of which prompted a round of HERRRRRE'S when I was done.

The kids at school have a running joke where they get me to pronounce words they know I can't say - words like 'How are you?'   Who knew I sounded like such a cowboy?!

Hmm.  The working cowboys we saw in Arizona DID manage to stay ON the bucking broncos.  However, the weekend cowboys in Dayboro sure looked a heck of a lot better OFF of them!

I remember the first accent I ever noticed.  It was a beautiful woman speaking German when I was a child in Germany.  Turns out she was Spanish.  And I thought of how romantic it would be to have an accent too.

Over thirty years later I heard myself on my answering machine in Germany.  And realised I LIKED my accent.  And that it WAS romantic.  (My friends in France supposedly liked my accent there too.  And I remember Sarah telling me, in Haiti, that I was the first American she'd ever met who spoke Creole with a German accent!)

It's hard for me to believe that this flat, North-American twang is actually exotic down here.  Young girls at the mall telling me how much they love it.

My OWN cowboy, American AND Aussie!

Do I even HAVE a native language?

And what will the kids sound like in another year or two?

And does it matter?

All that matters is that we are HEAH now.  And loving it in any language.  Or accent.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Bathing WHAT'S?!

July 28, 2010 in Altdorf.  High summer in the Northern Hemisphere, in case any of you were in doubt.
So Liesel calls me last May to tell me we should bring costumes when we come over.  It being Germany in May, with the kids still wearing their winter coats to school, I clarify that she means BATHING costumes and not the dress-up funny for make-believe kind.

"Oh silly."  says Liesel.  "You'll have to learn to speak proper English if you're planning to move to Australia." 

I then call Lynn-Anne to tell her about the costumes.  "You mean BATHING costumes, right?" she asks.  Because, although she is, like Liesel, from a PROPER English-speaking country....South Africa IS a Commonwealth Nation after all - well, it IS May in Germany and none of us have put away the winter coats yet.

Note the wool sweaters.  Some folks also had gloves.  On July 28.

Anita has spent enough time with Americans to know what I mean when I tell her about the bathing suits.  If an American mentions anything about costumes we are talking either about Halloween or about formal attire.

So that, in addition to being grilled on rugby and cricket, and telling me what I've mean missing out on by NOT being a member of a Commonwealth Nation (cricket and rugby matches, apparently, as well as the ability to drink tea properly) my friends had prepared me for the whole bathing costume jargon over here in Australia.

Problem is they call them 'togs' over here.  In Queensland anyway.  Which wasn't too much of a problem since by now we had realised that we were in fact AT LEAST bi or tr-lingual - and this just in regards to our ENGLISH.  We know American English, British English and Aussie English - which is often divided into Queensland versus New South Wales dialects.

So that it is nice to see the bathing APPAREL hanging underneath the sale sign for 'togs.'  And also to have friends who will clarify and call them 'bathing togs' for those of us non-native Aussie English speakers.

Looking good, no matter WHAT you call 'em!

Until Easter Sunday when Ryan and I were sitting on the beach watching a girl her age walk by with her father.  I didn't realise we were staring - the girl was only wearing briefs and no top and I was wondering if they were European - when the father laughed and said something about ...blah blah garble garble hah hah hah.

I laughed too but had no idea what he was talking about. 

So Ryan, obviously adapting to the native tongue faster than her Mum, turns to me and asks 'what are cosies?'  Cosies?  Turns out the man was explaining to us that his daughter had forgotten her cosies.

No way, man.  To borrow an American expression.  YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!  I've got bathing suits, bathing costumes AND bathing togs...and now you throw ANOTHER one at me?! 

Autumn in Queensland.  YAY ME!

OH YES!  I know enough Australian English by now to pick that up on THAT abbreviation.

And that, my friends, is how you say bathing suit/costume/togs in New South Wales.

Making us truly multi-lingual even in what we thought was our native tongue.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Vegemite Conspiracy

To lighten up the mood a bit:

This, mates, is bacon Aussie-size.

Here's our non - Aussie view of Vegemite. 

The funny thing is, this is one of the first questions you get asked when Aussies notice that you speak English kinda funny.

As in "So, how do ya like the Vegemite then, mate?"

As if they don't already know the answer.

Casual dining, Aussie-style.
Truth is, NOONE who has not been raised on the stuff can like Vegemite.  Oprah, when she did her show here, did a FANTASTIC job of either pretending to like the stuff.  Or she really did.  In which case she is either a phenomenal actress (remember her in ' The Color Purple?' - AWESOME!) and/or she really DOES have a glandular problem and an eating disorder.

The big secret is that I don't think Aussies actually like the stuff either.

I say this because of the hints they give you on how to eat it when you admit that:

A.  It is quite salty.
B.  It tastes like undiluted soup bouillion.  (Try a packet of Maggi and see if you like it!)
C.  You only tried it straight off a spoon once.  (Like Oprah did, God bless her.)

Aussies will agree on the salty AND the soup bouillion bits.  And then make a face when you tell them you ate it straight off a spoon.  Kinda like the face you'd make if you - well - ate Vegemite straight off a spoon.

April, after-breakfast swim.  Who can argue with that?

The trick is, they tell you, to toast the bread first, smear on a LARGE amount of butter and then, only then, add JUST A HINT of Vegemite.  Not too much, they caution you.  Just a hint is key here.

In which case you might as well just be sprinking your morning toast with salt.  Or soup bouillion.  Except those two, apparently, aren't as healthy for you as yeast extract.  Which, as far as I can figure out, is what Vegemite actually is.

As far as questionable bread spreads go, the Americans actually seem to be the healthiest here.  PB and J - another icky spread you have to be raised on to love.  But at least - peanut butter - an actual protein source.  The Brits have THEIR version of yeast extract.  The French just eat chocolate croissants and don't apologize.  You have to love that.

But the Germans take the cake.  Or the breakfast spread in this case.  They have somehow managed to convince not only insanenly neurotically health -conscious German mothers that Nutella, a sugary chocolate spread, made of predominantly sugar and vegetable oil, is a good part of a balanced breakfast, but managed to market it to the world as well.  Because there are some hazel nuts in it.  Which are noted as a cautionary sidenote to allergic individuals.

I really gotta love that the best.  And let's face it, if I have the choice of smearing Vegemite or Nutella on my breakfast toast, the chocolate will win hands down every time.

Topped off with a game of rugby.

I really DO love this country. 

Enough to tell you that in addition to the large number of snakes, spiders and crocodiles swarming our suburbs, we also have the best breakfast spread around.

I just won't add that it's made in Germany!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Death of a Child and Thoughts On Why

(My own musings on my own brand of spirituality.  Certainly not a definitive guide to Hinduism or the Tao.  And certainly not meant to offend my many devout Christian friends.  I am lucky you love me and I believe you DO love me because you understand that I am searching, in my own way, for what you have already found. )

Bongaree Beach, Bribey Island, at sunset
I went to the funeral of a friend's nineteen year old son this week.

He died almost a year to the day that another friend of mine, in Canada, lost her ten year old daughter.

"I can't explain why God would take the life of a child," the minister said, "because I don't understand it myself."

Bad things happening to good people.  Christians are supposed to have faith that there IS a reason for it and that God knows what he is doing.

But I have found more answers in the Hindu Bagavath Gita and in the Hindu concepts of karma and reincarnation.

Feel free to pray for my soul, all my Catholic and Mormon and otherwise devout Christian friends, because I am grateful that you care and because I can use all the prayers I get.  I am not worried about my soul though, because I believe the God you love would know that, although I am following my own path, it is one he would approve of.  The Christian God is YOUR way to salvation, just as the Tao (with a good flavouring of Hindu) is my way to universal consciousness.  The Lord carries the heartbroken in that beautiful poem about footsteps in the sand.  One of my friends (how do I get so lucky?) travels 'The Highway of Holiness." 

I see myself as more of on a footpath.  Maybe with a sad little donkey in tow - to lighten my burdens.  Rambling along but getting there nonetheless.  (It's nice though, if my friends who ARE on the highway, slow down to wave at me in passing every now and then though!   Thanks for that!  Maybe throw me a biscuit?)

The Book of Mormon has a GREAT description of the devoted following the iron rod of righteousness through the forest of wickedness, while the rest of us stumble blindly about in the wilderness.  I love that image (and I am misquoting it liberally, from memory).  I love it because I know I am stumbling about in the wilderness.  But I love my wilderness.  I need my wilderness.  I won't find salvation at the end of an iron path of righteousness.  I believe there is more than one path.

Somerset Dam, over the Easter holidays

This, as it turns out, that there is more than one way to seek salvation, is a big part of the Eastern religions.  It is why Buddhists and Hindus don't seek to convert others.  The Dalai Lama has stated that people are born Christian or Hindu or anything else for a reason.  This is part of the concept of karma, not that you get what you deserve, but that you chose this reincarnation for a specific purpose. 

I like this explanation better than some faceless guy up there calling the shots.  Because, if God IS really calling the shots, well, he is making some really BAD decisions sometimes.  Or sleeping on the job.  The TV series 'Supernatural' actually has the angels looking for him because he has gone missing! 

I know, I know, it is what those same people who are now seriously praying for me call 'faith.'

The concept of karma puts the control in my hands.  I am the way I am because I chose it.  I can also choose to change - to progress upon the path of self-realization (with or without the iron rod) and come closer to achieving universal consciousness.  Or God.

The biggest obstacle to this being very very similar to the Christian concept of heaven is that the Catholic Church, who were the only Christians at the time, outlawed the concept of reincarnation at the Nicene convention in 325.  At this time, it was decided that the fledgling religion needed defining.  And reincarnation, something not at odds with Christianity before that, was cut out.  The Catholic Church wanted men to repent on earth, in this lifetime.  More than one shot at salvation wasn't urgent enough.  It also negated the concept of purgatory and the need for relatives to pay money in order to hasten their loved ones ascent into heaven. 

As I reread the Bagavath Gita, I realize that there are levels of understanding I am not even coming close to.  Apparently Hindu scriptures describe many different levels of being, some among the stars.  This corresponds to my idea of angels, another level of being, and to the Christian idea that angels are jealous of us as humans.  Because, it is only as humans that we can grow and progress spiritually.  The other levels I look at as  'in-betweens' to life here on earth.

The ultimate goal, be it Nirvana or Universal Consciousness, God-Realization or Paradise,  is described as total balance, harmony, where all of our indivuals consciousnesses (souls?) form a perfect unity.  Until the balance is broken and the cycle to rediscovering our way back to it begins again.  Kinda like the "Big Bang" theory of souls.  And, I believe, similar to some old Jewish beliefs in a uniting of points of light.  (Also similar to Jesus' statements that we are all brothers and sisters, that we are all God or all have God within us.......)

Somerset Dam, with the clouds going by above
So, I was sad at the funeral.  Sad for my friend.  Sad for her son's friends. 

But I felt I had the beginnings of MY answer to where her son is. 

He is a point of light in the heavens. 

And, although I can't explain exactly why, I do have faith that there is a reason.  Our children choose us as parents before they are born. 

Both my friends Alecia and Karen, and their families, are among the happiest, most loving and generous people I know.  Alecia and Karen radiate joy.  They are better people than I am.  They love unconditionally and they teach their children to do the same.  They live without the guilt and self-doubt and fear that I struggle with.  They are strong because they are kind.

Why would ANY God punish mothers like this with the death of a child?

Could it be that these women were good enough, and loving enough, for these children to CHOOSE them for their brief lives?  That these children, because the two I know were also those bright rays of sunshine that made everyone's day brighter, lived their short lives like shooting stars because that was all that was given this time around?  And that the mothers and families they chose were the ones who would love them and help them the best on this short journey?  And that the journey was short because they did what they came to do, touched us in their special way and made us better people for knowing them?

I HATE that last bit especially.  Because really, if these kids were so wonderful for their short 19 , or 10, years, imagine how even more fantastic they would have been and how many MORE people they could have touched if they hadn't succumbed to childhood leukemia or to heart disease.

The sun goes down at Bongaree Beach, Bribey Island

So that I certainly don't have all the answers.  But I know that this is the question.

Thinking of Josh, and of Ciera, as points of light glowing in the heavens makes the whole thing prettier for me. 

But I doesn't lessen the fact that two friends of mine have had their hearts ripped out.

I can be there for Karen. And I will be a better person for knowing her, for knowing she has to live with the pain of losing a child for the rest of her life, and knowing that she will still radiate love and kindness and generosity and yes, even joy, in a way that a lesser person like myself never could after a loss like that.

Knowing Karen, and Alecia, and knowing their kindness and joy, makes me want to be a better person.

I don't know if that's a reason.  But it certainly is an inspiration.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

With Friends Like Us

At the beach on Easter Sunday.  Really, this is us at our best.
We are living proof that Aussies are arguably the kindest, most generous, most tolerant, forgiving and accepting people anywhere.  ( Remembering the family in southern India who offered me their only chair, my friends in Kenya who showed me around Nairobi, the man in southern Haiti who crawled up his palm tree to share his last coconut with us and the family in northern Haiti who gave me a free Coca-Cola because I had been robbed and really didn't have any money with me.  Oh dear.  Folks are generally good after all, aren't they?!)

But my kids and I really DO test the boundaries sometimes.

A few weeks ago I dropped Damon and the three boys off at Tracey's for the morning so that they could look at camping gear while Ryan and I went for her doctor's appointment.  Note that Tracey already has four boys of her own.  And a daughter.  I had to apologize for adding more maleness to the mix.

Ryan and I returned to announce that she's had Glandular Fever for the last month or so.  (Mononucleosis or Epstein-Barr virus for the Americans.)  Not EXACTLY considered CONTAGIOUS anymore, since you don't get it through aerosol contact, but still INFECTIOUS.  Meaning you pass it through saliva, like in sharing food or kissing.  Maybe it's infectious but not contagious.  Whatever.

I still felt a bit guilty, first of all because I'd been asking her to go to school exhausted because the REST of us had kicked the flu bug in two weeks and she just couldn't still be sick, could she?  Shades of MY Dad.  If you weren't vomiting on the way out the door you were healthy enough for school.  And even then, you probably had time to mop it up and run for the school bus if you really tried.

And - oh yeah- in the meanwhile Ryan's been running around sick, exhausted, pale, weak AND infectious.  Or contagious. 

Tracey and I just told the kids not to kiss eachother and went back to our tea.

She and her husband Neil even had us all over again a few weeks later on ANZAC day.

More often it's like this.  (Matthew and Aidan at the boat ramp over Easter break.)

All was going well - meaning that the nine kids, ages 2 to 16, were all happily amusing eachother - when Bullet, a 2 year old Irish Wolfhound mix on his way DOWN the porch stairs collided with Matthew on his way UP.  It was no contest, kinda like the time my Saturn ( I loved that car!) collided with a Lincoln Continental.

"There's a LOT of blood, Mom."

Matthew had hit his head on the one tiny metal bolt holding the porch post in place.  Or something like that.  It all happened so fast.  One of Tracey's boys didn't think twice about picking up a bleeding kid, carrying him up the stairs, blood pouring out of Matthew's head the whole time, onto the stairs, the porch, and onto poor Bullet, who was trying to figure out what they heck had happened and why we all weren't having fun anymore.

Poor Bullet. 

Oh.  And Matthew. 

I am NOT your typical mother.  I DID cradle Matthew on my lap.  All the while trying to reassure everyone ELSE that head wounds bleed profusely and usually appear a lot worse than they are as a result.   (Why was Damon still so surprised when the REAL doctor said the same thing only a little while later?!)  Tracey and Neil aren't your average parents either.  They had icepacks ready in seconds.  Pressure, folks, pressure.  My motto is to just hide the blood for a bit until everyone calms down.

At that point Tracey mentioned the metal bolt though and I would have felt really negligent NOT going to a REAL doctor for a second opinion. 

At which point I realized that, although I had my writing pad with me, I did not have my wallet.  Containing our Medicare information.  (Or my driver's license in the event that Damon was drinking, so duh.  My writing friends will be pleased to note I had that writing pad, though!)

So we put our hero in charge of two squeamish girls and a passel of boys of varying ages.  Neil drove Damon and Matthew to the 24 hours clinic while Tracey drove me to get our ID.  Matthew was already being treated by the time I arrived.  Nothing like a child with a bleeding head wound to get prompt attention.  The bleeding stopped by the time the doctor showed.  And we were back in time to finish up the barbeque.  The kids had cleaned up all the blood.  Bullet was forgiven.  (The term "faster than a speeding Bullet" now holds a special place in our hearts!)  Matthew had a new hero - the kid who had valiantly carried him up the stairs - and was a hero himself.

And I found lice in Matthew's head while we were at the clinic.

I can't believe Tracey and Neil didn't kick us out.

I can't believe they take us as we are!  (Rodeo on May 1)

Turned out that trip to the clinic though, saved us a lot of aggravation in the long run.  A couple young bugs on each of the boys, haircuts and treatment, and all was remedied BEFORE it became an issue.  (And you gotta see the lice products here!  SHELVES and SHELVES!  Foams and sprays and prevention wasn't half as horrid as that time in Germany when we had to heavily medicate everyone's head and boil the heck out of the stuffed animals.  Some did not survive.  How can the SAME bugs be treated so differently in two different countries?!  More bugs here?  Nah, my guess is more kids.  And more tolerance.  No need to bathe the kids in shame or anything!)

Mono.  Lice.  Next thing you know we'll be spreading our terrible accents around.

Today we went over to visit some other neighbours, Zianda and Chris and their 6 month old, Oliver.  Zianda showed Ryan some of her sketches.  Ryan showed Zianda her crocheting.  And got to hold Oliver.

Until Aidan got a little rambunctious on the couch and kicked Oliver in the back of the head.

Honestly, how does bringing the hostess a gift (which we didn't do!) make up for THAT?!

Friday, May 6, 2011

New Neighbours

These little guys have taken up residence in the palm tree out back.  I am going to assume one of them ISN'T a guy!  Flocks of these rainbow lorikeets have joined the ibises and kookaburras and cockatoos and other parrots nesting out in front of our complex.  Yes, they are LOUD neighbors, especially right before sunrise and then again at sunset when the cockatoos feel the need to practice fighter-bomb formations all around our yard!

But I get worried now if I DON'T hear the kookaburras laughing at us at 3:45 AM.  And yes, I DO believe they are laughing at us.  Although I am glad someone told us they sound more like monkeys than laughter because that made them much easier to identify.  I am still waiting to hear the sounds of pigs grunting - because that means the koalas have decided to share tree-space for breeding.

The kookaburras also woke us up every morning while we were camping over the Easter holidays.  Hearing a kookaburra laugh makes you realize how silly you really are!  It's like two people across a crowded room suddenly pointing at you and laughing at loud.  You immediately want to check your zipper.  I think kookaburras were put on this earth to keep us from taking ourselves too seriously. 

There are signs that I am going Aussie.  I drink milk in my tea now.  (And it is chai tea, which you can actually get here - yay!)  I wear summer dresses to just pop on over to the neighbors' that would be considered personal lingerie in Germany.  (They MAKE shirts with bras built in here so that you don't have to wear them, yay!  The store mannequins dress wrinkly AND I even bought a skirt that you are supposed to tie up after washing so that is stays properly crinkled.  Maybe it's not that I'm going Aussie.  Maybe I just found the perfect place to be who I was all along!)

I can identify the Southern Cross.  AND Orion's belt, the only constellation I could consistenly identify in the Northern Hemisphere and one I was really going to miss seeing.  (If Ryan was named after anything, it was Orion's belt and Prince's song "In the Arms of Orion.")  We kept spotting it here and telling ourselves not to be silly.  But no, Orion can be seen in the Southern Hemisphere too.  He is lying on his side with his sword pointing in the air (hmmm!) - and the Aussies call him ' The Dipper' since lying that way he looks like a large ladle.  But it's OUR Orion.  And it makes me happy to have him here.

But I don't think I will EVER be Aussie enough to take the wildlife around me for granted.  I have always LOVED birds.  They don't need people.  The ones I really like - like parrots and birds of prey and herons - can really cause some damage.  I gotta like that in a species.

Our new neighbours are so fresh.  (Look at that, I even brought myself to spell 'neighbours' with an 'o'!)  As I was hanging the laundry out to dry this week, our lorikeets were building their nest, cheekily dropping bits of inner bark dirt onto our clean sheets.  Last night, as I was pulling down some school uniforms, a HUGE chunk of bark came down off the gum tree.  Practical joke or attempted territory expansion?

Then they twist their little heads and look to see what I am up to down here.

Worth a bit of bird shit on the sheets, I'd say!  (Noting however that we have ONE breeding pair and NO shit yet!)