Friday, 20 November 2009

The third best job in the world...

Today, by the standards of a West-Wing-addicted language geek, has been a good day.

Well, it was actually yesterday, since two episodes of said amazing TV show have somehow caused it to be after 1 am as so often tends to happen. It’s Friday, so that shouldn’t matter, except it kind of does, because my Fridays aren’t really Fridays... five hours of teaching await me tomorrow. Sigh.

But my seven hours today went well, particularly the two-hour slot with my advanced English class. I have to admit to not having taught them a whole lot of grammar (actually, possibly none at all – oops!), but we did list 40 of the American states (and I put them right when it came to their belief that there are 51 or 52 of them – I assume they were counting the UK, which as enthralled with the US as I am, I am not quite ready for, and I’m sure many of my compatriots would be with me on that one) ... and I later added two more... Which is quite impressive, considering that a couple of years ago, I could just about list Florida, California and erm maybe Washington, is Washington a state? (I am now fully briefed on all angles of the answer to that, before you all rush to the comments box.)

After having done this, I pretended, erm I mean, explained it was all an introduction to our topic of the day – oh look, someone has written about the West Wing in the MAG (an excellent language learning magazine, by the way, and not only because I’m a contributor). Maybe, for our general culture, you know, we should read it and analyse every sentence and every paragraph and talk about what’s so great about the West Wing? Yes, let’s do that.

So yes, we did that. I taught them the words “boyish” and “dimple” – just like in that photo, said one of them, pointing at the very sexy Josh Lyman – and successfully got them to say things like “the West Wing is amazing” and “maybe we buy the DVDs”.

They could recognise Josh and Donna and they knew that the photos did neither of them justice (particularly Donna- the photos we got permission to print were some early ones, which are not great considering how very beautiful Janel Moloney is) and that it was all very heart-breaking because they were in love and couldn’t do anything about it because they worked together (puritanical American work ethics, some would say). Well, you have to simplify slightly, even when you are teaching advanced students.

In fact, I gave one of them a gold star (well actually two stars: a blue one and a gold one, because they were stuck together; nothing is ever simple in my world) for naming Martin Sheen with no prompting and (mainly) for recognising Josh Lyman, having given me the impression he wasn’t really listening to me or understanding me. They clearly were after all. Ha! Caught you!

In case you are worried their money is wasted, I did also teach them plenty of other vocabulary, such as bewitched, ensorcelled, gasp, simmer, smouldering, cliff-hanger, interwoven, fast-paced, one-liners, kudos, head over heels, dwarf, dwell, dwindle, and of course the very useful phrase “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc”. Also how to say “raison d’être” with an English accent. (Thanks Richard Schiff for that one.)

And of course I imparted my vast political wisdom: Democrats GOOD, Republicans BAD. (I also taught them the word “patronise”.) They loved what they saw of President Bartlet and correctly identified him as the anti-Bush.

So my work there is done, even if they do need to work on their tenses and irregular verbs a little bit. That’s for another day.

Oh, and did I mention that this was all on the basis of an article I had been paid to write?!

Paid to write about the West Wing, then paid to talk about it.

Paid to talk about Josh Lyman’s dimples.

(As I may accidentally have squeaked out loud in the class in my excitement.)

It’s official: I have the best job in the world. Well, except for Aaron Sorkin’s and Janel Moloney’s. The third best job.

And now, inspired by Donna Moss to be a tiny bit more organised, I have got my coffee machine ready for tomorrow (who can name the episode where she does that? Hmmmm?), and am heading for bed so I can be up far too soon to teach some French grammar and Spanish verbs. Sadly there will be no excuses to bring my obsession into any of that, but I do have a free evening to indulge in the next part of series 6, and maybe even do some writing. It’s been far too long. And Brad and Janel need their next film script after all... ;)

172 Hours In America... the photos

: if anyone is interested in my New York City and Washington DC pictures...

You know your addiction to the West Wing is beyond all hope of redemption when... get the cravings. You know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, there is still hope for you

... you're listening to Eva Cassidy's "Fields of Gold", and think you heard, "you'll remember me when the West Wing moves"

... you know exactly how long it’s been since you last watched an episode

... you are proud of yourself when you get through the day without watching an episode, so you reward yourself with some fan fic, a fan video, or some discussion on Facebook or twitter and end up spending longer on this than an episode would have taken

... except, of course, that an episode always takes an hour at the absolute minimum because you have to rewatch every Josh and Donna scene, pause to scribble down particularly good one-liners, and occasionally tweet to let the emotion out. And then if the inspiration strikes for writing some fan fic, well, what can you do...

... there being a B in the president's name, it sometimes happens that you are listening to Radio Four and think they are talking about President Bartlet. In your defence, this is usually while cooking or clattering about - so lots of background noise.

... you visit New York City and half expect to bump into Janel Moloney and become best friends with her. In fact, you do a double taken every time you see anyone blonde. You’re sure you saw her husband, too.

... you are more excited, in fact, that “wow, she has, like, actually been in this coffee shop” than about Macy’s or the Statue of Liberty or the tall buildings or anything, you know, normal.

... you visit Washington DC (of course), wander around in a happy daze, but are actually a little surprised and disappointed not to bump into Josh, Donna, Sam or CJ

... every time the Capitol building comes into view, you hear Josh in your head: “you want a piece of me? Come on! I’m right here” and you want to hug him. More than usual, that is.

... you get very cross when anyone misspells Janel Moloney’s name (it’s with an O people, where have you been all this time?!) even though there was a time when you thought not spelling it Maloney was just plain awkward for the sake of it.

.... in fact one of your characters in a future book is going to have that surname, just so her quirk can be “and it’s Moloney with a O.”

... speaking of future books, they all have politics in, and you have to figure out how to get the heroes not to all look like Brad and the heroines to not all look like Janel. Or you could just cast them in all the films. Yeah, come to think of it, that’s a much better solution.

... you weren’t going to bother with a pen name, but you like “Lyman”, so why not?

... you are in denial about the fact that Brad Whitford is, in fact, old enough to be your father. After all, your father is old enough to be his, just about, so it’s all okay, right?!

... you look up the name “Donnatella” on a website for baby names because you’re sure it should only be spelled with one N. And as it turns out, you’re right. But I guess the whole “It’s Dona, with 1 N” thing would have worn thin after a series or two.

... you inexplicably find yourself buying a lot of argyle, feeling like someone stylish and cool would wear this stuff, then realise while watching series 5 and 6 that Donna Moss in fact wears quite a lot of it.

... you have developed a habit of tilting your head when listening intently, and never knew where it came from till you just spotted Josh doing it

... you see a book that makes you laugh and think “I should buy that for Josh for Christmas, he’d like it”

... you are still boycotting everything with Rob Lowe in it, because you haven't forgiven him for his treacherous departure which was such a loss to the show, despite giving us more Josh, which is a (obviously) no bad thing

... you find yourself explaining the American political system to your bewildered students, who really couldn’t care less and whose level of English is not quite up to differentiating between Congress and Senate.

... you give a gold star to one of your students for knowing who Martin Sheen is and for picking Josh Lyman out of a picture of the cast. Well, it’s good to encourage their comprehension of authentic Anglophone culture.

... your students, in fact, know to say “it’s amazing” whenever you ask “what can anyone tell me about the West Wing?”

... you pester your editor to let you write about the West Wing, then you use your own article in a lesson.

... “dimple” is a word that you feel you need to include when you are teaching your students to describe people

... you get your students, who have explicitly told you they want to learn about British English (which you used to think was laudable) to try and name all the States, and are a little proud of them for knowing Wisconsin, and even more proud of yourself for resisting the temptation to tell them that Donna Moss and Brad Whitford both come from there

... you find yourself thinking in an American accent and adopting American vocab, and, shock horror, even grammar.

... the day inevitably comes when your spell-check (which in days gone by, you had, of course, set to British English) has to correct you when, for the first time, you write “color”, and it’s not on purpose.

... your list of must-haves for future partners has grown from just “single, male and passionate for God” to all those things plus American, Harvard-educated (okay, Yale or Princeton at a push), incredibly articulate, and of course Democrat-voting, though to be honest the chances of you falling for a Republican were always pretty (sorry, quite) remote. (Although, if it can happen to Donna... ) The furrowed brow and receding hairline you could probably live without, and you’ll (reluctantly) trade the dimple in for a passion for the West Wing. Otherwise, what will you do in the evenings? And what will you talk about?!

... You start planning to help out in the next Obama campaign, and wondering if that is, in fact, where this amazing yet slightly vulnerable man in need of an assistant and the love of a good woman is hiding.

... You spend longer communicating with people you have met via discussion groups on Facebook than you do with friends you have known for years. Oops.

... you’re watching a film, and you want to shout, “but where’s the politics in this?”

... and then you want to shout, “but where is Bradley Whitford? Who am I meant to be in love with here?"

... You have regular West Wing related dreams, your favourite one to date being the one where you are explaining to Matt Perry why it’s better than Friends. This in front of your heroes, Brad Whitford and Janel Moloney. Stupid alarm clock!

... People have to ask you to stop putting things like “wishes Josh would hurry up and kiss Donna” in your Facebook status updates, because you are ruining the plot for them

... you feel guilty writing a list like this and not yet mentioning Allison Janney, whom you love, and who was your favourite for a long time until your Josh and Donna addiction fully took over

.... you are determined to make it back to NYC next time Allison Janney is in a musical, or any of the cast are in anything at all in fact

... in fact, you need to set up a Google Alert for that, to go with the ones you already have on “the West Wing”, “Bradley Whitford”, “Janel Moloney”

... You are dedicating your next novel to Brad and Janel, and mentioning Aaron Sorkin in the acknowledgements for inspiring you to write

... You are in on a Friday night writing this list... but it’s okay, you’re going out to meet a friend soon, and she hasn’t even heard of the West Wing. You'll soon fix that...

Monday, 16 November 2009

New York City - very first impressions

I realise, by the way, that this blog really ought to be renamed americanclaire, seeing as that's where I spend so much of my thinking time these days, but anyway...

People often say that when you first arrive somewhere new and exciting like Delhi or Beijing or Phnom Penh, what strikes you is the noise or the smell or the busyness... Not so with New York. The first thing that I noticed was its reassuring familiarity. JFK Airport looked and felt like any other airport, complete with the greyness and drizzle outside. Apart from some posters on the wall reminding me where I’d landed – as if I could forget, after counting down to this trip for weeks – I could have been almost anywhere, or at least anywhere English-speaking.

That’s perhaps the key to why I felt so at home in the US during my stay: as an expatriate Brit, living in Belgium, there was something so pleasant about being in a country whose language and whose customs I at least thought I understood (even if that did turn out to be somewhat of an overstatement). Call me a heretic, but I miss the simple London things, many of which I have spent years railing against - things like Starbucks Coffee Houses (and there is certainly no shortage of those in New York City, though they are perhaps less omnipresent than I had been led to believe by anti-American propaganda). Things like big chain bookshops too. And oh, how I loved that things are open whenever you need them to be. Yes, even on a Sunday. Granted, I have no need to buy an iPod at 3 am (the futuristic Apple Store on Fifth Avenue really is open 24 hours a day), so some of the commercialism is perhaps over the top, but a pair of (so excitingly cheap) Sketchers at 11 pm on the way home from a Broadway show? Why not?

I was, in fact, quite surprised that JFK Airport was not the temple to capitalism that I expected it to be. There is just one little shop in arrivals where you can buy drinks and things like Newsweek, which has a different cover over there despite containing the same articles. That was perhaps the first difference I noticed (what can I say? I am a geek); immediately followed by the odd shape of Coke bottles. Unlike the UK, which has been officially metric since 1965, though in everyday life most people speak – and, crucially, think - in imperial measures, America puts up no such pretence: my Coke was 20 fluid ounces, or 591 milligrams, hence the unfamiliar size. Paying for that, then my bus ticket, was the next obstacle: I’m used to banknotes whose colour varies depending on their value – a 20-euro note is blue for example, whereas a ten-euro note is red, and a similar thing applies in the UK. I’m also not used to tipping anyone and everyone 20%: it seems almost no price can be taken at face value, since it often fails to include either the tip or the tax, and probably both in some cases.

Yellow taxis outside the airport confirmed that I had arrived in the right place. After navigating the various complications of getting on the bus, I settled down, ready to say “wow” every five minutes on my way into New York City for the first time ever. As it turned out, I saved my “wow” moments for a few days later, when walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, admiring its famous views on a beautiful sunny day. From the bus, I took in more mundane sights such as those famous yellow school buses (it turns out that Bart and Lisa Simpson aren’t the only ones to travel in one) and brands like Staples which in my British imperialism I had assumed were English.

But then we turned down 42nd Street and suddenly it looked like the films. I’d arrived in New York City. This, despite my jet lag, was very exciting indeed.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Quirky things about Belgium, #355

Delhaize again for this installment of quirkiness...

So, in the spirit of enterprise, my local Proxy Delhaize (the biggest in Belgium apparently - though it's a bit like saying the biggest Tesco Metro - there are other Delhaizes which are way bigger, just aren't called Proxy - so I'm not sure it's really much of an accolade...) is, shock horror, not only open on Sundays, but also on bank holidays. This, for Belgium, is remarkable foresight.


They are the only supermarket open today.

If you were the only supermarket open in a town of 30,000 people on a bank holiday where most people have a day off and therefore will want to pop to the shop, might you perhaps order extra supplies of things, so that you have not run out of everything useful by 3 pm?

Yeah. Thought so.