Sunday, December 13, 2015

It's Definitely a Sign

I'm noticing a theme in my life and it can't go without comment. Something keeps popping up around me, and I think it's a sign. 

A unicorn in Malta

A unicorn in Scotland

A unicorn in Italy
 A sign of what, I'm not sure, but a sign nonetheless. The unicorn in Malta was lovely and surprising. The unicorn in Edinburgh were also surprising, and kind of silly- so regal, so random. And as for me, I swear, my Halloween costume came to me in a very strange way. I was being a bum, watching TV on my computer, and the next thing I know I'm watching unicorn videos on YouTube. I seriously am unsure how it happened, but I know that once it happened it went on for a long time.

So the signs are there, and I'm excited to see how they continue to pop up around me.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Magic, Monarchs, and Malt: Thanksgiving in Scotland

For me, the hardest day to live abroad is Thanksgiving. 

Knowing my family is together, celebrating a holiday that for us has always been about togetherness, and not being there is heart wrenching. This year I even looked into plane tickets to make the trek back to Rochester for the four-day weekend, but by the time I got home I would have had to turn right back around. Anyways, lucky me gets to distract myself from the sadness with fabulous adventures! I loved my trip to Edinburgh, which had the perfect mixture of wandering and history.

This cutie little dog has a super sad story, and is a symbol for Scottish loyalty. When his owner died, he made a trip to the graveyard every day for years, spending hours sitting on his owners grave, until his own death. Poor little guy :(

I loved this. "Light" has been a major theme in my thinking
lately- see my previous post for more!

What I connected most with from Scotland was the element of storytelling that is so prevalent in the culture. 

As one of the last nations to adopt written language as a method for recording their history, the Scots have a passion for the spoken word. It was evident in almost all of my interactions with the Scottish people that my friends and I met throughout the trip.

On our first night, we went to "The Dark Side Tour," which covered Edinburgh's dark and spooky side: mausoleums, murders, witch hunts, and folklore. 

Our guide had our rapt attention for hours, hanging on his every word- he was incredible!

I love mythology and folklore, and was excited when our guide told us some stories that I realized many of my favorite books were based on. We wandered up a dark, spooky hill, where we learned about kelpies and silkies, as well as "Arthur's Seat," a hill some believe King Arthur was buried on. However, that isn't the case at all. The land was supposedly once roamed by giants, and the last giant in the area (Arthur) use to people watch while sitting on the hill. Hmm. 

Scottish folklore is like other fairytales and myths in that it is meant to explain things. However, it is typically much scarier and darker. 

For example, kelpies are water demons that take on the form of beautiful horses. They lure you to their side at the shore with their beauty, because who doesn't want to pet a beautiful white horse, and then they eat you. Brownies were good little beings who clean up your house at night in exchange for food and little gifts. They're happy to help as long as you don't abuse their generosity; if you do, they retaliate and burn down your house. Interesting way to keep children away from the water, and keep their rooms clean!

At Doune Castle, the filming location for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Game of Thrones (Winterfell!),
and Outlander! I am in heaven!!
Rich, royal colors!

We went on a second tour the next day through the Heart of Scotland Tours.

Ours was Tour Two: Stirling Castle, Highland Lochs, and Whisky. The first stop was Stirling Castle, where Mary Queen of Scots was crowned as an infant. This was the beginning of my TV-show-fan-girling, because one of my favorite shows (Reign) is about her! Ahhh! While roaming through the castle we came across a woman dressed as a lady in waiting. She explained that the king's bedroom was completely bare because after his death Marie de Guise had every reminder of him removed. The queen's room, on the other hand, was completely decked out in rich colors, tapestries, and ornate decor to remind visitors of her regality. In fact, though there was a bed in the room, she didn't even sleep there; the bed was in place to give important visitors the feeling of intimacy with the queen.

These tapestries took years for three women to
complete! The craftsmanship was incredible!

I enjoyed hearing these details, but the woman/actress/storyteller in the next room blew me away. 

She was completely in character as a maid the entire time we listened to her, telling story after story, fact after fact, in a seemingly natural way. She'd connect little stories to details she pulled from the crowd. At first I was a little disappointed to hear that most of what we saw a replication, but then realized how incredible that was. The tapestries on the wall took three weavers years to make, working all day, side by side. The oriental rug was made using the same exact techniques that had been used that was used in the 1500s, and the Italian wallpaper books that were admired during the time were used to inspire the designs painted during the castle's restoration. I was astonished by the connection we still have to the past, that there are people spending years of their lives recreating artwork using original techniques. It's just so cool! But as amazing as that was, for some reason I got choked up when she told the crowd that the door to the room we were in was the original- Mary, Queen of Scots used that door! Crazy! (I cry over everything, don't judge me).

My buddy Fiona and I have the same hair :) 

Just your average Scot, frolicking through the highlands. 

The storytelling wasn't just limited to tourism, though my next example is from a tour guide. 

Every day conversation was embedded with stories and history. While making idle chatter towards the end of the tour, I asked our guide about typical mealtimes. We had noticed the night before that our 9:00 dinner reservation at The Witchery (AMAZING restaurant, btw) left us as the only late-night diners, while in Italy 9:00 would be peak dinner time. Instead of simply responding with "6:00pm" or something, he launched into an intense discussion on the class system that hasn't quite disappeared yet, and how mealtimes and the number of meals you ate a day depended on whether you were working or middle class... whew!

Enjoying our mulled wine at the Christmas market!

I left inspired to go home and write (clearly, since this is post #2 since my return, and I have been slacking since August!), and I'm not alone. 

J.K. Rowling wrote the first of her fabulous series in the first cafe my friends and I stumbled across in Edinburgh! I was absolutely in awe! When she was living in the lovely city, she didn't have a lot of money to spare and would look for free things to do- after seeing the boarding schools, castles, and being immersed in the folklore (Care of Magical Creatures/Defense Against the Dark Arts with Lupin, anyone?!), it's easy to see how the magical city inspired her. And she wasn't the only author who gathered name inspiration from wandering the graveyards. A certain Mr. Dickens passed a grave in Edinburgh marked, "Here lies Ebinezer Scroggie, a mean man," and based his own Scrooge off of this idea of being so cruel, people couldn't even be kind or gracious on his headstone. Years later, however, he discovered that the grave actually read, "Here lies Ebinezer Scroggie, a meal man." Turns out Scroggie was a  well liked, charismatic, slightly licentious corn merchant. Dickens felt terrible for blackening his character by associating the gregarious Scroggie forever with  the mean-spirited Scrooge!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Light vs. Dark

"Miss Streisel, can I share today?" For me, every day starts with at least three small voices asking that same question, and my answer is typically, "Of course, about what?" But when the response on November 16th was, "I want to share about Paris," I momentarily froze. 

While it was weighing heavy on my mind, I didn't expect to be confronted with the idea of discussing terrorism with my 8-9 year old students so early in the morning the Monday after the attacks in Paris. I was still confused myself (and still am), so being the authority on how to address this with children was intimidating. I wasn't sure who knew what, or how to comfort them when it is clearly a terrifying and awful subject. However, they knew about it so our 20 minute Morning Meeting routine was focused on world events.

I'm not sure if this would be fitting in every classroom, but in mine it was. 

We began with just the question, "Raise your hand if you know what happened in Paris this weekend," and every one of their hands went up. To be honest, I had mixed feelings: relieved that I didn't have to be the one to tell them, saddened that they are aware of the darkness we face in our world at such a young age. The next question was on how they were feeling. Sadness, worry, fear, sympathy, anger... They couldn't understand why someone would want to hurt others so badly. They were worried because their dad's were supposed to travel to Paris for business that weekend, or their Thanksgiving break was meant to be spent there. They were worried that Milan would be next. One of my girls is half French, and she shared that her father's family lives in Paris, and then her eyes filled with tears and she didn't want to share more (we have since talked, and her family is fine). 

Finally, the question I worried about most came up: why did the terrorists attack?

 I wasn't sure myself, and didn't want to go down that path. One of my Italian girls, the one who had asked to share in the first place, blurted out, "I know! It's because in our religion, we have a lot of freedom, and in theirs they don't, so they are mad at us for being so free." A boy, who had been very quiet (which is VERY strange for him) burst out, "NO! That's not what it is! They have NO religion! They have no religion at all! They wouldn't do this if they had any religion, so they are NOT religious people!!!" He was clearly incredibly passionate and visibly upset. This was from one of my three Muslim students (I have three boys, one from Iran who was completely new to English this year, one from Libya, and one from Saudi Arabia- this one was a sweet, energetic 8-year old Saudi boy). The students all nodded solemnly at his words, agreeing silently that no matter their beliefs, they knew that these people could not be associated with a religion that people we know and love also follow. They were a separate entity. 

At a separate point, my boy from Libya nervously asked me if it was the Muslims who did it, clearly worried if his religion was "wrong." The fact that such a sweet boy, who loves soccer, Pokemon, and playing UNO with his best friends from Russia, Japan, Bulgaria, and Italy should even have that concern is heartbreaking.

Since then, my students and the rest of our community have tried to figure out what to do with ourselves. 

They want to express what they know, and the pain that they have. They want to reach out but don't really know how to do it. After recess, one of my girls (the one whose family is in Paris) told me that she felt a little better because all of her friends and her (who follow different religions)  had spent recess praying in a circle for peace. At certain points throughout the day, students have "Quiet Time" or "Daily 5" time, and they have choices during those periods on what activities that want to do- our classroom is covered in posters and poems about peace, love, and Paris because that is how they want to spend that time, and my one girl has done her best to teach her classmates to say, "We love you, Paris" in French. They desperately need to do something with their feelings and confusion, and they're doing their best to put it into words, pictures, and actions.

The novel we're reading as a class fits in perfectly, and it's solely because these children are looking for an explanation. 

We're reading the "Tale of Despereaux," the story of a little mouse who loves music, reading, and a princess, which are very un-mouse things to love, a rat who wants to find light, though rats are meant only for darkness, and a girl who has never once been asked in her entire life what she wants, but dreams of becoming a princess. As a class we have latched onto the idea of light vs. dark; when the world touches us with darkness, we must reach out with light. We've also been very moved by the downfall of Chiaroscuro (the rat), who has no idea that rats aren't meant for the light or that rats  are awful creatures, until he hears the tone of the princess's voice when she calls him a rat and begins to see himself as a terrible thing. Any explanation, any rationalization we can find for actions that have no rationale is comforting, as it gives them something to understand when it is completely un-understandable.

The students at my school are so lucky that they are constantly faced with those who are different from them. 

I was slightly annoyed earlier this year when I recieved my class list, because I have a heavily Italian group of students- 11 out of 18. But that's a very privileged annoyance, and speaks to who our school is- a big draw of our school is that it's a very international community. But even with 11 out of 18 being from the same country, these kids are friends with people from all over the world. Their best friends speak another language at home than they do, eat food that's totally different, have traditions that are unlike their own. Last year, the 'cool' thing for my Italian boys was to eat kimchi, a Korean dish that they'd tried at one of their friends houses, and that they'd beg their moms or nannies to make. My boy from Iran has become very popular in class because though he knows only a teeny bit of English now, the kids have realized that he is hilarious and sweet, and they love him and work to communicate despite the language barrier. Being different is the norm, and is valued. If you can grow up not only tolerating differences, but with a curiosity and appreciation for them, a desire to know about them, I can only imagine what this looks like in adulthood and when moving forward in changing the world.

Anyways, I'm going to end with a note I found on one of my girl's desks the other day. Try and read all of those tiny bits, because it's a letter to the Earth and is beyond beautiful.