Saturday, March 31, 2012

New Home

My poor little blog. It's not getting any attention. I miss you guys! I miss you, little blog!

Everything's going swimmingly in my new life, and I really, really like this city. The only problem is that we still don't have internet in our apartment complex! That means I depend on my cell phone for internet or Alexandre's phone as a wireless router when he's home. Hopefully (hopefully!) we'll get internet next week, like the company keeps promising.

When we first moved, I told you how Alexandre's mom was helping us with the decorating and everything. Well we did make things nice and liveable, but then I kind of lost interest. It was causing me to have to avoid arguments with the MIL too much because she was overstepping her bounds and being judgmental Apartment stuff is expensive, and I figure if I've gone this long without things like a decorative mirror in my bedroom, I don't need to buy them now. So I figured I'd share some pictures with you all now, since I don't think we'll be doing much more decorating:

Our custom-made couch and the TV we lugged back from the US
The front side of the couch (Gatinha loves it as much as I do), and our little table. We originally bought it to use as a table for the balcony, but "real" dinner tables are like, 5x the price, and that little guy works just fine. Hard to break and easy to clean -- that's my kind of table! You can also see the barbecue on the balcony. The trash can with the charcoal is inside because it was raining.

Our compact little kitchen/laundry area (at least all those dishes and clothes are clean, right?)
Our great Target comforter that matches the beautifully painted brown wall

My classroom / Alexandre's study room
My little white board for my students. :) In our old apartment, I had one on the wall, which was much better. The only problem is that it destroys the wall.

Yay yay! I love waking up here. I love being out and about in the city. I love coming home to this place. I wish I could show you more of the complex and stuff, but I've put some up before, and any other pictures would just be too revealing and I like to tell myself that it's not totally obvious where I'm living.

Instead, I'll show you some nature shots from around the city:

We went for a walk in a park, and I was so excited to stumble upon an anhiga, which has quite a few names in both English and Portuguese but which is also known as a biguatinga or carará:

Such an interesting bird! Like a big cousin to my tropical cormorant friends back in Caipirópolis. It (well, I think this one was a she) manages to be dopey and graceful at the same time.

But yes. I'm really enjoying things here. I'm slowly starting to make friends with some of the many young people in the apartment complex and at the gym, as well as with a couple of other Americans I've met. There's also a crazy demand for English classes, so that keeps me busy and makes me feel needed and valued as a teacher.

Oh, and one final piece of good news was that I got to meet blog buddy Tiffany today! Alexandre and I had lunch with her, her husband, and their friends during their trip to visit Tiffany's husband's family here in Brazil. She was so lively and personable and the 6 of us had a wonderful lunch. It was too bad I only got one day with her! Keep checking her blog this week for pictures.

Once we get internet in the apartment, I'll go back to posting regularly again. In the meantime, I hope everything's going well with you, too.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


So my new gym also has aerobics classes. Luckily, they're much more accessible than the last gym class I tried to take. The teachers are much more engaging, and they informally separate the classes by level and partner the students up with someone with the same strength and experience. Also, there's no memorizing of coordinated step moves.

So things are a little better, especially because I always have a partner who's floundering and saying, "wait, what?" as often as I am. (Ah, brings me back to my swim team days in high school, when I was always, ALWAYS, in the slowest practice lane, just me and the chola girls who were only on the team as part of their probation. No joke.) There's one girl I get partnered up with a lot on Friday nights, and I may even dare to say that she's more lost than I am. Well, I'm stronger than she is, at least.

Anyway, one of the teachers is this young woman about my age. Her classes focus on "resistance" (that's the word she uses). So basically she makes us do things like squat in place, akin to standing over a public toilet, until our legs shake and it's all I can do not to fall over. (Luckily, my partners and I always get like, 7-to-8-second counts, while the other people get 10-to-12-second counts.) She is so friendly and patient with me, and she never laughs or sighs over having to come over and adjust me every.time. we do something new. She even used the term I dread hearing at the gym, but which I cannot escape: it's that blasted euphemism, consiencia corporal, or "corporal consciousness," as in, "Dani, let's not forget our consiencia corporoal!" (They're indirectly saying things like, "why are you standing/holding yourself/stretching like that? Don't you know where your legs are?")

In my resistance classes, this damn term usually comes up when the teacher walks over to me and points to the side of my ass and says, "flex this muscle. Are you feeling it in this muscle when we do this exercise?" And I say, "yes, sure," but I'm thinking, I don't know how to flex any kind of muscle there. I didn't know there was a muscle there to flex. The only butt flexing I know how to do is clenching my butt inwards, which is not flattering at all and which I don't think is what you have in mind.

During our classes, the trainer woman will inevitably whisper, "está torta, Dani!" and smile, or she'll say things that she pretends are for the group, like, "everyone, make sure your feet are facing the same way..." while glancing in my general direction.

Because the word torta means both "crooked" and "pie," I've made up a little game for myself. As I'm lying there (or squatting there, as the case may be), blubbering and sweating while the beautiful trainer woman makes it look so easy she might as well be shrugging and checking her watch, I tell myself I'm allowed to have a piece of pie every time she says, "Dani, torta!". You know, as a reward for all my suffering. Yesterday, I allotted myself 7 pieces of pie. (Then, today, my student gave me a piece of cake when I went to her house. I think that counts as 1!)

It doesn't make me feel any better that the teacher woman manages to look so, so amazing while she does all this stretching and resisting. She even reaches sexy status, but not a raunchy, 80s workout video attempt at sexy (she wears exercise pants and a t-shirt). She manages to achieve a subtle, I'm-aware-of-my-body sexy, which I think is the most nerdy girls like me can ever aspire to. I'm always so fascinated.

By the end of these classes, my self-esteem is so badly shaken that I feel myself wishing for some kind of invisibility cloak (or at least a pretty towel to wipe up all the sweat).

Yesterday, I went up to the teacher to apologize for my awkwardness. (I used the very helpful expression "estou sem jeito!" a lot, though I'm not even sure if I was using it correctly.)

And then the teacher said, "oh, I called you this weekend! Did you see? I really want to start English classes with you."

"Oh, OK, sure. Tell me a little about your English."

"Oh, I'm terrible! I'm so slow and I don't learn."

"Are you sure? Don't worry. I'm sure you're good. I'd like to schedule a time to sit down with you and ask you some questions so I can hear your level of English."

Suddenly, ultra-confident trainer girl actually started to choke up! "Oh my goodness...speak in English? To you? Oh my gosh, I'm too embarrassed. I can't, I can't."

I couldn't help it. I started laughing. "Menina," I said sternly, "You see me totally embarrass myself every day in these damn classes. How can you ever worry about being embarrassed in front of me? I'm sure my corporal consciousness is much worse than your English!"

She laughed at that, and we set a time to talk about her classes, and I left feeling a little relieved and bemused. My lesson of the evening (aside from the existence of the gluteus medius muscle) was that everyone thinks they're good at something and bad at something else, and the person you may be admiring for some kind of ability may also be admiring YOU for an ability of yours.

I think the gym teacher and I have a lot to learn from each other!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Hardest Kind of Student

So I'm gonna lay out a scenario for you all that may be very familiar to some.

You get a new student. This student tells you she's paid for 2 (or more!) years of English classes, and that she actually studied with (and "finished") the textbook you use in your classes.

You test out this student's English. She can hardly understand anything you say, and her English is in pretty bad shape. Think Google Translate meets a slow type-to-speech machine. It's absolutely not her fault. She's a pretty smart person, successful in her career, etc. She's just had horrible teachers and has been ripped off for the last two years.

She doesn't want to start over in a basic class, partly because she doesn't want to "redo" everything in general ("but I've already taken basic English classes, teacher!"), but also because, in her case, she's already used the basic textbook. (She just happened to have a teacher who waltzed through it and apparently didn't actually teach her anything.)

You decide to offer a sort of "basic revision course" for her, which you don't usually do.

OK... I'm gonna switch out of the second person.

So I offered this particular student this sort of review course, which in my case means just using all the material I've prepared to accompany the textbooks I use.  (With other students, I would simply insist that they start over w/ the basic book.) She said she already studied with the textbook, so I figured that she'd be familiar with the grammar, controlled vocabulary, etc, so the reviews would mostly be ways to help her speak with the stuff she'd already learned or at least seen.

Unfortunately, this review course idea isn't working out, for 3 reasons: (1) She didn't really learn anything in her previous classes, so there isn't much reviewing going on -- there's a lot of me teaching her things for the first time, but without the controlled activities of the book; (2) her Brazilian English has been fossilized, so even though I tell her 5 times that she can't say "I live near from the shopping" and should instead say "I live close to the mall," she still says it, because that's the way she's always said it and no one ever corrected her and now it's habit; and (3) she would ideally like to be focusing on English for her job in scientific research, so she keeps trying to write about it as homework, but she's absolutely not at that level yet.

I don't want to lose her as a student, but I can tell she's not really enjoying things because it's just me correcting her a lot and the lessons aren't very cohesive without a book. I personally don't want to reinvent the wheel for myself for this one student. I'm not going to buy a new basic book from a different publisher and make new material to go with it. Besides, I don't even know if just starting over with a different basic book is even the best solution.

What do you fellow teachers do with students like these? Unfortunately, there are so many. They've had bad teachers for so long that it's harder to teach them than it is to teach someone who's never studied English. They get all mixed up. It's harder for them to "write over" what they learned before. There's also the psychological weight they have to deal with: (1) they spent so much time and money on English in the past, and for nothing; (2) they have been speaking wrong all this time when they thought they were getting by decently, and now they feel embarrassed and stupid; (3) they have to keep track of what they learned before and what they're learning now and what's right and what's wrong, and that's hard, and after a while, they start to get really discouraged.

I feel really bad for these kinds of students and I want to help them, but I don't know what to do. 

What do you guys do? Even if you don't teach, feel free to share some ideas, or just some horror stories, or whatever.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Master's - Update

So you were all very helpful in your comments and emails about the possibility of my applying to the Master's program here at the university nearby. In general, the commenters said, "do it" and the email-writers said "don't do it!".

After lots of thought, I probably won't be applying the Master's, at least not this year. I just really don't need it, it will be a lot of work, and by working less, I will lose a lot of money that I can't guarantee will be made up by any kind of increase in salary as a result of the Master's. 

Also, I went to watch one of the Master's students from the program defend his thesis. He's also American, so the adviser guy told me I could talk to him afterward. This is going to sound really, really snobby, but it was kind of a joke. His thesis was essentially a long book report. It didn't have any original ideas, arguments, or conclusions -- he'd just summarized the current literature (most of which was historical facts, not linguistic theory or even historical linguistics). He wrote about 2 countries of the world that share a language, but he'd never even been to either country! His report really focused on one of the two countries, and when a reviewer asked him about that, he said, "well, there was much less data on the dialect in the other country, because it's not as widely spoken." If you see that there's a lack of data, and if you think that data is important, and if you want to compare that dialect to another one, wouldn't it behoove you to collect your own data?

His report had very, very little concrete linguistic data, and none of it was the result of his own research. When I say "research" here, I mean, "having an idea about an important difference between these 2 dialects, going out and talking to native speakers of these dialects, and asking questions that will result in important utterances from the native speakers that can help prove that those differences exist, and then using existing historical data or linguistic theory to prove why the dialects diverged in this way." 

One of the reviewers was his adviser. (I don't know if that's common in Brazil or in the US, but it seems like it makes things really, really easy!) When that same, more critical reviewer called him out on his lack of original ideas, his adviser defended him, saying, "well his original idea was to research these 2 countries and not other countries!" I don't know... Also, at this university (again, I don't know if this is standard in Brazil or the US), this meeting for him to defend his thesis was actually more like a "rough draft" of thesis defense: the reviewers gave him tips on inconsistencies in his thesis, and he's allowed to go in and change them, and then his adviser gets the last word on whether his thesis is approved. Seems like it's impossible to have your thesis rejected!

I didn't get to talk to the guy very much, but it was mostly because he was very nervous (understandably), and I didn't want to bother him with my personal questions on such an important day. He did say that he did the program because "he'd always been interested in linguistics." Sigh. That was the problem I felt in my last Master's program: the other students had no background in linguistics -- they just thought it was something cool that they could muse over (which it is, but I personally am past the musing phase and I'd rather get down to some nitty-gritty research). 

Is it hubristic of me to be turned off by something too easy? I would apply to the program if I really needed it; I wouldn't cut off my nose to spite my face, or let my arrogance keep me from a higher salary. But the main reason I would be doing this Master's would be for personal gratification and intellectual stimulation, and I don't know if I'm going to get that -- I'm worried that I'll just kind of feel like a rat running in a wheel. It seems like it will be a lot of busy work and bureaucracy, only to create a guise of intellectual productivity. I got the impression that the advisers were falling all over this guy and accepting a weak proposal just so they could have an American graduate associated with their university, translating his thesis into English and trying to publish it in the US; you know, like using him as a marketing tool to get the university's name onto the American stage. I realize this is coming off as snobby, but the insanely high standards of my Bachelor's program have ruined me. My upper-division undergrad classes required more original research and thought than this. If there's one thing I hate more than anything in an academic setting, it's being bored and feeling like I'm just going through the motions, sitting in a room for hours and learning very few new things. It was why I transferred to Berkeley from UCI, and why I quit my Master's program in the US.

I think a better way to spend my time studying would be to really invest in formal Portuguese, to return to the amazing teacher I was having Skype classes with for a while so I can read literature with her and learn how to use academic Portuguese. I think I would learn more about Brazilian culture that way; I would improve what I need to improve, etc. That investment would help me more directly with my job-- especially translation work. It wouldn't give me an official certificate or title, but I don't see myself needing that anytime soon.

Thanks to everyone for their comments and ideas! You guys are always so insightful.

Adventures around Town and Student Madness

OK! Two blog posts in one because we STILL don't have decent internet in the apartment and the internet I'm stealing from the neighbor is working particularly well right now!

All right. First story is that I've had a very busy week exploring our new city. It was Alexandre's second week in his residency, which means he's back to needing the car and I'm using the bus system regularly. This city actually has what seems like a decent bus system. There are a lot of lines; they seem to be color-coded; the numbers seem to represent the neighborhoods they drive through; and the other day when I was lost downtown (I've been lost almost every day this week), some old men informed me that each big stop downtown is used for buses in a specific direction. For example, stop A on Street 1 is for all the buses going north; stop B on street 2 is for all the buses going west, etc. Good ideas, right?

You probably saw above that all of my sentences are qualified with "seem". That's because neither the bus companies nor the city offer any kind of centralized information about the buses! What is the point of making a good system if you don't tell people how it works? I mean, really. How much does it cost to put up signs downtown that say things like "NORTHBOUND BUSES HERE"? Or to make a list of "how the bus system works" on their website? The first time I used public transit regularly was the AC Transit system in the Bay Area, so I've been spoiled for life because no system will ever come close! I would love to have maps that show where each line goes in this city, but I know I'm asking too much. (A girl can dream, can't she?)

I will give the city credit for making a website that allows you to plan your route and get advice on which buses to take. It's very 1998 and you really have to tweak it to get it to give you helpful answers, plus it randomly just won't load or the maps give you error messages... but it's certainly better than nothing.

Anyway, as I just said, I've been getting lost -- a lot. In the weeks in town before Alexandre started work, I continually hijacked his car and his smartphone, so getting around town seemed easy as pie. But after 3 days without his phone, walking in circles around the city center, I gave up and bought my own cell phone with Google maps. The damn thing was make-you-cry expensive, but what was I going to do? I'm not a fan of the system that 90% of Brazilians use to get around in a new city, which is: "Ask 15 people on the street how to get there and go with the best out of 5".

My quality of life increased dramatically with my own phone, mostly because the amount of miles I walked each day decreased dramatically. Oh no! I took the wrong bus again and got dropped off far away from my destination? That's OK! I have my trusty friend Google Maps to help! While walking along the street, I find myself humming little songs, like "ba da ta da! My GPS and meeeeeee!" a lá "My Buddy" or that Future Self n' Me episode from South Park.

The only problem is that my GPS lady needs some Portuguese classes. I switched the GPS to English, and it's a woman's voice. She says things like, "Turn right at Roo-uh Kwinz day Marko" (15 de Março). The poor thing. She means well, and it doesn't help that street names are unnecessarily long.

Anyway, the reason I've been all about town is because demand for my classes is really good! Word is spreading like wildfire, and I'm so relieved. I made a little website for myself, as well as a professional Facebook profile, some business cards, and some flyers. My 2 new American friends both recommended me to some students who they couldn't fit into their schedules, and things grew from there.  Then, the other day, I passed out some flyers to the apartments in our complex. I only went around half the complex, and in less than 24 hours, TEN PEOPLE called me or emailed me asking for classes! TEN! Of course not all of them will end up working out, but it was still amazing.  My schedule will probably be full by the end of the month.

Oh, an update for you guys is that I quit with that sorry excuse for a school (the saga continues in the comments of that post).

So yay! Hooray for smart phones, hooray for students, hooray for the great (even if it is a little disorganized) new city.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Babies, etc.

So I'm at an age at which a lot of my friends are pregnant and having babies. It hit a little closer to home last week (appropriate expression?) when one of my best Brazilian friends, Karine, told me she was pregnant. (You may remember her from such posts as her Christmas visit, her first time seeing the ocean and our hiking adventures back in Caipirópolis). Since my American friends that have gotten pregnant have all been far away, I haven't been involved at all. This is the closest friend whose pregnancy I'll really be a part of.

Thanks to the wonders of the internets, I've also made friends with two fellow expat American women here in the new city. One is pregnant and the other one has a one-year-old. Last week, I met up with the new mother at the mall. She told me, "we'll meet at such-and-such place; I'll have the baby in the stroller." So while I was waiting for her, I was keeping my eye out for the stroller. Only then did I see just how many women were at that mall pushing their babies around!

I was also sitting at a table to wait for said new friend, and a toddler came running up to me and started climbing up onto another chair at the table. It didn't even occur to me to try to keep the toddler from falling or knocking the chair over and tumbling down with it until the mother rushed over in a panic. Whoops. I probably came off as a heartless monster. That's right, little one. Keep on climbin'. I'm interested to see what will happen. It'll be a nice physics lesson for you.

I also had lunch the other day with the new and pregnant friend, and got to hear first-hand how parasitic a baby can feel! It wreaks such havoc on your body! How uncomfortable. My new friend is a real trooper.

All of this baby stuff has made me realize just how little I know about pregnancy and babies in general. I hardly babysat at all as a teenager, didn't have any younger brothers and sisters...nothin'. My sister and I are twins, and she hasn't popped out any kids yet. I don't know how to talk to or act around babies and toddlers.  I always forget not to swear and I'm at a loss when they don't respond positively to logic and reason. I've never even changed a diaper. The youngest age that I have any experience with is preschoolers, from when I worked for an ESL program during college. I know lots of linguistic milestones for babies and children because we have to learn about that in linguistics classes, but that's the extent of my knowledge.

Honestly, I think there's also the cultural factor of how it's not "ladylike" to talk about the gruesome details of being pregnant and raising a newborn, so women only tell those kinds of things to their doctors and their mothers. On the airplane ride back from the US this month, I read the silly Marian Keyes chick lit book, Watermelon, which had all kinds of revealing information on what happens to a woman's body in the months after having a natural birth. DID NOT KNOW THOSE THINGS.

Is it bad that I'm so baby-challenged? I guess not, if I don't plan to have kids anytime in the next decade, if at all. Don't worry about leaving comments on how I should volunteer with kids to get more comfortable around them...honestly, I'm not that interested! I'm just reflecting on how little of my life has been spent around young children. Once I wasn't one anymore (a young child, that is), I left that age group in the dust!

Anyone else feel like that? Anyone else with kids still feel like that?

Bug Mystery

So living in the interior again means we're back to the almost daily battles with...::shudder:: insects. Luckily, we're not far enough inland to have to worry about the giant moths (I think I would've seriously reconsidered moving here if we were!), but we've still got plenty of other creepy crawlies to deal with.

A strangely common problem is bees. There's a lot of untamed land / brush behind our apartment, and from the window we can see farmland in the distance. But are bees common in the Brazilian mata? Not as far as I know. They also come in as lone, lost scragglers, which makes me think their hives are kind of far away. However, on one of the pillars on the balcony, there are remnants of a small beehive that was removed before we moved in! Yikes.

On hot nights, it seems as though all the bugs in town try to take refuge in our apartment. I really don't want to put a net on the bedroom window because of the strange way it's built, so the alternative is to close the bedroom window and leave the bedroom door open. The bugs will still come in through the balcony, but statistically, it's less likely that they'll find their way into the bedroom than the ones that fly in through the bedroom window. :P

We also get our share of oversized and oddly colored beetles. Here, I took a picture of one for you:
Look how big it is! Yuck.

However, the biggest mystery so far has been some wasp-like creature that succeeded in making a nest on the balcony's top cover thing. Here are all the details I have:

1. The "nest" is made of the dark red earthen clay that is found all over the place in the São Paulo countryside. The insect must have brought microscopic pieces of clay up to the balcony, one by one, while we were on vacation.

2. The nest was about 5 inches long and 2 or 3 inches wide. (Notice I said was. Fun story for you in a minute.)

3. The nest was made in the shape of a tube with an opening about the size of a coin.

4. Once, I saw an insect fly into it. It was large-ish (though I'm biased) -- about 2 or 3 inches long -- it was black and seemed all gossamer-y and droopy, and not hard-shelled or wasp-like. (Alexandre thought it was a wasp's nest at first (referring to it as a marimbondo), but it doesn't seem like it because the nest was built onto the drywall, and not in a tree. Also I didn't think it looked like a wasp, but maybe I'm wrong.)

5. This morning, Alexandre decided to take down the nest before any mini-creatures could start growing successfully inside. Luckily, when he started smacking at it with the broomstick, none of the adults came flying out. We kept the balcony door open just enough for Alexandre to rush inside, and I held up a towel as if it were a matador's cape to simultaneously keep the curious cat inside and keep any potential flying insects out.

The nest broke up into little bits of dirt and clay, and some medium-sized larvae (larger than maggots, smaller than caterpillars) fell out, along with a LOT of spiders. Spiders!

Alexandre couldn't get all the dirt-clay off just by hitting it. Some of it is really caked on to the drywall.

Now we're totally confused. Alexandre thinks it's a wasp that fed spiders to its larvae. I don't know what to think.

And now I bring the mystery to you, dear readers! I'm sorry that there's no picture for you. I didn't want to get that close to it.

Any ideas? If you don't have any, but feel like sharing potentially-traumatic bug stories in the comments, that's good, too.
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