Reflections on Easter Courses in “Pilgrims”, Canterbury
‘Daddy, why do the French wave their arms about?’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘I mean, when they speak. Why do they fail their arms about and everything?’ After talking for a while with her father who never actually offers her any type of ‘explanation’ for this French peculiarity, but who takes seriously her own attempts at explanation, the daughter finally asks: ‘Daddy, when they teach us French at school why don’t they teach us how to use our hands too?’ and her father replies: ‘I don’t know. Really I don’t. It’s probably one of the reasons why people find it so difficult to learn languages. Anyhow, it’s absurd. I mean, the idea that language consists of words is completely ridiculous (…) because there is no such thing as “just” words. All that syntax and grammar, that’s rubbish. Everything rests on the notion that there is such a thing as “just” words – but there isn’t’
Sunshine, hosts of golden daffodils, tulips and pansies, trees in blossom, neatly cut bushes and green fields – these are the first brightest impressions of our stay in Canterbury. Teacher training Easter courses in “Pilgrims” (30 years of teaching English as a foreign language and teacher – training experience) comprised two workshops: “Creative Methodology” and “Language and Culture”. I was lucky to choose the latter not only because it was conducted by Mario Rinvolucri, an outstanding teacher – trainer, a very talented methodologist and a remarkable person, but also because of intensive interest in the culture of the target language community.
Each person, whenever he dwells, is an individual, but an individual influenced by family, community, country and language. Each culture is fashioned by pervading and prevailing tenets – whether spoken or tacit. When a person who has been nurtured by one culture is placed in juxtaposition with another, his reaction may be anger, frustration, fright, curiosity, repulsion, confusion. That’s what I experienced in Italy last year, when I arrived to take part in the conference in Portonovo. I was angry and confused when I failed to find the place where bus tickets were sold and felt frustrated when somebody explained to me at last that they were sold in a souvenir shop, but two hours later I was shocked when I got to know quite by chance that they were valid only for an hour. But at that moment I was far from the place where they were sold. So on my way back I felt frightened and confused traveling without a ticket and expecting the ticket collector to come into the bus and fine me.
Or I remember my trip to Japan in 1977 when I was young and inexperienced and very shy. We lived in a socialist state and the city, where I was born and raised was a military industrial centre, hidden behind a huge iron wall. It was not allowed to a greater part of its citizens to go abroad because they worked at secret military plants. So I was lucky to be given a chance to go to Japan as an interpreter with a group of winners in the socialist competition: combine harvesters, lorry drivers, collective – farmers, firemen, etc. I think it was the brightest, the most exiting trip in my life.
We arrived in Tokyo and were taken to a small hotel. There a bowing receptionist asked us to leave our luggage and to walk for an hour because the rooms were not ready yet. It was the first shocking experience for everybody because we had been told at home not to do anything that hadn’t been planned beforehand. But we had nothing to do. So we left the hotel, all 26 of us, and went to the park opposite the hotel.
There we sat down on the benches near the lake. Suddenly we saw a large group of young people running towards us, shouting loudly and pouring water out of buckets they were holding in hands at each other.
We were terror stricken. We thought it was the end of everything; the end of the world. Somebody hid behind the trees, others put heads on laps and waited for the inevitable, some tall and broad shouldered country people (combine harvesters or lorry – drivers) were trying to hide behind the benches. It was the end of the world for us. But the loud mouthed group passed by and disappeared. Later we got to know it was the holiday of Tokyo University and pouring water was a good sign – it meant prosperity.
When we at last got into our rooms we saw tiny striped kimonos and green leather slippers. Everybody put them on and looked really funny in them. We were excited and very hungry. Everybody looked forward to having dinner. At that time we were allowed to take only 60$ with us for two weeks. So we knew we could buy no food, no drinks only some souvenirs to remember Japan by. At last dinner time came. We went to the restaurant on the ground floor, but there to our great disappointment we saw tables covered with white table cloths and jars of icy water. Later we got to know it was good for digestion to have a glass of cold water before having a meal and we soon got used to it.
There, in Japan, we experienced clash of cultures dozens of times. Culture shock is a common experience for a person learning a second language in a second culture. Culture shock refers to phenomena ranging from mild irritability to deep psychological panic and crises. That’s exactly what we experienced in Japan.
30 years later, at “Pilgrims” things were completely different. Now we live in a “global village” and we know a lot about different cultures: we learn foreign languages, travel a lot, and use Internet for getting all kinds of information and communicating with people all over the world.
The study of culture has become different and I experienced it at the workshop “Language and Culture” in Pilgrims. Female teachers of English from different European countries got together in Canterbury and started discussing different topics sitting round a square table. I think it was not easy for Mario Rinvolucri to make a team of these very individual and culture – marked ladies.
Sometimes I felt ill at ease when ladies from Slovenia mentioned something about Russian invasion. But time went on: they observed me and I observed them (all the team – mates) and soon a small icy wall that separated us broke and we became friendly and ready to work in a team though sometimes clash of cultures interfered, but vanished in a couple of minutes.
I remember one day, Maria (a teacher from Germany) came into the classroom and sat down next to me just in front of a sharp corner of the table. At an instant I asked her: “Are you married?” She looked at me in surprise or even bewilderment and said: “What’s wrong?” Immediately I understood the mistake I had made. It was a taboo question in her culture when asked straight-forwardly.
Hastily, I started explaining to Maria that in Russian culture there is a superstition that if you sit against a sharp corner of the table you’ll not get married for 7 years. Maria burst into laughter, embraced me and said: “Elena, I’ve got a partner and we are quite happy about it”. Since then every time she saw me she gave me a hug and said: “Elena, you are so funny”.
I remember the Day Club for elderly people. We arrived there after having had instructions from Mario: to be very polite and quiet, not to write down anything, to keep in mind that many of them are hard of hearing, seeing or speaking. I joined an elderly couple, she is 84 and he is 87. John started talking to me (I was sitting next to him), but as he had a toothless upper gum and was speaking very quietly I moved close to him and had to watch his lips to understand what he was talking about. He was holding a wooden stick, suddenly he raised it and I saw a carved body of a naked woman on its lower part. I became dumb – founded. I didn’t know what to say. At that moment a teacher from our team came up and started talking to Theresa. I thanked John for a nice talk and as I was retreating I heard my colleague laughing out loud. Feeling puzzled or even embarrassed I left the room. Later my colleague told me that Theresa felt jealous and explained to her that that red – haired lady was flirting with her husband. I think that wooden stick with a carved naked woman was to blame.
In our culture there are asylums for elderly people, but it’s not common to send aged relatives there. Only sick and lonely people spend the rest of their life in such places. Others have quite different “clubs” sitting on benches in front of the houses with friends advanced in years, gossiping, discussing the problems of the generation gap, prices and complaining about health.
Once or twice Mario shared impressions about his stay in Samara. What impressed him there was (he came twice and every time the weather was gloomy, everything around looked grey, colorless and even shabby) how ugly the city looked externally; he had a strong feeling of mud. Russian efforts were aimed at the interior. He was impressed by great hospitality. It was like going into the city and a great wave was coming over him. He felt like a Lilliputian in Samara, in that gigantic city with the population of over 1300000 people. Mario is a very observant person. We, four of us from Russia, stayed in his house and were wrapped up (shrouded) in a friendly and very hospitable atmosphere. And Mario observed us like white mice in a cage. “Elena drinks aperitif all through the meal!!!” (because in our culture we never mix drinks); first all the four Russians ignored white slippers that had been bought for their arrival!!! But later little by little got used to wearing them because they were influenced by the belief that in the UK (like in many European countries) people never change shoes when entering the house. An endless line of similarities and differences.
I’ve been teaching English in Russia for 36 years and I’ve been to the UK 12 times already, but only there, in Pilgrims, at Mario’s workshop I got to know the differences between a sitting room (it belongs to upper middle class), living room (middle class), drawing room (for ladies to rest and talk after dinner; only queen has it), lounge or TV room (it may be in the airport, hotel, but not in houses for poor people), front room – in terraced houses, where they have beautiful photos, a piano and a lot of dust, because nobody comes there; parlour – a kind of breakfast room in a very big house. Never say “a beer” in a bar (pub). There is a secret queue there. After the eye contact with the barmaid, you say: “I think I`d like a pint of beer. Do you recommend that one?”
When we were discussing education in the UK we met teachers, students, teachers’ husbands and children, and out of all this information got the idea of what British education system is like. E.g., Daniel`l mother, a teacher, belongs to Carabean culture. She spoke about racism in the UK that had become sophisticated. She said: ”It doesn`t matter how many thorns you have in your foot, one is enough”. Daniel himself spoke the language nobody understood ( though he believed he spoke English.) Mario gave us some pages from the book written in that very strange and even alien language which is spoken by the youth in the UK.
We met Mandy who I had had long and detailed correspondence with before Mario came to Samara. I had always had a very bright picture of Mandy before my eyes: a fat middle-aged lady, with colorless light hair, a very plain face, small deep set eyes, no smile, very plain clothing and who is always preoccupied with the thoughts about children, husband and household chores. The lady I saw was completely different: bright, smiling very quick and emotional, exceptionally beautiful dark brown eyes and archy eyebrows. Her charming daughters told us about school, classes, extracurricula activities and what not.
We got to know that the class at school lasts 100 minutes and that they have 3 classes a day; They have fast streaming classes and slow streaming classes; that they have sex education and in class there is a doll with a computer inside which notes how carefully girls (future mothers) treat it; they have food clubs at school; and in order to get ready for 11+ tests they have a private tutor who they pay 20 pounds per hour.
There, at Pilgrims, we spent 18 hours a day studying cultural aspects of language learning. Mario was very patient and always answered questions, all our numerous “whys”, “wheres”, “whos”, etc.
When we had the final workshop Mario gave us ends of pieces of strings he was holding firmly in the fist and asked us to take one and when he opened his palm each of us found a partner who was holding the other end. It was great! We had a special feeling of unity and friendship. It`s a happy chance to be taught by a talented teacher and we were lucky to have one. Thank you, dear Mario! You touch the future – you teach!