What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Day 5: Austin, TX to Bethlehem, PA

The weather for my Monday flight out is appropriately dour and unpleasant: overcast, drizzly, and just plain “blah.” It matches my mood.

I’m up half an hour before everyone else, so after I triple-check what small amount of luggage I have, I sit out in the living room with the cats and read some more James Tiptree, Jr. while the rest of the household wakes up and does their thing around me. Things move quietly and efficiently until Noah gets the text alert that my ride to the airport’s arrived. I say my goodbyes at the door, but then an idea hits Noah.

“I’ll come out with you. I just realized that the driver will probably be looking for me, since I called for the ride.”

I’m reminded of our goodbye in NYC last October, when it was Noah disappearing into an Uber to the airport and I was the one left behind. On that equally gray morning, after hugging out our goodbyes, I had hung by the open door and watched him disappear down the stairs with our host, only for him to dart back at the last minute for a last hug. This time it’s me vanishing into an Uber for the airport.

We meet my ride at the curb, a cheerful woman in early middle age. I swing my larger bag in the back of the car. Noah pulls me in for one hug then, and then the “one more hug” trick again right before I step in the back passenger seat. After that, he lets me go for real, and I get in the car.

It’s the price you pay to pull up stakes and move to another country. Facebook and Skype and email help, but they’re not the same. And some people translate better online than others. Noah is markedly worse than others. That’s probably what makes our goodbyes so heavy.

On the plus side, I have a pleasant ride to the airport. It’s weird talking to human beings for no reason again; it’s weird how comfortable I am doing it (after stony silences in cabs and Ubers in Stockholm and NYC). Is this my inner American coming out? Is this who I’ve been all along?

No, it’s probably just being in Texas. Extroversion acquired via osmosis.

We talk about music festivals: how much money people can make off of SXSW, how busy it can get, how small Musikfest (on my to-do list during this trip) is by comparison, even though both festivals have been running for about as many years.

Musikfest 2013. Image courtesy the official Lehigh Valley Flickr account.

I check in at the airport without a problem and see again that I’ll be among the last board. Whatever. I make it on board and text Noah and my mom to let them know that everything went according to plan.

The weather in Newark is equally crummy and I’m convinced that we’re going to hydroplane into the back of a tractor trailer or get sideswiped or anything else on the way home. I’m no longer used to car rides on the highway in inclement weather; is this a small sign of my own de-Americanization?

Obviously we make it home just fine. I get Priscilla, my indestructible-except-for-her-hinges laptop, up and running (how many months of updates do I need to install? too many), check in with my sambo on Google Hangouts, and then begin the long work of culling my library yet again. I work on the project off-and-on for the next few days; eventually I’ll have five(!!) boxes of books for the Riegelsville library.

Riegelsville library

I take a break for Jeopardy!, because I’m a nerd, and then decide on my course of action for tomorrow: library and ‘fest.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Austin, TX, Day 2

My favorite part of visiting friends, particularly friends I only see every so often, is borrowing books from their personal libraries. It keeps me from having to pack books myself, and I like to see the ways that friends have branched out and developed in my absence. So it’s not a problem that Noah is still sleeping and Elizabeth has already left for work when I wake up a little after 7:00, alert and refreshed. I use the time to sit with a collection of Ted Chiang’s short stories, Stories of Your Life and Others.

I start with “The Story of Your Life,” since I had recently seen and enjoyed Arrival,  and have just begun another before Noah wakes up and brews some of the Söder tea I brought to go with the mugs. We talk while we finish our drinks, sleepy and meandering.Making new friends in a new country can be challenging, especially for introverts (and maybe even especially in a culture that’s very introverted); I relish the chance to spend time with someone who has a history with me and who knows me well, and vice versa. The conversation continues through starting a load of laundry, walking to (and then eating at, and then walking home from) a breakfast joint, and a visit to a store that has a proper name but that Noah and Elizabeth simply call “The Magic Rock Shop.”

My reputation precedes me, I guess; anytime I visit friends somewhere, they point me towards a nearby rock and gem shop, if one exists. I worked at a cave (a literal, hole-in-the-ground cave) with a pretty hardcore mineral and lapidary selection throughout college and afterwards. As a result, I have a soft spot in my heart for rocks, even today, and I guess it’s obvious to anyone who’s known me for any length of time. This one tilts more New Age than rockhound, but there’s still plenty to enjoy (and, of course, the pallets out back with the bulk, rough-cut slabs).

I’ll never understand the appeal of amazonite.

One of my priorities in Austin was seeing the Art.Science.Gallery. in person, but they’re closed while I’m in town. Oops!

What awful timing!

It’s quite close to Zhi Tea, though: across the street, basically. I know about Zhi Tea because of another friend, originally from Austin but now based in Sacramento. Noah is also a fan and it was already on his agenda for us that long weekend without me even asking, so it works out perfectly. We jaywalk across the street (I had forgotten how much the American landscape hates pedestrians) and I make a beeline for the black tea selection to find four I want to try in the little four-cup sampler. Noah orders an iced tea and we go and sit in the garden in the back.

Pardon the unintentional photobomb behind me.

All of my editing and lesson planning runs on bottomless cups of black tea. I love a good Söder, but I’m always curious about new varieties. My Sacramento friend had sent me some other Zhi Tea, and it was good enough that I was keen to try their other blends. None of those four in front of me disappointed, either.

I remember to (mis)quote Vonnegut at one point in between sips: “If this isn’t nice, what is?” Even with on-going life anxieties, I recognize that at least in that moment I’m happy. I like to think it comes out well in that photo; as someone with chronic Resting Bitch Face my smiles come out rather forced in most photos unless I’m genuinely and really happy.

After finishing our tea, we go back into the tea shop so I can make the difficult choice about which tea to buy. I eventually settle on Fredericksburg Peach, and we head out for Korean-Mexican fusion food next because all of the caffeine has put me in hummingbird mode; I need some food to take the edge off. Miraculously, I have a huge bowl of rice for lunch without lapsing into a food coma right after.

We bus over to the Capitol building for a tour. It’s much shorter than usual, since both the state senate and the state congress are in special sessions, so we just wander around the halls a bit, with our bald, eyepatch-wearing guide. I stop in the gift shop and pick up some postcards for mailing later.

We check out the state Senate and Congress from the gallery, Noah narrating in low tones about current legislation they’re trying to pass and assorted factions within the state government and within the state-level GOP. We don’t stay long (maybe the prospect of politics is too depressing?), though, and eventually head for the library, where Elizabeth works. Her day is almost over at this point, so we just wait at a table for her. Our conversation here, influenced by the library atmosphere, is slower and hushed. I encourage him to write more.

Then it’s back home, and everyone reads for an hour or two. I sit with Elizabeth in the living room and read more from Stories of Your Life and Others while Noah retires to the bedroom, eventually falling asleep in his book. Once in a while Elizabeth and I talk about the cats, or the graphic novel she’s reading for a book club.

We stay like that until it’s time for Master Pancake, a local riff show in the spirit of Mystery Science Theater 3000, my all-time favorite TV show. Before we get to the Alamo Drafthouse, it’s pizzas, Chicago style, in a dark and dingy bar. Three different TVs have three different things on, all muted with closed captioning: there’s Young Guns, a sports game, and something else.

“They have all the Austin bases covered,” Elizabeth notes. “People nostalgic for the 80s and people who want to watch sports.”

The food is a completely opposite experience for me from yesterday with the veggie sandwich and Subtraction Soup.  I thought I was hungry when I ordered, but after the first bite of pizza I realize This is way too much. Even with Noah mooching a slice off of mine, there’s still a last slice of my personal pie left over. I would have left it, truthfully, but Elizabeth wraps it in foil and bravely carries it in her purse for the rest of the night; Noah will have it for breakfast in the morning.

Eventually it’s time to the theater for Master Pancake. We stop at another, closer bar first, in order to meet up with everyone. I get my first and only Long Island for the trip, and we go up to the roof to people watch, which quickly turns into “sitting in the air-conditioned part of the roof bar and watching the arcade.”

More of Noah’s Austin friends find us at the bar, and we all have a good time at Master Pancake. We hang around the lobby of the Alamo Drafthouse, tired but also reluctant to brave the horde of loud, drunk people. It has to happen sooner or later, though, and we squeeze into someone’s car for a ride home. When we get back, it’s late but I’m not as tired as my hosts, so I make use of their wifi and check my email and gchat and things before bed.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Copenhagen and NYC

It takes forever to get out of the Copenhagen airport, or at least it feels like forever. My flight was supposed to arrive at 12:30; when I check the time on the surprisingly dingy subway, it’s already 13:40. Oops. I had grand, if brief, plans for my layover in Copenhagen: see The Little Mermaid statue, grab a smorbrod at Aarman’s, and top it off with a beer at Cafe Malmo. I chop the list down to Cafe Malmo (beer above all else). It pours down intermittently during my walk there, but by the time I find the basement bar (Cafe Malmo is emphatically NOT a cafe), the weather has broken for the better.

I take a seat right opposite the open door, enjoying the cool breeze and the blue-gray patch of sky projecting into the dark wood paneling. The fresh air is good because there are ashtrays everywhere and the unmistakable smell of cigarette smoke—smoking in restaurants, a memory of a bygone era.

The exterior of Cafe Malmo.
The exterior of Cafe Malmo.

At the bar I struggle with whether to use English or Swedish. I switch uncomfortably between both, if finally skewing more towards the Swedish end of the spectrum. The bartender understands me just fine and truthfully I can’t tell if he uses Swedish or very slow and deliberate Danish with me in return. I know that I can read Danish okay, but trying to listen to snatches of overheard conversation is impossible. It’s all gargling.

Is it extra appropriate for a dive bar to have a nautical theme? I can’t decide. In one window, a copper(?) bathysphere is surrounded by potted cactuses. The duality of man, or nature. The wall opposite me features a collage of faded photos and the title “BUGISSTREET SINGAPORE” in that font used exclusively for saloons in the Wild West on crayon-bright yellow paper. The photos are of women, glamour shots and candids alike, and many feature exposed breasts.

The interior of Cafe Malmo.
The interior of Cafe Malmo.

The sign outside the bar promises live music, but I’m skeptical that you could comfortably fit the accouterments necessary for even your basic guitar-strumming singer-songwriter. There would be floor space between my seat and the door, but it’s dominated by a heavy five-pin billiards table. Or maybe the billiards table doubles as a stage as necessary?

While I sip my beer, the thought strikes me of “third places,” or maybe it’s called “third spaces.” The idea is that we crave places that are neither work (obviously stressful for most, or at least oversaturated, even if you like your job) and home (often its own brand of oppressive), so we go to places like bars, parks, and cafes. I suppose my third place of preference is bars; I’d like them even without drinks. Even the cutest, quirkiest cafe can feel performative and formal. But everyone relaxes in bars. Especially during off-peak hours, it’s a place to relax and be around-but-not-with other people. They have no expectations of me (except to, say, pay for my drink, not to leave a mess, etc.) and likewise I have no expectations of them. I have space to think.

That said, I don’t think about much. I just let the weird mix of classic American top 40 and European schlager I don’t know and Danish covers of American songs wash over me. There is a surprising amount of country music. Selections include:

  • A Danish cover of James Taylor
  • “Fly By Night”
  • “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”
  • “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree”
  • A loungey version of “Revolution”
  • A country version of “O Holy Night”

Eventually other patrons appear, or maybe friends of the young busboy. They set up the five-pin billiards game. The box with the pins and the chalk for the scoreboard had been sitting on a shelf behind me the whole time and the thought had earlier occurred to me that one of the small, finely carved pins would have made a nice souvenir. Now I’m glad I didn’t pinch one. I watch a game play through, not understanding any of the rules, and then return to the airport for the most important flight: from Copenhagen to New York.

That flight itself is uneventful. I read a lot and sleep a lot. The real fun begins when I land at JFK and try to get to my lodgings for the night: King Sauna in Palisades Park, NJ. In the process I wrangle a cheap burner sim card and some allergy medicine (my hosts in Austin have cats), but getting to the sauna is more of an adventure than I would have bargained for. I get there nonetheless.

King Sauna is a Korean-American version of a jjimjilbang, a particular kind of sauna. There’s not really anything that’s different between one in Korea and one in the US except, maybe, context: in the US they’re a luxury and a reward; in Korea they are (or were for me) as a reliable part of travel as highway rest stops or Motel 6. In some neighborhoods they’re a place to spend a few hours with the family; in others they’re a cheap place to crash if you missed the last subway home.

In retrospect, my view of jjimjilbangs as the latter is maybe incompatible with the semi-luxurious status they enjoy in the US (would a hostel or AirBnB for the night be cheaper?), but there’s something to be said for 24-hour entry, saunas, and hot tubs when you trudge out of JFK at 10 in the evening.

Unfortunately, the “lagom” pool—not boiling hot, not tepid or ice cold—is drained to just a few inches, I guess for cleaning? So I can’t indulge in my favorite warm-cold-warm ritual, but I enjoy having a luxurious hot shower and sweating it out in the steam saunas.

The other nice thing about jjimjilbangs generally, and this one in particular, is the freely available computer access. Without that, it would have been impossible to get my budget sim card started. I could have flown into Austin semi-blind, relying on the crapshoot that is free wifi, but that would be cutting it a little close, even for me. I also take the time to order online NJ transit and airport shuttle tickets. Phone tickets. The future is now!

There were other intangible benefits to staying at the sauna, mostly related to sense memories. There’s a smell to jjimjilbangs—is it damp bamboo mats? tea?—that I will eternally associate with relief, safety, and relaxation. And the second it hits my nose, all the tension from traveling leaves my body.

Truthfully, my favorite jjimjilbangs in Korea were much more budget and much less luxurious than this one; basically places for drunk patrons to sleep it off. But I like the touches here: the delicate white-and-pink upholstered fancy chairs and matching tables, with intricate leaves and curves carved into the arms and legs; the overwhelming presence of flowers, real and artificial; vases, geodes, and crystals set in decorative tableaus (maybe for obscure feng shui benefits?). The net effect is one of repose in a fairy forest bower, and it’s surprisingly calming.

My original sleeping plan was to avoid the coed fairy bower area, to minimize the risk of encountering a pervert, but when I get exiled out of the private rest/sleep area in the women’s-only side for wearing the jjimjilbang uniform (“clothes outside!” the attendant tells me and the other woman in there), I notice that in the co-ed corner devoted to sleeping has little wooden barriers to cordon off “private” space—random dudes won’t be able to comfortably roll over and try to spoon with me. Satisfied, I put my glasses on a nearby shelf and set a series of alarms on my phone to make sure I don’t miss my flight to Austin.

Yours truly, sweating it out.
Yours truly, sweating it out.

As it turns out, I don’t need the complex series of wake-up calls. Whether it’s jet lag or anticipation, I only sleep for a couple of hours and wake up at around 4 am. I peek in the saunas to see if the lagom pool has been refilled yet, but no dice. I relax in a few of the different infrared saunas in the coed fairy bower section, then leave a little before 7 so I can get the NJ transit bus into the Port Authority Bus Terminal in good time.

A Freelancing Introvert Versus Workflow

Other bloggers I follow will update with “DITL” (day in the life) posts once in a while. I don’t know how often I’d like to share those here myself (my days are kind of repetitive), but at least one is theoretically interesting, right?

7:30 – 8:00 AM

I usually wake up somewhere in this window. I roll out of bed and (if I remember) put on the kettle for the two of us. While the kettle is warming up, I catch up on email, blogs, and Twitter. I browse a few hashtags I like to participate semi-regularly in to see if anything interesting happened while I was asleep; email always includes news digests from The Guardian and The Correspondent, two news sources that I support with monthly subscriptions. I like to care of work emails in the mornings as well, if I have any. I like the work that I do, and I’m privileged to have extremely warm and kind clients, but I’m still averse to writing emails in general, so I try to apply the “eat a frog first thing in the morning” principle here.

8:15 – 9:00 AM

If I remembered to put the kettle on when I woke up, I pour myself a cup of tea. Otherwise, I put the kettle on now.

Then I meditate for around forty minutes: a twenty-minute guided meditation, and then twenty minutes of zazen, a technique I studied (somewhat shallowly) when I lived in the US. When I first studied zazen, I knew little about the possible health benefits; I just knew that it helped me be less anxious. Last year I finally hit critical meditation mass–it seems like every book I was reading or MOOC I was taking was pushing meditation–and started up a daily habit. I miss the trappings of meditating in a zendo, but nonetheless I feel that I reap the benefits.

9:00 AM or thereabouts

I enjoy my by-now room temperature tea (I like it that way!) or pour a hot cuppa, put on a special playlist I have for work, and get down to brass tacks. Depending on how I’m feeling and what my work schedule looks like, that might mean warming up with a blog post, jumping right into an editing project, or lesson planning. Recently, this is when I sit down and try to write a blog post or two, which I’ll either post immediately or schedule for later as a bulwark against dry periods. Other times, I use this time to work on my own writing projects. Sometimes I spend all morning on that kind of work; other times I only spend half an hour or so on this before I shift gears to editing.

12:00 PM – 1:00 PM

I take my first big break of the day sometime around here. I use the Pomodoro technique during the first work block (with one or one and a half hour working sessions and then ten or fifteen minute breaks). This break is longer, maybe around an hour. It’s when I have lunch and check in with my sambo (who studies from home). This is usually the first thing I have to eat all day; I’m not typically hungry enough for breakfast to be worth it (and whatever small appetite I have is probably dampened by all of the strong black tea I drink, thanks caffeine!). I make up for all of this with a big lunch, and I relax with some TV.

In addition to my freelance work, I run an Etsy shop on the side; I also have a network of friends around the world involved an informal tea exchange. Between these two, I have a lot of mail coming and going, and so this is when I might also take a walk to the not-a-post-office to pick up a package or mail one. Other times I have a library book to return or check out, so I’ll head into town.

2:00 PM or thereabouts

This is the second round of work, and it’s almost always editing. I’m awake, alert, and warmed up; this is my peak time for attentive and detail-oriented work. It’s also when I’m most likely to get sucked into the black hole of the comma mines and completely forget the time. Sometimes I punch out early, at around 4:00, because I have a social engagement in town and I need to look halfway presentable, or because it’s a run day. Other times it starts later than 2:00 because my errand in town took longer than expected, or I had a daytime social appointment instead of an evening one.

6:00 PM or thereabouts

I call it quits and go to the store to pick up whatever we might need for dinner. Then I check social media again while my sambo prepares dinner. If I have a lot on my plate (I mean editing, not dinner), or a deadline coming up, I might take one more trip into the comma mines. Otherwise I use my evenings to blog (casually), write, catch up on Facebook, or read. I should also confess to being an on-again, off-again gamer (some in the community might refer to me as a “filthy casual” and they wouldn’t be wrong), and my evenings are also when I’ll get sucked into a game. At the moment it’s Diablo III.

There you have it: my editing day, more or less! It is somewhat idealized, I have to admit, but it’s a pretty good rough outline. What does your schedule look like? I’m curious!

Armchair BEA, Day 2, Part 2

ArmchairBEA is the Internet/social media version of BEA: Book Expo America. BEA is a chance for readers, authors, and publishers to mingle and share their love of the written word, not unlike Stockholm’s own (much smaller) Litteraturmässan.

I missed ArmchairBEA this year, which is a shame because it’s my favorite way to hear about new books and to find new book bloggers (and, increasingly, BookTubers — people who vlog about books on YouTube). It’s a potpourri of Twitter chats, giveaways, and blog prompts, and I’m so bummed about missing it that I’m going to participate anyway.

I’m continuing with the prompts from Day 2 of the event. There were actually two questions, and I got so carried away with the first question about what makes a good book that I had to save the second question for another day. That day is today!

The online book community has changed so much over the years. How do we keep up within our own book-sphere as well as within the community as a whole (i.e., libraries, bookstores, authors, publishers, etc.)?

Generally speaking, I don’t like to follow actual authors on social media. Not fiction authors, anyway. It seems like a marketing model best described as “the cult of personality” has taken over the fiction market, where you buy someone’s books based on how much you like them as a persona rather than how interested you are in their writing. But nonfiction writers seem to be followed more as a nexus of information, and that’s perhaps more relevant to their writing than how they perform their personalities.

There are three ways that I stay plugged into the book world at large. And the phrase “plugged into” suggests a deliberate intention that I don’t really have, so I should be clear. I’m not invested in the book news world in any serious way. It’s more like a happy accident because I like to talk about books and writing.

The first is through my annual(ish) participation in ArmchairBEA. The blog hops and the Twitter chats always bring a few books or book bloggers (who then recommend new books) to my attention. An introvert can handle being social once a year! 😉

The second is through NetGalley and Blogging for Books. I don’t think any of the books I’ve read through them have gone on to be huge splashes (except for the comics series Monstress), but they are by far my biggest source for new releases. Limited shelf space and the knowledge that we’re going to eventually move out of this apartment means that I have become very conservative in my acquisition of new (physical) books, but I’ll take all the free ebooks I can get!

But mostly I keep tabs on the book world through a few book bloggers and BookTubers (booktubers? bookTubers? I wonder what CMOS has to say about that) who seem to have tastes similar to my own. They’re like my psychopomps in the realm of new books. It’s worth it, because that’s how I end up finding out about books like A Tale for the Time Being. There are some new things under the sun!

So, to that end, I’d love to know what book bloggers or BookTubers you follow! Who do you recommend? Comment or Tweet at me: @KobaEnglish.

A Freelancing Introvert Versus Phones

Does anyone like talking on the phone these days? It doesn’t seem like it.

I contributed more than my fair share to the phone bill as a teenager, thanks to summer camp friends who lived a few area codes over. I never stressed over making those calls, or having to exchange brief niceties with a parent or sibling, or leaving a message on the answering machine.

Image courtesy Lia
Image courtesy Lia

But something about the phone changed, and I don’t know what it was. Maybe the introduction of the cell phone–now people can be anywhere when you call them. That seems trivial and unrelated until you think about all of the new ambient noise that includes. Before, if you called someone’s landline, they would actually have to be home to take the call. Even the loudest family, I think, isn’t as loud or as sound distorting as traffic or crowds. Also, it might be my imagination, but the sound quality on a cell phone is a little (or a lot, depending on your reception) worse than a landline. Ambient noise + iffy quality + the never-ending problems with poor reception = a lot of “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

Maybe it was growing up. By college I connected with friends via the Internet instead of the phone. The phone was now either for chores or for tedium: booking appointments, telemarketers, calling into work sick, etc. Phone calls meant I was getting called in to cover on my day off or something equally unpleasant.

Whatever the reason(s), by adulthood I had a proper aversion to using the phone. Anxiety, even, would not be far off the mark. Even as an introvert, my friends and social connections are important to me; much as I love my hidey-hole, once in a while I need some company to share it with. I love hosting parties and lecturing people about my niche interest. (Do you want to know about caves? The subjunctive mood? Greek mythology? I’m your woman.) This enthusiasm surprises people sometimes, and they wrongly assume I’m an extrovert. Nope nope nope. Outside of a controlled scenario that includes boundaries and scripts, I’m a mess. Surprise interactions with new people are stressful, not exhilarating. And “surprise interactions with new people” pretty much defines telephone calls.

Now I’m a freelancer. People need to be able to get in touch with me, so I include my phone number in all of my advertisements. This means I have to be open to random phone calls at any point during the day. Not only that, but phone calls from strangers and unknown numbers–calls that, as a student, I could afford to screen. Especially since an unknown number usually meant some kind of marketing scheme or other. Not anymore. Now that unknown number might help me pay the bills or have dinner. (Or it might be the tax office, which is not nearly as profitable but nonetheless important.) Someone once said that you should do one thing every day that scares you. For me, it’s answering my phone. (Hah, if only I were getting daily calls from new customers!)

Image courtesy DodgertonSkillhause
Image courtesy DodgertonSkillhause

Of course, with the advent of cell phones came texting. A godsend. A text message isn’t instantaneous–it’s only as fast as you can text–which is sometimes an issue, but it has the advantage of permanence. If you give me directions over the phone, I’ll have to scramble to write them down or ask you to repeat them a few times to make sure I won’t get lost. If you text me, I can just open up the message and access that information anytime I want. I can take all the time I need to formulate my response without seeming rude or inattentive.

Fortunately, most other people seem to be in the same boat as me. Whether it’s because of the tension in my tone, or because of their own personal preferences, a new customer almost immediately switches to text messages after the initial phone call. Is it because more and more people have developed an aversion to phone calls? Is it because we’re all immigrants struggling with a shared foreign language? Have I lucked out and attracted a client base with a similar temperament to mine?

I don’t know, but keep on texting.

 

A Freelancing Introvert Versus Conversation Classes

People having conversations.
Image courtesy Sascha Kohlmann.

Conversation classes are a popular genre of language courses. People are often insecure when it comes to spontaneous language production (i.e., speaking) and the bravest among them sign up for conversation courses to improve this aspect of their language.

For me, conversation classes are stressful. I’ll be honest with you. As an introvert I have a rich inner life, full of thoughts and observations, but that does not always translate into engaging conversation. In fact, conversation classes are where I’ve felt the most awkward and the least competent.

I’ve developed a method to combat this, but it’s a method that requires some level of student input. If you book me for a conversation class, here’s what will happen.

1. Before our first meeting, I’ll ask you to take a brief online assessment to rate your level within the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages and send me the results. “Online assessment” sounds scary, but the whole thing only takes around 20 minutes.

2. Our first meeting will be something like a casual interview. I’ll ask about your history with English, your general interests, and your language goals. Take some time before our first meeting to think about your thoughts on these topics (write them down if you want!). Other follow-up questions may naturally occur, but these are the three areas I want to cover first. Specific questions I will touch on include:

  • How do you want me to address error correction? (As it happens? At the end of every lesson? Once a month?)
  • Are you trying to improve your social English? Interviewing? Business presentations? Traveling? Pronunciation?
  • What kind of work, if any, do you want outside of class?
  • Are you currently studying English elsewhere? If so, at what level? What material? What do you like and dislike about the class?
  • What were your favorite and least favorite classes in school? Why?
  • What hobbies and interests do you have? How do you like to spend your free time?
  • How are you currently using English in your everyday life? (E.g. reading blogs, watching movies, meetings with coworkers, etc.)
  • What are your favorite and least favorite parts of studying?

3. As someone who is not always a sparkling conversationalist, I base my conversation classes (especially in one-on-one classes) on short readings (one page or less). I make every effort to tailor these readings to your interests: beauty, science, health, etc.

Hot tip: you can contribute, too! This is the secret to English conversation class success: bring in material of your own that you felt was interesting, or that you found difficult or confusing. (The Internet is a great resource for English-language material about literally anything.) Have questions prepared for your conversation class sessions, whether about grammar, vocabulary, or just how they spent their weekend. Things are much less awkward that way, especially if you’re studying one-on-one.

4. I will periodically bring grammar or vocabulary exercises based on gaps in knowledge I’ve observed in our conversations. The idea of quizzes, worksheets, and tests can intimidate people—some students opt for “conversation classes” because they find tests and assessments stressful—but periodic testing is one of the most efficient ways to retain and remember new material. This also gives my introvert side a chance to be still and reflect for a few minutes. Don’t worry: the focus of a conversation class with me is still always on speaking and conversing.

My goal in any conversation class is two-fold: to build up and maintain your confidence in speaking, and to provide you with tools that will enable you to speak more fluently and more precisely.

If this sounds like a conversation class that’s your speed, you can email me (in the right-hand column over there) and book a time. I hope to see you soon!

A Freelancing Introvert Versus Doors

I was an introvert before it was cool. It’s something I intuitively knew about myself almost from the beginning, though I didn’t find the word for it until a quiz I took in a glossy preteen magazine: “Are you an innie or an outie?”

open-sky
No one in sight? Finally, I can relax! (Image courtesy Ryan McGuire at Gratisography)

This means a lot of things for teaching in general and how I run my business specifically, but for now I want to touch on one of the smaller aspects of it: doors.

I bring all of my tutoring to you. That’s one of the conveniences of hiring a private tutor. And in my work I’ve been to a lot of apartment buildings, and all of those buildings have doors. Self-evident. Not all of these buildings have the same philosophy about front doors. Not so self-evident.

Sometimes the front doors are unlocked when I come to visit, and I can just let myself in. (My own apartment building, for example, locks the front door at something like 8:30 or 9:00 PM.) Other times the front doors need a key code to unlock them. In this case, people give me the code ahead of time and I can let myself in as if it were unlocked. These are my favorite front door philosophies: minimal fuss.

Other buildings have no means of allowing a non-resident instantaneous access. This is where I start to sweat things. Not because I always have to contact a customer to get in—after a few lessons, it feels as natural to text a customer as it does one of my friends. What sets my introvert nerves on edge is that there is always the possibility for a wildcard factor to disrupt the routine: someone else trying to let me into the building.

Awkward Turtle hates potential unplanned social interactions.
Awkward Turtle hates potential unplanned social interactions. (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Dakota L.)

In this kind of front door situation, the “let me in” text message functions as a sort of courtesy: “I’m here! Time to put your pants on and clean up a bit!” It quickly becomes expected (at least, it would feel that way for me, if the roles were reversed). Bypassing that courtesy and showing right up at the door feels a little…untoward. Unfair. But then ignoring someone holding the door open for me also feels rude, and simply telling them, “Nej, det är lugnt, tack.” opens up a whole possible conversation that I am not prepared to have. “Yes, it IS biting cold out, but the person I’m here to see will let me in soon and I’d rather she let me in on her own terms than I turn up randomly on her doorstep. Yes, she’s expecting me, but still.” So far, I’ve just said nothing and fiddled with my phone, like I’m waiting for someone to come meet me. It’s worked pretty well.

Every time I arrive at an apartment complex of this last variety I experience a small moment of panic: will I have those five or ten seconds to myself? Or will I have to navigate an imaginary conflict of manners over the door?