Jumping over the lazy dog

or, taking the bull by the horns.

Aalto-gether now…

Please excuse that terrible pun, but I couldn’t resist.

I felt quite cosmopolitan as I hopped on a flight last Thursday afternoon, toting my small carry-on packed with a dozen sweaters, double doses of socks and a silly looking hat. I was on my way to Helsinki, which might seem like a terrible weekend getaway in the middle of February, but is actually quite nice. Chattering teeth aside, the city is a strange site, a triple exposure of the far past, the recent past and the present, one that’s easily explorable on foot or via its countless modes of public transport.

The Brit and I chose to visit Helsinki because it was Valentine’s weekend, and I, for one, was happy to finally not be celebrating Happy Singles Awareness day. So I insisted we go somewhere, and it turns out that easyJet had cheap flights to the city where my friend the Argonaut happens to be studying architecture for the year, so the trip was a chance to kill three birds in one stone: actually celebrate Vday with someone I love, catch up with a friend, and see some interesting architecture in a new city.

Upon arriving in Helsinki Thursday night, the Brit and I were quite tired and hungry, but our intentions of a quick dinner and a long nap were thrown to the side as the Argonaut and I spent a few hours solving the world’s problems. The Brit might have gotten in a word or two, but for those of you that know the Argonaut, putting the two of us in a room is much like putting the Roomie and I in a room: good luck getting us to zip our lips. We eventually got to bed at 2AM, with plans for the two of us to visit the city while the Argonaut ran to studio for a crit.

Our wake-up call the next morning went something like this:

Me, barely awake: Hello?

Argonaut, way too chirpy for 10 in the morning: So, if you want to go to the Aalto studio, it opens at 11:30 and they only do one tour, and that’s the only way to see the place, and you really should see the place.

Me: Um…ok yeah sure. How long does it take to get there?

Argonaut: Oh about 40 minutes to an hour.

Me: So we should leave….now?

Argonaut: Yeah, that should be good.

Me, looking at the snoozing lump on the bed: Right. I’ll get on that.

After jumping into our thermal gear and rushing out the door, we took the tram north, towards Alvar Aalto’s studio and home. What the Argonaut neglected to mention was the exact location of the studio. So several text messages, barely understandable phonecalls (have you ever tried to reconcile the sounds of spoken Finnish with the words you see on a street sign?) and a couple of wrong turns, we made it to the studio with a minute to spare.

Let's play a game called 'Guess the chair.'

Now let's play a game called 'Guess the joint.'

This is where Aalto worked, his private studio - the rest of the team worked in a loft down the corridor.

The really nice guide answered all my questions and even suggested a place to grab lunch. Which is how I did the number one coolest thing about visiting Finland in February: I walked on the sea. Turns out, it’s really cold up north in the winter time, so cold that you can not only walk across a frozen snow-covered body of water, but drive a car across said phase-changing environment.

Technically, this is a picture of the bank...but imagine that all that snow extends across the sea, too.

Lunch at the cafe was a tasty salmon lasagna and a not as tasty hot chocolate,, but I’ll cut them some slack on the latter because the best hot chocolate in the world can only be found in Paris. We then wandered back to Aalto’s residence, where I did things like drool over grooved drawer pulls and rub my fingers up and down suede walls.

It was a really comfy chair. No wonder it was Aalto's favorite.

When we got back to the city center, the Brit and I wandered around town, ducking into buildings for warmth before trekking to our next destination. That afternoon, we visited the Helsinki Cathedral, which is sited quite impressively but has an interior that leaves quite a bit to be desired.  On the other hand, we spent some time in the Temppeliaukio Kirkko (Rock Church), whose exterior isn’t that majestic, but whose interior expresses the nature of the sacred far better than the cathedral. A walk through the ‘design district’ looking into windows displaying kitchen accessories and incredible boots left us quite cold, so we rode the tram around town, getting an eyeful from a much cosier environment, before we met back up with Argonaut and his friends for drinks at a local bar.

I believe the ceiling was done in copper. The gray bits are good ol' concrete, and the radial pattern is reminiscient of Pagan Sun-God lore.

On Saturday, I went where no brown person has ever been before. Well, it was certainly something this brown person had never done before: cross-country skiing. The Finns make it look quite easy. Just pop in your boots, swing your arms about a bit and op! off you go! Lies, all lies.

There are things cross-country skiing is good for: seeing the countryside without leaving a trail of carbon monoxide, for example. There are things cross-country skiing is not so good for: seeing the countryside quickly without leaving a trail of carbon monoxide. Unless you’ve got years of experience, are over 5′-0″ tall, or happen to be genetically predisposed to skiing.

Dramatics aside, I did have quite a bit of fun skiing. Once I figured out how to move more than a few inches at a time (read: 2.5 hours after starting), we got to do a couple of hills. I’m a proponent of downhill skiing, where all the effort of uphill transit is transferred upon the ski lift: zero effort, tons of fun. However, with cross-country skiing they have these handy pre-grooved tracks down the windy mountainside, and all you have to do (once you’ve reached the top by wedging your skis at awkard angles) is set yourself in those grooves and allow your skis to zip you down to the bottom. Once, I went so fast my hat almost blew off. Totally worth the huffing and puffing and wedging on my way up.

Sunday in Helsinki is a bit like Sunday in Paris: few places are open for business. After more world-problem-solving at a coffee shop, the three of us visited the Kiasma, Steven Holl’s contribution to the Helsinki architectural scene. The building’s white-clad exterior does little to help it stand out in the cloudy grey sky, but the interior, with its carved openings and sweeping curves, is much more appreciable. The works in the musuem were mediocre, only Adel Abidin’s exhibit really caught my attention. His ability to balance humor and gravity in his films had me delightedly surprised.

In the end, the Brit and I spent Valentine’s dinner in an airport, which is appropriate, he noted, for the way our relationship seems to be a series of transits. That, and the fact that he loves planes, and I love airports. My delayed flight finally landed in Paris at half past midnight, and I rushed around CDG looking for a night bus (as the RER wasn’t running for some reason). My first (and possibly last) experience with the Parisian Noctilien deserves this comment: seemingly efficient on paper, the buses wait far longer than necessary at the stops, resulting in a half-hour journey taking thrice the time.

By 03:00 I was back in my own bed, snuggled under the covers, happy for the heat. It’s hard to believe I’ve only got a few days left in Paris before I leave for India this weekend, and then only a few weeks upon my return!

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Filed under: Around the world, , , , , , , , ,

The downside of up.

I might have mentioned this before, but I love Paris. I love the cobblestones  under my black boots and the crisp wind whipping my trendy scarf as I cross the Pont Neuf. I love the hot chocolate at Angelina’s and the occasional treat of Ladurée macaroons. I love being able to walk to the Louvre on Friday evenings for a quiet afternoon with the Masters.

I am not so in love with my job.

I’m technically in Paris as an English teaching assistant. Sometimes, however, it feels as though I’m in Paris as an under-paid, under-trained, under-worked disciplinarian. Here’s the situation:

Two times a week I take on a batch of 15 sophomores and attempt to do fun things like play a speed-dating game or watch clips from American TV shows to learn slang. And I’m quite enthusiastic about the lessons I plan – I try not to do anything that I wouldn’t have considered fun when I was a sophomore learning French at Salem High School. That might actually work in American classrooms, where students are relatively disciplined and stay quiet while the teacher is speaking, even if they sulk when assigned any tiny amount of work. But oh no, not in a French classroom (the film The Class comes to mind).

The problem occurs both because of students, and because of the system under which I am supposed to be working.  First, let’s deal with the system.

  1. I only see these students every other week. Sometimes, they have tests, so I might not even see them that regularly.
  2. Their presence is mandatory, but I do not know the names of the students to be present beforehand. So I cannot take roll, and therefore cannot punish students for absence.
  3. The students are not graded based on their performance in my class. They, in essence, have no motivation to attend nor to participate, and therefore they don’t.
  4. During orientation, I was not made aware of my rights as an instructor; for example, I don’t know the protocol for when a student is tardy and claims to have been at the nurse’s office. When I ask for a note, they shrug and feign incomprehension.

I cannot imagine these students are deliberately malicious. They are talkative and I perceive them to be disrespectful, but perhaps that is because their teachers let them to speak among themselves in class, and I, as an American, see that as impermissible – a cultural difference. But the fact of the matter is that when I do reprimand students for disruptive behavior, they simply talk back and refuse to do their lines, or put down their head, or accept responsibility for their actions.

I’ve spoken to teachers about protocol, but it seems there’s not much I can do. I can send the students to the CPE, essentially to the principal’s office, but I’d rather not. Surely there is a solution to keep them  in the classroom and to engage them in the activity – positive reinforcement, rather than disciplinary action.

A few of my readers are teachers, high school teachers, in fact. What do you do when your class is rowdy, shows up tardy, or refuses to participate? How can I make my activities more engaging or enticing to adolescents? Is punishment the only answer?

Filed under: All things French, , , , , ,