White Christmas

This is item number 7 in my Christmas Jukebox series, sort of like an advent calendar of posts about Christmas songs and what they mean. Read this then check out my earlier work, it’s fine stuff.

“Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written—heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody’s ever written!” – Irving Berlin

The year 1954
The band The Drifters

This list wouldn’t be complete without White Christmas, and though it hasn’t yet snowed much here in Prague, the song is about hoping and dreaming for a white Christmas, not celebrating the fact there is one.

The song is about memory, about tradition. The first version was by Bing Crosby all the way back in 1942.

That’s the 1947 version but I can’t imagine Bing changed it up too much like some remix or what have you. Given it’s about tradition and memory, why did I lead with the nontraditional and less well-known Drifters version first? Because it has a nice energy to it.

The Crosby version has a feeling of the Second World War to it. It’s got the pace of Vera Lynn. It’s not among my top 3 Crosby songs.

Well, did you Evuh? What a swell party this is.

{Digression: Part of this War feeling is maybe the fact that the writer was in a hotel that Frank Capra (director of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’) stayed at. How’s this for a fun fact, Capra ran the US army propaganda department during the Second World War and had a young Dr. Seuss on staff drawing pamphlets teaching US soldiers to protect themselves against malaria.}

During and immediately after the Second World War people were very keen on old traditions. People wanted to remember a time when the world was a lot less fascism and bombs flying and more gazing at snow falling. That’s probably why the song performed so well commercially. So much so that there’s at least 500 different versions of it.

It’s the best selling song ever. It will likely hold the record for physical single sales forever since there is no longer a mass market for CD, cassette, and vinyl. The closest competitor is Elton John with ‘Candle in the Wind’, and he’s 17 million singles short.

So, it’s a good and popular song and Crosby’s version is the natural choice. Nevertheless, I went with The Drifters.

My feelings towards the past is that sometimes we build it up too much. The present is actually fairly magical, given we can see it happen and notice our impact on it. I love historical study, all the fun facts, and I have a soft spot for certain traditions, but what’s the point of a good thing if you can’t touch it, edit it, interact with it?

I picked a nontraditional version of White Christmas because I support people interacting with the Christmas canon. There’s loads of songs out there, if you’d like, you can listen to all the different versions of White Christmas and tell me the best, so why stick with the well-beaten track?

I’ll get off my soapbox now. Enjoy the song and join me again tomorrow for another!

The writer of this piece would appreciate some snow, even though he spends a lot of time outside.

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Accents – “Where d’you come from?”

Take a minute and think about goulash.

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Goulash is a type of stew they make in Hungary and seemingly every Slavic country. In Hungarian it is written gulyás, from some root word that has to do with cattle-herders as the story goes. Thanks to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or just close trade links, the recipe and variants became popular around Central and Eastern Europe. As it exists in numerous places, it has numerous spellings, each reflecting a different emphasis and sound.

Why am I talking about goulash? Because this is an example of a word that has travelled and taken on new expression in a different language family. Incidentally, it is also one of the meals I ate when my parents were in town recently and they inspired this post.

My parents’ visit was a lot of fun and it gave flight to my accent again. Though my dad says I haven’t got a very strong accent, and he might be right – Irvine Welsh I ain’t -it was liberating to drop the English language teacher voice. It’s my least favourite part of teaching, having to change such an intimate part of me, my voice, in order to be of most use to people who are not ready for it. Even a light Scottish accent may be a bit much for people at A2 (Pre-int) on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (try saying that while half-cut). But I can speak freely with my family.

i would like to be able to speak the same around my fiancée. She is into it and knows how it flows and sounds already. But I code switch too often and rarely switch back. Normally, in professional environments in Scotland, I would be able to speak “properly” during the working day and switch to my rougher accent in the pub. Here, I can’t go back so easily.

See, I noticed something about the logic of language and I can show you with a self-written joke for students.

Why does the English language have articles (a, an, and the)?

shrugs

It’s because you’re foreign and we hate you

Huge laughs!

Of course, we don’t really hate second language speakers of English, but all the best jokes are surprising.

Anyway, it’s absolutely the case that English grammar is just a messed up way to show who is part of the ‘in’ crowd and who is part of the ‘out’ group. The way we form our sentences in a strict word order, the fact we have 86 prepositions (in, out, on, above, etc.), the irregular verbs, and the weird pronunciation are just some of the problems for the second language speaker.

For these reasons, it is often instantly recognisable if someone is a second language speaker. For a start, people, who have learned other languages in their own country will have pronunciation like their teacher, often a non-native speaker of English. Even if they learned from a native teacher, that will often be only an hour or two a week and most of their conversation practice will be with other non-native speakers. *

What is the effect of recognising somebody is a non-native speaker? It seems to me like it turns foreign people into ‘others’. People get a little defensive and territorial about language because they fear someone else has come to take their goulash. How can a second language speaker escape this? By putting on an accent.

By putting on an accent it looks here like I’m saying to act one. It is far better to develop one, to consciously take pronunciations you like.

For I think I can notice in my own voice and manner where I come from. I’ve got my Scottish vowel sounds, sounds which will never vanish and for that I’m thankful, but I have increasingly anglicised and americafied consonants. My life has had a ton of different people in it and because many of them were from different areas, primarily American, I have had to soften it in places.

It was that or have people repeatedly misunderstand me with varying levels of politeness in their response. It has been a struggle and it goes on as even my softer level still sometimes invites criticism. If a person misunderstands even your first syllable they will often turn off trying to understand the rest of your sentence. It sucks when people make you feel like an imbecile for speaking the language like your forebears, friends and relatives.

For a long time it made me angry when people didn’t even appear to try. But now I realise I more often have to meet them halfway. People aren’t mindreaders and I fancy if you say something in a way they’d never expect it to be said, they’ll abandon any hopes of comprehension.

Still, it was good to see my parents and speak the same language in the same old accent. It’s exhausting having to put on a neater voice and change to fit other people’s understanding.

*I’m pretty certain every language is like this. Between language families the change is greatest. The jump from English to Czech is greater (Germanic to Slavic) than the jump from Ukrainian to Czech (both Slavic). Between these families there is both a difference in words and a difference in how they fit together. Czech can be confusing as all the words seem to change their ending all the time depending on the situation and it isn’t too great a change too from asking for a cigarette to demanding their entire pack with just a small change in tone and word ending.

Good Habits, Bad Habits

Now for an update of where I’m at. As honest as a person can be at 10 in the morning before properly alive though, strictly speaking, I have been a bit of a morning person for some time.

It’s probably one of the Good Habits I developed at a young age. We only had one upstairs shower, and my brother and I had to race to get to it. First person in the shower was the first person to get breakfast. The second person was just left lolling around in a half awake stupor, unable to eat until the ritual ablutions. So from at least 8, I endeavoured to be the first washed and the first at breakfast and this has led me to be far keener and more active in the morning than in the afternoon. Still a Good Habit as there is a far greater pressure to be places on time than there is to be awake and 100% all day. First impressions are everything.

Now, the stuff I’ve kept from you, fellow travellers, in the interest of not scaring anyone. In the past months I have had two occasions where I lost important things.

The first time I lost my wallet and glasses, after a night on the tiles that ended when a Czech woman woke me in a park. A wallet is nightmare enough, but could you even imagine the crippling horror that manifests itself in a Czech bureaucratic building without the ability to even see the letters or numbers? Can you imagine having to do this multiple times? Being stopped by Czech police and asked for ID, feebly holding up a picture on an iPad and hoping it is good enough? (Apparently, it is not good enough for their purposes). That was my first week of July. I got fined by metro police.

It wasn’t pretty, but I survived. As I have said other places, I have an exceptional taste in friends – another Good Habit.

The second time was more serious. This is a cautionary tale for all travellers. Do not try this at home, even with adequate adult supervision.

One night, after leaving a party, I got drunk and woke up with no watch or bag. Contained in said bag was my journal, full of several irreproducible poems, and my passport.

If you love travelling, you must hold onto your passport. For the past two months I have been unable to leave the Czech Republic. This would be fine, except I want to wander around and see the cool things in nearby Austria, Poland, and Hungary. While the EU technically has passport free travel they do still perform routine checks at borders, and I do not trust that a photocopy and a police report, written in Czech, will suffice when it comes to border guards. It reads strangely to Czech speakers, what would a Hungarian make of it? They don’t even call their police police (Rendőrség).

Both of the above stories have one clear similarity. Yes, we’re talking about the most major Bad Habit.

I have been drinking too much. I have absolutely been drinking too much. I have been absolutely and terrifyingly out of control drinking too much. It makes me reckless.

And not reckless as in harmless reckless, I mean shit the bed reckless (not literal). Waking up in a park wasn’t enough for me. Oh no, I couldn’t rest with only losing the ability to see and buy food. I had to lose my poetry, graduation watch, and the one thing that is supposed to guarantee me legal protection around the world. What the fuck.

Fortunately, with careful planning, good friends, and some self-awareness, I am getting back on track.

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I got a pair of new glasses for a song. My love bought me a new wallet, which she gave me the day after I lost my passport. It took me a while to accrue funds and actually sit down and do it, but I have ordered a new passport. Most importantly, I have set myself a limit of three drinks in a night. I have mostly held to that for the past two months and I have lost nothing else.

I will finish with some pieces of moralising.

If you are travelling anywhere, you must pick up and cultivate some Good Habits and shake off the Bad ones you will inevitably have gathered in a long life. You should plan your finances accordingly as the types of incomes most travellers and wanderers get is very temperamental and you will have sudden shocks to contend with. When making friends, find good people who will help you if you stumble and who will encourage you to be a better person.

Do these things and you will have a considerably better time overall.

Then again, the good news with losing things is that it gives you more to win.

 

To the Lost, From Those That Remain; Or, Why Prague

So here’s a story, well-told, often repeated, containing a Lie and a Truth. For more detail, consult my first entry on this blog. 23 year old misses his friend, books a trip to see her, wine turns 5 days into 2 months. He gets a job, he gets a girlfriend, he joins a community, he embraces the culture with it’s plentiful meat, dark humour, and warm below the surface people. 2 months turns to 7, seasons change, and here I am with a fortnight’s worth of luggage seeing very good wear.It’s a good story, one I’m happy to tell, mostly True, fits my image well. It’s missing something.

No regular person or even an extraordinary one as I pretend to be sometimes would ever make that jump without something else motivating them, pushing them, or else driving them. As I have said elsewhere, in several places, teaching doesn’t exactly create fat stacks of wealth and prestige. It doesn’t by itself create greater freedom, there are still bosses and there are still customers even if the personal relations differ greatly. It doesn’t fulfil a person’s wildest dreams, though I have been exceptionally lucky/very deft in making good friend and occasionally wise choices. No.

This is the reason, the real, overriding, reason that I came to Prague.

A new story. A boy, recently finished university, out in the Big Bad Real World, making money, making networks, making some form of cobbled together life of drink and companionship, missing something important. Changes jobs to get out of his home city. It draws him back. Irrevocably. But something has changed, in the city, in him, hard to say. It does not feel like a home. It feels like a haunted house.

For the four years of university he had made friends and acquaintances, had the prestige of studying in one of Scotland’s top academic institutions, and had the pleasure of a fine setting and fine folks. At the beginning of every year, effervescent, adolescent joy at meeting people from around the world, a continual influx of new people to love. Every 3 – 6 months though, well, the tide goes out as well as comes in.

They leave. They always leave. The boy never realised such things though they happened all the time. Wrapped up in the moment, the eventual parting always seemed so far off and the company always seemed so worth it. But, see, they left. And he remained.

Part of them stayed. In memory. Every corner, every bar, every alley, every nightclub, every walk, in every part of the centre. Ghosts. Scores, hundreds, even. I couldn’t handle it. Each street became like that square on Monopoly you dread because it signifies the loss of everything. That one Orange property that some tactician has filled with hotels. Every street bore a flat that I recalled, and the recollections grew too many and too difficult. The first was hard enough. My Ex’s street, jutting like a dagger through the Heart of Newington.

Others followed, in varying intensity and character, and by 23 years old with all the uni pals gone and a new clutch of them, made through a Norwegian, going off to do their thing I’d had enough. I needed out.

So I got out, but I may never truly escape. I realise now that I’m back in a similar uni situation. English teachers are by nature rolling stones. Tide goes out as well as the tide comes in. Already the group recedes. The girl I came to see moved home. Others move abroad as the East is where the money is. Some find different opportunities. It’s easier now as there isn’t a time limit I just keep forgetting about, the outflows and influx comes at different times.

Still, I fear the eventual half life. That point where I can see the switch so clearly and memories again flood everywhere. The tide comes in and the tide goes out. One day the same will be true for all.

Jam Today

When I was 22 or so, I wrote a comic play in which a flat’s money troubles are solved when bags of gold fly through a skylight at the end. It suffered from several problems along the way, the dialogue was gold but the direction was a bit dry, plus the plot wasn’t fully up to scratch. That endin though: so positive, so optimistic and, occasionally, so true.

A student paid me recently and this puts me in a far better mood for the coming month. Now, I havea weekend away with my girlfriend for her birthday and currently I am eating toast with jam.

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So no updates for a couple days. I will leave you with what I feel is some great advice for English teachers and for all people who earn their money in occupations with occasionally irregular cash flow. Plan accordingly.

if one month you work a ton and are paid well, make sure to put some of it away. Lean months do exist. Summer has been a bit temperamental, one month more than enough to live, the next barely enough for rent and other associated costs. Make sure you keep some surplus to balance out the shortfall or you will find yourself in a tickier bind than I have just escaped.

Beware the Summer shortfall. Rejoice in the Septmber inundation. Eat toast, frequently.*

 

*Unless you are gluten intolerant