Inkreadable: The Reboot

The first five weeks of my new life in Amsterdam was spent in what I considered the suburbs, but in reality were still “inside the ring”. The distinction would be quite important. Where Jasper lives is still considered Amsterdam city, at least to the residents of the area and the local government. For the people that know me, they’ll realize just how difficult it was to be in North. I mean, there was a bus from Central Station, but any place that you can also take a ferry to get home is in the middle of nowhere. For me, not being a driver or a biker, being that far away from “civilization” made it a bit of a challenge to go out every day. But I forced myself to do it. The nature of teaching online for VIPKid made that absolutely imperative. Otherwise, I would’ve been a recluse. In fact, I probably would’ve been a card-carrying member of the International Union of Recluses.

At the end of May 2017, I moved into my own place. It ticked all of my boxes: Elevator building, upper floor, two bedrooms, canal view. Before you get all excited, canals are kind of a dime a dozen in Amsterdam. And mine was not one of the main ones. In hindsight, I should have checked a couple of things before I moved. In addition to being a card-carrying member of the International Union of Recluses, I was also a member of the International Union of Pyrophobics, to which I paid my dues religiously. My pyrophobia was (and is) so bad, that as a child that I could not light a match. To be fair, I still can’t. This was to prove problematic in my new place. My apartment has a gas stove. I did not realize at the time, but the burners on my stove are not connected to electrical power. As a result, they do not ignite automatically. For someone who has as violent a fear of fire as I do, the discovery was a disaster. When I realized that I couldn’t light the stove without a lighter, I began to hyperventilate. Also to cry. How do you not connect the stove to electricity? My landlord didn’t see what the big deal was. I will tell you that it’s really very annoying to have to light your stove every time you want to use it. I have gotten used to it now and using a kitchen lighter to light the stove on the lowest setting has gotten easier. The first month was rather terrifying. I learned my lesson, however. Before signing a lease, make sure that the appliances work properly.

Once I had worked on my fear (I won’t say conquered) and settled into my new place, I could get back into the swing of teaching. This I did with alacrity. I was soon teaching 36 to 40 hours a week over seven days. I have maintained this schedule for the last year. Three months after I moved into the apartment, I could start thinking about where I wanted to take my teaching career. I started thinking about how to transfer my skills in English language teaching to Amsterdam. Lots of little ideas were flying back-and-forth in my head, but I realized that I missed Inkreadable and face-to-face, in-real-life classroom interaction. I had the fortune to meet a woman who had been teaching for about 10 years in Amsterdam, though her language was Greek not English. Despina was all that was encouraging about my language teaching goals in Amsterdam. She told me and she was absolutely certain that I was going to be able to find clients who wanted to better their English. I told her about Inkreadable. She took a look at my website and told me that with a few changes I could easily bring it here to Amsterdam. This I duly started to do. It proved to be remarkably similar to the journey that I began in DC four years before.

I went to the city government of Amsterdam, registered as a self-employed person with a company and engaged the services of an account to pay my quarterly VAT Taxes. It turned out that I could run all of my income from VIPKid, as well as any extra income that I earned through the company. That allowed me to pay taxes in the Netherlands, which is good because you also get different benefits if you pay taxes and are a Dutch resident. Despina turned out to be a godsend. She gave me my first non-teaching lead in Amsterdam, as well as a Greek student who wanted English lessons. Things were starting to look up.

I had figured out that in order to excess both of my skill sets, the approach Inkreadable took would have to be a little different. I would market writing skills to English speaking children of the international school community, and English language lessons to parents who wanted a base in English for their kids earlier than the nine-year-old start. Now all I needed to do was figure out how to do that. That was easier said than done. Want to find out why? Come on back, the plot thickens.

That’s all she wrote for this Inkreadable Installment. But stay tuned, As always, there is more to come.

Amsterdam Antics

The fall of 2016 was rather idyllic. I was in Europe, I was teaching full time though as any online teacher knows, that took about a month and a half to get up to 36-40 hours a week with VIPKid.

I’d gone back to DC in December 2016, having been teaching full-time for about three months. The hours in Europe were wonderful. I taught in Greece, in Holland, and in Denmark. Denmark was to be the only place that I canceled VIPKid classes because I was on vacation. My sister was pregnant at the time, and I had scheduled an hour and a half of teaching each day, for the week that we were in Denmark. In hindsight, I probably should’ve thought that through a little bit better because at that time there Was a seven-hour minimum of classes a week. I should’ve done the 7 1/2 hours altogether in one day. Alas, I learned my lesson. And thankfully, every other time that I canceled classes, it was circumstances beyond my control. As I mentioned in my last post, you have to be very careful when you cancel.

I generally enjoy the holiday season, and that Christmas season of 2016 would have been no exception. Except that I was waking up at 3 o’clock in the morning to teach To teach from four until 10. That was Monday through Thursday. On Friday and Saturday evenings I also taught from 8 PM until midnight. That schedule was grueling. For the VIPKid teachers who read my blog, you all know what I’m talking about. And for those of you, who live on the West Coast, it’s even worse. It was arguably the hardest thing I ever did besides my Celta. By February that year, I was done. I booked my ticket to come to Amsterdam one day, when I was in a really cranky mood, after having taught for six hours in the morning and three hours in the evening. I am not the world’s best sleeper by any stretch of the imagination and if you yourself are an insomniac of any stripe, this resonates with you as well.

I will admit that in preparing to move to Amsterdam I took the easy way out. The hours here in Amsterdam are 9 AM to 3 PM in the winter and 10 PM to 4 PM in the summer. Well at least, those are the hours that I am willing to work. I know there are other people who still wake up well before the ass crack of dawn To teach. More power to them. And I sold a couple pieces of furniture to pay for my move into a storage unit that we already had. They are my beautiful things sit until such time as I wish to claim them again. Or take the step of moving them internationally. As you may imagine that internal dialogue has been going on for the last year and a bit.

My first five weeks in Amsterdam were spent living with Jasper. But we had agreed that I would get my own place when I moved to Amsterdam. And my adopted city is a very fun town. There is always something to do. Dutch culture is very much about the outdoors. They ride their bikes everywhere. And unlike in the US, where cycling is tricked out with helmets, Lycra, and spandex, I[in Amsterdam it’s just a mode of transportation. I have seen all manner of strange things on a bike: from someone transporting something from IKEA, to a six-month-old in a car seat contraption strapped to handlebars. My favorite was the woman who was kitted out in elbow length gloves, a floor-length gown, and heels, going to the beautiful Concertgebouw, her violin strapped to her back, on her way to work. The Dutch have picnicking down to a science. They do it on their bikes. They take everything they need on those bikes. That includes not only the food and drink but also sometimes, the charcoal grill.

The Dutch will tell you that for good food, you have to go to Belgium. I will, of course, agree to disagree with them. I haven’t had terrible experiences with food. I am a cheese fiend. I’ve come to the right country. I set myself up once I got here, in a routine that would keep me teaching for a significant amount of time. But my afternoons were spent wandering the city, because if you’ve been staring at your computer for six hours, you are ready to get out of the house. These are just a few of my observations, as I wandered the city almost ceaselessly, every afternoon.

Those first five weeks were an idyllic time in many ways. But things were going to get even better. Want to find out how? That’s up next.

That’s all she wrote for this Inkreadable installment. Stay tuned, as always, there is more to come.

Voracious VIPKid

I completed the CELTA in mid-August 2016. The next task was, of course, to find a job. At the end of the course, I was exhausted and looking to get away from the DC summer. Accordingly, I bought my ticket to Greece on the last day of the course, IN the class, earning me the award “most likely to travel spontaneously”. It’s not a bad honorable mention. I left the US in mid-September. I was also heading to Amsterdam to see Jasper, and my return ticket to the US was not until just before December.

I have always been an entrepreneurial sort of spirit, and I did what every enterprising person who wants some extra cash does in the emerging gig economy of the 2010’s. I posted my extra room on Airbnb that year. It was a great success and I met some amazing people that I am still friends with today. I had about 200 people stay with me from January to September. A couple from Beijing stayed with me after my CELTA course was done and they told me about an ELT company that was taking China by storm. VIPKid was its name and edutainment was its game.

I wasn’t sure about the edutainment aspect of teaching, and the jury’s still out. I had wanted to teach in a classroom environment to adults initially. But then I considered the possibilities with teaching online. Online allowed me to be anywhere in the world with stable internet. I was a little concerned with the entertainment side of teaching kids as I am a natural introvert but thought that I’d be able to be a little entertaining. So I took the plunge and applied. I did two mock lessons and got hired. I started teaching in October 2016. I left for Greece shortly after being hired and I opened my schedule to classes as soon as I got there. In those bygone days of 2016, you had to open a minimum of 7 hours a week and wear an ugly orange shirt. Luckily the minimums are a thing of the past and thankfully so is the orange shirt. Though I will say that on the days that I didn’t feel like figuring out what to wear, the orange shirt as ugly as it was, came in handy.  But woe unto you if you dare to get sick at VIPKid because their cancellation policy is on the draconian side, though that too has loosened up a bit. You could get six cancellations in a 6-month contract period, so you had, and still have, to be super careful. I went to Denmark and set a stupid hour and a half a day teaching schedule. I used a few cancellations for that. Then I got more careful and the only other times I canceled were because of tech issues I couldn’t control, like when my dad’s internet died while I was staying there, and when I accidentally spilled liquid on my Mac while teaching in August 2017.

I discovered that I am a pretty good edutainer, but I am a better teacher for the older kids who have language than the younger ones. There are of course exceptions to that, like two of my students who are beginners who make my week when I see them. I am in touch with a few parents via WeChat, a Chinese chat app, and one mom has told me that I am the teacher that gets her soft-spoken, rather shy kid to talk. I used to have to prep a lot for each class, but now can literally do them in my sleep.

In my last post, I talked about the insane hours that I was waking up to keep my head above water during the CELTA. Once the idyllic vacation in Europe was over in the winter of 2016, I started thinking about working a 36 hour week in the US. You are likely rolling your eyes at that if you are a teacher at a brick and mortar school. But those were teaching hours, as in on camera, with the student teaching hours. That didn’t include any prep time. And did I mention my workday started at 3 am in the winter and 4 am in the summer? And so it was that in the winter of 2016 while everyone was snug in their beds while sugarplums danced in their heads, I was teaching Baobao (it means very clever in Chinese) his ABC’s and learning how to hide my yawns in the absence of coffee.

Needless to say, it wasn’t long before I started thinking about the glorious European hours and how to get back there. That story’s up next.

That’s all she wrote for this Inkreadable installment. Stay tuned, as always, there is more to come.

 

 

 

 

CELTA Confidential

Picture it: Washington, DC 2016. DC summers swelter, and the sidewalks shimmer with the heat. The air is close, and there is no wind to break it. The almost daily thunderstorm that we get isn’t enough to cool anything down, rather it causes the humidity to set, a fog that rolls in making the trees glisten with moisture. Luckily, unlike the rest of the world, the US loves her airconditioning so it isn’t too bad. The difference in temperature between in and out you do feel, as the two are quite extreme. That was the environment in which I began a foray into my own personal hell. At least, that’s what I thought at the time.

If you have ever learned a language, you know how hard that is. I grew up speaking both Greek and English at home and don’t remember the actual learning of them. I did go to Greek school and so remember some learning but it didn’t feel challenging. The same with learning French, though that was more formal and less osmotic. I actually had to learn rules rather than just absorbing the language as a child does. Learning Dutch as a 42-year-old, THAT’s a challenge. Actually, that’s almost impossible, but the CELTA was still harder.

When you speak and use a language implicitly, you just know when something in the language is used incorrectly by a non-native speaker. You know that it needs fixing and CAN fix it, but explaining how to another person who doesn’t speak the language is extremely difficult. Explaining why it’s wrong, and then explaining the correct way to use the language is hard. Studying for the CELTA, brought that impossibility home like nothing else. Learning a bit of Dutch comes close, but my CELTA was still a hell of a lot harder.

The CELTA is a month-long intensive course of the equivalent of 120 hours class time. That means that for 19 work days, we were in class for eight hours a day. In addition, there was a ton of homework. Four papers about ELT including a pre-course task that was 40 pages long ( and nearly soured me on the whole course),  the differing needs of learners from different parts of the world,  your observations from the classroom and your plans for teaching in the future. The nine hours of teaching actual students was the most difficult for me. I mean, I’m a writer. I HATE being the focus of attention. And standing up in front of people is my nightmare, public speaking is paralyzing. What was I thinking? For that month-long period, I was waking up at 4 am every morning to keep up with the avalanche of work that was the CELTA. It turned out that would stand me in good stead for what was to come. Wondering how? Don’t worry, that’s up next.

Well, that’s all she wrote for this Inkreadable Installment. Stay tuned, as always, there is more to come,

Brexit Brouhaha

So my best friend became my boyfriend in September 2015. I went from being single to being in a committed relationship. My family would probably tell you that I needed to BE committed. But be that as it may, I followed my heart and it changed me in so many ways. It would be a while before I made any decisions, however. I knew that Jasper would never come back to the States so if I wanted a relationship that was not long distance, I’d need to move. Which was fine by me.

But I am the queen of the long distance relationship. In fact, I spent nearly two years commuting to the suburbs of Philadelphia in my only other adult relationship.  I wasn’t worried. I had been thinking about going back to Scotland since my mom died. I never expressed in any of my blogs what Scotland meant to me. Ever heard the term “soul country”? It’s a country that you have no genetic connection to, and yet when you step off the plane, you feel like you have come home. That was, and still is, Scotland for me.

I first went to Scotland in the Summer of 1992. It was my first solo trip, and I went to visit my friend Laura who I’d met in DC where she was an exchange student living with an administrator who worked at WIS. Laura and I became good friends in my junior year of high school and when she invited me to Scotland, I jumped at the chance to go. I stayed two weeks with Laura and her family. By the end of that trip, Laura’s parents, George and Kathy had become as dear to me as my own parents. I ended that trip calle=ing them Mum and Dad, like everyone else did. I did indeed fall in love with Scotland and resolved to come to Scotland for University. Laura’s parents took me to see St. Andrew’s. The minute I saw the campus I knew I wanted to go there. Alas, St. Andrew’s wasn’t to be, but in the summer of 2011 armed with a Greek passport and a passing knowledge of accounting, I pulled up stakes in the US and took myself to Scotland. To learn more of my adventures there check out my blog from that time: http://www.edinburghenchanted.blogspot.com.

I resolved in 2015 to get back to Edinburgh but was certain that I didn’t want to do it on the strength of an MBA that I barely used. Also Bread and Chocolate was beginning to get a little stale. I played with the idea of going back to Edinburgh for the first half of 2016. I left it too late. On  23 June, the UK the UK voted to leave the EU. I woke up on 24 June to a very different world. I knew that at my age, I did not want the uncertainty of moving to a country that two years later might tell me that I wasn’t eligible to stay. I was crushed. There went my dreams of living in Scotland again. I had to come up with another strategy.

A customer at Bread and Chocolate suggested that I take a course to certify in teaching English as a Second Language or ESL for short. It’s also called ELT or English Language teaching. I began to consider the possibilities, and I started looking into programs. Briefly, I considered going to London to do the course but ultimately decided to stay in DC to do it. After a ton of research into the options, I settled on Cambridge University’s Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults or CELTA. The CELTA and the Certificate from Trinity College in Dublin are considered the gold standard for ELT in the world. Employers in the field look for these two certificates when they hire. And yes, the certificate is from THAT Cambridge. I signed up for the course that ran from the end of July to the middle of August 2016.

It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my adult life. Asking why, yet? Stay tuned that’s up next.

That’s all she wrote for this Inkreadable installment. But stay tuned, as always, there is more to come.

Paradigm Shift

After my sister’s wedding, as had become habitual for me, I went to see Jasper. He had been invited to the wedding, but for reasons of his own, decided not to come. My sister had invited him for my sake, and he had accepted the invitation. The thing was, he didn’t unaccept it, so up until the Monday before the wedding, I had no idea that he wasn’t coming.  To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement. I was, in fact, livid. I was so angry that I changed my ticket. Instead of returning to Amsterdam for the end of my trip, I decided to cancel that leg and remain in the UK for an extra week.

Still, the part of me that couldn’t let go of our relationship, decided to go to Amsterdam and see what was up. I won’t bore you with the specific details of the how, but the what is not a state secret. I went to Amsterdam as Jasper’s best friend, his very worried best friend, and left for Scotland a week later as his girlfriend. It was a surprise to everyone, but most of all, me. You see, I had gone to Amsterdam to say a permanent goodbye. I was angry and felt that the respectful thing to do would have been to let me and my sister know that he wasn’t coming.

I had so many complicated feelings for and about Jasper. I had loved him for five years before we got together in that fall of 2015. But I hadn’t moped or waited around, as some people seem to think. I just didn’t broadcast my attempts to find a relationship. If I had had the gift of magic that my main character, Nerys has,  I might have foreseen this change and it wouldn’t have been such a surprise. I also wouldn’t have changed my trip and stayed in the UK, but I did and it ended up being a good decision.

While in Scotland, I had met some people that I became quite close to. When I left Scotland, I went to them in Wapping. I barely knew Colin and Caroline Hampden-White in 2012, having met them in the fall of 2011 through my sister Alex. In 2015, it was a different story. By 2015, I considered C and C (sorry, its just too time consuming to write Colin and Caroline) very close friends. They had been at the wedding and asked me to come and stay with them in London. They could accurately read my mood and knew that cheering up, plus a lot of whiskey, was in order. So off I went to London. It was just what the doctor ordered. Colin and Caroline were the first people to express support for my decision to enter into a relationship with Jasper. Caroline is very level headed and rather than judging me, she told me to jump. I am to this day, so grateful for the unconditional support, and of course, the whiskey.  With them, I processed what all of this meant and what that might mean for the future.

I left the US responsible to and for, myself in 2015. I returned in the fall accountable to someone else. I hadn’t been in a relationship for nine years. I wasn’t sure what to expect or if I could do it again. But I had found my writing, and that would help with the changes to come.

That’s all she wrote for this Inkreadable installment. How did  I manage a very long distance relationship and all the other things I juggled?  Stay tuned, that’s up next.

The Tunnel

I don’t really remember too much about the first year after my mom’s death, except that I was stuck. Like being in the middle of a long tunnel under a water, when the light hasn.t started showing yet. Here’s what I do remember: I spent the first couple of months after her passing in Greece with my sister. We left the US shortly after the funeral and seeing to the most pressing issues, including becoming co-guardian of my twin sister, along with my Dad. I don’t remember the specifics of Greece too much either. Two of my mom’s friends in Crete stand out Eirini Railakis and Eirini Bitsakis.

These two amazing women, (who tended (and still tend) to be spoken about as though they are one unit and in the plural: the Eirines), wanted to remember my mom in their own special way. In order to avoid confusion, in this post, I’ll just call them Eirini B and Eirini R. After all, if I called them Eirini One and Eirini Two, that would be too close to Dr. Zuess (you remember Thing One and Thing 2) for comfort. And I am not yet ready to let my happy shine through.

What they did was mind-blowing. I remember walking into Eirini R’s beautiful home in the countryside in a picturesque village. She’d decorated it with fairy lights and flowers. There was a table with pictures of my mom. And most amazing there was a dry branch tree strung with fairy lights and notecards attached with people’s tributes.

Not to be undone, Eirini B cooked up a storm.  My mom loved her cooking, and this time she cooked all of my mom’s favorites. My mama liked lots of things so there was a mountain of food. I mean that literally. Greek people cook for 50 people if they are having just the family over for dinner. For instance, eat a little salad, a chicken leg (that’s the whole leg, mind you, not just the drumstick), a couple of sides and someone is sure to tell you that you haven’t eaten a thing. In Greece, that’s the appetizer. Of course, the same person that says that is bound to have at some point commented earlier in the evening that you’d gained weight.

Being in Greece with my sister, Alex, brought us closer than we had been, I think ever. My sister is nearly 10 years younger than I am and the age difference is partially to blame, but we are also quite different. That first summer after my mom’s death was hard for me, but I think even harder for her. There would be so much that my mom would miss and I think that affected her deeply. Still, we talked like we hadn’t and I think it was healing for both of us. My Dad, as I mentioned in my last post was a godsend, particularly in that first year. We also became closer while in Greece and he was to help we navigate the complicated aftermath of my Mom’s death.  I was, and still am grateful to both of them.

I had lost contact with a lot of old friends in the summer of 2014, but quite a few of them came back into my life, some after a brief absence, and some after quite a long time. One of these friends was to figure prominently in changing my life in ways I didn’t expect.

That’s all she wrote for this Inkreadable Installment. Stay tuned, though, as always, there is more to come.