Saturday, December 16, 2006

Decorated for Christmas
Living room

The golden glow from the street light just below our bedroom window clicks off each morning as the sun peaks over the mountains. Sometimes both of those things coincide with the ringing of the church bells at 7:00 and the crowing of the neighborhood rooster to tell us in multiple ways that the day has begun. Our apartment is one of 5 flats on the 1st floor of a new building across the street from the fire station. We think of the apartment as being on the second floor, but the Slovenes had animals and work areas on the ground level so the first floor of their home is what we call the second floor. Some newer homes still have the garage and work areas on the ground level and a full flight of stairs up to the house. There seems to be no concern for building single story homes to keep from climbing stairs, as one gets older, like in the U.S. Our apartment is 3 years old and we are the first tenants. We live in extreme luxury with 2 bedrooms, 1 ½ baths a brand new kitchen with a dishwasher and a balcony off the living room. Our friend Breda owns the apartment and beautifully furnished it for us with all that we need including dishes, bedding and cleaning utensils.

If the weather is nice we ride our bikes 20 minutes to Nova Gorica along the bike path in the shadow of the snow capped mountains in the distance and the castle in Italy. Many people use this path to stroll pushing baby buggies, weave in and out on roller blades, and the ever-present older men wearing hats saunter with their hands clasped behind their backs. This winter has been unusually rainy and foggy [so they say], so on those days we catch the free bus from Šempeter to Nova Gorica, and within 15 minutes we can be at school without the hassle of finding a parking space or wasting energy to drive to town. The buses have been free since April in an attempt to encourage people to use public transportation. In the early morning and after school the buses run every half hour, and the rest of the day they are available every hour until 7:30. Early in the morning we stand crowded jostling along side our sleepy students. The music playing on the bus radio is often Slovene songs mixed with classic American oldies, but depending on the driver sometimes we travel to the sounds of Mozart.

When I arrive early for school I often stop at a café for a cappuccino and join the rest of the community in the delight of good coffee. Apparently because we live on the border with Italy we have better coffee than the rest of the country and a cappuccino only costs about a $1.00. Coffee is the excuse for gathering with friends. Seldom do I see people sitting alone enjoying their frothy brew and never is anyone working on their laptop and filling every waking moment with work.

I am teaching only 8 classes per week in collaboration with English teachers at the Technical high school. The students are almost exclusively boys majoring in vocational mechanics, computer technology, electrical engineering, energy management and woodworking. Some of the students have English skills comparable to my pathetic Slovene [my key phrase is “Moja slovensčina je slaba” = my Slovene is bad], but many of the boys have excellent use of the language due to watching American movies and using the internet. The best use of my role, as native speaker, is to engage the students in conversation applying their knowledge in actual usage. Generally the teachers give me a topic to discuss or grammar usage that follows their curriculum and after researching on the internet [hallelujah for the internet!] we talk about it. I try to apply the topic to their lives and challenge them to higher-level cognitive thinking and many have the skills to have very meaningful conversations. Unfortunately I don’t think their textbook inspires much in-depth thinking so I try to make the discussions stimulating as well as appropriate for their skill level. The difficulty in this is that I do not see the classes regularly enough to know what their skills are, how they have been taught or what they have been taught. So I go into each class with a hope and a prayer that the class I have planned is not too difficult for them, that they will find it interesting enough to want to discuss it with me, and that it meets the guidelines that the teachers are responsible for. As in all schools some teachers have great discipline in their classes and the students treat them with respect while others seem to tolerate more rude behavior than I am comfortable with. I strongly believe that students will rise to the expectations of the teacher if they are clearly and consistently demonstrated. But if the teacher just “wants” the students to behave and is inconsistent in the management of the classroom, the nature of teenagers will turn the class into the opportunity to do the least amount of work possible. In some classes I have been focusing on creative writing, which is also difficult because these are classes of males who have chosen technical fields and who sit in left-brain classes all day. Their creative right brain is very sluggish and many struggle desperately for imaginative ideas, so my challenge is to inspire them to want to do the opposite of what comes naturally for them and in a foreign language. Not an easy task, but many are rising to the challenge and some of the writing has become very creative and fascinating. I really am enjoying the variety of each day and I adore the teachers I am working with. They have been so generous with their classes and make me feel as if I am an important part of their program.

In addition to teaching at the Technical school I am also directing 3 choirs at the Gimnazia where Bob teaches. The teacher’s choir and the American choir were started last year and a women’s choir of students studying nursing was added this year. All the choirs sing in English and the teachers have encouraged the students to join for the pleasure of singing as well as an additional way to improve their English. For the Christmas holidays I took the student choirs to the resident developmental home and the nursing home where they entertained the residents with American holiday songs and Slovene carols. The American Choir also sang for the opening of the local 3-par golf course [who opens a golf course in December?] and for the entire student body and teachers at the end of the year convocation. I am so very blessed to work with fabulous kids who are really enjoying the opportunity to sing as a part of their school experience. Unfortunately the ARTS are very peripheral in these schools because students who are talented and focused in the ARTS attend subject specific schools [the music school is in Ljubljana], so there is little opportunity in the academic or technical schools for things beyond that focus.

I am also teaching some voice lessons for some of my choir singers, but also lessons for advanced singers who have completed the 6-year curriculum at the music school. It seems that it is impossible to take casual lessons at the music school without the entire program that includes theory and piano. These women have completed this program, but there is no venue for their continued study. Fortunately I am able to teach in a classroom at my school and I am very really thrilled to work with these very fine singers and young mothers, who are wonderfully trained and very anxious to learn more. In addition to the teaching I continue to sing in the choir at the Sveta Gora basilica and socialize with the other choir members after rehearsal and Sunday mass. These people have become wonderful friends and a great support system for us both.

I also tutor 2 young boys and a 13-year-old girl in their conversational English and meet weekly with an English conversation group of adults who are interested in improving their language skills and socialize in English. No wonder I am having a difficult time learning Slovene, all my work is in English, and of course Bob and I speak English at home, and except for a few occasions to greet a neighbor, buy something at the store I do not use much Slovene. I continue to try to learn because many of my choir friends do not speak English and I would like to have a more meaningful relationship with them in their language. So I continue trying, but my progress is depressingly slow.

On the weekends we are busy attending the many concerts in the area, celebrations of special days for our friends and traveling to discover more new and beautiful sights. There is so much to do that we sometimes have a difficult time deciding. On Tuesday afternoons and Saturdays we try to go somewhere in Slovenija or Italy and we have seen amazingly gorgeous places just a short drive from our home. The winter this year has been unseasonably warm which has made it good for hiking, but not good for skiing. We have followed many mountain paths enjoying the clear mountain air and the discovery of extreme natural beauty. The real advantage of this area is that within less than an hour’s drive we can be swimming in the Adriatic Sea, hiking in the Julian Alps, bike riding on the karst or wandering through historic villages in four countries, and we can be speaking Italian, Croatian, German or Slovenian, or trying to. The variety of choices is thrilling and makes us want to spend every free moment discovering something new. I think we could live here for a lifetime and not see all the area has to offer.