Siân Hanson – Teacher of ‘Life’

Every so often, this job throws some opportunities in our path, and I am never one to say no to one of those! At British Study Centres Oxford we have a great relationship with National Geographic Learning, who publish some great books for classroom use; one of them being ‘Life’ by John Hughes. We have used this book at our school every summer for the last few years, and I’ve had the pleasure of teaching several classes of different levels using Life’s interactive, authentic and relevant material.

I was asked by the publishers to contribute to a webinar, outlining how I used the book and what I liked about it. And cor blimey, it was a weird experience! Talking to a roomful of people (and then some) without seeing their faces is far more disconcerting than I had anticipated, but thankfully NGL thought I was cogent and coherent enough to put on their website! Though to be honest, the best thing about it for me is the title they gave me: Siân Hanson – Teacher of ‘Life’ (let’s pretend the inverted commas aren’t there shall we)?!

Click here to see the clip

Click here for more info on the Life coursebook series

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Some Observations – the summer issue

  • everyone looks good with a tan
  • when it’s 33 degrees at 7.30pm, you know you’re not gonna sleep that night
  • Italians are slim, because in summer, in this heat IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO EAT
  • Italians drive everywhere, because in summer, in this heat IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO MOVE MORE THAN IS ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY
  • drinking lots of alcohol isn’t as fun when it’s 40 degrees and all you want is to tip a bucket of ice over your head
  • an espresso over ice is delicious
  • people look at you on the beach, but it’s ok, cos you’re looking at them, and they are mostly incredibly beautiful men in speedos
  • I am no longer offended by men in speedos
  • beach hair is the best hair
  • it’s easy to like a place more, and want to stay forever, when you are essentially on holiday and your only responsibilities are choosing which beach to go to and remembering to put on your sun cream
  • never, ever, EVER, forget your sun cream here. 20 minutes is enough to BURN
  • Italians don’t go to the beach, they go to the sea. Going to the beach implies spending time on the sand, but in this heat IT IS IMPOSSIBLE. You go in the sea and stay there until the last possible second.
  • going to the sea is not a choice here, but an essential means of keeping cool
  • Italians are professional ‘sea-goers’, with parasols, sun loungers, pre-made coffee in a bottle and tiny bikinis/trunks ready to go at a moment’s notice
  • when you’re in the sea (which is really just a salty swimming pool), you can turn your back on the insanely crowded beach, stare into the blue yonder and truly, truly believe you’re in paradise
  • photographs will never fully convey the beauty and wonder of the sea here
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Italian drivers and their blind spot i.e. the road

I’ve been meaning to write about this for ages, but there is a reason why Italian drivers have the reputation they do. They are all insane. Fact. It seems that when Italians get behind the wheel, all consideration and rationality goes out the passenger window, and the amount of potential accidents I have witnessed (not to mention the realised ones) beggars belief.

It appears to me that the rule is ‘do what you wish, and all other drivers should predict your every move’. Indicators are redundant here. If you want to turn left, then turn left, even if that means crawling out into the middle of the road so the oncoming traffic has to stop to let you out. A two second gap is enough to pull out, causing all the cars behind you to slow down until you gather speed again. The funniest thing I see daily is people stopping in the middle of the road for what appears to be no reason, when in fact it might be because they want to answer their phone, or check the sat nav, light a cigarette or chat to a friend who’s walking on the pavement. Or, to let the passenger out, which is often an old lady who requires time and assistance to disembark and help to carry her shopping to her front door while a queue of traffic forms down the street.

Roundabouts are not roundabouts when you have to stop halfway around because someone has come speeding down the slip road and refuses to stop at the junction.

As a rule, Italians are generous to a fault. Always paying for you, acting as chauffeur, cooking you delicious cakes and tarts, in fact, helping you in any way they possibly can. But that is not the case with their fellow drivers. Because surely it is THEY who should be able to predict your movements, when you want to turn left or right: ‘Why is this car not moving out of my way? Doesn’t he know my route home?! Mamma mia’.

Having said all this, I really don’t mind driving here. People just get on with it, and as long as can get where they want to go, there is no beeping of horns or road rage whatsoever. The only horn beeping I witness is when the bus cannot turn due to all the illegally parked cars in its way (but that’s another story). Otherwise, it is perfectly normal for a car to pull out in front of you out of nowhere, or for someone to pull up to drop off their mother, blocking the entire street for a good 3 minutes.

Weirdly, I’m almost nervous about driving again in the UK. Where we are all so ‘polite’ and ‘considerate’ that any false move creates an inner rage that can manifest itself in rude gestures, bad language, or in the worst cases, violence. Here you just do what you want, when you want, but who cares, so does everyone else.

Next time: Pedestrians ‘I know I’m standing/walking my dog/chatting in the middle of the road. You’ll just have to wait til I’m done, Mr Driver’.

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An ice cream; an experience

Now I like ice cream as much as the next person, but I would never have said it was something I couldn’t live without. However, the following is a step by step guide to the world’s most delectable and delicious ice cream one’s tongue will ever lick. It’s not just ice cream…it’s heaven in a cone.

  1. Make your way to Gallipoli, southern Italy (there is no airport or mainline train station) via the local train service. One carriage which operates somewhat like a bus. Tell the guard which stop you require, and they will make sure the train stops there. Along the way you will wait at various stations while the guard and the Don (another guard type character, dressed in a sharp suit who has a cigar constantly in mouth, who walks like a drunk) get off and have a chat and a smoke with their comrades.
  2. Find the upper class, luxury establishment which is hidden in a back street of the town. You can’t miss it once you’re on the road however, due to the huge shiny petrol guzzlers and women in Louis Vuitton tracksuits outside.
  3. First, choose the bar man who most takes your fancy; there’s one for every preference ladies. Then, eye candy selected, begin to peruse the menu (OF ICE CREAM FLAVOURS! You filthy lot…)

Here is where the stairway to heaven begins in earnest.

4. Choose your cone. Plain or chocolate and nut coated. I advise plain, you will understand why soon.

5. Choose your cone lining (!) melted white, milk or dark chocolate. I went for dark. This liquidy goodness is then poured into the cone so that it fills the bottom inch or two.

6. Choose your ice cream. As many different flavours as you wish. I eventually plumped for pistachio (obvs) and rose chocolate (OH MY GOD).

7. Here, when they ask you for ‘meringa’ you say: yes. No excuses. It’s meringue like you’ve never tasted, smooth and gooey in consistency (not too runny though, it stays on top). Then, an optional blob of nutella (which I denied – SHOCK) and a posh wafer.


9. After the delight of the meringue, the orgasmic first frisson on your tongue of the rose chocolate ice cream, I promise you will devour what you are holding in your hand. But don’t be too hasty because…

10. …as you reach the bottom of the cone you realise that the ice cream has frozen the top of the melted chocolate poured in at the start. Careful as you bite through this, because then, unexpectedly, you experience the velvety smoothness of the still-melted chocolate lying in wait in the bottom.

And there you have it ladies and gents. Heaven in a cone. I will never enjoy another ice cream again, as long as I live. Amen to ye gelato gods.

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Shocking events

So the last week has been an interesting one. A sad one. A frustrated and angry one. I speak not only for myself, but for the inhabitants of this city, which may be of medium size, but despite its large industry, UN base and port, is a very close knit community where everyone knows everyone.

Last Saturday I woke up to my radio and chastised myself for my still-terrible Italian when I thought I heard a news report about a bomb in Brindisi. Well, turns out my Italian ain’t that poor, because true enough, there had been two explosions outside a school just 2km from my house. The school, in fact, where I was due to invigilate an exam at 1.30 that afternoon. But that fact is really by the by, because the explosions occurred at 7.45am as the school children were arriving for their Saturday lessons and most tragically, one girl was killed and several others left with injuries of varying degree.

The girl, Melissa, was a beautiful 16 year-old. And the whole region, nay country, is gutted and incredibly, incredibly sad.

The first reaction was, naturally, to presume Mafia responsibility: due to the name of the school and its location, anti-mafia marches planned for that day and the anniversary of the death of an anti-mafia judge (the school is named after his wife). But when people really thought about it, things didn’t make sense. For the mafia has rules, and not harming children I believe is one of them.

One week on and the search for the culprit continues. The atmosphere in the town is slowly returning to normal, but the usual optimism and frivolity of the summer months has been tarnished, and I don’t see it returning until this person is caught and justice has been served.

On a more personal note however, it was a difficult job telling my parents and family, who less than two years ago were fretting at the thought of my brother and his fiancée being in the midst of the earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand. It didn’t help that Italy was then struck by a fatal earthquake the day following the bomb attack.

However, I and those I know here are safe and unharmed. But coming home in June suddenly cannot come soon enough.

Wherever you go in this world, certain things – like nature and madmen – cannot be controlled. These experiences help us to decide what is important in life, and what we are willing to risk for the life we desire or for which we are searching.

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Holiday. Celebrate!

So, finally, the time had come for A HOLIDAY! A real-life, well-deserved, long-awaited sojourn away from the hum drum routine of life in Brindisi. Huzzah! I was nervous, however, as this is my first experience of holidaying alone. Those of you that know me (err…so all of you) are well aware of my inability to keep myself company, anyone who’s ever lived with me can vouch for that (although I am getting better with age). Even when I am alone, I choose the radio over a CD, just for the effect of someone talking to me. So anyway, as you can imagine, five days to keep myself entertained was certainly a daunting prospect.

Day one – Brindisi to Pisa…via those lovely people at Ryanair.

After being ripped off in the taxi (if there is something I like less than being alone, it’s being late or having to rush, but this time it cost me dear) I ended up waiting for hours due to a small delay to my flight. It would’ve been ok, but when it comes to queuing, Italians and English do not harmonise. Thankfully I was the only Brit there, for I could foresee a brawl.

Also, allow me a short rant here, but the whole ‘liquids allowance’ really bugs me. I don’t want to pay £20 to check a bag in for the weekend, but I would like to take some shampoo and hairspray in order to look presentable during my trip. And I don’t really want to have to buy those annoyingly small bottles to take with me – I want to use up the stuff I already own. Oh to be a man (or at the very least, a woman who doesn’t wear make-up). I had to say farewell to the 50ml of Herbal Essences left in the bottle at security and buy some more in Pisa – which I will have to leave in the hotel on my departure ‘cos the smallest bottle I could find is not small enough. Such is life.

Err, I’d just like to point out that I wrote this before I read Caitlin Moran’s column in The Times on precisely the same topic…great minds an’ all that.

Anyhow, touchdown to a gloriously sunny afternoon in Pisa (did I mention rain was forecast for the entire Easter weekend??) and I made my way to my hotel by foot (no, not because I’m now ‘anti-taxi’ (though I am ‘anti-Italian-taxi’) but because my hotel was a mere 20 minute walk from the airport – handy). When I eventually found the place I wasn’t quite sure what to think. Now I know I have champagne tastes, but I am aware of my budget this holiday, and 4* + lone traveller just does not make financial sense in this job. However, I was a little reticent to enter, despite the B&B’s positive reviews. To cut a long story short, the hotel was fine. Yes, it was in the dodgy part of town. Yes I had the attic room, into which I entered through a trapdoor. Yes I couldn’t shut the blind and had some noisy Chinese downstairs neighbours. But it was clean, and the bed was comfortable. And for one night it worked a treat (any more than that and I might not be quite so positive about it right now)!

So I had the afternoon to explore the small city of Pisa. And from 3 to 10pm that is exactly what I did! A leisurely stroll around the town, a couple of hours by the tower, reading my book in the sun, a pizza and a glass of wine later and I was ready to hit the sack. I’d got through it – an entire day (and most importantly, a meal in a restaurant) on my own. And to be honest, it was bliss. And I only got approached by one weirdo, the whole day. Score.

Pisa was lush, but people are right when they say one day is enough. Though I could easily spend hours at Piazza del Miracoli, lying in the sun, listening to the myriad of languages being spoken around me. And no matter how long you look at it, the tower still looks fake and toy-like. It’s wonderful.

Day two: Pisa to Firenze

Not even the impending rain could have dampened my spirits this morning – finally I was off to the city I’d been wanting to visit for as long as I can remember! My hotel is located right opposite Santa Maria Novella train station, so was not difficult to find. The staff were very welcoming, and although the room is very basically furnished, there is free Wi-Fi and MTV – what more does one need?! I have one of the rooms that shares a bathroom (though with how many other remains a mystery) which is essentially a wet room, with the shower facing the toilet. Weird, but again, clean so no complaints here!

After unpacking I set off for the centre to meet an old student of mine from last summer. The lovely Giacomo, who although leaving for a holiday that evening, came and showed me round the city for a couple of hours (most importantly, showing up just in time to rescue me from the over friendly Italian outside the Duomo…thanks Giac)!

Day three: Firenze

So today I just walked. For hours. I walked around the centre, across the Ponte Vecchio and up the steep climb to Piazzale Michelangelo. And that was it. One look and I fell in love. This really is the most beautiful city in the world, even in the pouring rain! I’ll let my photos speak for themselves.

Day four: Firenze…still raining

After a short two hour walk the rain just got too much so I came back to the hotel to eat chocolate and wait for the sun to appear. Finally the clouds blew away and I went out for another wander before I was due to meet Italian’s friend for a coffee. The ‘coffee’ turned out to be a motorbike ride to his friend’s house, a beer, some prosecco, coming back to town for a stroll and another beer! Happy days. It was wonderful to have some company – and of course they all spoke spectacular English. Speeding around Florence on a motorbike was also pretty special – it all felt so very authentic 🙂 Tomorrow’s weather is supposedly ‘sunny’ so another walk to the viewpoint beckons, followed by my tour around the Uffizi. Yippee!!

Day five: Firenze…oh, do I have to leave tomorrow? Do I??

The most beautiful of days and not only thanks to the weather. Another stroll to Piazzale Michelangelo (which, now the sun was out, was rammed. I wonder if I preferred it rainy but empty…) and further, up to a beautiful basilica with even more stunning panoramic views of the city and of the Tuscan countryside. I saw the oldest priest in existence (probably) and took some somewhat more attractive photographs ‘senza la piova’. I then collected my ticket for the Uffizi (no thanks to the arrogant and ufficious steward who seemed to enjoy my lack of knowledge of the complex system in place) and spent the next few hours admiring the medieval tryptics and iconography that I have had a fascination with since uni, and appreciated the Carravagio and Boticelli masterpieces on display. To finish the day I ensconced myself outside a bar and treated myself to a bottle of wine for one J Several chapters of my book and a sunburnt nose later, I dined on traditional Tuscan fare and packed ready to return the following morning.

I guess I could sum up the holiday as follows:

Kilometres walked: uncounted, but many

Pictures taken: hundreds

Italian spoken: basic

Gelatos consumed: two, very large ones

Motorbike rides: two, very fast ones

Breathtaking views beheld: one, I suppose, but I could behold it forever

Weirdos avoided: more than were welcome, but fewer than feared

Fun had: immeasurable

Some quotes about Florence:

“Everything about Florence seems to be coloured with a mild violet, like diluted wine” Henry James, American author

“In Paris you learn wit; in London you learn to crush your social rivals; in Florence you learn poise” Virgil Thomson, American composer

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Losing a friend

The thing I love most about my job, is the amount of people I get to meet. Since embarking on this journey of English Language Teaching just over a year ago, I have met more beautiful, incredible, inspiring people than many will do in a lifetime. Not many jobs provide you with the possibility of getting on a plane pretty much anywhere, safe in the knowledge that in whatever country you end up, you probably have an ex-student-now-facebook-friend to give you a sofa to crash on and a guided tour.

Tonight, however, I received some devastating news that one of these very people passed away this week from a heart attack. He had only just turned 40. I’m totally shocked, gutted, and just incredibly, incredibly sad.

I only taught Vicenç for about 6 weeks, last summer, after which we were in regular contact – mostly posting new and uplifting songs on each others Facebook timelines. He would always thank me for introducing him to Plan B and Beth Ditto during our lessons last year. I will be eternally grateful to him for indulging me in inflicting my tastes on my poor unassuming students!

I will also be eternally grateful to him for being such a kind, attentive, considered and discerning student. He didn’t always say a lot, but whatever English he spoke during our lessons was always a pearl of wisdom, a well thought out argument. Last summer in class we talked a lot about the London riots, something of particular interest to Vicenç as he was in the middle of researching his thesis: about the education and intergration of immigrants and their children in Spain and the UK…and how it isn’t working.

He was such an interesting man, and I am so, so sad that I won’t get to meet him again: he was hoping to come back to Oxford this year. My heart and my thoughts go out to all Vicenç’s friends and family in Spain as I can only imagine the pain they are experiencing right now. This world has lost a brilliant person, who I am lucky to have known, even for a short time.

So I guess what I’m saying, is that I love my job; I love (pretty much!) all the wonderful people I have had the privilege of teaching; and (as cliché as this may sound) that this sad event reminds me just how short life is. And how it is about the people you meet, the things you learn, and the experiences you gain that truly matter. Oh, and one can never have too many friends, even if sometimes, all communication is done through posting youtube clips of awesome songs on each other’s walls.

You’ll be missed Vicenç. This one’s for you

The Gossip – Heavy Cross 

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