Monday, January 24, 2011

Acclimatisation (or is that with a 'z'?)

This is me, 22 January. No kidding, it's
that cold.

Sometimes, things happen that make me think I’m starting to get used to American life. Unfortunately, there are also times when I’m obviously a long way off becoming acclimatised, or I’m just plain mad (often, I tend to think the latter. Since about Friday, I’ve been obsessed with the song Take Your Mama Out by the Scissor Sisters. If you don’t know it, look it up. If you do, you know what I mean). One of the biggest problems is words. For two countries that allegedly speak the same language, there are a ridiculous amount of differences. As an example, let me share with you a morning of teaching and presenting I had with high school students about 10 days ago – some of these ‘kids’ were less than a year younger than me, so I didn’t think I would have to keep it G rated. Wrong. My first strike came when I suggested that Advance Australia Fair could ‘go to buggery’ during a choir rehearsal. I thought that given the word ‘bugger’ appeared pretty liberally in Toyota ads about 10 years ago, I would be okay. Apparently I was wrong. A smatter of sniggering from students ensued, accompanied by a look of disbelief from the teacher. I moved on fairly hastily.

Strike two occurred a little later in said rehearsal, when I told the students ‘You need to be proud, dammit!’ I wasn’t let off so easily after round two. Mass laughter erupted from the students, followed by the teacher adding: ‘Uh Paddy, you probably shouldn’t use that word in school.’ I apologised and kept going, knowing full well I was now considered just another culturally inept Australian. I resolved to be much more guarded with my language. Which I was. Just not quite enough. An hour later, we were asked for our opinions of Justin Bieber (I know. How culturally significant). I immediately responded ‘I think he’s a twit.’ For the record, I was applauded for this by all present in the room at the time. It was afterwards when I ran into trouble. In a debrief of our performance by our manager, we were complimented on our interactions with students, but I was told ‘That word you used to describe Justin Bieber. It probably wasn’t the best choice.’
‘What, twit?’ I asked, now a little incredulous.
‘Yes. It isn’t really appropriate language for school.'
Somebody obviously forgot to tell Roald Dahl. Regardless, that was my third strike. Jog on buddy, you’re out. I was cursing under my breath the rest of the day.

Moving on from language, driving is another area which requires some change of habit, and something which I am pleased to report I can now handle with adequate competency. I can actually now start a drive without first getting into the passenger seat, feel for the steering wheel, realise it’s not there, and then get out of the car, and into the real driver’s seat. I am, of course, immensely proud. However, there are a few instances where I still find myself falling slightly short. The first is miles, that wonderful, easy to understand system whereby methods of measurement are completely unrelated and convert at increments obviously drawn at random. Not at all like that silly metric system the rest of the world uses. Anyway, miles become a problem when I’m driving on a freeway, and 70 just doesn’t seem that fast. As a result, I have now found myself driving 80 miles per hour on a freeway, before realising it’s in fact 129 kilometers per hour, and slowing back to the legal 70 (112km/h), more than once. This doesn’t pose as much of an issue as the four-way stop, a far-too-common intersection here where all drivers must stop before going on. Thankfully I’ve been erring on the side of caution, or I may have caused a number of disasters at these tricky little blighters, because, where I would usually have right of way in Australia, here I do not, because I arrived at the intersection last. Give me a roundabout any day.

The final part of this acclimatisation saga occurred this weekend, our first weekend off since we arrived here more than four weeks ago. We thought we might use it to get out and explore a bit. Our first stop was at the Plymouth Ice Festival, where we saw some phenomenal sculpting, but some even more phenomenal feats of enduring the cold – the maximum temperature across the weekend was somewhere in the vicinity of -10˚C. As such, we were in dire need of a good, warm coffee shop after about half an hour. We found a great one, but the performance I put on when trying to pay rivaled that of St. Kilda in the Grand Final Replay – abysmal. I took it as an opportunity to get rid of as much as the shrapnel that I had accumulated as possible. Turns out, ten cent and twenty-five cent coins are basically the same size. Owing $2.60, I handed over what I assumed was the correct amount. Turns out it was only $2.20. Delving back into my pocket, I found another piece of silver and handed it over. $2.30. More please. Back into the pocket I went, and three minutes, two dimes, a nickel, and five pennies later, and my debt had been settled. I was laughed away from the register by the attendant. After we were able to drag ourselves away from the warmth of the cafĂ©, it was off to Ann Arbor, a college city, to meet some friends we had met for a night on the town. The nightclub we frequented was quite the experience. There was no dancing. Instead, there were hundreds of people gyrating in a space where you couldn’t play half-court basketball, lest it turn into a game of donkey. If someone had of poured a vat of cream in there, there would’ve been butter in under a minute. For he who dances like he is wearing two right-footed shoes on his two left feet, it may be a little while before I’m used to American dancing.

Apart from those examples above, I’m now getting used to the American way in most facets of life. I can now adeptly call my mobile my ‘cell’, the loo the ‘bathroom’, the telly the ‘TV’, Steve Irwin ‘The Crocodile Hunter’, and rangas ‘people’. I can put cream in my coffee without cringing, and handle snow-covered roads. I can even understand what people here mean when they say 1˚C is ‘mild’. I just need to watch my language. Heavens to Betsy.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sledding, Small Towns, and Celebrities

Singing at our concert in Clinton, in our magnificent
"traditional costume". Slim Dusty, eat your heart out.

Before I arrived in the U.S., I really didn’t have much of an idea of what I would be doing here. Sure, I had a lengthy job description telling me of the work conditions and expectations, but it didn’t really shed much light except for expect a lot of singing, travelling and staying with a lot of families. There wasn’t much more explained for our rehearsal period, either. Oh, you’ll be singing for a lot of schools, we were told, maybe some churches, staying with lots of host families. They’ll be nice. Great, I thought. I’m going to be a glorified children’s entertainer for the next six months. The Wiggles, decaf. So when we left the relative familiarity of our ‘homes’ in Dearborn for our first gig, in Clinton, a small town about an hour’s drive from Detroit, it was fair to say we were somewhat filled with trepidation. Thankfully, one week later and back in Dearborn, we can reflect on a wonderful week that, if replicated for the rest of our tour, will have us being dragged onto planes home kicking and screaming.

            Our host families for the week were all teachers at the schools where we were working, spread out across three communities close to each other: Clinton, Tecumseh and Adrian. These places personified small-town America – Water towers with the name scrawled across them in big red letters, generations of families living within streets of each other, and kids who go to the same school from K-12, just heading down the road when it comes time to progress to middle school, and then high school. In my experience, what small towns lack in size, they make up for in friendliness and welcoming, and these guys had both those qualities in spades. Everywhere we went, there was copious amounts of fantastic (and fatty) food, drinks and people who were ridiculously interested in our countries and cultures. A gathering of high school kids at one of our host’s houses very quickly descended into a game of “Who’s best at impersonating Paddy’s accent”, which, for whatever reason, ended up with an army of girls saying “G’day mate” in faux English accents. Our host teacher brought hot coffee to school for us in the morning (which started at 7.45am), and one day even baked us cinnamon buns, just because she could. We watched hockey, went skating, were taken to eat at bars, diners and pizza places, and were finally shown an activity that made the winter weather actually kind of awesome – sledding.

            Clinton High School has a really great football ground, lower than the rest of the land around it to make the viewing experience the best it can be. Problem is, between November and March, it’s completely covered in snow. So these savvy locals have come up with a second use for it – a sled run. Decked out in ski pants, jackets and, clever me, desert boots, we headed out on Friday afternoon to hurtle down a hill on pieces of plastic, and had about the best fun we’ve had since I arrived. Some of the sled could fit up to four people, so we went down single, double, quadruple, sitting, lying, backwards and frontwards. It was also an opportunity for the snow-dwellers to educate those of us from more temperate parts of the world on snow games. As a result, I had snow thrown behind my glasses, down my jumper, in my hair and even my socks, and was shoved down the hill unexpectedly more than once. I finished up freezing cold, soaking wet, and with a sore bottom, but absolutely buzzing. And, more importantly, my shoes survived.

            Our task for the week was to go every day to the schools, teach about our country, sing a bit, and prepare the school’s four choirs for a concert at the end of the week. It sounds a little arduous, but it was just wonderful. In the schools, we were like royalty. High school students went out of their way to chat with us and ask us questions. The middle school students fought over us on the basketball court and in the cafeteria (yes, I got to eat lunch in a school cafeteria this week. And yes, it was truly awful). The elementary school kids looked at us in complete awe. Our choirs were just a delight. The students were incredibly enthusiastic and willing to learn, they loved our music and really loved us too. So, by the time the concert came around, we were pretty pumped. By the end, we were ecstatic. The concert itself was put together entirely by us, and so it had the potential to be an absolute flop. It was the absolute opposite. The kids were brilliant, the audience wonderful, and I even got everyone in the room to stand up, sing, and to the actions to “Give Me a Home Among the Gum Trees”. This was all wonderful, and we were happy, but after we finished and headed out to the audience, the magnitude of what we had just done really hit. For nearly the next hour, we stood outside the auditorium, signing autographs, taking photos and answering questions. Between then and now, I’ve had no less then twenty of the kids I taught add me on Facebook, where I have since seen these kids talking about how sad they were to see us leave, quoting lines of “You’re the Voice” to their friends, and claiming us to be their best friends. It dawned on me that we have actually had an impact on these people, touched them, maybe even inspired them to bigger things. I know that they have definitely had an immense impact on us.

I left Clinton feeling such a sense of pride in what we had achieved, happiness at all the new bonds we formed, and sadness at what we were leaving behind. Because, even though for just one week, in just one small town, we were celebrities.

For a video of highlights of one of our concerts, visit Plus I'm hoping to upload a video of us singing You're the Voice with the High School students, but I have to wait for a faster internet connection. Far out I'm getting good at flogging myself.

Monday, January 3, 2011

"I'll just wait outside..."

Yeah it's cold - The view out my bedroom window.

An interesting quirk I noticed in my first few days here was that, at least for a while, the temperatures at home seemed to be matching the temperatures here. As an example, last Monday, it reached 24 degrees in Melbourne, and 24 degrees here in Michigan. Except here, it was 24 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s around -4 in that system Americans don’t use just in case it makes the sky fall in. Celsius, I think it’s called). And that was the daily maximum. At around lunchtime that day I emerged to see an electronic temperature gauge telling me it was 12˚F (-11˚C), but the sun was out, so the locals were more than happy to wander around in jeans and a light jumper. Maybe there’s something in the water. None of this has been particularly problematic to me so far, as over the past nine days I have become an exclusively indoor-dweller, my interactions with the elements being limited to dashing from the car to inside, or vice versa, usually rugged up in about six layers. Unfortunately for me, there’s always an exception to the rule, and my visit to the Dearborn Social Security Office was just that.

            An American Social Security number is basically a Tax File Number-cum-Welfare number (despite the fact welfare is practically non-existent)-cum-government identification tool, and unfortunately a requirement for all citizens, residents, and workers in the US. So, last Tuesday we traipsed to possibly the most awful building I’ve ever seen in my life to be scrutinised by yet another suspicious US government official, only to have our approval put on hold until our passport information is cleared by the omnipresent Department of Homeland Security. As with all bureaucracy, none of this would have been complete without an extended visit to the waiting room, a delightfully designed area obviously inspired by the waiting room-esque traditions of H.M. Prison Barwon and Broadmeadows Police Station. The company was even better: a husband and wife who took up four seats between them, dressed in grubby tracksuits and trucker’s hats, complaining about those “damn Arabs” who were invading their town, and their son, dressed for a trip to Da Hood on the way home. Given the crowded nature of the waiting room, my ride decided to use his time efficiently, run some errands, and be back by the time my interview was complete. Great idea, had the efficiency (or lack thereof) of the Social Security office lived up to expectations. However, I was lucky enough to be queue-jumped, and L
less than five minutes after my ride left, I was called to one of the endless windows for my interview. The officer was actually interested in my nationality (“You’re Australian!” she exclaimed, before coyly adding “mate”. “Sure am!” I replied, adding “darl” under my breath), and got through the interview before I could say “You guys could really do with a Centrelink around here”. Back in the waiting room, and my lift was yet to arrive. Much as I wanted to return to my pleasant company, my Australian brain decided “I’ll just wait outside”. For the most part of my nineteen years, this has been most desirable course of action for three reasons:
1.     Outside is not inside.
2.     Outside usually has fresh air and a reasonable smell.
3.     I can be easily seen and collected from outside, thus streamlining the process.
In Dearborn, Michigan, however, this was a big mistake.

            At the door, I was greeted by an icy blast of air. That initially didn’t bother me, as I was rugged up enough to be comfortable for a few minutes. Slowly, however, the -10˚C wind slowly started to permeate through my clothes. After five minutes, I started to shiver. At ten, I could see my breath freeze in the air. Within the next couple of minutes, the air temperature proved to be stronger than my body temperature, and the metal in my glasses began to cool. People in cars were staring, customers running from shop to shop found time to stop, point, laugh, and keep going. When I finally saw my ride pull up, I was considering dipping my hands (which were wearing thick gloves) in liquid nitrogen to warm them up. I got in to looks of disbelief.
“How long have you been waiting out there?” I was asked.
“About ten minutes.”
“Are you mad?”
“It would’ve been a good idea at home.”
“Yeah. Well you’re not in Australia anymore.”
As if I needed reminding.

My next chore was to set up my American bank account. The car dropped me off at the door. I got out and was on my way in, but before I could get inside, the driver’s side window wound down.
“If you’re finished before I get back, for God’s sake wait inside!”