My long lost friends

I can’t really say I’ve had a good summer this year despite having a lot of time on my hands. The unbearable heat has finally taken its toll on me, leading to more afternoons at the beach. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining in the slightest. But having so much free time also means I get to follow what’s going on in the world more closely. Sadly, we all know that thousands did not get to live another summer. These past three months have been marred by brutal atrocities in war-stricken countries. Although I feel utterly saddened by the boundless ruthlessness of mankind, I’m not even remotely shocked by news of war crimes. I was only eight when I was first introduced to the existence of war. Since then war victims have always been in my thoughts, hence the reason why I don’t get appalled by the occasional media coverage of the suffering of children in war-torn countries.

One afternoon in the summer of 1998, I noticed three girls playing next to our patio. I was super excited about having new friends to spend the summer with, so the following day I joined them for a game of hide and seek. However, I found it strange that they could speak neither Maltese nor English. In fact, I couldn’t quite communicate with them at first. Then I found out that they were from Iraq. Two of them were siblings, and if my memory serves me right, their names were Venos and Skiros. They had a younger brother, who at the time couldn’t have been older than five. The other girl, Shams, was eleven, and had two older sisters.

At the age of eight, I had never heard of Iraq before and I was curious to know why they had ended up in Malta.  My parents told me that our new neighbours were refugees, but I wasn’t sure what that meant. A few days later, the girls explained that they had to flee their country because Iraq was a dangerous and violent place.  Every time we met I asked them about their schools and their friends in Iraq. At first they were eager to tell me all about their life in Iraq, but after a couple of months, when homesickness started to sink in, they spoke of home with an expression of wistfulness.

By the end of summer they could speak Maltese fluently, yet their integration at school didn’t go so well.  They found it hard to make new friends and they underperformed in many subjects. I felt sorry for them and committed myself to helping them out with their homework. Just like any other children, we argued, became best friends again, and got ourselves into trouble. Meanwhile, my parents kept reminding me that my new friends have had a tumultuous life so far, and therefore I should always share my toys with them.

I don’t remember how long they were in Malta for, but back then I thought they would always be my best friends. A year later, their families and a number of other Iraqi refugees were relocated to the United States. The night before they left we embraced in a tearful goodbye. My parents tried to console me by telling me that they will have a better life in America, but I was in tears all night.

A few weeks after their departure, I received the first letter from Shams. We carried on writing letters and sending pictures to each other, until Shams suddenly stopped writing back. To this day, I have never heard from her again. Venos and Skiros never wrote to me, and Shams had lost contact with them after settling down in the U.S. Throughout the years I’ve tried tracking them down on social networks and online directories, but to no avail.

I don’t have a picture of Venos and Skiros, and I have just a vague memory of their faces. But when I see images of terrified children in Syria, Gaza and Iraq, it’s almost as if I’m looking into the eyes of my childhood friends.

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The Benevolent Maleficent

 

I don’t really get excited about promising blockbusters anymore. No, not since I discovered BBC’s Sherlock. My life is now complete.

But then again curiousity always gets the better of me, so when my Facebook newsfeed got flooded with comments on how amazing this new Maleficent film is, I thought I should probably check it out.

I did what I usually do before going to the cinema, and headed to the chemist’s first for some motion sickness pills.

“Take one pill 20 minutes before boarding the plane,” the pharmacist instructed, “They’re also very effective for sea sickness and car sickness.”

“What about 3D sickness?” I asked.

Well, I was about to find out.

Admittedly, I had been looking forward to seeing Angelina Jolie playing the ruthless and vengeful Maleficent. If there’s one thing I’ve always loathed about fairy tales, it’s got to be the pious, fair-haired heroine in almost every story. The film adopts the villain’s point of view, and consequently I expected Maleficent to be as evil as can be.

Halfway through the film my expectations were already crushed. To begin with, Maleficent is a good-natured fairy, but the betrayal and greediness of men bring out her dark side. She becomes vindictive, and we can’t blame her. Yes, we’re on her side. We want to see her destroy King Stefan’s life, even if that means cursing his daughter Aurora to a century-long sleep.

Gradually we see Aurora growing into – guess what? A pious, fair-haired woman. Maleficent keeps a watchful eye on her as the girl spends her days frolicking through the meadows. Then, unexpectedly, the unforgiving Maleficent from our childhood Disney film becomes all lovey-dovey.  She develops a mother-like affection for Aurora,  but unfortunately for the repenting Maleficent, the curse cannot be revoked.

Meanwhile, Prince Philip comes along, but the audience can somehow already guess that he’s not going to be the one who saves Aurora from the curse. Despite the major twist on the original fairy tale, the ending is still predictable.

In this version of the tale, Prince Philip is shallow and clueless. We know, for sure, that he can’t wake Aurora from her deep sleep with a true love’s kiss. However, we’ve all seen Brave and Frozen, so at this point we can already figure out who’s going to save the day.

Of course, it’s a Disney film, so a happy ending is inevitable. Maleficent survives the battle against King Stefan and his men and returns to the magical marshes. Aurora joins her, but the plot gets cheesier than that.

The sublime beauty of the marshes is restored. Aurora marries the shallow Prince Philip with the blessing of her now godmother Maleficent. The trio live happily ever after. Maleficent, whose childhood sweetheart and lover betrayed her to win the King’s daughter’s hand in marriage and accede to the throne, eventually spends the rest of her life alongside the daughter of that same, shameful man. I mean, would Maleficent really do that?

I walked out of the cinema all sulky, but at least the motion sickness pill had worked.

 

***


Some tips for aspiring EFL teachers

Source of picture: http://www.evolllution.com

I was a bundle of nerves when I walked into class on a chilly Monday morning to give my very first English lesson. To make matters worse, I had the class from hell.

As a teacher who has almost seen it all in less than two years (I had a 17-year-old throwing up in class and two other students coming to blows over a homosexual comment), I have compiled a few tricks of the trade for would-be EFL teachers.

Students have stories to tell. Listen to them. 

Students can be slightly self-conscious on their first day, and the stories which they will be willing to share would most likely be about their last trip abroad or how their pet met its untimely death.

But if your students are on a long-term study program, it won’t be long until they start spilling their juicy stories. They’ll walk into class and spend the first fifteen minutes unloading all the details about the previous night’s drinking escapade onto your painstaking lesson plan.

And what do you do? You listen to them. Give them the opportunity to express themselves confidently in their second language. It’s good practice for them, especially if they incorporate all the grammar structures they’ve learnt throughout your lessons into one engaging, humorous story.

Once the conversation dies out, follow it up with a correction session. Draw their attention to the most common grammar traps that they fall into during their speaking practice. They will return with more anecdotes the next day, and the day after, and while some students enjoy being in the spotlight, don’t let them get too carried away with their stories.

Show a keen interest in your students’ cultural backgrounds.

It’s very likely that on many occasions your class will be one big melting pot. If that’s the case, get a long spoon and stir away! A good nationality mix in your class is a great inspiration for many discussion topics. Build lesson plans around your students’ cultures. Talk about cuisine, festivals and holidays, superstitions, laws and customs, but try to avoid going into religion and beliefs.

Give the floor to the students and encourage them to give a presentation about their countries. Ask them questions about strange laws in their countries, their favourite celebration and unusual delicacies. Bear in mind that some of them would have had to travel halfway across the world to enroll in an English course, and being able to share a bit of ‘home’ with their teacher and fellow classmates would surely comfort them.

Show off your drawing skills, or lack thereof. 

I find drawing to be a good way of helping introverted students come out of their shell. If you walk into a class and find students who are either battling a midweek hangover or they just happen to be in the doldrums, get your coloured markers out and use the board as your canvas.

Introduce the topic of the lesson by drawing a quick comical picture on the board. Turn around and you’ll be very surprised to find pairs of twinkling eyes pinned on your masterpiece. Let them laugh at your hopeless artistic talents.

Ask students to guess what the drawing is, or what it’s about. Elicit the topic of your lesson from them. If possible, give them a drawing task to get them talking.

Be firm with them.

I’ve often been in situations where I had to tell a class of adults, some of whom were ten years my seniors, to put more effort into their class participation. Never rake students over the coals for not adhering to your class rules. Some of them do it unintentionally, and a small reminder of the house rules would suffice. But with other students you might have to use a stern tone. However, you must never confront troublesome students in front of their classmates.

You’ll often find that long-term students will start slacking on their homework and their attendance begins to dwindle. Start by asking them if something’s troubling them. They might be suffering from low morale, or perhaps they’re stressed about their upcoming test. Be their coach and help them find ways to boost their confidence and get them back on track.

Grow a thick skin

Brace yourself for the worst kind of students. Students can turn nasty and act disrespectfully in class. I’ve had this problem even with adult learners. You’ll also get the occasional ‘wet blanket’ and the ‘smart ass’ that everyone hates. Whatever they do or say, don’t take it to heart. Growing a thick skin will come in handy once you start teaching teenagers.

Always remember that it is your duty, as a teacher, to teach, but it is the student’s responsibility to digest the knowledge that you bestow on them.


Lana Del Rey: Drugs, Sex, and the American Dream

Photographer:  Nicole Nodland

Source of picture: http://www.stereogum.com

She takes to the stage with an air of dreamy languor about her, wearing a loose sweater over a pair of jeans. But her videos portray her as a sophisticated hedonist, living life as if it were a work of art.

Before gaining fame with her debut single Video Games, Elizabeth Grant was merely an aspiring singer and songwriter striving to fulfill her American Dream. While the launch of the album Born to Die has catapulted Del Rey’s popularity across continents, her songs are not exactly in congruence with this sense of accomplishment. She breaks through the veneer of the American Dream and invites us into the world of drugs, gambling and uninhibited sexual fantasies.

Del Rey gives us an image of a charismatic young woman, living off rich men’s money while spoiling them with her sexual prowess. She falls in love, but it always seems to happen in the wrong place or at the wrong time. There are no ordinary love songs in the album, but rather Born to Die deals with a continuous soul-searching journey, where the persona tries to find true love in a world of hedonism, vanity and greed.

Despite the album’s depiction of bleakness that America seems to hold for aspiring artists, Del Rey exhibits a strong sense of national pride in her music. References to the star-spangled banner and American rock icons crop up in most of her songs. Perhaps it’s America’s overt sexual freedom that fuels Del Rey’s tribute to her homeland. One can easily deduce that Del Rey’s songs are generally about casual sex, but only if the listener fails to acknowledge the singer’s idea of sex being a way of exercising one’s freedom.

Del Rey’s low, smoky voice, underlined by a strong sense of wistfulness and nostalgia, takes listeners on a trip down memory lane. Her lyrics evoke the carefree youth in all of us, reminding us of those long summer days we spent getting high on drugs, booze, and wild sex.


Lessons learnt in Morocco

Trekking along the Atlas Mountains.

Earlier this month I decided to take a break from teaching. I felt that students’ demands and my obligations as a teacher were not giving me enough time to focus on my writing career. It was a tough decision, mainly due to financial reasons. Finding markets to write for is easy enough, but penetrating them is the hardest task for any writer.

I wrote a few articles and applied for some online writing gigs. And then I waited, and waited a bit more, until the day arrived for me to pack my trekking gear and head to Morocco. Overwhelmed with anxiety and anticipation, I swallowed my travel pill and hoped, for the umpteenth time, that I had done the right thing. This was the first time that I was travelling outside of Europe, away from the metropolitan cities that I had grown accustomed to.

My trip to Morocco has been an eye-opener on many levels. I was pulled out of my comfort zone and thrown into a completely different culture. But for the first time in months, I felt awake. I was acutely aware of anything going on around me; the bustle of reckless driving, the stench of sewage merged with the poignant aroma of spices, the cries of old beggars, and the silent suffering of overloaded mules. Strangely enough, I found beauty in desolate huts, grimy cafes, arid landscapes and the rural shanty towns.

My trekking experience in Morocco has boosted my spiritual growth.  The highlight of the trip was my attempt to climb Mount Toubkal. That day arrived, and with it came one of the most challenging experiences of my life. I hadn’t imagined that traversing the highest mountain in North Africa was going to require so much physical strength and endurance.  The high altitude sickness, the strong wind gusts and the biting cold pulled me down.  The path was never-ending. I contemplated turning back, but even the way back down seemed disheartening. It was too cold to stop for a rest. My only option was to carry on, semi-conscious, towards the summit.

The day I stood on top of North Africa was the day that I realised my true potential. For years I had underestimated my willpower, put a limit to every single thing I did and never dared to venture beyond those boundaries. But the mountain spoke to me. She watched me scramble up the rocky slopes and getting battered by the dusty winds. Her words were stern and they lacked empathy, but she is after all an ancient mother endowed with unmatched wisdom.

“Keep going,” she said, “You’ll have an amazing story to tell.”


Why I love October

I live in a country where summer rolls in like a slow tide, and then, suddenly, it hits our shores with an overwhelming bang. The postcard image of ‘a magical summer’ that you read about in holiday brochures is spoiled by overcrowded beaches, evening traffic jams, parking nightmares, promenades overflowing with tourists, heat strokes, jellyfish-infested waters, humid nights, and men walking around town in speedos.

But thankfully, summer in Malta starts around mid-April, when the strawberry season is at its peak, and runs up until mid-November as the first Christmas decorations start to appear in shop windows. So as school children file through the school gate and the last of the severely sunburnt tourists board a plane home, I can finally welcome the start of MY summer with a long-awaited sigh of relief.  And it all starts in October.

October is the month when I can find a comfortable spot on the beach to stretch out and enjoy the milder intensity of the sun’s rays.  It’s also that time of year when I can resume my evening power walks along the promenade without having to weave my way through the idle crowd.

However, October is not only about relishing the last glow of summer.  On a more personal level, October marks the beginning of new projects and commitments.  I find inspiration in the sudden tranquility that befalls the island. The land slowly recovers from the blistering summer heat and starts to flaunt its bright green foliage.  Malta’s magic is restored. And while this shift takes place, my favourite fruit comes along.

October is when I return to my ‘pomegranate ritual’: scooping out hundreds of the fruit’s ruby seeds into bowls and sitting down to watch the new episodes of The Vampire Diaries.

And the main reason why I love October so dearly?

Halloween.


Meeting the real zombies

Source of picture: http://uk.movies.yahoo.com

Two summers ago I had the opportunity to participate in what promises to be one of this year’s blockbusters.  When I got the phone call from the casting department to join the team of extras in World War Z, I wasn’t exactly eager to accept the offer.  It was towards the end of June, and the sweltering summer days had already started.  The prospect was made more daunting upon discovering that I would be dressed in a long-sleeved tunic and a veil.  But then again, being an extra in a popular production was something that I had always dreamed of, and so far every opportunity that had come knocking at my door had to be turned down due to the unfortunate clash with exam period.  After cogitating on the options over a few bowls of ice-cream, I decided it was high time that I stepped out of my comfort zone and did something a little bit ‘extraordinary’.

The seven days that followed have been the longest in my life so far.  The alarm used to go off at half past three in the morning, and by five I would be having breakfast with the rest of the extras at the assembly point.  Queuing at the costume department to have the veil securely pinned around my head was always a bit cumbersome, especially on those occasions when the effect of that strong cup of coffee wouldn’t have yet kicked in.  All extras used to be transported to the filming location by seven, but sometimes shooting wouldn’t  even have started until after lunchtime.  However, I was lucky enough to befriend a group of nice people, whose wonderful company made those long hours in the extras’ resting area waiting to be called on set more bearable.

Despite being shot in different locations around Valletta, we were always instructed to carry out the same action; run, scream, and run even faster.  But there was nothing to run from, and yet, some  were roughly jostled out of the way, ankles were sprained and twisted, and the weak got trampled on.

The day the special effects and a group of stuntmen were brought in was the day that left me feeling completely drained and disheartened to return on set the following day.  But as the evening sun shed its last golden rays on the fortresses bordering Malta’s panoramic Grand Harbour, and our coaches arrived at the gate to take us back to the preparation hall, we were duly informed that the filming was completely over. My heart sank.  I collected my time-sheet and bid the final goodbye to the place that had become my home for almost a whole week.

As I tucked myself into bed that night with my sore legs propped up,  I couldn’t stop replaying the day’s events in my head. The buses used on the set were forcefully toppled over and dragged for about five metres behind the sprinting crowd. Their windows shattered into thousands of sugar pieces at our feet. Helicopters circled above us, their deafening roars drowning our staged screams.  I jumped out of my skin at the series of shots fired by the soldiers surrounding us. At 8pm the assistant director finally called it a day. The set had been dismantled. My adventure was regretfully over.

Needless to say, the start of this summer was marked by my anticipation for the film’s premier. The day had finally arrived, but when I checked the schedule at the local cinemas, I was immediately struck by sheer disappointment and fury.   The film was out in 3D in all cinemas. As much as I had been excited to watch World War Z on the big screen, I was not willing to spend at least a good two hours battling against motion sickness. I managed to curtail my excitement for another two weeks until the 2D version came out. However, every second of the film was worth the long wait.

Fear clawed my heart. I sank into my seat, dreading whatever was about to happen next. A sense of doom engulfed me.  I witnessed terror in a fictional scenario, but something about the film made the horror feel extremely palpable. The film’s revolutionary take on the ‘zombie look’ has the potential to inject the audience with a new dose of fear.

Although the film follows a similar zombie formula to recent films and series based on the same paranormal subject, the zombies’ amplified agility and otherworldly strength in World War Z shocks us. The abnormal becomes outrageous. Our familiarity with this particular ‘Other,’ attained from previous zombie films, is completely erased. We are now dealing with an indestructible and destructible force, and humanity is on the verge of annihilation. This is the real terror of horror films. It doesn’t lie in unrelenting poltergeists, demonic possessions, black magic, or real hauntings. The zombies in the film represent an unforeseen and uncontrollable global crises. Just like the plague, it is a threat to our survival – a fear rooted in our primal instinct.