Happy Christmas!



An electronic jingle and the shouted, untuneful emissions of an amplified line of 3-year-old girls wakes me from a jet-lagged doze. They are dressed in deep red velvet mini-dresses that flare out at the top of their chubby thighs, and knee length tight white boots (long white boots, I was told by an informed Australian male only five days previously, are definitely classed as 'root me boots'). A crowd gathers in a wide circle around the little darlings and at the end of each series of noises there is much clapping and cheering. It's America (a departure lounge in LA airport)! And it's Christmas! Middle-aged women are wearing sweatshirts decorated with Father Christmases, presents, pine trees and reindeer, and even the airhostesses have special Christmas sweaters. Little old ladies in the Chicago's sharp and sunny cold streets are wearing Christmas tree brooches.

But I am not complaining, in fact I'm quite enjoying it all as a sharp contrast to my non-Christmases the previous two years, where December 25th was spent in China and in Jordan, and even the year before that, where I was too submerged in my job in the UK to notice Christmas preparations or atmosphere, and spent Christmas day itself in the 'non-time' of a flight between London and Sydney, arriving on the morning of Boxing Day, the 25th having somehow elapsed between time zones. In Sydney for the last several weeks, well-dressed office girls have tottered in Santa hats on the platforms at the metropolitan railway stations and stumbled in full fancy-dress along the streets in the light afternoons of summer (though the weather has been rather dismaying and extremely changeable - it is one of the coldest Decembers on record in many parts of Australia, and Sydney was hit by a good week of fierce winds and heavy electric storms earlier in the month). And there has been a real feeling of celebration, which I have enjoyed, especially over my last few days in Australia, where I have been spending happy times with family and friends new and old.

It was a relief to finish my English language teaching course on Saturday just gone, and to follow it with several relaxing hours in the Rocks (Sydney's 'historic' area, close to the shore and the centre of the city, which is packed with shiny shops, street performers, and real pubs more than 150 years old!) with members of the group I was in on the course. Vani, Fiona, Anthony, Cathy, Zsuzsanna and I had all enjoyed it and been impressed with the quality of the teaching, and had got on well with each other. I would recommend the CELTA (Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults) course to anyone looking for a stimulating change, and the centre where I took the course (Australian TESOL Training Centre in Bondi Junction) is highly regarded in Australia. There is a lot to learn in a short time! I have come away with the feeling that I now have the tools to actually be a good teacher. I don't think I had previously appreciated how there can be ways to make the teaching of language points, vocabulary, listening, reading, writing and conversation really effective. And I have realized just how poor a teacher I must have been in China last year………. Yes, I am now a qualified English teacher, raring to use my newly acquired skills and knowledge! I am toying with the idea of getting some professional experience in the New Year - but I am not sure it would be the best use of my time, from a 'needing to get the book finished' point of view……

The poor book has suffered rather these last few months. While the CELTA course was 'part-time', it was still very intensive - and time consuming! No-one on the course had a full time and demanding 'white collar' job at the same time: there were people working in jobs they didn't care about, or part time, or on shifts, or running their own businesses so able to be a bit flexible. I think it would be possible to complete the course with a full time job, but during those twelve weeks you really would have to kiss your social life completely goodbye. And I have had a few other distractions (some most welcome, like visits from Alexa - who has been almost everywhere I have, now! And from my parents and Richard) to prevent a concentrated effort on writing. But let me get back to my book. I have written a bit more (it is now about 200 pages long, I suppose), I've read some more, organized a bit, and can now see most of what probably needs to be written for the text to be roughly 'complete'. I go through phases of hating it and feeling very shy of ever letting any of you read any of it, and at other times I think it is ok. I am not sure it is publisher-worthy, but I concede that is something I can't know unless I try to find one. A couple of people have told me that the 'getting published' problem can be solved by merely getting an agent. But then, how do I get an agent? Is that hard too? If I just go to the yellow pages, how do I get a good one? And I do quite like the idea of approaching a few publishers myself, though it is certainly not an easy task - I sense it is harder than say, getting a new job by knocking on doors when you don't know if the company needs someone like you and probably doesn't. Our kind friend Isabel Theunissen has been on a course about how to get published, and has offered to supply me with tips for putting together an effective book proposal - anyone else with suggestions of either what to do or what NOT to do when it comes to communicating with publishers, please do send them my way!

But before the book can be finished I need to do a leetle bit more research - honest! It's involving me being in Syria and Jordan for the first half of January, to collect the recipes from my friends that I made there two years ago. I was very excited to receive an email from my Syrian friend Kasim yesterday evening, saying that his family is looking forward to seeing me again. I hope I can find my Bedouin friends in Jordan too! At least for them I do have a telephone number - if it still works… Getting my Syrian visa in Sydney a few weeks ago was an amusing experience - especially in contrast to the austere and forbidding nature of the consular office in the basement of the Syrian Embassy mansion in central London, where in September 1999 I was grilled on other passports, visits to Israel, etc. In Australia first of all I could not find the telephone number anywhere - in phone books, directory services, or on the Internet. But there is a Lebanese embassy to Australia with a consulate in Sydney (lots and lots of Lebanese immigrants) and they provided me the phone number for their neighbours the Syrians. I phoned the number, and it was a doctor's surgery! I thought I had the wrong number, but no, the vice-consul to Australia is an honorary position, and the man's primary profession is medicine. I was told the hours for consular activity, and made my way to suburban Arncliffe by train, arriving in cool rain armed with my new umbrella. The surgery was close to the station, just up from a couple of Arab grocery stores - I bought a box of dates imported from the Arab Emirates on the way in, and some green olives, okra and cheese on my way out again. Inside I sat among the sick (all ethnic Arabs) having filled out the form and submitted the photograph and passport, until I was called in to a room next to the consultation room. A friendly Lebanese woman, who is married to an Egyptian, stamped my visa in, then went next door between patients to get the Vice-Consul's requisite signature. I can only assume that he is actually Syrian. She was impressed that I was going to Syria on holiday, and encouraged me - but then said that she herself was considering cancelling her annual trip home this year in light of the American war!

And given the trip to Syria and Jordan is a necessity for geographic roundedness for my book, I had no real excuses to Levy and Alexa's suggestion that I join them in Sinai for new year - so while I am arriving in England on Christmas Eve, I will be flying out again (this time to Cairo) on the 30th. It's an easy ferry ride from Sinai to Jordan.

But why this feeling of urgency regarding finding publishers and finishing writing? It's not just because of my desire to get a move on, generally, but because I am spending at least six months of next year living in Mongolia! I'll be working in a consulting capacity for a non-government organization that helps women starting businesses. Some of you have heard this news already - I've scribbled messages in some of my first Christmas cards for years, and I am indebted to three of you for providing references at extremely short notice. On October 31st I found a website for a programme called 'Australian Youth Ambassadors in Development', which funds assignments in developing countries (mostly Australia's close neighbours, like PNG and Vanuatu, but also as far away as Nepal) for Australians under 30. I just qualify! They were advertising positions available for the next intake, which commences in March 2002. But completed applications (with references) had to reach Adelaide (South Australia) by Friday November 2nd! First there was the issue of deciding which job to apply for - interestingly in Mongolia, the country I most wanted to spend time in, there were 3 or 4 assignments for which I had arguably the relevant skills and experience to be able to undertake them with some chance of being effective. I picked one that was 12 months long that looked perhaps the easiest, and spent a day of intense concentration writing five or six pages as to why I should get that job and how well I matched its requirements and the general requirements for anyone on the programme (there are no formal interviews). I leaned on my friends for rapid production of references, and got photographs taken, and degree certificate copies certified.

I must suppose that I can be convincing, as three weeks later I received a telephone call that I was being nominated for a position in Mongolia - but not the one I had originally applied for! The organization is called the Federation of Mongolian Business and Professional Women (in English), and the assignment is only for six months, with a possible extension of one month. My role looks general - I won't say vague! I spoke to the Mongolians last week, in particular one of my colleagues to be called Boyortula, which, she tells me, translates as 'Crystal Glitter'! That's quite a name! Boyortula was friendly and excited that I am coming - but could not really elaborate much on the job description as it had been submitted to AYAD, since it was written by the woman that she has replaced! It meant at least, that my arrival was taken as given rather than being dependent on further discernment from the organization itself. The boss speaks little English, and has a couple of further activities consuming her time: she is involved in politics (few Mongolian women hold political positions at this stage, despite them making up 66% of the graduate population), and she has her own business that involves some interaction with China. So perhaps I may get the chance to put my Chinese into practice, also! My role as it seems to be described requires me to provide them help in developing a new strategic plan for the organization, and I hope implementing at least some of it before I leave! I will of course find out more once I get there. Several of you have already expressed interest in visiting Mongolia while I am there - great!!! I am not yet sure exactly what date we depart Australia (there are about eight other positions in Mongolia for the March intake), but I will be there for sure by mid-April……

And for the next three days I am in Chicago - having a wonderful time catching up with Kim, my best friend from my days in the USA which now seem like the dim and distant past. As I told Kim last night, she now qualifies as an 'old friend', it was so long ago! We've just come back from lunch, experiencing a delicious development in fast food chains (apparently owned by MacDs…) which is 'Chipotle' - made to measure burritos and tacos. The air feels clean and crisp (if a lot colder than Sydney!), and Kim lives in a huge old apartment on the tenth floor of what used to be a hotel, right next to Lake Michigan. Her garage is the old ballroom - first car park I have ever seen with moulding work on the ceiling. Tonight we are going to the cinema to see 'The Lord of the Rings' at my request - I need to do some catching up on popular culture, having embarrassed myself recently by asking 'who's Billy Elliott?'! It doesn't feel much like America is at war here, but the resurgence of patriotism following the terrorist attacks is evident in the American flags flying from every car aerial and there are some signs of the recession. Methinks I'll help them along in the next couple of days by doing a bit of shopping.

Happy Christmas everyone and I hope you all have fruitful and happy 2002s. I will be in the UK in the third week of January hoping to catch up with people there then, and back in Australia by the end of January, in time to start getting ready for Mongolia! That's probably when we'll put up the next batch of content on the web site, so between now and then please do stay in touch!

Lots of love

The tiles on this page come from the the Mir-i-Arab Medresseh, Bukhara, Uzbekistan. |Click here to view the original photo|