Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Hunger Games in Switzerland #5

I must kill 24 people in a Swiss reality TV show, or they will cut off my supply of pizza, beer, and wine. My name is Andrew Girardin. This is my story.

Previously on The Hunger Games - #1 "It begins" - #2 "Milk" - #3 Elevators - #4 A Guest

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Comicopia

My Monday evening class finished last week, and at the end of the lesson they said they had something for me. It was a thank-you card and a voucher for 50 francs, to be spent in the nearby Analph Comics.

Wow! A bonus for doing my job! Now I know what it feels like to work for a bank.

To thank them, I have written this blog post in the style of the CAE ( Certificate of Advanced English ) - the exam they just took.

# # #
In this part of the test, write an article about one of the following:

1) Spending other people's money is more fun than spending your own
2) When buying comics, quantity is more important than quality
3) Zurich is expensive but there are bargains to be had
# # #

When buying comics, quantity is more important than quality
by Andrew Girardin

Less is more, goes the old saying. But on the other hand, sometimes more is more. When my students gave me a voucher for 50 francs, I decided to take the opportunity to find out which really is more: less, or more.

In Analph, you can buy Watchmen for 52 francs. Watchmen is a stunning book that happens to be half graphic novel. It's listed in Time magazine's top 100 novels of all time. It's never far from a superlative - seminal, phenomenal, astonishing. Spending 52 francs on Watchmen is a guaranteed return on investment.

However, I already own Watchmen, just as I already own the Scott Pilgrim series and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

So even if I'd wanted to go for quality over quantity, there was nothing in Analph that tickled my fancy.

This made me consider the alternative - buying the greatest number of comics while trying to maintain a decent level of quality. Fortunately I found Analph's half-price section and was able to achieve this goal.
Robots in my eyes
First, I found a Classic Transformers compilation. I grew up loving Transformers and while I now recognise that the plots centre around robots shouting 'I am the number you cannot compute, Decepticon!' and creating huge robots with silly names - Omega Prime, Devastator, Superion - it makes me feel a bit more like a kid, and for me that's a mark of quality.
A page from My Brain is Hanging Upside Down

Next I liked the style of a large hardback called 'My Brain is Hanging Upside Down'. The name was charming and I liked the tiny cute little panels. However, when I got home and had a closer look, I found some of the images disturbing and weird. Still, at half price it was a good deal and some cute girls I met on the way home liked it.

My final selection from the half-price section was a book which turned out to be a collection of comics from a website called Basic Instructions. It doesn't look much, but it's very funny. I laughed a lot at this one, so that's great value.

So far my choices had come to about 42 francs, and I doubted they would give me change from the voucher. So on a whim I picked up (at full price) Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. This is the 'prequel' to Making Comics, which I already have. They're basically in-depth guides to erm... understanding and making comics and, brilliantly, they are entirely in comic form. Making Comics really is a masterpiece and I hope Understanding Comics is as good.

On the way to the counter I saw a bundle of comics under a table. They were packets of 20 random comics for 3 francs a pack! At those prices, I could buy 50 comics for the price of a packet of cigarettes! At 3 francs a pack, more was more. I bought three.

The random comics really were random, ranging from the famous (Batman, Lara Croft, Sin City) to the utterly obscure (Night Swim, Sword Assassin). So far I've read three - Gunfighters in Hell (which could be/probably are the angry sketches of a pubescent serial killer), Flash and Green Lantern Go Camping (and it's very camp), and an interesting one from a guy called Ed Brubaker.

I ended up with a cornucopia of comics. Look:

The whole bunch (64 individual comics) came to 79 francs. So, thanks to my generous students, I only had to stump up 29 francs for a sofa-full of comics.

I needed two carrier bags to get them home, and I believe the very fact of carrying two bags of comics - something I had never previously experienced - was far more satisfying than buying two little graphic novels for the same price.

In conclusion, I believe this experience has shown that when buying comics, more is more.
estimated CAE grade - 5

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Pioneering Teaching Techniques

Pioneering Teaching Techniques

I've been a teacher for a while now, and being somewhat creative, have come up with some teaching techniques you won't find in manuals. (Unless you have a manual from the future, where everything I do is revered and copied).

1. Balloon slapping

In Shanghai, one problem in lessons was getting students to stick to English. Of course, it's quicker if they just explain things to each other in Chinese, but if they use English, they both learn on a deeper level. He who teaches, learns, and all that. So I insist on English (unless I can't be bothered or don't like the students).

My solution in China was to draw my face on a balloon. It had a speech bubble saying 'Speak English!'
Then I raced across the room and slapped them on the head every time they spoke Chinese. 
Effectiveness: low.

2. Handrew

I'm not allowed to slap my Swiss students with a balloon. It's in my contract. So when they speak German or make mistakes on grammar points I've explained to them ten times already, what can I do?

Student: "I am living in Zurich since five years."
Me: (internally): "Jesus H. Christ!"
Me: (externally):  "Sigh. Didn't we do that grammar in the first lesson? What's that?" I've lifted my hand to my ear and I'm making it talk like a naked sock puppet. "What's that? I DID teach them that? In the first lesson?" To the student: "This is Handrew. He says to try again."
Student: (nervously looking at my hand): "I am living in Zurich... for five years?"
Me: "Sigh. It's better, I guess. Oh, wait!" The hand was whispering to me again. "What's that? It's better, but still unacceptable? I can't say that to them! I'm sure they'll learn it eventually!"

Effectiveness: High.

3. Musical Feedback

Fact is, students make mistakes and there's nothing you can do about it. After correcting the same mistakes the thousandth time some cog in your brain snaps. It's the cog that limits how often you sing in classes.

a)"Today, students, every time you make a mistake, I will make this noise: Du-du-du-DU-duuuuh, I'm lovin' it. You might recognise that as the McDonald's jingle. I can't stop you making mistakes, but I can make you associate mistakes with going to McDonald's, and maybe you'll end up healthier."

Geniusness: Very high.
Drawbacks: I went to get a Big Mac after the lesson. The urge was overpowering.

b) "Today, students, every time you do something good, I will sing a classic song. Every time you make a mistake, I will sing something horrible."
Students: "Okay. Giggle."

One second later.
Student: "I am not good in grammar."
Me: "No, no, no no no no, no no no no, no no there's no limit!"
Student: "Sorry! I mean good at. Good at grammar."

Shortly after:
Student: "I'm not used to working on Saturday."
Me (happy): "Gold! Always believe in your soul!"
Student: "Ah! I think I finally understand that whole used to thing."

Student: "It depends of the price."
Me: "Alli-alli-andro alli-alli-andro!"
Student (relieved): "Oh, good."
Me: "No!"
Student (confused): "What?"
Me (confused): "What?"
Student: "Why are you stopping me?"
Me: "You made a mistake!"
Student: "But you said if I got it wrong you'd sing a bad song!"
Me: "I did! Listen! Alli-alli-andro!"
Student: "I like that song! It's fun!"
Me: "Gaaaaaaah!"

Effectiveness: high at first, quickly falling to low slash counter-productive.

4. Mocksasperation

I'm always pleased when students thank me for my patience. I mean, I guess one is forced to be patient when they never, ever, ever learn anything I ever tell them.
But I also have fun being mock exasperated.

There's a sketch I remember from a movie (Naked Gun?) or a British comedy series (The Fast Show?) where a tough cop is arguing with his hard-nosed police chief. The boss takes his sunglasses off in exasperation - the joke being that he takes them off again and again despite having had no time to put them back on.

I do a similar thing, but with a pen.

Student: "I didn't have made my housework."
Me: Throws pen on table in disgust.
Student: "I mean... I didn't had DID my housework."
Me: Picks up pen, then throws it to the table in disgust again.
(Repeat endlessly until payday.)

Also useful are noises such as 'tut', 'God!', 'sigh', and letting your head roll back till it faces the ceiling. Sometimes I pick up the attendance sheet (it has almost zero information about the class content) and say 'Didn't we do this like 8 times already? Ah yes, lesson 1, present perfect. Lesson 2, present perfect. Lesson 3...'

5. Mumbling the answer

Student: 'I live here since nineteen seven eight.' 
I shake my head (or roll my eyes or tut or some such) and say, 'uh uh-HUH-hu hu huEE-hu-huh.' (That's what 'I have lived here since 1978' sounds like when you don't open your mouth.) They normally laugh and say 'what?!' So I repeat it. Given the stress pattern of the sentence, they are almost always able to say it right.

6. Extreme Sloth

Extreme Sloth takes various forms.
* To save the energy it takes to turn around and write on the whiteboard, I stay in my chair and write backwards over my head. The results are normally just about legible. I'm convinced the students learn the word better this way because they spend more mental energy trying to work out what I've written. Or something.

* I don't even correct common mistakes any more. I write them on the board at the start of the lesson and just point to them.

Italian student: "I 'ad a good time."
Me: Points to a ten-inch high H.
Italian student: "I hhhad a good time."

* Making them give themselves homework.
Me: "So what homework are you going to do?"
Student: "How about unit 5 in the Fun Book?"
Me: "Deal."

* Making them correct other student's homework.
Student: "Isn't this your job?"
Me: "You've got 5 minutes. Go."

7. Making it Fun

The simplest way to make lessons fun is to rename the grammar book 'The Fun Book'. 
Me: "Open your Fun Book to page ten!"
Students: (Smile happily.)

Feel free to use these techniques in your own class!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Hunger Games in Switzerland #4

I must kill 24 people in a Swiss reality TV show, or they will cut off my supply of pizza, beer, and wine. My name is Andrew Girardin. This is my story.

Previously on The Hunger Games - #1 "It begins" - #2 "Milk" - #3 Elevators

Samantha Lawrence's Tumblr page.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

What I Did On My Birthday

Birthdays have always been lame reminders of our own mortality - until now! For I have invented and perfected a fun concept that makes growing old, fat, and bald memorable and fun. I call it 'Going to bars that spell my name.' And this year, for the first time, I extended the concept to include restaurants.

So we started at the Mexican restaurant Amigos (sometimes called Tres Amigos) in Oerlikon, then moved on to News Bar, then D-Vino, Rio, El Lokal, and ended up in Double U. Most of these places were ace, but two ended up on my fast-growing list of boycotted places. Here's how it went:

Tres Amigos: The day had started well when the sun came up and decided to burn Zurich to a crisp. It was the last game of the season for FC Hard Seniors (who I play for because I'm old). We won 5-0 and I scored the decisive fifth goal. At Amigos, we had an outside table in the shade. So far, so perfect.

My soccering exertions had left me tanned and wispy-haired. I looked frikkin great and ordered Anna to take a photo of me. This photo has been lost forever, because Cecile grabbed the camera, roared 'Cecile smash!' and dashed it against the ground. The photos you see here were taken on phones, so the quality may vary.
As usual, the food and service in Amigos was good. I recommend the cheese-rich chicken burrito.

Train: 6 of us trained it to the city centre while Lisa went on her scooter. The train gods decided this trip should include an extended delay. This happens in Zurich about twice a year. It wasn't too bad though, until Cecile started showing off her elbow abnormality. Basically, her elbows pivot in any direction, so she can look like something from a horror movie. See for yourself:

You'll see this in your nightmares. Don't ever sleep.
Seeing this for the first time, Cecile's boyfriend Nick began rethinking if he wanted to marry her, and we started discussing whose friend I would be when they broke up. Nick won the debate by saying, "If you choose me, I can give you all the real dirt about Cecile." I can't wait till they break up!

News Bar: Manuel and Stephanie were there already, and Lisa had scooted there ahead of us. Tory's friend Maria joined us and we quickly merged some tables together and started chatting. It was still a glorious evening and everything was going swimmingly. 
News Bar - 7 Year boycott ends June 3rd, 2019
After fifteen minutes without service, I went inside and gently told the waitress that we were there. She said she'd be out right away. Fifteen minutes later, she came outside, took some ashtrays from the other tables, got to within two feet of our large, thirsty group, then legged it back inside. We were all astonished, but too thirsty for booze to find it funny or charming. So we left. News Bar is now blacklisted and I've started a 7-year boycott, similar to the punishment meted out to Henrici.

D-Vino: The contrast with News Bar couldn't have been greater. "Come in! Sit down!" said the waiter, eager to take money from us in exchange for goods and services. "Can we sit outside?" I asked. "But of course! Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to move all these tables for your large group." "So can I get a drink from you or should I order inside?" "It's table service! We'll come to you and take care of you! All you have to do is sit down, relax, and let us make your stay at D-Vino starkly, almost comically the opposite of what happened at News Bar."

And so it was. The service was amazing and with drinks freely flowing, the quality of silliness improved greatly. Highlights included an extended wine-glass-music jam, a hen party trying to get men to kiss the bride-to-be, who sadly looked like a pig in a nappy, and Cecile refusing to give me some of the chocolate cake she ordered because I'd chosen to side with Nick after their inevitable separation.

(Cecile refutes this version of events, and insists that I point out that the chocolate cake is divine and you should buy chocolate cake when you go to D-Vino. It's warm and comes with ice cream.)

Making music

Rio: Great music, hot barwoman. I gave her a big tip and told her it was because she danced while making my drink. But it wasn't. It was because she was hot. 

Manuel's elegant descent into drunkenness became a freefall - his Vodka Red Bull was four times bigger than normal (at the same price). Two police vans turned up, and then an ambulance, because something had happened at the nearby river. But the ambulance made a mistake and drove the wrong way, and returned five minutes later. "They're too late, everybody's dead now," said Manuel, and everyone gaped at him. None of us had ever heard Manuel say anything mean, ever, and seeing our astonishment he covered his mouth with his hands and tried to blame it on the vodka. Then he slipped into a gloriously unconstrained fit of giggles, captured in this photo:
"I hope they find the heads! Giggle!"
"Where are we going next?" asked Anna.
"El Lokal," said Josu, who had joined us, and who had actually read the schedule and understood it.
"!!!" Anna said with her face.
"Oh, there's a totally hot bar dude there. His ass is just ..." She mimed squeezing his ass. If Anna did get her hands on an ass and squeeze with that force, the ass would quickly be reduced to a fruity pulp and lose its sex appeal. Anyway, we were all intrigued and wanted to see the object of her affection for ourselves.

El Lokal: Great music again. More fun silliness. Then a tall, thin man walked past. He had long, greasy hair and a grumpy air. If you took the worst parts of Shaggy (from Scooby Doo), Professor Snape, and an unreconstructed caveman, you'd get this guy. Anna's face quivered with excitement. Josu's face stretched in disbelief. "You're not serious?" he said. "That guy?!" Nick, Cecile, Florian, Manuel, and Lisa were equally bemused and amused.

Lisa: "If a guy walks in and looks like he has no home, he's for Anna."
Nick: "Anna, the good thing is it's not often you can use the pickup line: 'Hey, I have a shower.'"
Cecile: "You should go and talk to him. I don't think any other girl would be interested so your chances are good!"
Anna (after 7 minutes of non-stop teasing): "You know what? You guys are kind of pissing me off right now. I'm going to ruin Andrew's birthday by storming off in a huff."

I went outside and calmed her down, while, brilliantly, repeating all of the jokes everyone else had thought up. When Anna is 95% angry, the fastest way to calm her down is to raise her anger level to 100%, because at that point she resets and goes right down to zero. It's pretty fascinating.

Kebab interlude: We had kebabs in the Niederdorf. Fake vegetarian Cecile took a bite out of my meat kebab when she thought I wasn't looking.

Double U: I had the choice of ending here or at Wings. Wings is your typical pretentious Zurich bar. It has the admittedly cool feature of having loads of equipment from the old Swiss Air, so some of the chairs are plane seats and that kind of thing.

But I chose Double U because it's one of the dive-iest places in Zurich. Or so I thought. In fact, not only had they cleaned the floor, improved the lighting, and added the coldest air-conditioner in human history, but drinks were normal price. In fact, they added 2 francs 'because it was after midnight.' What the fuck? Insane. Let the boycott begin! Still, we had fun.

Anna showing how many francs extra she had to pay
While I was trying to lecture everyone about why Dolph Lundgren is hugely underrated, why Rocky 4 is one of the three movies from our era that will still be watched in a thousand years, and why scoring the fifth goal in a 5-0 win is technically scoring the winning goal, Cecile kept going 'Speech!' 'Speech!' although with her accent it sounded like 'Sperch!'

I tapped the side of my ripoff caipirinha a few times and my friends fell silent. 
"I talked to Lisa today about hiring her restaurant and having my next party in there. We could fit 50 people in and have great food and it'd be awesome. But then I thought, are there fifty people in Zurich who I actually like? And the answer is no. Because you guys here are my best friends, and there's no-one I'd rather have at my party than you. And even if I live to be a thousand years old, I will always say, you guys have made this the best ripoff caipirinha I have ever had. Cheers."

There was complete silence. The silence was broken by the sound of flesh hitting flesh, and I looked up to see that Nick had started a slow handclap. Florian joined in, and then the others, and it grew faster and louder, and I realised the entire bar had joined in.
I wept a tear from my eye, and reduced the boycott on Double U bar from 2 years to 18 months. It was that kind of night.