2015: A Brief Blast Back Through the Year Fantastical…

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2015: thanks and ta-ra to the Year Fantastic…

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2015! Whoa! Yeah, that happened. Way back on New Year’s Day I doodled up a unicorn and, with a hopeful spirit, hailed 2015 as the ‘Year Fantastical’. Turns out that it lived up to that title and then some. From my perspective, it’s been a pretty damn fantastic and quite incredible year.

So much happened in 2015 and I feel like I’ve done a lot, experienced a lot and learned a lot. Come the end point where we get all reflective and retrospective (it’s customary and inevitable) I’m struck by how ‘big’ and full of stuff this year seems. I’ve got so many memories of moments streaming through my mind and from all of them flow a multitude of thoughts and feelings. Some people say that I think and feel too much (tsk and hush, you people!) but, hey, I can be no other way. Plus, thinking and feeling are what make us human beings and what make us realise that we’re alive. The alternative is living on autopilot and if you’re living on autopilot you’re probably not engaging with life and consciously appreciating it. Hey! Life! Existence! Appreciate it!

So then, here I am thinking and feeling over 2015 and appreciating it before we say ta-ra. It’s been a year in which I thought and felt a lot. I smiled a lot. I cried a lot. (It was the death of Spock, the Norwegian Eurovision entry and Inside Out) I had triumphs and I also had some disappointments, but the good stuff far outweighs the bad bits. I’ll focus on the good in this brief personal look-back, ’cause there’s no point me dwelling on the crappy and/or grave bits here. (Though I will give a shout-out to several late, great cultural icons and my all-time favourite t-shirt which is lost somewhere in Italy. *sighs* I miss ’em all.)

Off the top of my head, here are some of the things I did and experienced that made 2015 genuinely awesome (as in they inspired awe and made me go “awwww!” or “awwww yeah!“): I got a tattoo; I levelled up as an English teacher by passing a CELTA course; I got to explore Dublin and Zürich among several other culture vulture trips; I took a train ride through the Swiss Alps; I saw what’s left of the Magna Carta; I got to enjoy la dolce vita over and over in bella Italia in places familiar and new (including Verona, Padova, Venice, hitherto unexplored sections of the Liguria coast and Emilia-Romagna to name a few); I went to the opera and enjoyed that experience in Verona’s ancient Roman arena; I became a hero to a whole new set of Italian children in Milano, Torino and the countryside near Padova; I composed the summer hit single that was ‘Pineapple Hands‘ and that became a minor cult phenomenon; I gave ‘Free Hugs’ on Valentine’s Day in the world’s most beautiful shopping arcade; I witnessed Italy’s biggest food fight – the all-out insanity that is Ivrea’s Battle of the Oranges.

I like this photo as an image to encapsulate the beauty, adventure and feeling of 2015...

Yeah, this photo sort of encapsulates the feeling and adventure flowing through 2015…

Throughout, I doodled like a demon and have spent most of the year with inky fingers. I also wrote some pretty good stuff and had a lot of fun working away at various creative projects. Daredevil , WiiU videogames and hanging with my family made home downtime a good time when I wasn’t off on (mis)adventures. Otherwise – turning to ‘important stuff’ and current affairs for a second – in spite of it all, there were progressive political and social moments in 2015 that gave me hope. The same goes for technology and science (there’s water on Mars!) and, sportswise,  I’ve been enjoying the Boston Celtics’ continued upward trajectory towards contender status.

Sonically speaking, my soundtrack to 2015 was mostly Dinosaur Pile-Up and Ghost and they gave me immense live shows to experience and brilliant new albums to crank to death. As for films, there have been so many superb movies released this year but my two favourites of 2015 were Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Mad Max: Fury Road. They beat all the rest for spiritual reasons, sentimental reasons and because they are stand-out supreme imaginative visions and masterpieces of cinematic storytelling.

I decided to close the year in suitable style by watching The Force Awakens again and that makes me even happier as I head into the future. Having had my nice nostalgia moment I’m now going to close this self-indulgent rear-view-mirror ramble. First though, before I hurl myself heart and soul into 2016, I’d like to hail all the human beings who shared the experiences and really made 2015 something special. I had a blast with both old friends and new friends this year and I’m grateful for all the energy, the companionship, the generosity and the niceness that people have directed my way over the past twelve months. It means a lot and I truly appreciate it. High-fives, hugs and ‘awww yeah!’s to everyone.

So, that was 2015 then, and thank you 2015. I say it’s high time we hit the New Year and moved on to the fresh adventures and experiences lying ahead in 2016. Awww yeah. I’m excited…

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Heart…

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Four Things I Learned on a Four Week Course to Become a Better English Teacher…

Remember when Antarctic explorer Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates said “I am just going outside and may be some time” and didn’t come back? Well, I said similar things around a month-and-a-half ago but, hey! I came back!

(Note: I’ve got doubts about Titus Oates’ death. They never found his body. Personally, I like to believe that Oates encountered Shoggoths outside and that they took him to the resting vaults of the Elder Things. There he discovered incredible extraterrestrial technology which he used to increase his longevity and radically alter his physical form. Neo-Oates is now 135-years-young and reigns over a subterranean krill kingdom beneath the South Pole. He will eventually come back – supported by his devout crustacean subjects – and you will know him by the whistling of his gills. Yes. Absolutely.)

Way back just a shade over a month-and-a-half ago I shut everything down and stepped outside because I had a mission. That mission: go through an intensive course to gain a CELTA qualification. Progress through and successfully pass a CELTA course and you acquire special skills and fresh status as an especially qualified, quite-excellent Teacher of English as a Foreign Language. I can break that down into an appealing, easy-to-understand 16-bit format: CELTA is like the power-up Super Leaf that transforms you from regular Mario to Tanooki-Suit Super Mario. Then you have a funky weaponised tail and the power to fly and with that ability you can reach the secret bonus areas hidden in the clouds and the roofs of the haunted castles of the Mushroom Kingdom.

In total, it was an intense month of giddily bouncing about on a quest to become a better teacher and sometimes it felt like Super Mario Bros. 3. (It was nothing like Super Mario Bros. 3. but I wanted to drag out the crap analogy for cohesion. Yeah, that wasn’t great. One thing I’m better at thanks to the course is necessary self-evaluation and I acknowledge that crap analogies are a weakness and I will strive to improve in this area.) I learned a lot about teaching English and mastered double-sided photocopying but I’m not going to regurgitate it all here. Instead, I’m putting down four particularly significant things I (re)learned over the four weeks for posterity. 1-2-3-4! Let’s go…

I really like full classes and I love teaching in a classroom possessed by the spirit of Professor Brian Cox... *awestruck smile...*

I really like full classes and I love teaching in a classroom possessed by the spirit of Professor Brian Cox… *awestruck smile…*

#1. Teaching is brilliant

I love teaching. Getting back to teaching action and returning to the classroom re-affirmed this and reminded me that I’m pretty good at it and have a lot of fun doing it. Give me a chance to craft lesson plans, create extra materials and assault a whiteboard and I will go all out and be a happy guy. What’s more, the other people in the room will have an engaging, stimulating experience and may even learn something. (I’ve failed if they don’t.)

To be involved in learning, to share knowledge and to actively play a role in other human beings’ developments is a beautiful thing and a privilege. Teaching is hard work, but it’s enjoyable and rewarding. Teaching a language is even more rewarding because you’re helping people to communicate, enhance a whole set of practical skills and potentially bridging cultural gaps (among many other things). I had a good time with the international ensemble of students during my teaching practice sessions and I’m psyched to get back teaching real students again as soon as possible. (Self-promo-moment: “I can help you with your English, whatever your needs are! For personalised assistance and tuition from a qualified and experienced mother tongue speaker, call now!” *thumbs up, cheesy smile*.)

I'm all about pizza and grammar lessons...

I’m all about pizza and grammar lessons…

#2. The English language is brilliant

The English language is rich, beautiful and endlessly fascinating. It is vast, dynamic and it can be played with and creatively handled to infinite ends. I knew that, but over the past few months I’ve been getting down to the nitty gritty and focusing on the fundamental mechanics of the language – not the fancy stuff I can do with all these words, words, words. I’m talking grammar, guys, and grammar is groovy. (*struts and clicks fingers at the beat of the drop of that full stop*)

I’ve been expanding my language awareness and will continue to study this stuff because it’s important and actually really interesting. It may be that I’m a bit affected after a lot of hardcore study. I mean, it’s been an intense period and there were moments where – deep in the cut-and-thrust of lesson planning – I started getting very (too) excited about pure modals, collocations and the Second Conditional. I realised that things were getting serious during a ‘conversation’ with a relative in which my contribution to the dialogue was nothing more than “Y’know, it’s interesting that you’re using the First and Second Conditional a lot.” And then there was another time – once upon a daydream – where I was musing on word classes and became aware that the word ‘adjective’ is in fact a noun. That must be a terrible identity crisis, poor thing. Imagine if your entire existence was built around the purpose of defining something that you are not and could never be. Only verbal nouns can be happy and free in this Universe, ordered as it is.

Yeah. Absolutely. But seriously, English is brilliant. I get high off studying it and have high times fighting with online dictionaries when they don’t agree with my Northern pronunciation.

It's the Zippy from Rainbow dressed as Electro-Santa Christmas market lightshow...

It’s the Zippy from Rainbow dressed as Electro-Santa Christmas market lightshow…

#3. Manchester is brilliant

By ‘eck, I love Manchester, I do. This one I didn’t really, truly know, and it sort of blindsided me. Being in Manchester city centre every day and being in a open and reflective state of mind I had a ‘seeing what was under my nose all along’ epiphany. Manchester is the best city in Britain (yes it is) and I’m happy that it’s my hood.

It’s also easier to appreciate how excellent your hometown is when you’re meeting outsiders from all corners of the globe telling you just how happy they are to be here. (Especially true of asylum seekers freshly arrived from Sudan after a month in transit.) All the foreign students I engaged with liked Manchester and it was only the weather that was a downer. In truth, it’s only bad weather and an increasingly unacceptable homeless crisis that bring Manchester down. Otherwise, Manchester is wonderful and it’s even more wonderful in the build-up to Christmas. Yay for Manchester’s Christmas markets!

I’m now resolved that, whenever the opportunity arises, I will harp on about how great Manchester is where once I was a bit indifferent and ambivalent. In brief, this place has got pretty much everything – Manchester’s an idiosyncratic mix of tradition and modernism, gothic industrialism married to shiny 21st century style. It’s gloriously cosmopolitan, is full of distinctive character and has a youthful spirit. It’s always moving forward but it knows its roots. Plus, the population are friendly, good-humoured people and the sound of the city is Northern accents. In total, eeyy-aaaah, Manchester’s aaaalriiiiight.

#4. Disconnecting from social media is brilliant

Titus Oates was never on Twitter, but when it came to starting the course I realised that it would be best to channel his spirit with regard to social media. I needed to concentrate. I needed to cut out distractions. I needed to focus on what was really important, get on with the work and devote all my energies and attention to the mission. Thus, I uninstalled all the social media apps on my phone and abstained from Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr for over a month. (I also didn’t go to the cinema and watch TV. I basically just did the course and in downtime spoke to my family and watched the news. I told you: give me something to do and I will go all-out and method actor-ish on the task.)

What did I miss? Aside from keeping in touch with distant friends and being in the loop with some news, nothing really. I also – in spite of the heavy workload and all-consuming rush of the course – felt more relaxed when I wasn’t hooked up to social media. My mind wasn’t as cluttered with trivial stuff, irritations and constant noise. I also found that I was, actually, more aware of the wider world because I was reading the news rather than reading reactions to the news (or just reading unfiltered, self-indulgent stream-of-consciousness ramblings or memes).

I had such a pleasant time being offline that I turned it into a lesson for my teaching pratice on the CELTA course (inspired by this article on a Danish study of people taking a break from Facebook). Now, having finished the course, I’m back connected and it’s good to be in touch with lovely people again but I feel a change. I intend to be less attached to these cyberspaces so I can reap the rediscovered benefits.

Those then, are things I learned and relearned on an excellent course that levelled me up as an educator, galvanished me and made me a happy Mancunian. On to the next quest… (possibly trying to find the Lost Kingdom of Neo-Oates, Lord of the Krill.)

Summer Camp Lunchtime Doodles August/September 2015: Drawing Pictures in Padova…

You know what I doodly-do when I do English-language summer camps in Italy every summer? Well, one of the things I do – aside from singing, dancing and struggling to control Havoc Beelzebambini while I teach them essential vocab like ‘tape’, ‘shame’ and ‘toilet plunger’ – is draw diary sketches during the lunchbreaks. Sì, signore e signori! Its time for another round of lunchtime doodles from summer camp! *fanfare*

As it was in Torino in June, so it was again in the countryside near Padova in late August/early September. Technical background and insight into ze process for those interested: this time I had to use standard paper rather than canteen placemats because there was no canteen arrangement at this school. Doodles were therefore done in the public park next door and were powered by packed lunch (mostly tuna sandwiches). Furthermore, I was determined that I’d make these daily diary doodles the most Jamazing yet and I sought to raise my game from ‘Yeah! Alrighty!‘ to ‘Oh Gods! Thor Almighty!‘. More sketches! Better sketches! More imagination and in-jokes and off-the-wall absurdity and semi-topical creative lunacy!

I think I did a decent job of that and rate these as my best batch of lunchtime doodles so far (until next year, if I make it that far and if they have me back). I won’t go into detail or try and explain ’em – just appreciate them for what they are. Then again, if you wish you can always try and dive deep into esoteric theory and try and discover the occult symbolism and the secrets of my subconscious manifest in miniaturised ink dribbling.

Here are the fortnight’s daily doodles from Summer Camp No. 2 collected together for convenience (you can also see them and my other arty bits on Instagram y’know). And stick around after the two weeks are done with – I promise that there are bonus extras…

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Summer Camp Lunchtime Doodles June 2015: Arty Tricks in Torino…

You draw is very beautiful! Is very good!” Awww, you’re too kind, kids…

That is what I doodly-do when I do summer camps. I get sketching, mesmerise Italian children with my doodles and then bat away their compliments because I’m not Moebius and am therefore not satisfied with my artistic (in)ability. Regardless, when I’m away in Italy I really look to raise my game and get art action on and amped up to a higher frequency. I do this because: 1. Camps require arts and crafts and visual didactic materials; 2. Italian children love drawing and love looking at drawings and art is a great communicative art and means of providing entertainment; 3. I love doodling and it makes me feel good and when you’re in a beautiful place with beautiful people feeling good anyway, yeah, perché no?

Drawing is fun, but it’s most fun when you’re doing it for and/or with children because of their childishness (‘good childishness’ in terms of a sense of wonder, curiosity, playfulness and an open-hearted and ever-present willingness to be amazed). At summer camp, the best drawing time is at lunchtime and that’s because I’ve sorta-kinda created a tradition of ‘lunchtime diary doodles’ (like these from two years ago! And these from last year! And those! And yeah, them as well!).

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Epic Cathedrals, Awesome Cow Boxes and Italian Kids: An Update from Milano…

Allora, amici. I’ve got a morning without lessons, it’s snowing in Milano and I’ve got an itch to kick out blogpost and provide an update from bella Italia. Do you want a brief update? I hope you do, because I’m gonna give you a brief update and I’m going to begin it with a GPOY that sort of sums it all up…

Mugging before Milano's immense marble masterpiece...

An idiot abroad…

Hey! I’m in Milano! I’m in Milano and I’m getting to be silly! It’s my job and it’s my city and it’s all feeling really good. (Except for the fact that I’ve been addled by the flu-bugs that have struck down half the children in Italy and seemingly most of the teachers but, hey, we’ve got to fight on through froggy throats and sniffly noses, right?). Over the course of the past fortnight I’ve returning to Italian rhythms and settling back into the country that clearly has become my second home. To get back into the groove I stayed with my very good friends near Lake Como for a couple of days, learned how to make Risotto Milanese and caught the same kind of ailments that my future work colleagues and students had. (“When in Rome, or indeed, Milan…“, y’know?)

I then hit Milano and moved in with yet another fantastic family, hooked up with a host of other mother tongue English-speakers and we all got down to prepping for our new gig. That new gig is work as a linguistic assistant in the city’s schools, acting as a tangible, real-life English-speaking presence and teaching Italian children through informal methods (activities, games, songs, art, etc.) Basically, my objective is to be fun and be English. My first week has revolved around me walking into a classroom, beating my chest like King Kong and showing children a shoebox decorated in cow-print paper that contains five objects that represent me. The following doodle sort-of showcases some of the things in my amazing (seriously Jamazing) cow box…

 

 

The five objects are: teabags (because I love drinking tea and because English people drink lots of tea); a pen (because I love writing and drawing); Boston Celtics wristbands (because I love NBA basketball and support ‘dem Celtics); an ‘A Trip to the Moon‘ pin-badge (because I love films and because I love science fiction); and a Super Mario figurine (because I love Nintendo videogames, am a fake Italian like Mario and because Mario reminds me of my childhood and my family but I don’t go into all that ’cause it’s too complicated for the children and I’d probably start crying and squealing “Aww, man, I miss my brother!“). The lessons have been a blast and the children’s English ability is astounding. They’re really enthusiastic, ultra-keen to show off all the vocab they know, ask for new words and ask questions. The most common question is “Manchester City of Manchester United?“. Other questions I’ve been asked include  “Do you prefer it in Manchester or Milan?“, “Are you married?“, “Do you have a girlfriend?” and “Is your brother married?” Aww, them kids. It’s good to get back to engaging with Italian children again.

Altogether, it’s all really sweet and I’m excited about all the things I can do here (hopefully making some comics, composing some educational songs, imagining up some new games and so on). I also keep having “Whoa!” moments when I realise that I can just pop out to Piazza del Duomo on my lunchbreak, admire that epic marble masterpiece and grab a slice of pizza (genuine Italian pizza). Anytime I want I can drift off and dig Milano’s history and culture. I’ve still not quite got over the “Hey! I’m living in Milano!” state of elation.

I’ll now go back to that and cut this brief update short. More blogposts and bits of writing may surface soon (I’m still seeing how my time and work are working out). The snow’s now coming down thick and I’m going to charge out armed with a cowprint box to play Pass the Bomb with i bambini. From me in Milano then, buona giornata, be excellent and have fun with whatever you’re doing. (Having fun is my job, so I’m very serious about it…)

Summer Camp Lunchtime Doodles – Part Three: Wriggly Squiggles in Rescalda…

Allora, I miss summer camp. Just over a week on from last Friday’s grand finale and the ultimate Lo Spettacolo show of summer 2014 and I’m already thinking “awww, I’d like to do it all again!” I miss making an ass of myself in front of Italian children. I miss all the singing, dancing, uptempo activity and all the rest that is the remit of an English language tutor in the field (the trenches?). I miss the kids – even the ones who may be identified as ‘otherwordly, disturbed and possibly deeply evil’ – and have withdrawal symptoms. Honestly, I’ve put my red company t-shirt back on and am shouting “listen and repeat!” at the mirror. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way so solidarity shout out to all kindred spirits who get what I’m talking about and who’ve come home and are staring down the barrel of a long winter. Bereft, I’m going to deal with these difficult emotions by opening up my bag and bringing out my camp diaries for some fond reminiscence…

As per convention, my camp diaries are the lunchtime doodles I did every day at camp. The ninety-minute break bang in the middle of the madness is probably the best segment of the schedule for everyone involved. For the kids, it’s a chance to eat, not worry about speaking English for a bit and play freely doing whatever they want to do (play football, swing on swings, construct elaborate death cult grave sites, whatever). For me, it’s a chance to relax back and take a breather, get some much-needed food myself and – most importantly – draw. My sketches tend to reflect the theme and events of the day and my headspace at the time, so in effect they do stand as sorta-kinda journal chronicles. For old examples, see the June collections from Camp One and Camp Two

Alternately, see below for this fresh bunch from Camp Three which was located in the town of Rescaldina, just outside Milano (though the camp was called Rescalda, which is one of the subdivisional zones of the place). Some context before I begin and bring out the bad sketches: this camp didn’t have a special mensa/canteen area for us to eat in or any catering arrangement so we had packed lunches and ate them outside in the front yard. (Parents were the main driving force behind the camp and the school was ultimately just a location with a couple of classrooms, a hall, a front yard and a smelly toilet block for us to use. The school really didn’t want us there but that’s a rant for another time and place.)

These are not what I’d call ‘ideal lunchtime doodle’ conditions – ideal conditions would be paper placemats for drawing on, tables for resting on and seating arrangements where I’m with the children while they’re eating. I may be a Control Freak Princess who’s very precious about certain things, but I’m not going to let minor obstacles get in the way of my fun. As it was, I got some of my own paper, dragged chairs and a desk outside with me and doodled anyway because I have a reputation and a tradition to uphold. I’d then sit there for that hour-and-a-half alternating between eating, talking and laughing deliriously with my colleague Sandy while doodling. The moral to this story is either “You can make your own fun anywhere in spite of inauspicious circumstances” or “Control Freak Princesses will get always get their way”.

Anyway, that’s more than enough rambling so let’s get to self-indulgent sketch action. Here are the daily doodlings with some explanatory annotations…

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Pronto! Back from Italia, with the Weird, the Sweet and the Sublime…

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Ciao ragazzi! I'm back from Italia…

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Allora, mi amici! It’s a-me! I’m a-back! (, though my name is not Mario there is a little part of me deep down inside that’s a chirpy 16-bit fake Italian. I’m going to keep on talking like this and pretending that I’m in an ultra-colourful videogame ’cause that’s how I roll and I’m still delirious, strung out on lack of sleep and affected by my latest Italian adventure trip.)

Erm, yeah, I’m back in the UK and hooked up to my laptop again and going about trying to get back in th’loop. I’ve hugged some relatives. I’ve drank a lot of ‘real’ English tea. I’ve done my washing. Phones ring but no one answers “pronto!” in response and the steering wheel is on the left side of the car.I’m definitely home, and that feels nice and eases my soul as I simultaneously go through the bittersweet motions of missing the spiritual home I’ve left behind and trying to get into British rhythms again.

As always, it’ll take some time, especially as I’m exhausted after a particularly challenging summer camp and a fair bit of travelling. If you want to hear anecdotes about some semi-impossible, strange and violent Italian kids – they attacked me, viciously attacked each other and built cult-like grave shrines decorated with sketches of, erm, Gandalf during breaktimes – I can share them, occasionally punctuated by gasps of “the horror… the horror…

Still, in spite of that – and that makes it sound pretty grim – I had an absolute blast and always do when I’m in Italy. I’ve had a wonderful summer in that very special place with very special people and I’m grateful for all the assorted experiences. Off the top of my head, some highlights from this time round would be getting to explore the centre of Milano again, visit the Emilia-Romagna countryside again, see old friends and my various extended families again and camp it up at English-language summer camp again. My favourite food, my favourite people and my favourite place – thank you very much and grazie mille Italia for giving me even more at the end of the summer.

Anyway, now I’m in the UK and once I’ve caught up on some sleep and relearned how to communicate in English properly – i.e. not putting Italian words into every sentence and speaking in hybrid Broken English/Shitaliano staccato – I’ll be writing a lot and creating some fresh nonsense. I’ll be sharing on the interwebs and the first thing that will be uploaded in coming days will be my lunchtime diary doodles from summer camp. From there, “boh?!” as we say in Italian (I can’t stop saying “boh“, “allora“, “pronto!” and “che schifo!” and I think I have a problem.) In conclusion, back to creative action in Blighty and it’s good to be back. I’m gonna make a brew and then brew up some creative action, pronto…

Summer Camp Lunchtime Doodles – Part Two: Goofy Sketches in Gussago…

Buongiorno mi amici! How about some more summer camp lunchtime doodles? These ones come from the second camp which was located in the beautiful town of Gussago on the outskirts of Brescia. Having finished up in Fino Mornasco (see this blogpost for sketches) the company sent me off on a train to the other side of Lombardia to work there.

First, some possibly-not-very-interesting contextual background info for those who are interested in ‘ze process’. Conditions for the daily drawing action were different – and better – at this camp. The school had a large, well-lit mensa and a great grassy garden outdoors in contrast to the dark canteen cave and cramped stone courtyard of the first camp. The actual ‘eating inside’ part of the break took longer because the meals here were provided on-site (not packed lunches). With the organised distribution of several courses – and it’s Italy so there are many courses as standard – I had a bit more time to draw in relaxed fashion. This was also the case outside where I had a lot of space (temporal and physical) to doodle away. The Gussago kids liked my sketches but, with a whole massive grassy area in which to freely play, they weren’t as interested as the Fino Mornasco bambini. Regardless, I did sketch requests (two particular children demanded daily vampire bats) and kept on doodling. Here are those daily diary doodlings with explanatory annotations…

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Summer Camp Lunchtime Doodles – Part One: Inky Fingers in Fino Mornasco…

Allora, by way of trying to (literally) illustrate what I’ve been up to over the past few weeks, here’s a blogpost with some pictures. (Woohoo! Pictures!) They are pictures drawn by me on the fly during the lengthy lunch breaks in the middle of the summer camp day. I’ve been away in Italy working as an English language tutor in a couple of Italian schools. Every day in the break from all the singing, dancing, didactic classroom activity and suchlike I’d sit down with my lunch and doodle. I’d do this on my canteen placemat (my personal daily diary sketches) and then take the art action outside and reel off sketch requests for bambini to take away. Seeing kids’ faces light up because they love the little scrappy cartoon kittie (or horse, or shark, or panda, or erm, carnivorous plant) that you’ve drawn for them is so rewarding, plus it potentially helps them learn some English. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun for me and, y’know, I like having fun…

Without much further ado then, here are my lunchtime sketches from the fortnight of the first camp which was in Fino Mornasco, Como province, Lombardia. The children here really liked my sketching and I got a lot of requests every lunchtime. I’ve probably never been so popular. I mean, look at these enthralled fans…

I’m like the Pied Piper with a pen…

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Duolingo and Language Learning like a Game Fronted by a Friendly Green Owl…

Sprechen sie Deutsch? Nein? Erm, okay. Italiano? Français? No? Erm, você fala Português? Espagñol?

Yeah, I thought as much and, hey , neither do I. We’re all a bit pathetic in our monoglot state, except you people reading who can speak in foreign tongues and use those tongues fluently. You’re very impressive and so are your tongues. We will now coat both you and your tongues in honey and glitter. Actually, no, we won’t because then you’re going to find it difficult to articulate those foreign phrases. Sorry. As you were you über-impressive linguistic genius, you…

I too would like to be an über-impressive linguistic genius because I like words (naturally, I’m a writer) and because I want to engage more effectively with foreign cultures. I have polymath enthusiasm and aspire to be a polyglot with a capable command of a language that ain’t English (I’ve mastered, disastered and bastardised my mother tongue many times over). Time and time again I trip off to somewhere like Italy armed with basic vocab but no ability to form complex sentences and fully comprehend the conversation that’s thrown back at me. Every time I come back to my homeland (where people can’t speak English never mind another language) vowing “I will learn! I will get better and really, really get educate myself so I can exotically garble on with style and confidence!

That determination then ebbs away. At least that’s the typical pattern but this summer the picture has changed (I covered it in glitter and honey). I came back from Italy with a few new phrases (“Una buona vita inizia con una buona collazione“) and fresh motivation to actually study and self-improve. My friend Giuseppe had presented a new method through which I might actually be able to advance my basic blunt Italian. He was very evangelical about said method and talked fondly about something called Duolingo which he was using to enhance his (already excellent) English. He beamed a lot when he said “Duolingo”, waved his phone at me and made sure that I noted down the name.

I did my research and hit the website. It looked brilliant and, finding that there’s an app in addition to the main site with all extra features, I hit iTunes and downloaded it to my techno-techno magick device. I then opened it up and started to explore what it offered, subsequently finding that I really liked what it offered…

But what does Duolingo offer? Commence the non-official heavy-hype press release pitch: game-ified language-learning in an easy-to-use app with a colourful format. It is way better than any other quiz-style linguistics app I’ve played with in the past and more appealing and convenient than audiotapes. Duolingo’s charm is in its gamification as it kicks at your own compulsive nature while carefully expanding your cognitive comprehension.

It breaks down big blocks of language into subjects and splits everything up into levels to conquer (and then conquer better). You clock up skill points and are rewarded if you don’t make mistakes (you lose hearts if you do, so it’s a little like ‘Linguistic Legend of Zelda’). Users pick up vocab, grammar and syntactic nuances as they go along without even realising it because it feels more like a game with goals to unlock and achievements to achieve. You’re tested with multiple choice questions, sentence-making exercises, listening exercises and ‘repeat into the mic, please’ prompts. It takes you back to classroom language learning but feels fresh and fun because you’re only competing with yourself and the app rather than an oppressive curriculum and uninspiring high school teachers. Duolingo’s mascot is a friendly-looking green owl, by the way, and when I see her or him beaming at me on my phone screen I can’t help but think “Awww, the nice owl is smiling at me. I should go on Duolingo…

The added bonus is that it’s all free. Duolingo funds itself through translation services it offers to third parties as performed by eager, advanced users. It’s therefore altruistic in addition to being an outstanding high-quality educational tool for the technologically-empowered masses. It’s amazing and I continue to hold on to that view even when I’m frustrated by my own mistakes in the quizzes or find myself tackling odd sentences that no one will ever say (stuff like “The duck has the apples” and “Six trousers are good“).

I came back from Italy, hooked up with this thing and am having fun with it, feeling like I’m getting a better grounding in a foreign language. The irony is that I returned from Italy determined to improve my Italian and am instead relearning German. I blame a two-hour stopover in München that reminded me just how much I love the country, how much I wanted to go back and grapple with all the umlauts and glorious words I throttled back when I was at school. I’m now on Level 6 German and am checking in every day to advance further. I’ve revised and bolstered my basic GCSE-standard Deutsch and can now say things like “Nein, ich bezahle nicht” (No, I’m not paying) and “Wofür brauche ich fünf Katzen?” (For what do I need five cats?)

I’ve got a long way to go but I’m getting there gradually, every day strengthening my Teutonic tongue and enjoying the challenge. Learning is fun and foreign languages are beautiful. I recommend Duolingo if you feel the same and want to improve your linguistic abilities. Es ist sehr gut, indeed…

The Overall Italian Odyssey Overview…

Pronto! As you may have noticed, I’ve been away recently. I spent a month in Italy doing some touristing, then training to teach English-language summer camp, then working at English-language summer camp, then spending time with old friends to recover from it all. It was a great big adventure made up of many great mini-adventures. I had a brilliant time and now I’d like to bore you into a coma by blah blah blahbling on about it and going over every single thing in highly elaborate detail…

No, actually I’m not for several reasons. Firstly, altogether I did a lot, saw a lot and experienced a lot. If I regurgitated all of it and told you of every single momentous little occurrence with extra annotation we’d be here until August and, y’know, we’ve all got lives to get on with. I could send you my personal journal to skimread if you wanted though I warn you that it’s iffy pseudo-Kerouac rambling done in illegible handwriting and the most frequent phrases are “beautiful!” and “I gotta look this up on Wikipedia when I get home!

Furthermore, friends, smug blogposts by people fortunate enough to travel and have extraordinary life-affirming experiences can get really irritating. The full-thwack should probably be reserved for family and the closest of close friends only. I’m saving all of this up for my anecdote stockpile, for personal encounters or for, erm, Facebook which is a social media network built on the foundation of “Look at all my photos! Like! Like! This is what I’m doing, guys! I may not have a baby or a marriage but, hey, these photos prop up my self-esteem and self-worth and act as evidence that I do have a worthwhile life of value! Give me your approval and show me that you’re impressed! Acknowledge my exciting existence! Like!

Having got home, sorted through photos and luggage and managed to semi-sync myself to the British (Sub)Standard it’s time to draw a line and get on wit’ the gettin’ on. If you’ll indulge me for a moment, this marks the seal-it-up blogpost to properly put a lid on my 2013 Italian Odyssey and it may be of interest and give you hints on some of the high times I had. I don’t want to be insufferable or smug so I’m trying to keep it short and sweet. To do this I’ve really condensed it all into a few succinct paragraphs – like an abbreviated Res Gestae illustrated with a few GPOYs (I’m sorry but I can’t feature photos of children and unconsenting adults for legal reasons. It’s mainly  just photos of me and the concept of ’embarrassment’ is now completely alien to me so, hey, bad photos). It acts as a personal reflection piece and may make intriguing reading for you. If you don’t want to know, don’t click “read more” (you chose wisely) and if you want to know more I’d be happy to hook up either in cyberspace, in real life or in the afterlife. Better yet, let’s get together and go on a new adventure together…

Allora and no more ado: here’s a quickfire graphic run-through of some stuff I did and stuff that did stuff to me in Italia…

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Lunchtime Doodles for Little Italians…

Allora! The post-exile re-organisation continues apace and that involves going through bags, plastic wallets full of printed paraphernalia, photo archives on digital devices and much much more. One of the plastic wallets contained these: paper dinner placemats I doodled all over during my two-week stint working as an English tutor at a summer camp for Italian children in the town of Candiolo just outside of Torino.

Sketching is fun. It’s even more fun when you do it with enthusiastic children during lunchtime. What follows is a pictorial diary of the fortnight, all of the instalments quickly inked up in the half-hour breaks from all the singing and silly games when I got a moment to free-create a bit while quickly cramming some pasta in my mouth.

The theme of the camps was ‘The Seven Seas’ which explains all the nautical and piratical pics. Each one also has annotations so you can get insight into what inspired ’em and where my mind was at the moment. The children enjoyed ’em, I enjoyed doing ’em (damn it, I enjoyed the whole experience!) and I hope you enjoy them as well (click on them to see them bigger if you so wish)…

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