Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Category: Life

Library lessons – or how to be a decent human being

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I am not a morning person. But Friday, I had to start work by eight o’clock. As I dressed in a fumble, main lined coffee, grabbed my make up bag and hair care products, and headed out into the half-light, I was surprised by an overwhelming I’m-living-in-Melbourne-and-lovin-it, sensation. It didn’t last. As soon as I saw the five lines of creeping of red tail lights on the freeway, I knew this would be no easy run. My foreboding was confirmed by the electronic sign:

Incident on the Bolte Bridge, expect delays. 

Unfortunately, this instance, Citylink, weren’t exaggerating. I arrived at work, tufty-haired, late and without my age-defying foundation in place. It didn’t help that I had to fit an extra home library delivery into the two hour set up time. Or that the cash reconciliation wasn’t straight forward. As I walked out onto the library floor at opening time, I saw one of our most everyday difficult customers pacing up and down outside the door.

‘She’s early,’ I said to my colleague.

‘My thoughts exactly.’

‘Let’s hope it isn’t a bad omen.’

The minute we logged the phones in, all three started ringing. It was story time, so there were lots of mum’s and crying babies. Added to which, every woman and her dog wanted to join the library. Not sure why, maybe it was announced on the radio?

<insert ABC News music>

We interrupt this bulletin to make and important announcement. That building in the High Street that you have walked past a thousand times, is a library. If you race down there today you will get a discount on your free membership.

Whatever the reasons, they didn’t stop coming. By mid-morning, my blood sugar levels were seriously low. Good Afternoon, I said to the woman standing at the desk. How can I help you? 

Silence. I realised my error. ‘Sorry it isn’t afternoon yet, it only feels like it.’

I went through the usual spiel about needing ID, with a current address to join the library. She passed me her drivers’ license. I handed her a piece of paper on which to write her email address and phone number and began typing details into the catalogue. She paused after jotting down her phone number, looking up at me.

‘Can I give you my husband’s email address?’

 ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘as long as he checks it.’

‘He does,’ every day. But I don’t use the computer.’

I froze. Though this wasn’t an uncommon admission, especially among the elderly or so socially disadvantaged. But this woman didn’t look old, or poor. Didn’t she realise the world has changed? I see this often among my home library clients. Women who never learned to use a CD player in the 1980’s are now old and infirm and beyond learning and we no longer have cassette tapes in the library. If you extrapolate this scenario out across all the other technologies that have emerged and how they have transformed the way society operates, this woman was setting herself up for social and emotional isolation in her old age. 

I didn’t say this, of course. My job is to meet specific information needs not to lecture people. I did however carry a waspish sense of sense of outrage over to my next enquiry. A significantly older woman with a list written in a spidery old lady hand. She wanted to know about a book called Dancing with Strangers. My colleague had punched the title into Google and come up with a number of possibilties. 

‘Do you know the author?’ I asked.

‘I think it might have been Glen Dinnen.’

I typed: Dinnen, Glen, into our catalogue. No result. I looked at the Google list again.

‘Do you remember what the book was about?’

‘It was about the early settlement of Australia and the first contact with the aborigines.’ 

‘Ah, I said. Clendinnen.’ But it had been a long morning, and I was due for morning tea and, as I read the book description out to her, I found myself thinking: if you’d learned to use a computer you could have worked this out for yourself. 

‘It’s for my book group,’ the old lady said. ‘I’m ninety two years of age. But I like to keep my mind active.’

Ouch, I thought. Retract earlier waspish sentiment. I found myself wondering whether I’d be discussing books and ideas in my ninety-third year. But that wasn’t the end of the lesson. Have you ever found that? When life sets out to teach you something, it is rarely gentle? As I worked through the woman’s book list, trying to ascertain how many copies of various titles we had in the collection, I started writing down, authors, titles and numbers for her.

‘Oh,’ she said, on seeing the list. Thank you… thank you so much.’ She stopped, swallowed, her voice wobbling with emotion. I kept my eyes trained on the computer screen. 

‘My husband, is a veteran.’ She said, when she found her voice again. ‘It’s hard looking after him. I come to the library every Friday, on the oldies bus. It is the highlight of my week.’

I swallowed, looking up her. At this point, she wasn’t the only one getting misty-eyed. 

‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.’

‘No.’ I shook my head. ‘Thank you, for making my job worthwhile.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Blog two – the Eisteddfod

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Anyone who did music lessons is probably familiar with the concept of an eisteddfod – a festival in which artist not only performs but also competes. From the spelling you have probably gathered the word is Welsh. However, if you are an Australian, you may not realise that you have been saying the the word wrong for your whole life. It is not an eisted-fod. The word has a double ‘dd’ which makes a soft ‘th’ sound in Welsh, much like in the English word ‘others.’ Eisteddfod (pronounce correctly please) is made up of two Welsh words: eistedd, which means to sit, and bod/fod which is the verb to be. The closest correlation you will probably get for eisteddfod in modern English is a ‘session.’

These days Eisteddfodau (the correct plural of eisteddfod) occur throughout the year in Wales. But the main eisteddfod – the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol (national eisteddfod) is held during the first week of August. It receives over 160,000 visitors over an eight day period. It is the pinnacle of the Welsh cultural calendar Here’s what the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol website says about itself:

“All visitors have an eisteddfod story to tell. Whether they’ve competed annually for many years or if they’ve just been to the Maes (field) once a few years ago. They’ve all experienced the magic of the National Eistddfod.”

Which, I guess, is a convenient segue for me to tell you how this year’s magic worked for me.

Driving

As with any outdoor festival there is a massive caravan and camping site attached to the Eisteddofd. The less intrepid book B&Bs and self catering Accomodation close to the Maes. I drove from Corris – a distance of about thirty eight miles – thirty eight, misty Welsh miles sharing the road with tractors, buses and the occasional stray sheep. Google maps told me it would take an hour and ten minutes. But … I tend to slow down on hair-pin bends. A sensible strategy. Though it doesn’t seem to have occurred to some drivers in Land Rovers and luxury cars. One of the best things about driving to the Eisteddofd is the flags and banners strung up along the houses. The closer you get the more flags. Somehow the excitement seems to mount too.

Volunteering

I put my name down to volunteer in Maes D – the learners tent. This involved serving coffee and tea and wandering around Maes D and chatting to people interested in learning Welsh as well as those seeking a safe place in order to practice their Cymraeg. For my first shift, I teamed with two local women. This lead to the inevitable conversation:

“Where do you come from?”

“Australia. But I was born in England. My mum was Welsh.”

“You learned to speak Welsh from her?”

“No. I learned as an adult.”

“But… how did you learn Welsh in Australia?”

I’ve had this conversation so many times I have requested Say Something in Welsh business cards.

Concert

Monday night, I went to a concert in the Pavillion. It was called a Noson Llawen, which is traditional way of spending an evening in Welsh culture – an informal evening in which people stand up to sing, recite, or tell stories. In this case a host of local performers provided the entertainment. In between, the announcer told jokes in Welsh. I got one … maybe two of them. The highlight of the evening was Dafydd Iwan (a local legend) singing: Yma o hyd. This song is a kind of unofficial national anthem in Wales. It basically details the history conquest. The chorus between each verse can roughly be translated as:

“We are still here,

We are still here,

Despite the worst of everyone and everything,

We are still here.”

The first time round, everyone joined in the singing. For the encore, everyone stood and sang louder. Then there was a silence. Red dragons flickered across the stage screens. The music for the anthem started.

I had no trouble driving home after the concert. Though, the road was long and winding. I had lit up like a glow worm inside.

Friends

Thursday evening, was the parti penblwydd (birthday party) Say something in Welsh. Forty of us were scheduled to meet at a hotel in Trallwng (Welshpool). A number of us gave lifts to friends without cars who were staying in Maes B (camping ground). I ended up with a friend from Missisippi in my passenger seat. We got to the hotel okay and had a pleasant evening catching up with far flung members of our learners community. When it came time to leave, my friend suggested we drive back exactly the same way we had come. I agreed … In theory. But I hadn’t accounted for the one way roads in the centre of Trallwng. I couldn’t find the way we had come. In frustration, I punched Meifod (town closest to Maes B) into Google maps and activated the directions. I’m not sure what the staff at Google maps were drinking the night they mapped Wales but we had a dark, snaking tour through the Welsh back roads with hedgerows brushing the car on both sides. It was late. My friend wasn’t talking much. Just staring at the movie blue dot. Every so often I asked.

“How’s it going? Are we heading in the right direction?”

To which question he replied:

“I think so.”

This went on for what seemed like hours – same words, over and over, with a ghost-white mist drifting across the roads. I was tired. About to hit a jet lag wall. After Maes B, I would face a further hour and a half drive back to Corris. I started feeling tense. But trying not to show it. Not sure, I succeeded entirely. I think maybe my friend felt a little jaded too. When we turned the final corner and a saw blaze of the Eisteddfod lights, he said:

“Here. Drop me off here.”

“I can’t. The sign says Buses Only.”

“It’s empty! There aren’t any buses.”

I left my friend in the bus parking lot and drove home. As the clock turned the night into the morning and the Welsh language radio service ended, I heard an Australian man being interviewed about Australia’s disastrous loss in the cricket. I haven’t inherited the sporting gene. The results didn’t bother me overly. But the man’s accent caused a wave of homesickness. If I’d been a character from Harry Potter and found myself able to Aparate, I think, I might have wished myself home.

 

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Blog one – o Gymru (from Wales)

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It’s Saturday afternoon and I am sitting in Adam and Andy’s cafe drinking coffee. A flat white, nonetheless. How to make a Melbourne girl feel at home. It’s been a frenetic week but, six days in, I’m feeling relaxed and happy. Rather than give you a blow by blow of my first week, I’ll pick out some highlights.

 

The flight

What can I say? There is nothing good about a long haul flight. I had prevaricated about paying for exit row seats and decided against the extra cost. At least, I thought I had… I looked forward to a cramped, miserable, leg-aching, twenty three hours without sleep. Imagine my surprise to find I had been assigned an exit row seat. The good flight fairy, perhaps? Or early onset Alzheimer’s? I must have paid for it. Whatever the case, the flight seemed shorter somehow.

Cymru

It was a pleasant twenty one degrees when I arrived at Heathrow airport – a little cloudy, a little grey, a perfectly ordinary must-wear-a-cardigan UK summers day. Did I tell you, the UK smells different to Australia. An absence of Eucalypts perhaps? Different cleaning products? From the airport, to the bus, to the open air, for some reason, it produces an overwhelming sense of welcome.

The rain started as my Arriva train crossed the border into Wales. What can I say? Wales is so moist and mossy and mountainous. It has been raining on and off since I arrived. It doesn’t seem to deter people from going out. They simply trudge through the rain in gor-tex jackets and sturdy boots.

Boots? Ah… boots…

Now, in case you were lucky enough to miss out, the question of my footwear has been a subject of much discussion in the lead up my departure. In Melbourne, I wear a cute pair of black ankle boots patterned in red. I had every intention of bringing them to Wales. Alas, a Welsh friend took one look at them and said they wouldn’t do. Hiking boots were the recommended footwear. But, although I found a pair of hiking boots with the obligatory touch of red, I couldn’t face the notion of wearing them for five months. Vanity, perhaps? Or simply because I’m an Aussie. Down under you only wear hiking boots if you are a serious hiker. And I’m not. So, what to wear? Could I wear Wellies (rubber boots) for five whole months? Surely there was an in between option. I raised the topic at work (as you do), discussed it in Welsh with my friend on Skype (as most wouldn’t). Sought earnest advice at multiple family gatherings. In the end, Andrew weighed in (possibly a little weary of the topic) and suggested I purchase a pair of Blundstone boots (with red stitching and elastic). I’m not sure how my Tasmanian made work boots will face up to the vagaries of the Welsh weather. But, if this sign on an office door is anything to go by, they were a safer choice than Wellies. The sign says:

No dirty Wellngtons in the office, please!!!!

I don’t expect to find: No dirty Blundtones stuck on an office door.

Maelor

I spent an intense day and a half learning everything about Stiwdio Maelor. While here, I will be greeting artists, taking applications for 2016, and acting as a general housekeeper for the stiwdio. I have learned about boilers and cookers (there is a switch on the wall for cookers In the UK) and British showers (started with a cord from the ceiling) and the intricacies of Gwynedd Council’s recycling programme. After, Veronica and Mary left for New York. I spent a couple of days in their Dolgellau house before heading down to Maelor. While in Dolgellau, I went for a jog along the Llwybr (pathway) Mawddach while listening to Brigyn on my iPod. I ran past hay meadows and through stiles, with my feet dancing around puddles, and the pebble grey river racing on ahead of me. As I finished my jog, I raised my hands in the air (hope no one was watching) and thought: dw i’n y nefoedd – I am in heaven.

Cymraeg (Welsh language)

One of the disheartening things for all lovers of the hen iaith (ancient language) is that you can’t be assured of speaking Welsh in Wales. Even in the heartlands, where Welsh speakers are ninety percent of the population, many newcomers expect Welsh speakers to use English. So where does that leave me? I have only five months – five short months – in which to take my Welsh language ability to the next level. I can’t sit around waiting for welsh speaking opportunities. I have to make them happen. This will involve taking a deep breath and going into shops, banks, pubs and railway stations and starting every conversation in Welsh. Sometimes, I will get a reply in kind. At other times, an English language reply, that indicates comprehension. In this instance, I’ve been advised to keep speaking Welsh. Many people understand the language but do not have the confidence to speak. It is therefore possible to have a simple bilingual exchange (on the level of buying milk or a postage stamp). In the worst case scenario, I will get an apology: sorry, I don’t speak Welsh. In which case, I will simply accept their apology and never shop there again (unless they happen to be the pub next door or make a damn good flat white). 🙂

Tomorrow, I am heading to the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol (National Eisteddfod). This is Cymru Cymraeg’s (Welsh speaking Wales’) premier cultural event. If you are a Welsh speaker and in Wales during the first week in August you will be asked: wyt ti’n mind i’r eisteddfod (are you going to the eisteddfod)? It is the Welsh speaking place to be. I will be going to a concert in Monday night. The Say Something in Welsh birthday party on Thursday night. I have also signed up to volunteer in Maes D (the learners’ tent) throughout the week. I look forward to meeting old friends (online and otherwise) and speaking Welsh at every opportunity.

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