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29 January 2015

The Day I Realized I Work at Hogwarts ● by Jess

When I was little, my best friend Madeline and I were obsessively in love with Harry Potter. We were on the bandwagon before book two was even published and we waited with rapt anticipation for our own letters to arrive when we turned eleven.

Needless to say, it was the biggest letdown ever. Seriously, it still hurts.

Somehow I managed to recover, but only realised this morning that I have in fact achieved something that would have made littles Jessica swoon with joy. On the bus to school today, it dawned on me that am a teacher at what is basically the primary school version of Hogwarts.

I'm not exaggerating either... Here's why:

1) The Accents

I mean, I know it's only because I'm American, but golly I love the way my kids speak! Over time, you sort of acclimate to it and you don't realise how irresistibly cute they are. That is, until one of them says something so British-y that your heart sort of oozes out love from somewhere you didn't even know existed. 

For example, this week I wore my hair down (I almost always wear it up) and I had two of my 4 year old boys tell me I looked "quite beautiful" and "rather fetching." I almost died.

2) The £££

Being a private preparatory school, it costs a pretty penny to attend-- though in this case it's pounds instead of galleons that do the trick. The great thing is that both feel equally as foreign to me, so it still seems like I'm in the middle of the books.

3) The Headmistress

Our headmistress is definitely a McGonagall type, though a bit younger and with bigger hair. You don't want to cross her; term-end teaching evaluations are more than mildly terrifying.

4) The Student Hierarchy

Getting to be head boy and girl at our school is really a big deal. Not only do you get your name on a plaque in the entry, but you get to lead assemblies and have quite a few other responsibilities. As far as I can see, they are expected to be absolutely perfect.  Other student positions include prefects and house captains.

5) Fear of Dragons

I work with a teacher from Wales that warns her students not to make her angry, "or else the Welsh dragon will rise up" from inside her and she'll unleash it on the children. She also tells the children her family lives in a castle... it has yet to be determined whether either assertion are true.

6) The Uniforms

So, my kidlets may not wear robes, but school uniforms are in full force (including the stripy winter scarves!). Still, their cute little blue blazers and overcoats are the bane of my existence. When it rains, these kids are expected to wear twelve layers of clothing and somehow I always end up with a mountain of clothes to sort out during their specialist lessons. Bleh.

7) The Gothic Architecture

Our school is in two buildings-- the main school is in a refurbished Victorian mansion, and the other (my building) is situated within a built up Gothic church. The main parish room reminds me of the Great Hall in Harry Potter.

8) The Pub

Not unlike Hogwarts professors, my colleagues like to blow off steam by heading to the local pub after work. Its definitely no Three Broomsticks-- and I don't drink-- but its always nice to spend time with friends outside of work.

9) The Houses

Like Hogwarts, my school separates the students into houses (even though it's not a boarding school). Instead of Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin, we have Balmoral, Windsor, Buckingham and Sandringham (named after the Queen's castles). Children earn house points for good behaviour and every week we get an update  on where the points are at assembly. The winning house gets a trophy and a party at the end of the year. 

10) The Food

The best thing about private school -- BY FAR-- is the food. My favourite (which we had today!) is bangers and mash [sausage and mashed potatoes] with yorkshire pudding [basically, popovers]. The chefs really do an amazing job... I hope they are paid well...

Anyway, there it is. The magic of childhood all bundled up into one private school-- who would have thought? ;) 

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22 January 2015

On Muslims and the Racism In My Head ● by Jess

Overcoming Prejudice

I had just turned 13 when 9/11 happened.

Just ten days into my teenage years, my world was suddenly tinted with dark thoughts about Muslims that hurt people. In hindsight, it's a bit alarming… I never even really knew those thoughts were in there, rattling around unconsciously. It wasn't until I went to University and travelled to the Middle East that I even realised I had feelings at all about Muslims.

In my first day in Turkey, I went to a park with a friend from China. We sprawled out on the grass, in our t-shirts and jeans, lazily people watching. Nearby, a little four-year-old girl, who was picnicking with her family, stared at us. We waved and she eventually wandered over to say hello. Even though we spoke different languages, we played a little game, and she showed me how to properly put on a head scarf. Both she and her parents eagerly shared their picnic with us. I remember being so surprised by this interaction. These people weren't the closed off, judgemental people I had in my mind-- they were warm, hospitable and loving.

Overcoming Prejudice

In Morocco I had a similar experience. I was in Casablanca, desperately trying to hail a taxi with a friend. When one finally stopped for us, I tried to haggle the price to get to the Medina (I'd been cheated enough to learn my lesson and negotiate a firm price before the metre "skipped" mid-journey). The man looked at me as if I were insane, then rolled his eyes and assured me that he would charge me a fair price. Feeling like we didn't have much choice, we got in the car. The roof was sagging and the stuffing was literally bursting from the worn-out seats (take a moment to think how long it takes car upholstery to get threadbare-- it was a beater).

Along his dashboard he had some religious items and a photograph of his family (with six children!). My friend asked about the items and the man gushed about his family, how tough it was to keep them all fed, but how much he loved Allah. He went on professing for awhile about the joy he finds in his faith, when suddenly the car lurched to an abrupt stop.

Outside, an old, bearded man in a tattered rob was very slowly crossing the road. A strap with jingle bells hung from his left hand while he swayed a stick back and forth with his right. The old man was blind. 

As he passed in front of our taxi, our driver took all the cash out of his cup (a good chunk of a day's wage I'd guess, as it was around 4 o'clock) and called over to the man. The driver reached his hands out to meet the old man's, who was having difficulty finding his way. The old man gasped and our driver said something to him in Arabic. Then, without a word, we were back on our way. 

I don't know if I've ever seen someone live their faith so clearly and beautifully before.

Overcoming Racism

Though Egypt, by contrast, was not so kind to me, I learned a great deal about the Muslim perspective on sexuality and modesty. Surprisingly, I found it far more liberating than I had previously understood it. In short, my entire understanding of the Islamic world was changed for the better.

Overcoming Racism

These feelings stayed with me for awhile. Jon and I married and moved to NYC. Our neighbourhood in Queens was one of the most diverse in the country and it was perfectly normal to see women in hijabs or saris or men in yarmulkes with ringlets. All religions and ethnicities seem to be happy together and it was really wonderful.

Then I moved to London.

Now, to be fair, I really feel London in general, is more accepting and loving than basically anywhere I lived in the States. Maybe it's because people get less offended about political correctness, and everyone is just fine if you are gay or straight or religious or atheist or whatever. No one really cares.

The one thing that does make people feel quietly uncomfortable-- particularly in the wake of the 2005 London tube bombingsCharlie Hebdo, and growing influence of ISIS-- is the more orthodox members of the Islamic faith, who are ever-increasing in the UK.

This discomfort isn't wholly intentional. As a white bystander, I do understand why most articles and programs discussing Islam on the BBC are about the radicalisation of London primary schools or homegrown terrorists or some other concern over extremism of certain Islamic groups. This stuff sells and its what the majority of white Britons are interested in hearing about. Unfortunately, not as many people are interested in happy, dancing Muslims when there are terrorists afoot (which is really too bad, because that video has got to be one of my favs). 

But I also acknowledge that if I were Muslim, I'd be frustrated and also feel a bit persecuted.

London Muslim Racism

Still, it isn't just the news. I often feel like I am fighting those negative over-generalised feelings within myself. Be it with my Muslim neighbours who let their children run screaming through the halls at 3am, or the flat above us where the occupant illegally smokes for hours on end, or the hookah cafes full of men that spend all day cat-calling women, these daily experiences collectively paint a very unhappy picture of Muslims in London, particularly because it's not as if my neighbours are all poor, uneducated immigrants either-- they are mostly wealthy oil tycoon families on extended holidays.

Reconciling beautiful cultural experiences I've had in the past, with the perpetual frustration I have felt recently, has proven to be quite difficult. I can literally feel racism creeping into my brain with every negative experience I have. I'm embarrassed to say it, sometimes I wonder, if it weren't for the positive experiences mentioned above, would I also be racist?

I read a book once by a man named Amartya Sen, called Identity and Violence. In it he points out that we all have multiple identities (ie I am a woman, a wife, a mormon, a heterosexual, an American, an artist, etc), but we seem to only focus on our, and other persons, dominant identity. For myself, I tend to think about my identity as a Mormon most of all. Maybe because it is so different from that of my associates, it seems to define me most. 

But Sen warns against this kind of thinking saying that "the increasing tendency towards seeing people in terms of one dominant ‘identity’ is... the denial of an important liberty of a person who [should be able to] decide on their respective loyalties to different groups."

I tend to SOLELY focus on the Islamic identity of my neighbours. I don't think of them as believers, lovers, givers, or inspirers. I never think about how they see themselves or how they wish to be seen. To say it out loud is mildly horrifying, but it's still true. 

Instead of battling within myself about which of my experiences with Muslim culture is most authentic, I could instead be empathising with their individual human experiences. As I've gone through these thoughts, I've been able to see the parents of the children that run down our hall, not as irresponsible and inconsiderate, but as the exhausted wranglers of triplets. I've also learned that the chain smoker above us as a man who has recently learned that he has terminal cancer.  

Their behaviour is not the result of the identify I've assigned them. Rather it is the result of life. 

While I can't excuse the violence that some people choose to inflict on others in the name of religion or politics or passion, as an individual, I can choose to stop the violence of thought seems to seep in way too easily. Why does it happen?! And why do we let it? Hopefully, 2015 will be a year filled with more positivity and more compassion to those around me. 

20 January 2015

School | Episode 21 & 22 ● by Jess

Today I am posting two films that I've been dying to share for months now. They are two films I made of the children I teach and I've been waiting (rather impatiently) for my school to make them available online.

Unfortunately, I don't know when they'll be getting around to that, so in the mean time I'm posting these private versions so the fam bam back at home can see it. Unfortunately, I can't make them public until the school posts them for contractual reasons, but hopefully it will be soon!

16 January 2015

5 Ways to Get Free Tickets in London ● by Jess

London is a great place for entertainment and there is literally always something happening. That being said, it is also an INSANELY expensive city. When people told us that we'd be paying about 50% more than NYC, I didn't believe it.... But *oh* how I believe them now. When I think about the cost of rent on our tiny studio flat, a little bit of me dies inside. 

Because it is so expensive, we zealously pinch pennies so that we can travel. It doesn't leave much for enjoying all that London has to offer entertainment wise. Here are a few ways Jon and I have made the most of... well, nothing!

1) Be In the BBC Audience

It's no secret that tv stations will often recruit people to sit the audience for their shows, but the BBC is AMAZING when it comes to this, because BBC doesn't just do tv, they also record a lot of music (most for radio but also for televised concert productions). If you check their Be In The Audience page regularly, you can often find a great show to attend. I generally just look for the orchestral recordings, but their are some great live tv programs you can also attend. The other day, my friends at work got tickets to a comedy show and Jon and I just got tickets for symphony, and the best part is, it was free!

[Please note: When you sign up, BBC will email you the tickets, but that doesn't guarantee you a seat. You still have to arrive a little early, as they send out more tickets than they have room for to ensure a packed house.]

2) Evensong

If you've tried going to one of the large cathedrals here in London, during the week, you'll know that they charge you an arm, a leg, and probably your first born child just to walk in the door (except for Westminster Abbey, which lets you in free if you have a CitySave card). The fabulous loophole is that worship services are always free, and they aren't just on Sundays (though Sunday is a lovely time to go).

I don't think their are words enough in the English language to convey the caliber of the choirs in some of these cathedrals. Going to Choral Evensong (Evening Prayer) services have been among the most beautiful, transcendent experiences I've had-- in my LIFE! I highly recommend attending. There are few musical experiences that I think can compare. 

Here are the times of some of my favourite services:

Mon-Sat 5:00pm-5:45, Sun 3:15pm-4:00pm

Check website link above as there are several different types of Choral services, depending on the date. 

Sundays 5:30pm

Other churches worth checking out (I've not attended services at any of these, though I imagine they are lovely):

3) Twitter

One of the few things I really find twitter to be great for is finding tickets. Just type in key words like "London Free Ticket" or "Events Free Soho" and you usually get several solid hits. These are mainly for gallery openings, fashion shows, or conferences, but I've seen other shows as well. Definitely a place to check if your looking for freebies. 

4) Volunteer

Working and volunteering with non-profits, does require a little extra work, but it seriously pays off-- not just in feeling good because you are helping people, but also because you often get invited to cool events and places for free.

Jon and I have done this several times, and it always ends up being fabulous. Last Christmas, we helped at an event where all we had to do was serve mince pies and we got to sit in the second row of an amazing celebrity studded concert. It was fab.

5) Write Your MP

This one is probably the best piece of advice I have to share today. 

Did you know there are places you can go in London, like up inside of Big Ben or a secret Key Ceremony at the Tower of London for FREE???! All you have to do is write your MP (for my non-British readers, this is basically like writing to your Congressman), ask for permission, and go through the (often painfully long and bureaucratic) process of getting a ticket.

Jon and I finally managed to get tickets for Big Ben (technically the Elizabeth Tower, as Big Ben is just the bell inside the tower) for May, but it did take three months to finally get a date settled. Hopefully others will not find this as I had the unfortunate timing of dealing with a new parliament coming in, which probably doubled the amount of time it took.

The only caveat to this (at least for Big Ben, not sure about Tower of London) is that you have to actually live here. No tourists on this one I'm afraid. 

Hopefully, these ideas have been helpful for you! If you have any other ideas, please do share in the comments. I'd love to hear any crazy or creative ways people are having fun for free!

13 January 2015

Christmas Card Curse ● by Jess

London lifestyle blog
When it comes to Christmas cards, I'm pretty much cursed. 

In 2012, Christmas #1 together, the hard drive with our photos on it failed. In 2013, our photographer cancelled on us at the very last minute. This year, the big 2014, I was determined. Nothing was coming between me and getting those blasted cards out. 

We had a really fun photoshoot with the fabulous Mark Nortcliffe and lovely Kim Byrne. Afterwards, I did an obsessive amount of research to find the PERFECT cards. I settled on a set of beautiful, handmade cards, created by women in a small village in Bangladesh. Initially, I chose them because you directly pay the village women (via Paypal), but I fell in love with them because of the craftsmanship. Receiving them in the post was like opening a box of paper Faberge eggs. They were so delicate and detailed, I wanted to keep them all for myself. 

Needless to say, I was feelin' it this year. 
kissing on a bridge

The grand plan was to spend the train ride up to Perthshire writing charming, witty messages, sure to warm the figgy pudding of all our stateside friends and family. 

However, I was in a for a little surprise. Shortly after taking my seat on the train, an elderly lady sat down next to me. Watching her sit down was sort of like observing risen bread dough; it always seems to land with a decided plop, then slowly wheeze out as it sags amorphously over its surroundings. 

Resultantly, my elbow-- which has a tendency to wobble around when I'm writing-- had no more space of its own. I therefore determined to do it later. I slipped the card down by my feet for safe keeping. 

Soon enough though, our train arrived in Edinburgh. Because it was an Inverness bound train, it would only be stopping in Edinburgh for a moment or two. So, as we slowed, I informed my seat-mate that I'd soon be alighting. 

She looked at me, clearly annoyed. Then, ever so slowly, she rose and grumbled, drawing out the ascent as long as she possibly could. 

Were it not for my growing panic, I may have actually been able to admire the 30 seconds it took her to stand (Because seriously, try it... it takes skill). As it was though, I felt like a character from one of those horror films, watching life rise from some primordial ooze; but instead of fearing it, I was willing it (nay, pleading with it!) to move... at least just fast enough for me to get off the train. 

At long last, there was a gap, and I broke free. I grabbed my bags and darted from the train. We made it off in time!

Unfortunately, the relief was short lived. After arriving at my friend Harriet's house, I realised my envelope of glorious little cards was still on the floor of the train. 

So, here I am: Curse - 3, Jess - 0

Maybe 2015 will be my year....

[The photographs pictured above were some of the ones we were considering putting in our card. Image #1 (in front of Big Ben) was taken by Mark Nortcliffe Photography and image #2 (on the bridge) was taken by Kim Byrne Photography]

10 January 2015

A Ceilidh for Hogmanay | Young Rubbish Vlog | Episode 20 ● by Jess

Our New Years was spent in the most unexpected way-- with a bundle of new friends in the middle of nowhere Scotland-- dancing with people we've never met and toasting in 2015 with fireworks, laughter and holding hands while singing Auld Lang Syne. In short, it may be the most memorable New Year I've ever had.

Thanks to all you wonderful people that made it happen. 2015 is filled with the promise of better, brighter tomorrows and I'm excited to see where it takes us :)

young people happy

06 January 2015

Exploring the Grounds at Strone | Young Rubbish Vlog | Episode 19 ● by Jess

Sometimes, even though everyone over here speaks English, Jon and I manage to completely miss what's being said. While sitting at dinner one night at Harriet's home (Strone House), the discussion transitioned to what we'd all be doing the next day. 

It was determined that we were going up to the "bothy." There were some intimating winks and nudges from around the table; but, whatever the inside joke was, we had obviously missed something. Finally, Jon asked, "wait, are be talking about a brothel?" 

Everyone, of course, found this hilarious, as they were most certainly NOT talking about a brothel (or "brothy" as it was later dubbed). In Scotland, little cabins are called bothies.  Harriet's family had one up on their property-- it was the cutest little one room log home with a very serious wood burning stove in the middle. We went up an had lunch the next day... giggled about more about the prospect of a little "brothy" in the middle of nowhere... and slid around on the lochs nearby (until we heard the ice start to crack). 

girls in front of waterfall
A beautiful little river runs through the property at Strone. We had to brave some very steep stairs, but the view of an old hydrogenerator and icicle structures that formed along the banks were well worth it.

icicle riverscottish river

In front of Strone House is this adorable lochlin (a little lake, aka a pond), that froze over. Tom, Harriet's boyfriend, managed to smash a rock though the centre and we realised the ice was super thick-- which was fantastic because we were kind of worried we'd fall through (YOLO!).

04 January 2015

A Scottish Shoot | Young Rubbish Vlog | Episode 18 ● by Jess

I have this wonderful friend named Harriet, from work, that invited Jon and me to come up to her home in Scotland over the New Year. I said yes before really understanding what I had agreed to... We were in for a very authentic Scottish experience.

Our first full day up in Perthshire, we got to watch a shoot. Having had absolutely no experience or understanding about these sorts of things, I entered full blown panic mode when (earlier in the month) Harriet started listing off protocol for events like the shoot and dinner we'd be participating in. I was sure I was going to unintentionally offend someone with my American manners. 

Noting my growing hysteria, she attempted to assuage my concerns, saying, "Just watch Downton Abbey... it's probably about the same." Nothing could have freaked me out (or excited me) more. All those years of watching Jane Austen films were finally going to pay off!

Fortunately, Harriet was good to break down everything-- from what to wear at dinner to what an appropriate thank you gift is. For the shoot, we had to rise early and wear dark clothing (about 500 layers of it)-- particularly in green and brown with wellies, and a tweed hunting cap. 

The shoot is broken up in the "drives," basically locations for shooting. Each "gun" (shooter) has a specific place to stand. The beaters and dogs go off into the trees or brush and drives the birds toward the guns with sticks or flags. The guns shoot shotguns and usually only aim at birds over their specific area (not over their fellow guns space). 

Once a bird is shot, the dogs run to get them and bring them back. Then, after awhile, we all jump in the cars and head to the next location. Of course, in quintessential British fashion, we stop for tea/wine and lunch between the various drives.

If a gun shoots his or her first bird of a specific species (i.e. grouse, pigeon, pheasant, etc) then they get to be blooded, meaning they put the blood of the bird on their face and wear it for the rest of the day. 

At the end of the day, the guns and beaters divvy up the spoils, after which all the guests head back to the house for a nap and, afterwards, a gather fancy dinner. 

Everyone was so gracious about letting me photograph and shoot video. Thanks to everyone! Especially Harriet and her lovely parents who hosted us. I still have two more vlogs to do from our trip to Scotland, so stay tuned!

hunting pointers
For everyone wondering about photos, I have a quite a few more (although I did realise I shot mostly video during the day).  After I finish these two other videos and get them online, I'll get the photos set up in a dropbox so they can be downloaded. Just send me your email if you want then :)