Linguists do the weirdest things

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There are a number of topics I meant to write about in the last entry that I didn’t. This fact solicited a new document on my computer entitled “Things to blog about.” So now I can jot down the little things that I want to remember and will most likely forget. And it helps give me some kind of idea of where I’m going with what.

So. Something that happened right at the beginning of my Damascus experience was the flight. And I forgot to mention something which I really do want to remember. Two things actually.

Firstly, when I was lounging around in the departure lounge, I sat near 4 American golden-agers who were talking about their flight being 5 hours and the time difference being an hour. So I struck up conversation with them, opening “Let me guess: you’re going to Damascus.” I was right! So we chatted for a while, talking about our various intentions and expectations of the place. Turns out they were just travelling, but they were super intrigued by my moving to live there for 6 months. So was/am I. It’s still pretty scary.

Anyway, I left them when the gate number came up and said I’d see them there. When I got to the gate, there were loads and loads of [insert more politically correct term for OAPs here] just wandering around and they all knew each other. But there were loads of them! I couldn’t believe it. And they were all saying thigns like, “I haven’t seen you in ages! How are you? (How was your hip operation?)” (ooh, too mean). So I was a bit confused. My first thought was that they were all ex-patriots from Damascus who’d come back to see family or something and I was scratching my head for a reason why March would be a good excuse to go home.

The few of us that weren’t in this group (we were very identifiable), all gathered near or around me (funnily, though, the Americans sort of latched on to the OAPs). I made vague eye contact with this woman opposite me and we eyed the group of them up together.

Anyway – the point is (and I found this out myself on the plane), they were all from some London guild. The woman I was sitting next to (the chances were v high that I’d be next to someone from the group) asked me whether I was “with the London Guild too?”, to which I obviously replied no. Anyway. She told me that they were on a 10-day tour around Syria (or just Damascus, I forget) and that there were 94 of them. Which was pretty scary for the uninitiated.

So that’s one thing I wanted to record.

Another thing I want to write about is the nature of blogging. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I actually aim to do with my blog, considering I read a lot of other people’s blogs and I do actually have stuff to write about and, reportedly and seemingly, in an interesting way (oh god, I’m a “blogger.” Now I feel sick). But anyway. My main point is not to write interesting literature. My aim is to keep people at home up-to-date on what’s going on with me and also to record things that I’m very likely to forget later so that I can read back and enjoy all the memories in my head. In fact, that last one’s the entire reason – and it’s hyper selfish. It’s also a bit of a forum for me to show off the pictures of stuff I’ve taken and that, but I’m not doing so well on that front. And also, that filters nicely into the “letting people at home know what’s going on”-thing. So yeah.

This was all kicked off by Fay telling me that she reread the article about when she surprised me in Heidelberg. She said that she’d reread it because she wanted to remember it and it was written well. I like that people enjoy what I write. But I don’t plan these things very much; I just let’r rip. Or whatever that phrase is.

On that topic: I did write a list of things I want to put in this entry (and have done before) so the “I don’t plan what I write” is a bit of a (massive) lie.

While I’m being self-analytical, I should write that I’m so happy people have continued to read the drivel I’m writing and I’d like to thank everyone who’s sent me emails! It’s so lovely to hear from people and my current access to the internet situation means I can’t write pretty wealthy replies at home and then have my email client send them all off when I do get online (which is far more often than I’d like at the minute). So yeah – thank you for your continued readership.

So here’s how things are going.

Now I look at this list, most of the stuff is just a one-sentence thing, which means my blog’d be short, but who likes summaries? Not I. So I’ll write at a bit more length.

Arabic is hard. I mean, I knew that before I came. And I was vaguely aware of the idea that I’d have to study hard and really engage the fact that I was studying Arabic when I got here. I mean – I’d expected that it would get more real after I got here; before it was just this weird little thing I’d study every day, cold and grammatical, much of a muchness to maths really. But now, I’m having to engage with it like I had to engage with German years ago, when I started to put things into practise.

This is something that everyone has to deal with here, I think. I’ve come in late to it, so everyone’s used to it now. The bad days are hard and the good days are just ‘ok.’ It’s confusing for that reason – it’s quite difficult to get like a “good” day, but then I guess that’s dependent on a lot of things. Fay’s doing really well, for example, and I’m sure she has days (like I did in Germany at the beginning), where you just feel so on top of it and you can feel the fluency coming.

It’s made me really deal with that, as I say. And made me re-evaluate the whole reason I’m studying this language in the first place. I mean – why Arabic? Why did I choose Arabic? What’s it for? I’ve just remembered I dream I had in Germany about here before I arrived (I think, this is all very vague): I had to run around the city and collect 10 reasons (which were tangible… stupid dreams) why I was learning Arabic and I was struggling to put them all together. Pretty obvious what that means.

A school marching band’s just banded past. And it was loud.

The course (hereafter called ‘school’) at uni is an odd thing, really. Because I’ve come in half-way through the intermediate level, all my classmates have this bank of vocab that I’m just not used to that they’ve been picking up from the previous levels. And others of them have really strong speaking. And the teacher speaks in Arabic at quite a rate and, because the others are totally used to being taught in Arabic, there’s rarely a problem with comprehension. When she uses words she doesn’t think we’ll know, she stops and asks if we know what it means and it’s no problem if you don’t: she’s a good explainer. In fact, she’s a very good teacher.

The flip-side, about me being weak, has really given me some grief, particularly towards the middle of the week, when I often came out of the class completely de-motivated and pretty depressed. I think it was Tuesday afternoon when I fumbled with the edges of the idea of just going. Just telling school I was done with this, going home, packing my stuff up and just going. But then I remembered I’d made myself The Pact of 2 Months, so I can’t. And I’m glad I didn’t now anyway, because I don’t want to anymore. And because I know that now, I know how to deal with it in the future.

There is, luckily, a really easy way to force myself into a wonderful mood and that’s music. I always delay how soon I get my headphones (<3) out and listen to something because it really picks me up. But I did it the other day and it was amazing – Arnold’s first symphony. I listened to a symphony a day, currently about to listen to 6. I realised that I don’t really like his earlier symphonies too (now I sound massively annoying: “I don’t like much of his earlier work”). I listened to the Rite as well, because that just makes me love things.

Phew. Getting this list down slowly.

Oh yeah, on the picture. This is what I thought was my local mosque’s minaret, but it’s actually my second nearest one. I didn’t realise this until afterwards, but the picture’s taken from my bedroom door (with 10x optical zoom on trusty Sony. Still need to give him a name). Fay and I just got a shisha.

Ah. While still vaguely on the Arabic theme: I bought a Hans Wehr dictionary the other day, which is the definitive Arabic-English dictionary on the market and is arranged by root, rather than alphabetically which is super handy for studying the language or translations; it means you can look up a word and see how it gets there and what words are made of the same root – it’s actually really fascinating. You very often get words which completely change meaning when they get further down the forms. Can’t think of any example other than the one I stumbled on by accident (can’t remember why I was looking up the root ja-da-fa (ج د ف) now, but…): tajdeef (the ‘infinitive’ of the 2nd root of those letters) means blasphemy and also rowing, the sport. How weird is that! Can’t see any logical link it, but I’ve forgotten what other meanings that root had. But that’s a funny story anyway.

Anyway, the reason I started that train of thought is because you look up words in the thing and the very last mutation of the way the letters can be arranged around auxiliary letters is so, so often the verb, “to look up alphabetically.” How can that many words mean “to look up”?! Like sometimes it says that more than once a page! It’s ridiculous.

By chance, an Arab was testing me on how to say that the other day and I had a small internal laugh about which one I could choose (as if I’ve learnt any of them). I said a different verb which also means ‘to search for’ and used the correct preposition. He said I was right, so I’m just guessing all of those other words belong to that flowery level of Arabic which doesn’t get used all that much.

(My God, I love writing on Word – autocorrect is love)

Last thing before I start addressing the smaller things on my “things to blog about” in the form of a end-of-entry list: “language students do the weirdest things.” (I was struggling for a title so this is titled retrospectively)

I was thinking about how devoted to our degrees we lot have to be. Like, most other students have to do very little unusual stuff to be advance in their degrees – English students will very happily spend their three years at the host university, reading and writing and all other inflections of Englishy goodness. Engineering, chemistry, pharmacy, vet students, medics might have to go do a year in industry somewhere or something similar, but year abroad students? We have to move abroad to complete our degree.

What great devotion it is to my degree that I’ve moved to the Middle East for 6 months! And I can’t continue my degree unless I’ve spent time in the Middle East. Not at Durham anyway, without some pretty special circumstance. I mean, don’t get me wrong – it’s a huge and amazing experience, but so, so out of a comfort zone. I mean, Germany wasn’t bad at all (Jenny made it worse by making me aware of the words “I’m moving abroad” and, if you recall (probably not.. not sure whether I wrote about it now), I was dealing with the idea of the one-way ticket). Syria’s a bit like that too. In some ways, it’s more than that because the sentence “I live in Syria” is true (even if “live” is a bit far, being that it’s only (‘only’) 6 months, but still).

It’s so strange. You gotta be a special type to study languages.

(Obviously no offence to anyone who studies a boring subject – there is of course opportunity to travel abroad (cf Sophia and Sarah), but it’s not obligatory. This is just reflection).

I miss Sophia so much.

And I miss everyone in Germany. The Germans, the English folk… Everyone. I miss Heidelberg. I’ve found here that everyone really misses where they were before; this experience is just hugely different.

Ok, list time:

Had a second shave with the same guy – not as good this time if I’m honest, my face hurts a bit, but I think he’d had a long day; he wasn’t nearly as chatty. Suffered a change in weather – it went from hugely warm and summery (and a bit unbearable), through really, really windy and now into cold and sunny. Stupid March. Heard the words (in English) “Here’s twenty-five thousand pounds” and felt super, super rich (was only $550 though), broken my photo virginity of Damascus (as proved above), decided to make a Facebook album (slash conceptualism) on currencies of my year abroad, experienced the Arabic sentence: “If there’s no movement from Daniel for a while, he’s working with wool!” from Abu Tariq (landlord) (lol!), done my first wash (I was running out of pants, man), met Fay’s host family a bit more (twice now) and saw her host-mum, Widdo, who is really funny, do some funky dancing after she’d made us lunch (hilarities), went out for breakfast with Sam (housemate), almost failed at speaking German with this women from Switzerland (must get some regular German contact); really, really craved a Bakewell tart; successfully told an Arab to stop speaking to me in English (the guy I bought my dictionary from actually), worried about a piece of homework I have to do (we have to transcribe a listening text which is about 3 minutes long – scary! But, like teach said, it’s good practise for writing, listening and spelling and all sorts), had lols with Fay about the ATM near my house: Fay: “Is it electrocuting you?” me: “No” Fay: “That means it’s not working.” … me: “Aaah, Syria.” (haha); worried about whether to get my host mum something for mother’s day; unsuccessfully navigated my way home from uni by myself, (remember all the broken pegs), struggled to find a replacement for the “Alle Richtungen” banner.

Can’t think of anything else. And bored.

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