Friday 30 October 2015

The importance of feeling settled.

One of the most challenging parts of working abroad is trying to find reconciliation between the transitory nature of the work, and yet feeling connected and committed to it.

This is certainly the case working in development, where I've always known that I'm only there for a temporary period of time, and yet to be truly effective in my work, I've needed to find ways to engage with the organisation and with the wider community to understand their perspective and overcome cultural barriers. Which is not going to happen if I've only spent six months in the country, and already have one foot halfway out the door.

Of course, some would argue that, as outsiders, we certainly shouldn't get too comfortable. Ultimately, we're merely guests in another country, and shouldn't outstay our welcome.

At the same time, living a life of being constantly in transit can have its toll. The settled I feel in one place, the more anxious I am to keep moving. I love travelling, and taking in new experiences, but there can be a fine line between being free-spirited and being permanently adrift. I don't know if it's a matter of perspective or merely semantics, but it's there.

In preparation for heading overseas on assignment, I was advised to use the first few months after arrival to focus on "settling in". I believe that this is vital, both in terms of establishing good work practices and relations, but also maintaining my mental health. So, I've collated a number of personal considerations to remain mindful of when trying to feel more settled in a new place.

1. Don't try to change things all at once. Some excellent advice that I received early on in my career is that, when starting a new role, maintain the status quo for the first few months. Ask questions, make observations, but don't change anything - no matter how dysfunctional things may seem. This may fly in the face of my personal and professional intuition - not to mention a boss who expects me to change things straight away - but the reality is that things are the way they are for a reason. You can't fix things until you truly understand the reason that they are broken - and sometimes things aren't as broken as they seem. Trying to do otherwise straight away is a surefire way to burn out too quickly, resulting in disillusionment and motivation to fly out on the next plane.

2. Establish routines. Whether it's going to the gym on the same three evenings of the week, waking up at 6:50am sharp every morning, taking on weekly dance classes or watching The Walking Dead every Monday night, personal routines help me fall into a pattern that starts to normalise my experience of living abroad. I know how the next week is going to ensue, and I have a plan for getting through it.

3. Create my own space. Living in a new flat can feel a lot like living in a hotel. When I moved to Hanoi, one of the first things I purchased for my room was a rug. It really tied the room together. In my current apartment, I completely rearranged the furniture into a way that I felt most comfortable with. I bought art paper and crayons and made motivational posters to stick up around the room (and also remind me of personal schedules, as above). I stuck up various ephemerah - flyers, postcards, ticket stubs - from my experiences. It's important to be able to come back to a place that is distinctly my own home.

4. Establish social circles. This is one of the most essential parts of feeling settled in any context, whether abroad or at home, but it's perhaps one of the most difficult. I don't know if I'm becoming more misanthropic in my old age, or just more introverted, but I find it increasingly difficult to connect with strangers and make new friends. I think that it's perhaps that, in my younger years, I used to force myself to be regular friends with people I didn't necessarily like that much, and now I'm less inclined to spend my time with people who I'm not on the same wavelength with. However, living abroad, I find that the pool of socially-compatible people becomes minuscule, and I feel like it doesn't make much difference if I'm out with people, or at home with a book - I still often feel socially isolated and alone.

The other aspect of social life that makes a huge difference is the transitory nature of the people I encounter, both at work and socially. Most of the friends that I made in the first couple of months here have already left, and it's hit me hard not long ago, where I'd just stopped trying to meet new people unless I know that they're going to stick around. More recently, I've started to try to pull myself out of that funk, and actively make more new friends - reminding myself that even if they leave, there will still be opportunities to stay in touch if we really connect as friends. But ultimately, I need to be part of a stable social circle that I can feel connected and secure in.

5. Personal relationships. I've always felt more grounded in a place when I've had a partner. With a partner, I've had more of a responsibility to have conviction in my future plans, because they involve another person. And, of course, these overseas experiences can feel more satisfying when I have somebody special to share them with. Whereas being single, I have an infinite number of future timelines ahead of me, and as liberating as that can be, it is also unsettling. In the past, the potential for a stable relationship has meant saying no to opportunities overseas, and on the flip-side, a breakup - or just the seemingly complete absence of potential partners - has made me more inclined to run off and make a fresh start elsewhere. I know that this shouldn't be a deciding factor when it comes to one's personal and professional life, but it's impossible to avoid.

6. Appreciate the local things. This much is obvious - the more I get to know the local culture and places, the more settled I'm going to feel. And as tempting as it is to fly off to Vienna or Berlin or Istanbul every other month, I also make an effort to explore places in Kosovo, Albania and (the FYRO) Macedonia. It makes for a more authentic experience of living in the Balkans, and it's also less expensive. The rest of Europe will still be there in the future.

7. Focusing on the now, and not the next. Another common piece of advice is to know the next 2-3 jobs in my career path, and how I'm going to get there. Whilst this is definitely important, it's also important for me to remember that I'm currently in a job right now. I need to care about the work, respect the process, and support my employer and the community it serves to the best of my ability. Of course, my performance and achievements in my current role is what's going to lead to the next job, but it's not healthy to focus on the next thing until the opportunity actually presents itself. On the other hand, knowing where I want to move to next means that I need to focus on achieving results that facilitate that move. If my organisation shifts its focus - or the nature of my role - and the consequence is that I can no longer achieve or perform tasks on my career path, then it's time to seek out new opportunities.

Of course, all of these are easily said - or typed out into an orderly list - but life isn't as easy to plan out. Maybe feeling settled and secure is overrated, and the best thing I can do is to let go of trying to orchestrate my life, and rather experience life as it comes, be open to new things, and make decisions as they are presented to me. Ultimately, those decisions are the only thing I truly have any control over.

Sunday 25 October 2015

Living overseas changes a person...

This much is self-evident when you consider the ways that experiencing the culture, society and workplace of another country expand's one's perspective on the world. Having lived and worked in four very different countries outside Australia over the past five years, my attitudes towards my life and work have substantially changed.

However, in this case, I'm talking about the physical impact that moving to a new country has had on me - as these are aspects that we so often overlook, but can so often have a huge impact on our physical and emotional wellbeing.

Food - For me, food is an integral part of travelling and experiencing other cultures. However, moving countries can also mean a huge change in diet, which the body can take time to adjust to. When I moved to Papua New Guinea, there were weeks during which my diet consisted mostly of dry biscuits, tinned beans and fresh fruit (which varied, depending on the season). It was depressing, and I certainly lost my appetite for a while. On the flip-side, living in Viet Nam was foodie heaven, and like many expats who move there, I certainly put on a couple of kilos. And whilst there were plenty of leafy greens in the food, there was also a lot of sugar and fatty meat involved. Now that I'm living in the Balkans, I have to confess that I'm much less inspired, and most food options around here involve bread, pastry, processed meat and cheese. Fortunately, there's a fantastic greengrocer just up the road from my house, but the other reality is that cooking at home generally costs 2-3 times as much as eating out. And it can be tempting to lapse into a regular diet of burek, pizza or kebabs - but it's not exactly a healthy option, which leads me to...

Exercise - I've come to realise how much I've taken for granted having an active lifestyle. Back in Melbourne, two of my favourite things were swing dancing and riding my bike - both of which I'd be doing most evenings in the week. And whilst I could always work more on my fitness, it's been enough to keep me active enough to not feel like a completely unhealthy blob of a person. Unfortunately, I have yet to live in another place that has had a regular swing dance scene, and whilst I'd love to get a bicycle and zoom around the city streets like I did in Melbourne and Hanoi, I fear that in doing so, I may meet an unfortunate sticky end. The roads here aren't great, and the traffic is generally unaccommodating of non-automobile commuters on the road. After a few months, it's become apparent that I need to start doing that thing that I really, really dislike - going to the gym. On the plus side, it's given me an opportunity to reacquaint myself with my old favourite podcasts, and discover some new ones.

Alcohol - The expat life can be a somewhat alcoholic one - certainly compared to being back in Melbourne where I'd maybe have a couple of drinks on the weekend. Maybe it's the stress of dealing with cultural challenges, or just the lifestyle that goes with forcing oneself to go out and socialise with others, despite wanting to stay home and be a hermit with a book in a nest of pillows and quilts. But inevitably, there's alcohol involved. It can also help make the experience of mingling with people that I don't have much in common with more bearable. I certainly don't have a drinking problem, but whilst it's still possibly mostly taboo to talk about, I think it's fair to say that it can be a slippery slope to alcoholism if the overseas living experience isn't exactly going to play.

Cigarettes - Again, coming from Australia, it's generally accepted that smoking is bad, and will inevitably lead to lung cancer, so you shouldn't do it, nor should you smoke around others, especially not indoors. And yet, overseas, they are so cheap and plentiful. I've never worked in a place with so many smokers as I have now, nor have I walked out of so many restaurants where it was impossible to escape the smoke.

Coffee - Melbourne is very much a coffee city, and over my many years there I have to confess to having become something of a coffee snob. I've also gone through varying levels of caffeine addiction. Living in PNG and Vietnam, I have been lucky to have been able to access quality coffee from local producers. Strangely enough, Kosovo also has excellent coffee, at a quarter of the price, and for the first few months I'd be drinking 3-4 coffees a day. However, I've now reduced my caffeine intake to an espresso in the morning before work, and then switch to tea for the rest of the day.  I dread the day that I move to a place where the best available option is Nescafe, but maybe one day I'll have to face the option of going caffeine-free.

Sleep - I had the worst insomnia when I first arrived here in Kosovo. Apparently this is common for newly-arrived expats, and there are various theories ranging from the usual jet lag to the pollution and diet. Of course, all of the factors that I've mentioned above can influence sleep. It's something that I try to regulate as much as possible - getting to sleep before midnight, and waking up at 7am every day. But sometimes, like tonight, it's just not going to happen.

These past six months have been a difficult transition in my life, and whilst it's often easiest just to focus on the work and address cultural and social challenges, these other aspects certainly sneak up on me. As the saying goes, mens sana in corpore sano - and just as I need to remain mindful of my emotional wellbeing, I also need to be aware of the physical influences and changes that are happening in my life, and adjust my habits accordingly.

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Letting go of Thinking We Know Best

Recently, on the 13th of October, the winners of the Inky Awards were announced. I've been a fan of this initiative of the State Library of Victoria for many years, since I was a judge back in 2008. These awards recognise the best YA fiction from the previous year, in two categories: the Gold (Australian) and the Silver (International). Every year, I try to read as many of the long/shortlisted books, and then tune in to see what the outcome is. And whilst it's not always my first pick, it's often in my top 2 or 3 in each category.

So, when the awards were announced this year, I have to confess that was disappointed. Whilst most of the shortlisted novels were deserving works, the winners were far from my favourite of the bunch.

This shouldn't be such a big deal, but one thing that makes this programme unique is that the outcomes are decided by teenagers - four out of the six judges who decide the shortlist are teenagers, and the final verdict is decided through a vote by teenagers. Not librarians, or teachers, or publishers - as is the case with most YA literature awards - but teenage readers.

As a librarian and a YA literature specialist, I stake my professional reputation on maintaining an awareness of the industry, and understanding the needs of teenage readers.

But at the end of the day, the inescapable truth is that I'm not a teenager. I graduated from high school more than half my lifetime ago. Sure, I read a lot, and I can recognise a well-crafted, engaging story that has depth and balance in its themes and characters, but at the end of the day, I only know what I like.

And yet, so often, we librarians and teachers take up the role of definitive authority on what teenagers should read. When parents come to us with advise for what to give their child to read, we use our knowledge based on the books that we've read - or on reviews written by other adult readers.

And though I wasn't there, many of the moments from the awards ceremony were tweeted - this one says it all:

Just because we're the adult experts in the field, doesn't mean we should always assume that we know best. We need to spend more time actively engaging with our clients, and listen to them - even if it means having to accept truths that we don't agree with. Because it's not about us.

Of course, there is also an apt parallel to working in development. If we want to help people, we need to do things on their terms, not ours. Just because we're from a developed country, doesn't mean that we know best. We need to let go of this egocentric attitude, and listen.

Thursday 15 October 2015

Volunteering is not a dirty word...

I've been volunteering for most of my life.

I supposed the seeds must have been sown when I was a boy, taking part in various community service activities through groups like the scouts or through the Duke of Edinburgh Award program.

During my university years, I dedicated many of my summers breaks volunteering with a Summer School for high school students from disadvantaged and underprivileged backgrounds. I eventually took leadership roles, and spent some of my later uni years as a director of the program. Every year around September or October, I'd start checking with my friends, "Are you volunteering for Summer School this year?" Most of my social circle would be involved - or maybe it was just that most of those involved became my social circle.

I took on organising roles in theatre groups and university clubs, like the Melbourne University Choral Society. I worked with volunteer committees in managing rehearsal venues, hiring professional musicians to support rehearsals, planning camps, and producing performances in major venues to critical acclaim in mainstream media.

Once I started working full-time, I suddenly had less time for that kind of commitment, but nevertheless I found myself volunteering for the Australian Library and Information Association, working on a number of committees over the years for groups, conferences, and board advisory.

And then I started working as an international volunteer, of which I've already discussed the pros and cons. The difference is that this was full-time volunteering, with a living allowance in lieu of a salary. Effectively, volunteering became my job.

At the heart of all these examples are a number of factors:
- being a change agent and making a contribution
- embracing new experiences and the learning that comes with it
- sharing and developing professional skills with others to achieve outcomes
- creating meaningful connections through collaboration and social interaction

Throughout my life, volunteering has expanded my horizons in so many ways, geographically, professionally, socially, and experientially.

However, it was when I tried to return to a job in Australia that I started to realise the stigma of being a volunteer.

I almost wrote real job just then.

That's how ingrained this issue is in our society. Through time, I noticed a number of attitudes emerge about volunteering:

1. "Good for you. I wish I could just quit my job and volunteer, but I've got a career to worry about." Everybody knows somebody who's spent time teaching English to orphans in India, planting trees in Nepal or digging wells in Ghana. So they assume that all international volunteering must be mostly like that - unpaid, unqualified labour, and whilst arguably noble and worthwhile venture, it's not a real job.

2. "It must have been hard to get anything done, especially with the lack of technology." Development work and First World Professional work just don't exist on the same scale. What represents a simple achievement in my job back in Australia could be a task of seemingly Sisyphean proportions, and so just establishing a basic understanding of a professional concept amongst staff can be a far greater achievement. And without context, employers back home might look at my list of achievements, and not appreciate the challenges overcome to achieve the most fundamentals of outcomes.

3. "Did you have a good holiday? It looked like you were having an amazing time." I feel that this is partially my fault, because most of my social media interaction involved a trip somewhere new and exotic at least once a month. But it doesn't really create a balanced view of the reality of volunteering overseas, and there are aspects that only those closest to me would be aware of.

4. "You don't have current experience." Because my last two years of work doesn't translate directly into the tasks at hand in the job that I'm applying for. Never mind the 12 years of experience before that. Honestly, if you want to recruit somebody who's been doing the same job for the last five years, then I'm not going to be that person. But if you want somebody who has developed the kinds of soft skills that can only come from working across half a dozen industries in four different countries, with a solid professional foundation, then that's me. The reality is that whomever you recruit is going to need to adapt their skills, attitudes, and knowledge for the new workplace, regardless of whether they come from overseas, or just down the road.

Of course, there are a few attitudes that are often left unsaid. The main one is the idea that volunteering isn't real work - because if it were real work, then I would be valued for it and paid accordingly. In Australia, we often have quite strict labour laws that state that volunteers must not perform core duties that would otherwise be performed by a paid professional. In the context of the Australian workplace, I agree with this. To do otherwise would imply that the work isn't worth paying for, and both diminishes the role of the volunteer, and the value of the other professional staff who are effectively being replaced.

It's a completely different matter when the organisation is based in a developing country, and either can't afford to hire professional staff, or there aren't any professional staff located in the region.

A research paper from Australian Volunteers International found that, despite volunteers developing strong are rare skills, "the term ‘volunteer’ itself diminishes the value of their experience in the eyes of prospective employers, leading them to regard the volunteer assignment as irrelevant to paid employment back in Australia." Some returnees avoided using the term "volunteer", instead focusing on the professional work that they did. Others highlighted the recruitment process for the volunteer program - that it was a competitive process, and participants generally needed 3-5 years of professional experience.

Finally, the reality is that our society is full of unpaid workers, who are developing valuable skills, doing work that is important to them and contributes to their immediate and wider communities. Whether they are stay-at-home mothers and fathers, charity volunteers, special interest community groups, parent volunteers at schools, full-time disability carers, community arts organisers, and so on. And then there are teachers, whose paid hours are in no way aligned to the amount of work that they do.

I know that there aren't always the available resources to pay everybody for their work, but that doesn't make it any less professional. Let's recognise people for their hard work and achievements, and stop focusing on how much they make.

Sunday 11 October 2015

The pros and cons of international volunteering.

So, I was looking at my resume recently, and I realised that I have accumulated a total of two years of international volunteer work. Whilst I have absolutely no regrets about my life choices in recent years, I do have mixed feelings about Being A Volunteer.

Just to clarify, I have been a international volunteer in the sense that I've worked in a range of government-funded assignments, posted within organisations, sharing my professional skills and knowledge in the delivery of information services and cultural heritage programs, where I've been provided with return flights and a living allowance, which, whilst generous, is far below the professional salary that I'd otherwise earn. That said, I haven't spent a cent of my own money, nor have I done any unqualified labour (i.e. digging wells or building schools).

So, based on my personal experience, here are some reflections on the pros and cons of international volunteering. (Disclaimer: Every volunteer's experience is different, depending on their field and location.)

Pro - I'm Doing A Good Thing. The first agency that I was deployed through states that "Altruism is the driving force behind everything we do." For me, I wanted to use my professional skills to help people. By volunteering, I could use my perspective to evaluate practices and procedures, and through interacting with staff, I could identify ways that they could grow professionally. Furthermore, the volunteer programs that I was involved with had a strong focus on sustainable capacity building as best practice, rather than just going in and doing things for them.

Con - At best, I'm perpetuating a cycle of dependence. Capacity-building is all great in theory, but for most NGOs, the bottom line is "What can we get for free?" There are definitely times as a volunteer when I've thought, "I'm the best person that they could get for free, but if they had the money instead, they could hire national / local staff with a similar level of professional skill, plus local language fluency." Furthermore, information and knowledge management is a difficult beast, where cultural context is everything. Managers expect me to be able to come in and deliver a product that would work back in Australia, but information seeking behaviour and knowledge systems vary from place to place, and resources are limited. International aid just isn't as simple as sending in professionals with solutions, and recipient organisations often don't share the same strategic values and goals as their donors.

Pro - It's a great cultural experience. I've been to places that I would never have otherwise visited in my lifetime. I've visited some pretty remote locations in the world, and learnt first-hand of the issues faced by some of the world's most disadvantaged minorities. These are important life experiences to bring back to Australia. To be able to empathise with others in a multicultural and multi-ethnic context is an important trait in a professional that can't be taught in theory. Plus the food in South-East Asia is the best I'll ever eat.

Con - That sounds suspiciously like volun-tourism. I'll be honest - it is, to an extent. As a volunteer, I've had some of the best tourist experiences of my life. And whilst the isolation has definitely been challenging from time to time, I've hardly been living in impoverished conditions. As easy as it is to play the "I've taken a huge pay-cut to volunteer" card, the reality is that (a) even as a volunteer, I'll still be earning much more than a local worker, and (b) at the end of the day, I can always just leave go back to Australia. It seems a little wrong that the aid industry, to some extent, exists to support what are, essentially, lifestyle choices.

Pro - Okay, altruism aside, at least it's real work. I'm probably not the only librarian who's wondered if I really needed a Masters Degree in order to spend the majority of my time taking books on and off shelves and dealing with disputes about overdue library book fines. As an international volunteer, I've dealt with a wide range of scenarios that have required me to use my professional skills in identifying the information needs of stakeholders, and designing products that deliver that information and knowledge.

Con - It's much HARDER work. My time working as an international volunteer has made me come to appreciate the comfort and convenience of working within an established library organisation in the Western world. For most professionals within their first ten years in the industry, it's about following procedures and strategic goals set by those in far, far higher positions than me. However, as an international volunteer, I've been expected to be a change agent. And as exciting as that opportunity is, it is hard - especially given the cultural aspects involved, and not wanting to perpetuate the flaws of a more colonialist approach, which is often already endemic in the system. And even when I think I'm doing everything right, it can always fall into a frustrating heap, and I'm back to square one.

Pro - I've developed unique professional skills. As much of my work has been under unique cultural situations, I've developed professional skills which I would never have developed back in Australia. Every situation is different, and in each role I've applied my professional skills to evaluate organisations and their staff, identify their information and knowledge needs, and developed products, services and programs to help them meet these needs.

Con - These skills are often seen as irrelevant. When applying for roles back in Australia after spending a substantial amount of time as an international volunteer, I've often received the feedback that I didn't have "recent Australian experience" or that they we unable to determine that I had "current experience". I am certainly concerned that the longer I spend outside the world of Australian libraries, the harder it will be for me to return - a sentiment expressed by some of those who I interviewed for the paper that I delivered at the ALIA National Conference last year. What remains to be seen is whether I've yet crossed that point of no return - or whether it really matters.

However, when all's said and done, being an international volunteer has made my career more diverse and interesting, and provided more scope for using my professional skills where they are most needed, but it's also meant that I've had to live with a life of more career insecurity and uncertainty.

That seems like a fair trade-off.

Monday 14 September 2015

First 24 hours in Berlin...

First impressions...

1. Every time I see the word wilkommen, this tune pops into my head...

2. Bicycles!! It's lovely to be in a place where lots of people cycle around town.
3. Even on Sunday morning, people dress up to go out to brunch. Every other person is a young tattooed hipster or possibly an ageing rockstar.
4. Bottleshops. People buy 500ml bottles of beer, open it at the counter (there's an opener handy) and then drink in the streets / on the trains. In fact, you can buy a beer on the train platform, and drink it on the spot.
5. Speaking of public transport - it's a little rusty around edges, but it's so easy to get about town! Plus on Saturday night it runs until 3am!
6. Variety of food! So many options again! My breakfast consisted of a green juice and multigrain toast with cream cheese and avocado. So good. And I had Vietnamese for dinner. It was pretty good. There's also a ramen place in town I need to find! Oh, and McDonalds has a quinoa vegie burger...
8. Literary events. I attended a few of the sessions for Graphic Novels - definitely want to check out more of Joann Sfar and Riad Sattouf's stuff, if I can find it in English. Then this evening, I attended a passionate and inspiring panel discussion on the state of feminism, with guests Mona Eltawahy, Laurie Penny and Josephine Deckard, who certainly didn't hold back, and with hundreds of people in the audience, the energy was electric - I walked out of the auditorium ready to do my part in destroying the patriarchy. And it was so refreshing to be at an event like this again - I feel like some parts of my brain have been left dormant since I left Australia, and it's moments like these that remind me of the things that I forget are still important.

Anyway, it's time to sleep, finally. More adventures await tomorrow...

Saturday 5 September 2015

Libraries as places for Coaches, Creators and Challengers.

So, yesterday I attended the second day of the Listening Skills workshop, facilitated by Barry Goldberg (I made a point of listening and remembering his name this time!).

It was more an extension of the ideas that were introduced on the first day, but there was one particular take-home message that struck a chord.

Whilst we were role-playing some exercises in talking and active listening, Goldberg observed that a number of us (including me) were following a common pattern. That is, that we were setting up relationships where we saw ourselves as either the persecuter, rescuer or victim.

He attributed this to Karpman's Drama Triangle, which identifies the three roles that we often play, in situations where there is a problem present, and how they relate to one another.
Attribution: Steven B. Karpman, M.D.
The main problem with this model is that the victim completely without agency, and is reliant on the rescuer to deliver them from the predicament, at the hands of the persecutor. However, without a victim, there can be no persecutor or rescuer. It focuses on the problem, rather than the solution.

Goldberg suggested that we take this model, and turn it around, according to David Emerald's "Empowerment Dynamic":
Here, the victim is now empowered to create their own solutions, where the focus is not on being rescued by somebody who has the solutions, but by being coached by somebody who can provide support. Similarly, the role of the perpetrator is now that of the challenger, who forces the creator to clarify their goals.

So, what does this have to do with librarians? As with my previous post, I would point out that traditionally, librarians have been the go-to person to seek out and deliver information, where they were the gatekeepers of knowledge, and the client was reliant of them for the solution, in a time where information was scarce. However, in this information age, there is far less need for librarians being information providers (rescuers) to powerless clients (victims), because they have access to a plethora of online content. Instead, we need to see ourselves as information coaches, who can support and empower our clients with the ability to create their own successful information-seeking strategies as the basis for developing their knowledge, and contend with those who would challenge them to clarify and articulate their outcomes.

Not only does this help empower those who have information needs, but it also manages an awareness of the roles that librarians still need to play in the community, where their perceived need would be otherwise redundant.

Thursday 3 September 2015

On listening and providing the right answers...

All my life, I've been primarily involved in helping people by listening to them and finding the right answers and solutions.

In the context of working in libraries, this is obvious - people come to the consult me with their information needs. I listen to them, asking questions to clarify their needs, and then proceed to identify a number of resources to meet their needs.

Similarly, in development work, I've participated in capacity building of organisations, by asking questions to ascertain what it is that they want to achieve, listening to their answers, identifying skills and knowledge that they should develop to meet these needs, and then share my own relevant skills and knowledge, guiding them through training and establishing new procedures, infrastructure and knowledge products.

In both of these examples, my role is set up as an expert, who clients consult to find solutions. More often than not, their expectation is that I will deliver the solution to them. And whilst it is far more sustainable for me to teach them to do it themselves, sometimes the timeframe is too short, sometimes they just aren't willing to learn, and of course, there are many other intervening factors, least of all being that deep down, I just want to help people and use my specialist skills and knowledge to make a difference, one way or another.

But after attending a training workshop today, I'm starting to question whether this is a good thing.

The workshop was on developing my listening skills. There was a lot of theory and psychology involved, mostly related to bonding patterns, and then there were videos like this one:

When I watched this video, I was totally with the guy - wanting to help the girl by offering a solution, since she was talking to him about her problem. However, as the training continued, it became clear that one key point about being a good listener is that we should not be taking on other people's problems and trying to fix them, but rather exercise empathy, and provide opportunities for the our clients to reflect on what it is that they are saying, and find their own solutions.

Furthermore, it's misleading to believe that there is a "right answer" to every problem, and it's unreasonable for somebody to expect me to deliver that answer for them. To quote the trainer, "There are no right answers - there are just choices that people make." When people thrust their problems onto us, we need to deflect them back onto the complainant, not asking "why" (thus forcing them justify their view) but "what" and "how" (i.e. describing the situation), empathising with them, and allowing them to reflect and make their own decisions.

In the context of being a librarian, I should listen to the client, and advise them on their options in order for them to make their own informed choice. Similarly, in development, I should help clients develop their skills and knowledge, but ultimately they need to use these new tools to make their own choices in implementing them.

I'm still not sure that I agree 100% with this attitude. Asking other people to tackle the hard problems for us and help find the "right answer" is something that's so embedded in our lives, whether it's done by our teachers, professionals, government, work colleagues, partners, etc that it's hard to remove those expectations from our everyday consultations and conversations. We defer to the judgement of experts and mentors because we believe them to have a better perspective, where ours might be lacking. And ultimately, when forcing people to make their own decisions, one of those decisions is for them to quit or withdraw, saying, "It's too hard. I can't do it" or "I don't have time". That's a lose-lose situation.

Then again, maybe I just need to get over myself, stop trying to help people, and support them in helping themselves.

Wednesday 19 August 2015

CBCA Book of the Year 2015

When I was in High School, the announcement of the CBCA shortlist was always a highlight of the literary year. I always endeavoured to read all of the shortlisted books before the winner was announced, and highlights of this period of my life were gems such as:

  • Gillian Rubinstein's Beyond the Labyrinth, Galax-Arena and Skymaze (the sequel to the wonderful Space Demons which I devoured even in Primary School)
  • Brian Caswell's Merryll of the Stones and A Cage of Butterflies
  • Caroline MacDonald's The Lake at the End of the World and Speaking to Miranda
  • John Marsden's Letters from the Inside (and Tomorrow when the war began, which was never given a guernsey for the CBCA Book of the Year, but started a new generation of teenage readers hooked on Australian YA.)
  • And, of course, Melina Marchetta's seminal Australian YA classic, Looking for Alibrandi
I  also remember reading other Australian YA authors such as Victor Kelleher, Isobel Carmody and David MacRobbie. back when YA was seemingly more about being creeped out by supernatural and psychological thrillers. I also remember being confronted by Kate Walker's Peter, back when queer characters and sexuality was less prevalent in YA fiction.

Now, over 20 years later, times have changed, but Australian authors continue to bring a wide range of new and fresh YA that continues to push the envelope in the literary industry. This Friday, the CBCA Book of the Year for Older Readers will be announced, and whilst I unfortunately haven't been able to read all of the shortlisted titles, I've read a fair few of them, as well as some of the notables. Here are some brief reflections.

  • As Stars Fall - Christie Nieman. I must confess that this was an impulse buy, based on the fact that I used to work with Christie, and the cover is gorgeous - with a young odd-looking girl cradling a bush stone-curlew. What ensued is a haunting, evocative yet original novel about natural disaster and regrowth mirroring grief and healing, in a truly Australian gothicYA tale.
  • Razorhurst - Justine Larbalestier. This was a fun, gritty romp around 1920s inner-West Sydney, with an assorted cast of gangsters, prostitutes, a street kid, aspiring novelist, and lots of ghosts.
  • Still on my to-read list are Alice Pung's Laurinda, and Rebecca Lim's The Astrologer's Daughter.
  • The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl - Melissa Keil. I loved her debut novel, Life in Outer Space (which was shortlisted for the CBCA Book of the Year in 2014), and this novel does not disappoint either. Where LiOS is an entertaining geek boy meets cool (but also secretly geek) girl, and romantic shenanigans ensure, full of pop culture references, Cinnamon Girl treads much more original territory, following a group of friends living in a quiet country town about to graduate from high school, but also facing the impending apocalypse. It's still has its share of fun, sassy banter, but also a lot of heart, with issues of friendship and facing the realities of impending change.
  • Nona & Me - Clare Atkins. Set in remote Arnhem Land in 2007, I found this novel personally reminiscent of my time living in Darwin from 2006-2009. This novel is a tale of innocent childhood friendships and connection with indigenous culture, the changes that occur through adolescent, with peer pressures stemming through ignorance, and finally rediscovering that connection that was lost. This novel accurately depicts Yolngu culture, and the tensions that grew during the time of the Indigenous Intervention, through to the Apology speech of 2008.
  • The Minnow - Diana Sweeney. The winner of the 2013 Text Prize, this one certainly stood out in its narrative style. Tom, the protagonist,has a unique, whimsical voice, tainted with grief but without the maturity to come to terms with her circumstances, as an orphaned pregnant girl living in the wake of a natural disaster that has claimed the lives of the rest of her immediate family. This novel is also excellently crafted, as something of an enigmatic puzzle that slowly comes together.
  • The Protected - Claire Zorn. And yes, here we are again, dealing with grief, loss and coming to terms with the truth. Zorn's writing is raw and honest, yet balanced without letting this become just another derivative problem novel about bullying and family tragedy. Never didactic or melodramatic, this is a skilfully-crafted novel which has already won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Young Adult Literature.
Unfortunately, I was unable to get my hands on Christine Bongers' Intruder or Darren Groth's Are you seeing me? Nevertheless, if the quality and unique talent of these four novels is anything to go by, then I certainly don't envy the judging panel's task of picking a winner.

Wednesday 5 August 2015

Reminders to myself...

Being an expat can be difficult, and, as my previous post highlighted, it can be very easy to focus on the negatives, and let it get me down. And recently, the farewells seem to be far outweighing the welcomes. This is something that is a quintessential part of the expat life - the fact that your stay will only be temporary, whether it's a 3-month placement or (such as in my current posting) up to four years.

So, in the interest of looking on the bright side of things, here's a reminder to myself of things that I am grateful for (in list form):

1. I have a job. With a reputable employer. With a range of varied, interesting, and challenging tasks. With opportunities to exercise my professional skill and help people in diverse communities.

2. I will have plenty of time, and enough money to travel. I just need to be patient.

3. I can - and will - travel all over Europe. It's the wrong time to travel right now, being both summer and peak travel season, but I'm itching to get some happening once September comes.

4. I have books - my own little library at home. Enough to keep my occupied for weeks in solitude, if the mood takes me. And if I need alone time, then that's okay.

5. I have a creative mind. I need to use it more - because that's what makes me happy. I don't need an audience right now - just some notebooks and my thoughts. I need to take more time to let myself be creative.

Three and a half months in, I feel like I've started out doing the things I *should* be doing, which feels like a rookie error, and I should know better at this point in my life. It's time to refocus on the things that I know will make me happy.

Thursday 9 July 2015 the deserts miss the rain.

It's an oft-uttered cliche to say that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. And it's not that I want to write a post for the sake of whingeing. Because the fact is that I've got some good things going for me, for which I am certainly grateful. I have a source of income, which provides a means to maintain a comfortable lifestyle. I have work that utilises my skills, and makes me feel like I'm making the world a better place, one baby step at a time. I'm based in Europe, where I can take leave and visit all those wonderful places that I've only ever seen in the movies. Most importantly, I always have the option to go home - nobody's forcing me to stay here.

That said, there are a number of things that I do dearly miss, and have to confess has been getting me down lately.

1. Having the support of real friends around me. (And no offence meant to people who have been part of my social circles of late - I think you're awesome too, but in a different way.) Somebody who I can have an honest personal conversation with, and they'll know'll exactly what I mean and can empathise and provide solidarity. Somebody who I can be truly myself around, without feeling self-conscious. Somebody who I can just hang with, and be purely comfortable with each other's company without feeling the need to talk bullshit. Somebody who I can trust with my life. Somebody who I will always look out for and will always look out for me. Somebody who just gets me. I miss that.

2. Being part of a community. Whether it's a creative community, or a dance community, or a group of peers from the same program (like the AVID program when I was in Vietnam) or just a regular social group that meets up regularly. This is difficult when living in a highly-transient environment, and people are constantly coming and going. It's easy to suddenly feel out of the loop, because 3/4 of the people who you met in the last month have already left, and none of the new people even know who you are.

3. Literary programming and events. This is something that I took far too much for granted when living in Melbourne, whether it was events at the Wheeler Centre, book launches, or spoken word events. Nowadays I read, and then go online to tell people about how awesome books are, but it's not the same.

4. Public socio-political discourse. This probably happens a lot, and I'm probably just unaware of it because I don't speak or understand Albanian, but I love going to events with panels sessions that discuss the social programs, with commentators from a range of backgrounds and ideologies. But considering that I work in an organisation that is primarily involved with the peacekeeping and development process in society, it's something that I feel that I need to engage more actively in.

5. Performing arts. Whether it's stage drama, dance, physical theatre, cabaret, fringe arts, comedy, etc. I've seen the occasional touring musical performance, but not much, and I do hope there's more on, but I'm not really aware of it at this stage.

6. Cultural Institutions. Yes, there are libraries, museums, and art galleries, but they could be so much more, finding ways of presenting and celebrating the full extent of the diversity and history of this region. Of course, perhaps I'm not looking hard enough, but for a region with a history that spans from the Illyria to Medieval Serbia, to the Ottoman empire, to the Kingdom (and later people's republic) of Yugoslavia, and finally the current situation after the Kosovo War, there's certainly a lot of content that these institutions could be continuing to curate and develop! It's certainly not something that there should be any shortage of in this region...

7. Having an audience. I'm a performer. I need an audience. It's what I live for, more than anything. Whether it's dancing, or singing karaoke, or performing a show, or being in a play, or even delivering a conference paper or delivering a training session, I need an audience. It's the time when I feel most alive.

8. Feeling appreciated and proud of my work. Work is important to me. It's important that I'm achieving the goals that I set for myself, and can be proud of those achievements. But lately, I've started doubting myself. Maybe it's because I've been working more in development, and in areas that don't highlight my professional strengths, and so I'm not always delivering the best outcomes possible, and taking longer than I should to create effective solutions. Really, there should be no excuse for sub-par quality work, and if I'm not working to my optimum, then maybe I should switch to another job.

9. Life / career guidance. I'm pretty far off the path-well-travelled right now. I know where I ultimately want to be (i.e. planning and delivering programs and events in cultural institutions with a literary / historical focus). And some of my work directly involves the facilitation and monitoring of cultural programs, so it's not entirely unrelated to my desired career path. But I'm also feeling a little lost, if I'm going to go be completely honest with myself.

10. Feeling like I fit in. I know that it's still early days. I've been living here a total of eleven weeks - not even three months, so I need to give myself more time. However, my work-related social circles are limited and constantly diminishing. I don't really know how to go about making more "local" friends. My current instinct is to withdraw and hideaway in my apartment full of books. But I know that I need to try to force myself to be more outgoing, and build new social networks - especially amongst those who are going to be here for the long-haul - if I'm ever going to feel like I fit in here in Kosovo. This is exactly the problem that I had last time I lived in Darwin, and also, to an extent, in Hanoi. I just never felt like I really fitted in. As an adult of almost 37 years, I feel like this is something that I should have learnt to be able to do by now. It shouldn't be this hard, right?

I'm not sure that trying to eloquently describe my feelings like this has had the kind of cathartic comfort that it maybe should, but it's a good way of reminding myself of the things that are important to me. Of course, I can survive without these things right now, and I have the consolation of being able to travel around Europe and discover new and exciting places. However, the next time I start considering making big changes in my life, I'm going to look back at this list, and ask myself, "Will I be able to tick all these boxes?"

Because, listed right here, are my priorities for my future.

Tuesday 30 June 2015

Final day of #blogjune

So, this is the final post for yet another Blogjune. I missed one post along the way, and another time made a token effort that was hardly worth reading - I think both times were when I was in Prague, so that's forgiveable. So, let's say I achieved 28.5 posts out of 30. Not perfect, but not bad.

Certainly, there wasn't a shortage of things to blog about. There were topics that I also considered writing on, including:

- Kosovo beverages (Drinking yoghurt is weird, but good on muesli. The beer is mostly awful. Rakija is interesting and quince rakija is my favourite.)
- Fashion in Kosovo (If you want to fit in, wear jeans and some kind of black / dark top. Get a buzz cut.)
- Hanging out with the Clintons (There's a statue of Bill Clinton in one of the main streets, and next to it is a power-dressing women's boutique called "Hillary's")
- The Serbian side of Kosovo (visiting Gracanica Monastery, and wandering around the streets of Gracanica)
- National identity and ethnic identity - the issues from an Australian point of view, looking at the current state of affairs both in Australia and Kosovo. (I have many opinions, but I'm not touching that one...)

Blogjune has been an interesting exercise, as always. As a communal exercise, it's been a great way to share and compare ideas to a greater extent than merely an exchange of tweets on a topic. It's also been good to revisit some of the questions that we've been asking over the years, and see how our perspective has changed. On a more personal level, it's been an excellent exercise in forcing myself to reflect on my current state of affairs, on both a personal and professional level. For future reference, it gives me a snapshot of where my brain is at right now.

To be honest, I'm probably not going to continue blogging on a regular basis. I'll be blogging when there are major changes happening in my life, and also what is becoming my yearly review, reflecting on how my year went.

But for now, that's me, signing off for Blogjune 2015.

Monday 29 June 2015

Maintaining perspective and living with ourselves...

Now, I like to think of myself as having an at-the-very-least-average level of political awareness, as an Australian who has spent much of the last few years watching Q&A, Mediawatch and The Insiders, as well as reading The Monthly and the Saturday Paper (which reminds me - I must renew my annual subscription). However, in the last few months, living in Europe and working alongside people who have spent their lives as specialists in political affairs, I've learnt to keep my opinions to a minimum, lest I get this response...

I expressed this to a colleague today, and their consolation was, "Well, at least you're not American." Great. But when it comes to matters of politics, I try to leave my Australian-ness out of it. Our government's attitudes to the comparatively minuscule volume of asylum seekers travelling by boat is now legendary across the world, as is our attitude to climate change, the global Islamic community, and marriage equality. But at the same time, it's Australia. They're on the other side of the world. Let them be a bunch of narrow-minded bigots, and play their petty political games. Here in Europe, there are bigger problems closer to home.

But I do consider how much my perspective has changed over the past year. Living in South-East Asia has increased my awareness of many of the social issues that plague our neighbouring countries, with problems of poverty, migration, corruption, environmental pollution, poor communication, media bias, the plight of ethnic minorities, and so on. And then, living in Eastern Europe, there's the impact of the Syria conflict and widespread poverty and unemployment that leads to mass-migration. There's national economic collapse, and the wider effects on the European Union, whilst other nations want to buy in as a way to stimulate their economy and bring about prosperity. And then there's poor education, social inequality, inter-ethnic tensions, and, again, the plight of ethnic minorities who will always be at the bottom of the pecking-order of society.

It's a lot to take on board, and at the same time, it really feels like the tip of the iceberg. And this all overwhelms me. And then I'm faced with first world problems and triumphs, and I feel bad that I'm not over the moon like everybody else is about marriage equality in the US, because, really, Canada has already had it for ten years, and meanwhile there's a massacre on a beach in Tunisia, hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers roam the land looking for sanctuary, and conflict situations and human rights violations continue to rage on around the world. Factory farming industries inflict ongoing cruelty to animals, palm oil industries destroy forests, kill wildlife and pollute the air, plastic bags fill our oceans, and carbon emissions fill our air, slowly poisoning this planet.

And then I have the gall to worry about myself, and my career, and whether I'm really happy with my life, and how I can keep myself both professionally and creatively stimulated, and worry about when I'm going to go swing dancing next, let along whether I'm ever going to own property or start a family because, y'know, that shit is important. It's really fucking important, otherwise what the hell is my purpose in life here?

This is how my brain works, and it really scares me sometimes.

I'm mindful to know that it's not healthy, but at the same time, it's also completely normal. We all live in our own bubbles, where we get so caught up in our own problems (and yes, First World Problems are still valid problems) that we completely lose perspective. But trying to maintain perspective is even harder. It's too hard.

How do we even live with ourselves?

Ugh, okay, this post was originally meant to be about learning to survive when living and working away from home... except, obviously, I let my brain derail my train of thought. Let's try to get back on track:

10 ways to stay sane when living overseas in a developing country.

1. Be mindful of your own mental wellbeing. Constantly check yourself, and give yourself a break from time to time.

2. Exercise regularly. Not because you think you're getting too overweight, or whatever, but because your body needs you to stay active and healthy now more than ever.

3. Stay social. Make the effort to go and make conversation with colleagues at lunchtime. Ask people out to dinner, or to meet up to watch a movie. Whatever it is, just keep making social connections.

4. Take pride in your work. You might be the only person who appreciates what you do, and that's probably the most important reason to do so.

5. Try to make some real friends. This is a tricky one, because you'll often be living amongst a transient population, and if you're anything like me, the number of people that you meet who truly "get you" will be few and far between. When you meet one - don't let them go!

6. Maintain momentum and direction. Set goals for what you're trying to achieve and what your next step in your life will be, so that you have something to work towards, and don't lose sight of it.

7. Don't drink (too much). It may seem like a valid coping mechanism, but it'll make things harder, especially if you're already not exercising enough.

8. Read books. I shouldn't have to explain this one to you. Trust me, I'm a librarian. I know.

9. Take the time to appreciate what's around you. Whether it's taking a weekend trip to the countryside, or just walking down the street and appreciating the lively colours, sounds - even the smells. You'll miss it all once you're gone.

10. Know when to walk away. Living and working in a developing country changes you. It changes your perspective on the world. It changes your priorities in life. But it's not without its challenges, and some of these will be insurmountable. By all means, take them on, and achieve what you can, but also know that you can't save the world. You can only do your bit, and eventually the time will come to walk away and pass the baton on to somebody else. That may seem like a cop-out, sure, and maybe it is. But if you have opportunities in life, don't waste them entirely. Not everybody in the world else has the luxury of choice that you have. Look after yourself, but do it with some semblance of grace and compassion as well.

Sunday 28 June 2015

Living in swing dance purgatory...

We're into the homeward run in #blogjune, and I've been trying to keep my posts diverse between my varied interests of libraries, literature, travel. However, I haven't been blogging much about swing dancing. For over five years now, it's been a big part of my life - it's very much a social activity through which I've made many new friends, it's a very physical activity, which makes me feel less guilty for neglecting to go running / to the gym regularly (and, in anything, provides me with motivation to go and improve my cardio fitness, so that I can be a better dancer!), and it's a creative activity, where I develop dance skills to connect musically and rhythmically with a range of authentic jazz music from the 1920s to the 1940s - as well as contemporary interpretations of this musical era - all of which is music that I absolutely adore to listen to. When in Melbourne, I would go out dancing at least twice a week, and often 3-4 nights a week.

However, in recently years, I've found myself living in cities / towns where there hasn't been a regular swing dance scene. This, of course, has a substantial impact on my life - for me, dance isn't just all of the things I've described above - it's also a release. There's an intense emotional connection with the music (and also, to some extent, with the dance partner), and this provides a cathartic function in my life. No matter how frustrating my work or personal life is, I can always dance my woes away. And there are times that I really crave that familiar comfort, connection and joy that comes from swing dancing.

Furthermore, it's something that I'm missing right now. Up until about four months ago, I was all booked in to go to Herrang Dance Camp - in Sweden - the biggest Swing Dance camp in the world. I would have arrived yesterday morning. But my life's road took an unexpected twist, as it often does, and that's okay.

So, when the dancing's not immediately available, how do I find it?

1. Travel to where the dancers are. 
When I lived in rural Japan, I would travel 2-3 hours each way on a Wednesday, for the sake of an hour and a half of social dancing before I had to run to catch the last train home at 9:30pm. It was worth it. More recently, I caught overnight trains to and from Bulgaria for a swing dance weekend, and two flights each way to and from Prague, where they have regular weekend social dancing. I've got some leave planned for September, and hopefully more around Christmas where I'll head to Snowball in Stockholm, or one of the other big events nearby, depending on when I can get away!

2. Teach the locals to swing dance.
I did this for the first five months when I first arrived in Hanoi, teaching every Tuesday evening, in the hope that this would lead to building a community of local swing dancers. However, I learnt a few things here. Firstly, teaching / building a scene cannot be a solo effort. Furthermore, there needs to be a substantial number of locals who want to build the community - it's not something that you can build, especially as a newly-arrived foreigner. It takes a lot of work and organisation, and even then the social dynamics can be such that a swing dance community can collapse easily within a short period of time, if not managed carefully (especially where there is a huge transient population). I can kinda understand why dance scene leaders get awfully sensitive when it comes to dance scene politics.

That said, I did enjoy teaching swing dancing, especially when I had somebody to teach with. I developed some valuable skills, and like to think that in finding ways to teach technique to others, I'm also mindful of my own dancing. It's something that I've also been able to bring to the Balkans, and assist another swing dancing friend who occasionally teaches swing dancing workshops in her local community (only five hours away from me by bus - but totally worth it!).

3. Collaborate with other dancer(s) living nearby.
Now, if you're lucky, there'll be at least once other dancer living nearby. And if you don't want to teach, you can at least dance with each other, and exercise your creativity by developing a routine, like I did earlier this year with another lindy hopper who was in town for three months (which we performed at her going-away party - see below)

Yes, it was a flying carpet. Appropriate for the song. For dancing, not so much.

4. Focus on solo jazz dance.
This has been my latest tactic. When I picked my apartment, I made sure the living room had a nice big wooden floor. I've recently purchased the means to connect my laptop to my big TV screen, and now I have my own solo dance studio!
A photo posted by Andrew F (@lib_idol) on
With last weekend's activities in Prague, I had to learn the Big Apple routine - of which I already knew the first half (aka the easy half). After some cram-learning, I've spent the last week actually taking the time to learn it properly, and through this, I'm rediscovering my love for solo jazz dancing. Once I've finished locking in the Big Apple, I'm going to start revising the Tranky Doo and the Jitterbug Stroll, and then seek out other routines, like Doing The Jive. If you don't know what these are, then see below...

The Big Apple routine from "Keep Punching"

Part of the Tranky Doo from the film "Spirit Moves"

I kinda love this teacher demonstration of the Jitterbug Stroll...

Doing the Jive - in Seoul, Korea, where the scene is huge and the dancers are amaaaazing!

That should keep me busy for at least a couple of months until my next big Swing Dance adventure, where I'll be spending my whole birthday week at a Swing Castle Camp in Germany.

Saturday 27 June 2015

The National Library of Kosovo

One of the most intriguing of buildings in the city of Pristina is that of the National Library of Kosovo. Built in 1982, and designed by Croatian architect Andrija Mutnjaković, it is often found on lists of the ugliest buildings in the world. Many people I've met here have never gone inside.

Actually, I quite like it. On the outside, there are the white domes, which are reminiscent of the ottoman baths in Prizren, or the domes of the various religious sites around kosovo, and although the building was completed before the rise of Milosevic and the Kosovo War, the stark cement-wrapped-in-metal-bars exterior seems fitting, given the political history of the area. But that's just my personal impression - other people see other things in this building, and that's the beauty of good art and architecture. It evokes a strong response in its beholder.

And the interior is just as striking, with patterned marble floors, large reading rooms, and an ornate wooden amphitheatre. And the semi-opaque domes effectively work as sky-lights, with natural lighting through the building. I had the opportunity to meet with one of the librarians, who was able to connect with through a former colleague and the International Librarians Network, and she showed me around the library.


As we have seen in other conflict situations, libraries such as those in Baghdad and Kabul suffer greatly at these times, often with the loss of significant collections of cultural heritage significance, and during the Kosovo War there were similar reports of destruction of cultural artifacts.

However, it was wonderful to see that this library has a strong focus on celebrating the diversity of culture found in Kosovo and making it accessible to all. The librarian was proud to say that they hold collections in languages that serve all the communities in Kosovo, and their role was to promote the culture of the community, rather than political agendas. And ethnic identity aside, they also have a collection for the blind, and I was able to meet some of the staff there who were working with equipment that transcribed print text into braille. Such underlying principles of impartiality and accessibility are so important with libraries, and it is great to see them underpinning the services provided here.

Library staff working with collections and equipment for the blind.
Display in music collection
Other collections in the building included the NATO collection, the music collection (which included musical instruments, sheet music, and recordings), and various donated collections of local cultural significance.

Unfortunately, I only had a small amount of time to view the library before heading to work, but I returned later that evening, and visited the "American Corner" - a reading lounge set up by the US Embassy, which runs programs to support English Language Learning, as well as collections of fiction by American authors. I donated a couple of my books that I had recently finished, and will certainly return to see if I can help in any way in the future, whether it be running programs or supporting collection development.

Friday 26 June 2015

My difficult relationship with Wuthering Heights

So, recently, I was out with a colleague for some drinks, and we got around to talking about books, and how the nature of literary writing has changed over time, considering the intricacies and dense prose of classics such as Middlemarch or Moby-Dick.

And I confessed that I had, on a number of occasions, attempted to start reading Wuthering Heights, and failed. Maybe it was because I'd been reading too much contemporary popular fiction, or way in which it was written, or the introduction of such a strange and slightly confusing assortment of characters, but I've never made it past the first few chapters. It's a terrible guilty shame of mine, which makes me feel like a failure as both a librarian and an educated member of English-speaking society.

(Curiously, I had similar difficulties with the first few pages of The Great Gatsby, and the way that it sets the geography of Long Island and historical context, before we start getting into the characters.)

But I am resolved to succeed with Wuthering Heights. So I've decided to get some help.

Now, I know that film adaptations are almost never as good as the book, but I figured that this would be a good way of quickly getting my head around the setting and the main characters.  Given my former housemate's obsession with Tom Hardy (and isn't everybody these days, right?), I opted for the 2009 mini-series. And boom - I'm hooked.

Grunge was born long before the 1990s...
And really, who wouldn't be. So romance. Such brooding. Wow.

But. Here's the catch. I'm only allowing myself to go so far - and I've stopped at the moment that Heathcliff rides off to seek his fortune and presumably win back Catherine's love, after which point I'm sure it'll all be fine, right? Right?

Now I've got my motivation actually read the freaking book to find out what happens next!

Thursday 25 June 2015

I #loveozya

So, I'm not a huge follower of hashtags. The times that I've used them have been with:
- Conferences (which have definitely been a game changer, in terms of live online discourse)
- Q&A (which I stopped watching a while ago when it became clear that it was just the ABC pandering to the government by giving them a soapbox without actually making them accountable for their answers)
- Writers festivals. Because we can't attend them all!

However, one hashtag that I've kept an eye on for a little while now is #loveozya, mostly found on Twitter and Instagram. YA - for those not in the know - is literary lingo for "Young Adult", usually made in reference to YA fiction. Oz, is short for Australian. And love... well, I don't need to explain everything to you, do I?

So, as an expat, it's been difficult for me to express my OzYA love, since I also read adult fiction and non-Oz YA, and being overseas, it's often difficult for me to get my hands on Australian fiction. Also, now that I look at my bookshelf, of the 26 books that currently sit there, 16 are Australian, so I'm not doing a bad job.

Anyway, here's my instagram shot of my #loveozya haul. (For those of you on instagram, you can find me at @lib_idol.)

This is a bit of an eclectic mix of books. Most of them are unread books that I randomly pulled out of my boxes of books that I had in storage during the three days that I was back in Melbourne between returning from Vietnam and heading to Kosovo. Some are books that I've been meaning to read for years, but never made it to the top of the pile. The rest are books that I may have impulsively bought online in the last month whilst feeling self-conscious about not keeping up with the YA trends (especially after missing the Reading Matters conference.) And yes, I'm counting Zigzag Street as YA - so sue me. ;)

And then there's As Stars Fall, by Christie Nieman. I should mention that I'm only partially through this book, and would usually never review a book before finishing it, but in this case I feel compelled to write about it now.

I worked in the same library as Christie for a number of months, and crossed paths with her many many times, but never really got to know her, as often can be the case in workplaces. I sometimes saw her at the odd book launch or literary event at the Wheeler Centre. And then, during my brief time recently back in Melbourne, I saw her book on the shelf, and decided to buy it. I'm always willing to give a punt on a new writer - especially if it's YA.

After reading the prologue, I was already obsessed, and wrote to a friend back in Australia that she had to go and find this book and read it, because I already knew that she'd love it.

Every time I open this book, I'm immediately transported. The themes are both classic and original, familiar and surreal, modern but gothic in a similar but altogether different way to Kirsty Eagar's Night Beach. And so very Australian - it makes me homesick to the stomach with each chapter, such is the craft of Nieman's evocative prose style.

I'm not going to say anything of the plot - what immediately drew me into this story is this amazing fella (please watch - it's only a 50 sec video!):

Almost nine years ago, I moved to Darwin. It was definitely a challenging time - moving along to a new city for the first time, living on the other side of the continent in a strange, humid land. As often in the case, I had hideous insomnia when I first arrived, and there were these very strange, haunting noises outside. It was about 1 or 2 in the morning, and it just wouldn't stop. Bleary-eyed but restless, I decided to go for a walk, as one does, hoping that it would help me sleep. The temperature was still in the high 20s, and a hot moisture hung in the air, but in the grassy courtyard I saw a number - maybe 3 or 4 - of these bush stone-curlews wandering around the yard, with their alien-esque bodies and stalk-like legs, echoing their creepy call into the air. I retreated back into my apartment, and the next morning, in my sleep-deprived state, I thought that this episode had maybe been a dream.

It wasn't of course.

On my last night in Darwin, before moving back to Melbourne, I remember lying in bed, hearing the curlew's call echoing into the late night, and wondering when I'll hear it again...

Whilst this is of merely tenable reference to Nieman's novel, my personal memories are constantly in the back of my mind as I read her words, and their underlying themes of feeling lost, alone, and grieving, yet utterly alive and connected to nature.

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Today - for the last five years...

This time last year, I was reminiscing on where I was five years previously...

So, on this day, five years ago, we had a new Prime Minister. Julia Gillard, our first female Prime Minister. And regardless of how you feel about the politics of the time, it was nevertheless a momentous occasion. I was working in a high school at the time, and was with a Year 9 field trip to Canberra, where we tried to expose a busload of 15-year olds to the wonders of Australia's capital city. We picked the right weekend for it! We got to see Kevin Rudd in Parliament the day before, and the next day, we had a new PM.

On this day, four years ago, I was in Hobart for Devil City Swing - a weekend of swing dancing in Hobart. We also discovered this new place there called MONA. I almost didn't make it to Tasmania, because of a volcanic ash cloud from Peru. I'd already quit my job, re-enrolled into my masters degree and was preparing to move to live in Japan, only months after the 2011 tsunami disaster.

On this day, three years ago, I was in Hobart again. Made new friends, visited the snow, and generally recovering from the reverse culture shock of having recently returned from Japan. Here's a photo of me dancing with an Adelaide dancer, Sarah, who I hadn't met before, and wouldn't meet again...
Devil City Swing 2012 (Photo by Mary Awesömesauce)
...that is, until less than two months ago when she happened to be travelling through Kosovo! Whaaat? Also, here, I'm clearly still clinging to my Japanese fashion sense. Who ever thought that orange jeans were ever a good idea?

On this day, two years ago, I returned to Melbourne after spending two months working on an International Development project in Papua New Guinea, working with teaching and library staff at at training school for nurses in Alotau, Milne Bay. It was an eye-opening experience, and I had an amazing time, though not without its fair share of challenging moments. I was sad to leave, but that's okay, because I returned to PNG less than a week later, this time to the volcanic wasteland of Rabaul, working with their museum collections and exhibitions.

On this day, last year, it was my final week working at what should have been my dream job, managing a library in a modern inner-city high school. I can't quite explain why it wasn't right for me - more than that, it was very much the wrong job for me. I left to pursue another opportunity to work in international development, returning to Vietnam - a country where I had worked for three months at the end of the previous year. The decision to leave wasn't an easy one either - here, I had the opportunity to finally settle in Melbourne, with a permanent job that, whilst not without its fair share of challenges, didn't entirely suck either. It was a life-changing decision - one that set me on the path that would lead me to where I am now in Kosovo.

It's been an exciting, adventurous year, full of amazing experiences and new friends. It's also been a frustrating, challenging and, often, lonely year, as as much as I enjoy the thrill of new cultural, culinary and geographic wonders, I also often crave familiar comfort and company, and have been terribly homesick these last couple of days in particular.

I'd like to think I'll be somewhere more exciting on this day, a year from now, but being almost the end of the fiscal year, I imagine I'll be frantically getting reports written.

That, and/or blogging again for a month!

Tuesday 23 June 2015

Cities of Literature

I was planning a long and involved entry about cities of literature, but I've run out of steam, so here's the classic "I'm being lazy" blog post - yes, it's LIST TIME.

Top Five UNESCO Cities of Literature that Andrew should go to!

1. Prague, Czech Republic: Yes, I was just there. I already want to go back and explore more. It's one of the most beautiful and vibrant city that I've ever seen, which possibly means that I still need to explore more, but nonetheless an awesome city - even if the only Czech writers I can name off the top of my head are Franz Kafka, Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel.

2. Edinburgh, United Kingdom: The original UNESCO City of Literature, I'd be content for any Scottish lass to read to me out loud, and I'd be weak at the knees. Plus it's the home of the Edinburgh Fringe - another of the world's great cultural festivals that I must experience!

3. Dublin, Ireland: I've lived this long without yet visiting the country of my national ethnic heritage on my Father's side, and would love nothing more than to spend a few weeks cycling around the Emerald Isle, with maybe the exception of experiencing Bloomsday in Dublin.

4. Reykjavik, Iceland: This is a place where, due to its isolation, the language has more or less remained the same since the days of the Vikings. This kinda excites me, especially as somebody who studied Old Norse back in my uni days. Plus runes are cool.

5. Melbourne, Australia: Yes, it's my home town. If it weren't for the literary culture of this place, I certainly wouldn't be the person I am today, and for that I'm grateful. Living in Melbourne, I feel spoilt for having access to countless literary programs every week, whether they be at the State Library or Wheeler Centre, or through events such as the Melbourne Writers Festival and the Emerging Writers Festival. There are countless indie bookstores that have seen Borders come and go, and a thriving indie literary scene through zines, performance poetry, and small press publishing. I do miss it, and will inevitably return, I'm sure.

Of course, I still want to visit some of the other cities of literature. Granada would be amazing for its medieval history. Admittedly, I'm more interested in Krakow for the swing dancing, and I'm more likely to visit Oxford and Stratford-Upon-Avon than Norwich. When I think Heidelberg, I'm more likely to think of Australia's impressionist art movement, and Iowa City is pretty low on my list of must-visit places in the US (but it is there - possibly at the bottom).

And Dunedin? I've always been fascinated with this place, even as an Australian child, looking at a map of the world, and wondering how cold it is there. In fact, let me check just now... *googles* Yup, it's zero degrees. That's what I thought.

Monday 22 June 2015

Creative reading, libraries and the arts.

So, over the weekend, whilst in Prague, I had the opportunity to take part in a street theatre performance as part of the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space (or PQ as we all called it). The piece was called Kafka Dances - opening with a flashmob-like interaction of beleagued trenchcoat-wearing characters, burdened with their suitcases and trapped within their own futile nightmarish Kafka-esque existence... only to contrast with a hyper-absurd ending involving colourful costumes, pom-poms and swing-dancing.

Apart from the pure joy of being part of a creative process leading to a performance for an audience, this also made me think quite a bit about our relationship with literature and the arts. One cannot deny the impact that many works of literature have had on the arts - whether it's a pure adaption from print to stage or film, or a reinterpretation, or even the influence of literary themes, philosophies and perspectives. Stories and literature have influenced art since they were first told, whether it's the Nordic, Greek or Roman Epics, traditional folk tales, or sacred texts.

And even now, literature has permeated our popular culture. Whether it's the mega-successful film franchises of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and the Hunger Games (Twilight not so much). Or who could have imagined that Alison Bechdel's graphic novel Fun Home could have been made into a Tony Award winning stage musical - and it's quite amazing too! I can't watch the following clip without getting all the feels...

And on a more indie and personal creative level, there have been countless communities for fanfic writing - if there's a literary genre or cult-following, then you can bet that there's a fanfic community for it. Similarly, there are musical subcultures where bands might write music purely about Harry Potter (Wizard Rock), John Green books (JGrock) or, yes, Twilight (Twi-rock). Nerdcore rapper MC Lars has written songs inspired by Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, and Moby-Dick. And that's all just the tip of the iceberg. Beyond the performing arts, there are also countless examples in the visual arts.

So, both in a mainstream, indie and pop-culture level, our literary culture continues to inspire and provoke creative arts. Which brings me to libraries.

Obviously, I'm mostly talking about public and state libraries here. There's a lot of focus on "What are libraries doing wrong, and how should they change so that they don't die?" Here's an idea: focus on the intersection of libraries and the arts. Reader development is a form of audience development. Don't just be a repository for people to borrow books and return them - provide opportunities to respond creatively to their reading experience. Turn readers into artists by fostering a culture of creative reading. Turn libraries into a reader-centred creative spaces, where reading is not just a passive activity, but an experience that you can share with others, be it through discussion and reading groups, or other forms of creative expression.

And seriously - invest the tens of thousands of dollars that you currently pour into reference collections and rarely-used databases into arts initiatives and creative spaces that intersect with reader development. Create partnerships with arts organisations for installations and performances. Most of all (and here's a modest proposal) stop pretending that public libraries are places for students to do research (with the exception of local history research). Let's face it, they're only using print books because their teacher didn't want them googling everything for their homework. We can do better than that.