17 November 2014

I Heart Trains

I love trains.

At the Oak Park stop on the CTA’s Green Line, my tense, concave shoulders, sheltering my chest from the winter’s wind, have surrendered and fallen as a westbound BNSF freight train rushed by behind me and an eastbound el train trudged up in front of me. 

I love intracity public transportation systems like the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) and London's underground as well as international passenger service like Thalys, particularly from Amsterdam's Schiphol to Brussel's Midi. 

In the spring of 2010, I was finishing up an eight-month, sixteen-hundred-mile transition from Tapa back to Chicago at the spartan residences of the Irving Park YMCA. My grant writer job at Saint Anthony Hospital had me on the CTA's Blue Line at around 6:45 every weekday morning. My it’s-way-too-early scowl relaxed into a low-key, that’s-nice grin every time the northwest-bound Metra commuter train from the Loop and the southeast-bound Metra train from the suburbs glided pass each other and stopped at the Irving Park station while, at about the same time, six southbound lanes of the Kennedy Expressway away, my southeast-bound el train clattered alongside the Irving Park platform.

In 2011, the CTA put its new 5000 series rail cars on the Pink Line, the line that took me to my office after the Blue Line dropped me off beneath the Thompson Center in the Loop. Like many of the trains of the London underground, the 5000 series had aisle-facing seats. Unlike the trains of the underground, the seats in the CTA's new cars were not wide enough for us Chicagoans to sit our big butts on. Moreover, when you sat, you sat a crotch-level of the standing passengers.

Recently, on an outbound Pink Line train ("from the Loop") at about 7 a.m., there were more seats than passengers, and we civilly populated every other seat down the length of the train as well as conveniently sat kitty-corner from the rider facing us. Unfortunately, it was a different story on an inbound train ("toward the Loop") around 5 p.m., especially when the train pulled out of the Polk Street station on the University of Illinois campus. The good thing about winter coats, though, is that they cover everyone's crotches. So, although I was sitting down when the train got to Polk, I had just a column of black, waterproof polyester to stare at as if it were the dark sky over the Near West Side.

A lot of suburban commuters board at Polk Street, and they are a bit apprehensive about squeezing into a seat in between two passengers of color from the Southwest Side. Those that are affiliated with STEM departments at the university do a better job at calculating with a quick glance how successful they will be at backing their buttocks up into a seat. Others, generally the university's medical center patients, announce their intent to sit by shuffling down the aisle to a vacant seat, stare at it, turn 180 degrees to give passengers on either side time to lean away or scoot over, and then plop down.

On the 5000-series cars, unless you are in the seats next to the emergency exits at both ends of the car, there is really nowhere to scoot or lean to give a fellow sitting passenger a little more room. Once nicely packed in, contiguous passengers, shoulder to shoulder, sway left and right in unison to the stops and starts of the train with only independent head and hand movements possible.
In addition, the backpacks, briefcases, and Lululemon totes of passengers who do sit down have no protection on the floor from the pivoting footwear of the standing passengers, unlike if they were nestled between their legs in the conventional forward/rear-facing seats.

The only thing I like about the 5000-series cars is the digital clock at both ends. I don't have to try to snake my hand into a pants or coat pocket to see if I am still on schedule after the train has been stopped, waiting for signal clearance.

Which trains have you seen? 
Above: Amtrak, Springfield.
Below: Metra, Chicagoland. METRO Rail, Houston. Tram, Tallinn (in front of church). Old locomotive, Tapa. Estonian Rail freight train, Tapa. Estonian Rail, Tapa (with logs). Estonian passenger train, Tallinn. Estonian passenger train, Tapa (at night). Commuter train, Czech Republic? High speed Finnish passenger train, to Helsinki. Could be another Finnish train. Metro, The Hague. Commuter train to Hamburg, Germany.

09 November 2014

London Youth Meet Tapa Youth Meet London Youth 2015

Sender Londoners to Tapa with me! Give now!

As you may know from reading this blog, over the summers of 2007, -08, and -09, as an English teacher at Tapa Gümnaasium, I took a handful of my high school students to London for a long weekend and a look at many of the things they had seen in their textbooks.

I also taught a class of sixth graders, who will graduate from high school in June 2015. Earlier this year, through their "homeroom teacher", I agreed to take them to London during their spring break in March 2015. They are flying in from Tapa (via Tallinn), and I am flying in from Chicago.

Now, over the summers of 2012, -13, -14, back here in Chicago, I have hosted youth from London participating in a leadership program organized by World Chicago. So when the Tapa students are in London, we will meet up with some of the youth I have hosted and have met through the leadership program.

Currently, I am asking for support to take up to 4 London youth to Tapa in February 2015 for a long weekend to meet the seniors before going to London in March and, more importantly, to speak to and work with the other Tapa Gümnaasium students in their English classes. I will meet the London youth in London, accompany them to Tapa, and then back to London.

Send Londoners to Tapa with me! Give now!

I believe $1,500 will cover round-trip transportation, including airfare on EasyJet or Ryanair, from London to Tapa, Estonia for up to 4 London youth. Anything less than $1,500 will cover transportation for 1, 2, or 3 youth. Anything more than $1,500, or not applied directly to transportation, will cover the costs of a meet-and-greet or bon voyage party in Tapa with London and Tapa youth.

By supporting this project, you will
  • help me bring together two different groups of youth I have had the privilege of working with;
  • give Tapa students the opportunity to speak English with native speakers their own age;
  • provide London youth a local's view of Tapa;
  • let London youth romp in the snow; and
  • show London youth what Estonian classrooms are like.
Send Londoners to Tapa with me! Give now!

04 August 2014

Signs of Old Age: Grey chest hairs and rants about white people

Last week, my mother sent me an article from Springfield's State Journal Register about "New life" in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. (The Tribune ran the same article with a less condescending headline.) Like a former English teacher grading a student's essay that I knew was not going to follow the rubric, I marked the article up with insolent comments and sent it back to my mother.

I work in Little Village, the neighborhood that borders Pilsen to the west. Ninety percent of its residents are Mexican, too. While its claim to fame is that 26th Street, its own "commercial epicenter," is second only to Michigan Avenue in generating sales tax revenue for the City of Chicago, it remains one of Pilsen's little step sisters.

My beef (or should I say my carne asada) with the article, whose author is an arrogantly self-disclosed North Sider, is that it credits the 2013 opening of a trendy restaurant and its basement bar with making the concrete Pilsen neighborhood uncharacteristically resplendent. Much like new Starbuckses used to do, no doubt. The author seems relieved that a restaurant in Pilsen has finally replaced the omnipresent 32-ounce jars of pickled carrots and cauliflower with roasted chicken bits from an organic farm in Michigan and that white guys with bushy beards are drinking craft cocktails in what looks like the wood-paneled basement of a thousand homes in Springfield.

Call me old and crotchety, but my real beef is that, more and more, we, like the author, rush in to re-create what we are accustomed to and comfortable with rather than sit back and take the time to learn about the unknown and unfamiliar. Nuevo Leon serves a uniquely Pilsen breakfast in Spanish with politicians, businessmen, caballeros, and families. During summer evenings, Harrison Park referees serious soccer games, while during the dark nights of Advent, 18th Street guides Las Posadas in their quests for shelter from the cold. The murals, which are residents, too, sell red and green tamales with unrebukable elderly women and mango and coconut ice cream with sketchy paleteros. This is the life of Pilsen. It doesn't exist - it shouldn't exist - on the North Side.   

01 March 2014

Tapa Gümnaasium 95

Yes, of course, Estonians celebrate birthdays every year. However, every five years, they really celebrate. Every 10 years, they really, really celebrate - so much so that birthdays at 10, 20, 30, 40, etc. years of age are called a juubel (think jubilee, or the bakery that used to be in Carlinville).

Estonian institutions are no exception. In March 2009, I was privileged to be a part of Tapa Gümnaasium's 90th anniversary celebration, held, as always, at the school. I had survived two academic years by then. I was "over the moon" to learn that many of the students I had taught for a semester in 1999 as a Peace Corps volunteer still remembered me. At some time during the evening of the class reunions, though, a corpulent, elderly Estonian women chided me for walking through the school's corridor with a glass and a bottle of wine in my hands. Apparently, I had exceeded the limits of really, really celebrating.

In March 2014, the school celebrated its 95th anniversary. (Watch a 12-minute video of the highlights of the three-day celebration here and get a real taste of Estonian folklore and tradition.) Unfortunately, I was not in Tapa in person, but I appeared in print in Meie Koolmeistrid (page 224), the commemorative book that was published and included the kind words of Rita Püümann, a fellow English teacher. Below are her remarks in the book, which Google and I translated into English.

Meie Koolmeistrid
Our Faculty, literally Our School Masters

On inimesi kes töötavad oma elust vaid mõned aastad õpetajana aga neid mäletavad nii õpilased kui ka kolleegid eredate tähtedena. Selline oli ka inglise keele õpetaja Kevin Hogan, kes tuli meile kaugelt Ameerikast ja on nüüd oma sõnade järgi Eestist sõltuvuses. Mis tegi Kevini nii eriliseks õpetajaka? Arvan, et tean vastust.

There are people from our life who work for only some years as a teacher but they are remembered by students and colleagues as shining stars. Such a person was English teacher Kevin Hogan, who came to us from America afar, and now he is addicted to walking the talk of Estonia. What made Kevin such a special teacher? I think I know the answer.

See oli inimlikkus kõige laimas tähenduses ja äärmiselt hea lastetuba. Kui praegu küsida õpilastelt, keda ta õpetas põhikoolis, mille poolest õpetaja Hogan erines teistest õpetajatest, siis vastavad nad sageli, et ei oska täpselt öelda, aga ta oli nii sõbralik, hooliv ja mõistis tunnis nalja teha. 

He was the best of humanity, challenging what is considered an exceedingly good children's room [a probably grossly inaccurate translation]. If today you ask the students whom he taught in elementary school what about Mr. Hogan was different from the other teachers, they often respond that they cannot say exactly but that he was very friendly, caring, and he made learning fun.

Ei ole just palju niisuguseid õpetajaid, kes suudavad õpilaste huvid oma isiklikest huvidest kõrgemale tõsta, aga Kevin suutis. Näiteks võttis lapsed sappa ja põrutas Londoni, korraldas keelelaagri või käis lihtsalt ekskursioonidel kaasas Eestimaad avastamas. Kolleegina iseloomustaksin ma teda kui abivalmit, äärmiselt viisakat, seiklushimulist ja tarka meest. Sellist inimest oodatakse tagasi ja olenemata vahemaadest on ta sina jaoks alati olemas.

There are definitely not many teachers who are able to put students’ interests above their own, but Kevin did. For example, he identified children and introduced them to London [another inaccurate translation], organized language camps, or simply went along on excursions to discover Estonia. As a colleague, I characterized him as a helpful, extremely polite, adventure-loving, and smart man. One would wait the return of such a person, and regardless of the distances he is always there for you.