On giving and receiving feedback

Today I visited a Montessori classroom (around 30 children, 9 to 11 years old) and had the chance to attend a presentation about animal welfare, created by one of the children. First, it was a feast to see how much information she collected, how she organised it into a meaningful sequence, and how she presented, both reading texts written by herself and initiating brief guessing games where all children gladly took part. The presentation lasted almost an hour, and awoke the general curiosity. Many children set precise questions and she answered with sincerity.

Obliques

The most touching part for me was the final feedback from most of the people present, both children and adults (the teacher, the girl’s parents and a few guests including me): it felt sincere, accurate, carefully worded and spontaneous. I have read many articles and books about giving feedback and I thought I knew a lot, but was overwhelmed and almost surprised by how experienced everyone acted in that circle. I was equally moved by the quiet joy of the girl answering with a few words to each person, often with a simple, soft “Thank you”. It felt so right! She did a terrific job, put a lot of effort, time and passion into it, presented it to the whole group with an enviable nonchalance, then her classmates gave her positive feedback and a few points to improve: she deserved to be proud for that. It made me think of the times when my parents scolded me for looking too proud when I received compliments, and I am so glad that this girl, and the other children in that group, can practice this healthy feedback exchange from an early age so that it can become a natural, fully functional part of their growth.

Die Sonne genießen. N'Jumo, Orientalisch Kurzhaar.

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On learning German: translation challenges

Some time ago in the underground I overheard a conversation between a girl with socks decorated with avocados and a guy with a postage-stamp tattoo. The girl mentioned her German course and he got the idea to improvise a translation quiz. It went approximately like this:

Guy (opening the girl’s notebook with the list of words she learned so far): So, how would you translate “silent”?

Girl: I think it’s “still”.

Guy: No, not in that sense – not in the sense of “mute”, either – no, maybe “quiet” would be a better word…

They took at least two underground stops to agree on which meaning of “silent” should be translated to German. I had to get out at my stop and I still don’t know if they succeeded 🙂

I am often in similar situations when I have a word in English or Italian in mind, and need to find its German equivalent. Unlike the other languages I know, there is rarely a 1:1 match, and the search for the appropriate translation becomes a quest full of surprises: how many translations are there for Blatt? See this post from Your Daily German! And how many for Anhänger? Check Wiktionary, and find out that it can mean either “trailer”, or “party member”, “fan”, and even “pendant”… And what about Gewalt? It is translated with either “power” or “violence” – I found it dangerously ambiguous at first, but then realised that “Gewalt” then automatically includes the possibility of misuse, which sounds to me a healthy warning sign.

My journey with German is then at the same time a journey of re-discovery of my known languages. I discover how German chooses words according to the functionality, and that apparently distant concepts look suddenly close, like in a perspective trick. French and Italian have less apparent connections among words, also because Latin and Greek roots are much more common and they don’t show their meaning so clearly as German does. As an example, I laughed a lot when I learned that “isosceles” is translated in German as gleichschenkelig – literally “with the same legs”. An isosceles triangle is “same-legged”! Then I checked what “isosceles” means, and it’s the Greek word for precisely “with the same legs”…

I like travelling in the meaning of words across languages. Sometimes I discover different points of view on a given topic, or the effect of a grammar rule that sometimes forces words to get a nuance they won’t get otherwise (I think mostly of grammatical gender). I think I didn’t get that 3D effect when I learned Italian and French, because they are very close, and I learned English mainly by translating 1:1. German doesn’t allow that so easily, and I am glad to be required to change my mindset and expand my views.

M. C. Escher: Magic Mirror (source: Wikiart)

 

 

Double book recommendation: “Kobane calling” by Zerocalcare and “D’autres vies que la mienne” by Emmanuel Carrère

Yesterday I finished reading “D’autres vies que la mienne” and took a moment to let the feelings sink. It was a moving book, that I read page by page as if I were listening to someone, letting their words decide the speed of narration. Carrère talks about the stories of members of his close family and of dear friends, as he wanted to portrait “other lives but his” in a direct and simple style. While reading, I felt taken very close to the people in the book, as if they were old friends. Carrère has a way of describing facts and perceptions that made me feel respectful while learning of very personal, often tragic, life events.

When I talked about the book to a friend, I realised that my feelings while reading looked much like the ones I had when reading “Kobane calling”, a comic book about Zerocalcare’s non-reportages in Rojava. Despite the apparent lightness of the chosen medium, the stories of the people he meets are portrayed as life-like as possible, hard and uncertain.

I felt that both authors opened me a direct connection to other people, in a way that these very people were the centre of attention – not the authors, nor me the reader. It would have been easy to bend these lives to make them more cinema-like, more appealing to my reader’s eyes; or to let the author show off their drawing/writing skills, or even to make use of the facts to squeeze out some general morals; I felt none of that. Both authors wanted to mention that their point of view was unescapably partial, and that they were humans as much as the people they portray in their narrations. I felt, together with them, the most sincere respect and admiration for people who bravely and modestly deal with the difficulties of their lives.

 

On disappearing while observing

At the last concert I attended as audience member, I happened to think about my love for observing. I loved to be for once in the audience instead of on the stage; to have the privilege to be still, to receive music without the need to interact with the musicians, except by clapping and cheering after each piece. The moment I loved most was after the concert when I stood near the stage, looking at the drummers packing up their gear: concentrated, efficient, relaxed after the show. I didn’t feel the need to interact with them, it would have been an interruption, even if I approached the stage with the wish to greet one of them. After a while he noticed me and walked over for a quick greeting, then had to come back to his instruments. I felt like a birdwatcher, briefly approached by a curious bird. I then wondered how I could ask (or even pretend) attention and recognition, when I feel so blessed as I get little or none of it. Maybe it’s because this is how I make sure to get sincere attention, instead of artificially-induced positive feedback.

I thought that attending a concert is one of the many setups where I am not the centre of attention, and not even an active participant in a communication. I felt the same positive sensations when I was observing wildlife during my university studies, and I realise that it was the strongest reason for me to enter the wildlife management field: this ability to disappear from the eyes of the animals, while working behind the scenes for their well-being. Well, sometimes they did notice me, like “Gina”, a female red deer rescue, who loved human attention, especially when it came in form of food 🙂

La Gina

I felt a similar heartfelt call when I met Maria Montessori’s concept of observation and her way of enabling children to learn by themselves, by stimulating their curiosity rather than actively keeping their attention on activities designed by myself. Even my friends sometimes make me the wonderful present of their spontaneous life, free from interactions with me. With my closest friends I notice that we have communication phases and observation phases, and we found our way to stay near each other with the possibility, but without the obligation, to interact. I feel it is a true mark of respectful closeness.

I have even experimented this mindset by standing near an intersection for several traffic light cycles. For ten minutes, the traffic lights lost for me the usual meaning of “Wait! Walk!” and my attention moved to the approaching cars, bikes and pedestrians. I watched how impatient each of them was, how some people scanned the surroundings while waiting and others kept their attention on the traffic lights; how some children on bikes negotiated the intersection with careful attention; how few people noticed me while others didn’t. At the orchestra’s rehearsals, it happens that I have significant gaps in my notes, or I plainly have nothing to play for a whole piece: wonderful! Time to disappear and observe! Time to watch other musicians and better understand which parts are hard for each instrument; time to better hear each one of them in the sum of sounds; time to enjoy their concentrated faces.

I sometimes think there is something odd in my fascination for this kind of disappearance. At the same time I find very healthy to practice invisibility and experience the world without being the centre of it, at least for a little while.

Any of you made similar experiences? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Flying – the dream and the routine

For a long time, humanity only dreamed of flying. I had the chance to grow up in a time where flying was possible, even if only as a luxury, and later witnessed the popularisation of flying. I definitely enjoy the current convenience of taking a plane to quickly crunch a few thousands kilometers and visit friends and family with much less planning than for a earth-bound trip, but I have been brought to think that the fascination of flying is pretty much gone.

Guido on the plane at Schönefeld

As a passenger, I’m sad to have only minimal contact with the pilots. I consider that flying a plane remains a challenging task, no matter how much technology increasingly assists it. I barely get to know their names, for sure not before boarding the plane. When I see the crew of a plane, in uniform, walking with their luggage in the airport halls or on the tarmac, I get a sudden feeling of sympathy and respect, but what I see is that most people nearby barely take notice. When I fly, I try to guess the pilots’ actions at takeoff and landing. These moments are for me interesting and unique, and I give them all my attention. I love to see the flaps being moved one by one during taxing or right before takeoff, it makes me imagine the plane as a huge bird who checks if all its feathers are OK before flight. And videos like this one, recorded during storm Xavier, make me remember how all flying machines, including the larger ones, are at the mercy of bad weather conditions, and only a great combination of pilot’s skills and equipment solidity can ensure safe flights. I shiver every time I notice how the whole plane bends under the wind gusts and dangerously bounces on the runway.

It is easy to get comfortable in my bubble, sleeping, eating, reading, watching a movie, and forget that I am flying over the Earth, over cities, mountains and lakes. I giggle when people eagerly scan the landscape from their window, then point to something, getting  suddenly excited for recognising a place they always see from the ground. Too bad that I notice that less and less often! I remember keeping my friend Madi awake for almost a whole 12-hour flight, especially when we passed over Iceland and Canada. During the longest and most magnificent sunset I ever saw, we flew over ice-bergs, broken pack, firm immaculate ice-shelves, sea, and sometimes, tiny as a toy, a cargo ship. How could we sleep when there was such a view?

Pack over Northern Canada

I smile when I see kids enjoying the flight as a proper adventure. I try to keep that view myself, and refuse to board a plane as unimpressed as I would board a bus. Humanity has always dreamed about flying! Commercial planes are offering me the most accessible pair of wings that I can currently get, let me keep celebrating it 🙂

On freedom and rules – the seaman, the writer and the drummer

I read this morning this post from Simone Perotti [IT], focused on the similarities between his experiences as writer and as seaman in the Mediterranean Sea. He finds that the sea is setting the rules, and the seaman has to submit to them if he wants to make safe progress on his route. The author is in a similar condition, in the vast sea of language. Fighting the rules of the sea would put the seaman in peril of his life; fighting the rules of language would make the author not understandable.

I liked that post. I felt no inferiority in his words, at least not an unhappy one. Obeying to the sea gives him clear goals and a reduced set of possible actions. This limited freedom has the positive, surprising aspect that it frees the mind from computing too many future scenarios. Isn’t it the case of many sports too? Or jobs? In most cases there is no complete freedom of choice. Still, lots of people are ready to accept the rules of a given activity and have a really great time practicing it. It makes me think of Jost Nickel‘s lesson on Drumeo, where he explains how he builds a new groove. He elaborated three rules, and sticks to them. He defines that “being creative through limitations”. Of course, he adds that you are always free to drop the rules when you realise that you explored all possibilities and you feel bored.

My final consideration is that freedom mentioned by Simone and Jost is not in the single actions themselves, but on a higher level: either the setting of the rules (for the drums), or even higher, the decision to do that activity instead of any other (for the seaman and the author, and the drummer too). When I think about my perception of freedom, I realised I focused on the obeying part and surely appeared more submissive than I would have liked to. I’m glad I read Simone’s post and realised the bigger picture.

 

Book recommendation: “Barfuß auf dem Sommerdeich” by Katja Just

I just finished reading this book. First of all, I’m quite proud of having been able to read it all without looking at the dictionary!

9783959101172

I picked it up in my library, attracted by the wilderness and remoteness of the Halligen, small islands in the North Sea, near the coasts of Germany and Denmark. The story of the city-dweller who leaves the busy streets for a remote, natural environment invariably fascinates every human heart.

Katja Just’s journey from Munich to Hooge is however not so close to a dream. She had hard times, not only because of the trying living conditions on the island, but, according to my impression, the deeper cause was her approach to those hardships. She does an amazing journey of introspection and acceptance, of herself, of the life on Hooge, that is unique and brave. This makes me think that just following her example and move to Hooge myself would not necessarily be a good decision: my starting point and my mindset are different. Nevertheless, the lessons I wish to learn from her experience are:

  • observe, assuming that the information is out there and deserves to be noticed
  • learn more about myself through the analysis of my reactions – being honest and open, rather than intolerant to my weaknesses
  • be ready to stand for my ideas, firmly and politely

I hope there will be soon an English translation, so that more readers can have access to the book. I’ll update the post accordingly.

Until next time, good reads everyone!