25 August update

In anticipation of the rush of the new academic year, let me reminisce about those events of last spring which I didn’t include in my July report.

It goes without saying that the epitome of my year was the IATEFL Glasgow conference. For one thing, I was one of the speakers of the ELT Journal debate, which is a regular forum at IATEFL conferences to discuss topical issues. This year the theme was what I like to call the ‘English as a Lingua Franca movement’.  Moderated by ELTJ editor Graham Hall with a touch of humour, I argued that ELF may be interesting for researchers, but it’s not important for teachers and learners. At the other end of the table sat Alessia Cogo, who opposed my motion. The two exposés were followed by comments from the floor. Whereas I felt that the sympathy of the audience lay with Alessia, I was relieved that no bad eggs were thrown at me.

If this wasn’t enough, I also wrote an article for ELT Journal, in which I called into question the relevance of academic research beyond the narrow confines of ELF too. My arguments were challenged by Amos Paran. Both my article and Amos’ response are due to appear in the October issue of the journal. I’m ready for the worst and wouldn’t be surprised if I were ostracised from the noble ranks of researchers.

Back to Glasgow. Next to the registration desk stood Susan Holden throughout the four days of the conference. As publisher of the third edition of my book, ‘The Non-native Teacher’, she gave a free copy to each participant – a total of nearly two thousand copies! As I joined her at the desk, my heart was filled with joy as the delegates were queueing up to have their copy signed by the author. Should you be interested in buying the book, place your order here: The English Language Bookshop, Brighton, www.elb.brighton.com. (This is called self-promotion, isn’t it?)

Whereas I love Scotland, I must admit that Malaysia promised to be a far more exotic country to visit. After a never-ending flight, I arrived in George Town. I wonder why a Malaysian town should still wear the English name decades after it became independent from British colonial rule. Anyhow, it’s the capital city of Penang, a smallish island in the Malacca Strait opposite Sumatra. And what a wonderful place it is! Cosmopolitan in character, with a healthy mix of Malay, Chinese and European faces, plus a vibrating old city. On entering the hotel where I was staying and where the conference was held, I noticed this sign:

no durians

What on earth is durian? It looks like a fruit, but I didn’t find it among the dozens of fruits served at breakfast. Having checked it in a dictionary, I found that durian is such a malodorous fruit that it’s banned from public places. Some people feel sick even at the sight of it, while others call it the king of fruits. Durian is nearly as divisive in South East Asia as marmite in Britain. By the way, the fruit looks like this outside:


and like this inside:

durian inside

Go for it if you have a stomach less sensitive than mine – and if it is available in your country.

At the conference I met my friend Tamás Kiss, who had arranged my invitation to PELLTA, the local English teachers’ association. Until recently Tamás taught in Singapore but now he works in China. He’s a regular speaker at PELLTA; he says this is his favourite conference venue – and after this wonderful conference it’s  my favourite as well. Another apparition revenant is Tony Wright, a gregarious colleague from England, who was instrumental in founding the association in the late 1980s. Since then he’s never been absent from the biannual conferences, partly in order to revisit the same places in George Town that his father had taken pictures of many decades before. Like father, like son.

While the time difference between Hungary and Malaysia is six hours, Mexico is seven – albeit in the opposite direction. No sooner had I got back from Penang than I was off to Guadalajara. Well, not quite because I had a few days’ rest in Copenhagen with my family, barely enough time to get over my jetlag, let alone the climatic change.

Well before the conference I sent a video message to greet the prospective conference participants. You may watch it here:

The flight to Guadalajara with layover time in Amsterdam and Mexico City took as much as the one to Penang. Cramped seats, delays, turbulence. Arrival in Guadalajara, transfer to the hotel, on and off sleep, early breakfast. Half a day for my own pleasure. Let’s go sightseeing! I ask the receptionist:

“How can I get to the city centre?”

“By taxi, sir.”

“Could you change fifty dollars into pesos please?”

“I’m sorry, sir, we’ve run out of pesos.”

“Can I pay the driver in dollars?”

“No, you can’t, sir, he’ll take pesos only.”

“But then how can I get to the city centre?”

“By taxi, sir.”

Catch-22. In despair I ask for a city map. Well, we’re here and here’s the city centre. Hm. Should be within walking distance. It’s half past eight in the morning and the sun is shining brightly. I’m walking east along a busy main road towards the centre. Half an hour later I’m in the middle of an industrial part of Guadalajara with factory yards on either side. Now I have to cross railway lines and then a motorway. Run, Péter, run! By that time the sun is hitting me harder and harder. I’m getting tired.

Another half hour and I’m in a more lively district. Look, there’s a bank over there. Hurray! The bank clerk shakes his head and the little that I can understand from his Spanish is that they won’t change money. Why don’t you walk three blocks down the road, he says, and you’ll find a cash machine. I drag myself on. This should be it, three machines in the wall. I try to stick my card into the hole: it won’t fit in. The guy on my right waves me to the one at the opposite end. I’m hesitating. What if my card disappears in the interstice and won’t reemerge? No, better not.

I keep walking. Wow, there’s another bank over there. Sorry, sir, we don’t change money, says the guy, but if you walk five blocks down this road, you’ll find one that will. Opposite a McDonald’s place. Don’t give up, Péter, pull yourself together. Trot, trot, trot and then, lo and behold, the bank as said is there just across the McDonald’s. After waiting for my turn for a good half hour I have the precious pesos in my hand. I hail a taxi and in about fifteen minutes I get off at the foot of the main cathedral. And next to it what do I find? A hop on-hop off bus. I walk up to the booth selling tickets for the sightseeing tour. When does it depart, I ask the fat lady. Come back in about forty minutes, she says. OK, I’ll be here by eleven.

I enter the cathedral and dump myself in a seat exhausted. It’s pleasantly cool inside. Half an hour later I return and ask the same lady what now. We still need another nine passengers, sir, and then we’re off. How many are there yet? You’re the first one, sir. Thank you very much. I take the next taxi pulling up, back to the hotel, up to my room, into bed and have a sound sleep until the next morning. Guadalajara, you’ve missed the only chance you could have entertained me! Tough luck.

Otherwise, the conference was very well organised and my hot-off-the-press book was displayed on a faraway stand. The sales representative was just sitting there without a yen to sell my book or any other book for that matter. Then I bumped into Andy Cowle, a guy I’d never met before. It turned out that he’d been working with Susan Holden and had actually been employed by her at Macmillan in the early nineties. After a few drinks he suggested that I hold up my book at crucial points during my presentation. I told him I would be the last one to promote my book in such a flamboyant way. As the audience were leaving the auditorium after my talk, Andy nearly blocked the exit, waving my book and shouting that this was the last chance to buy my book. And he would step aside only after all the copies were sold. Meanwhile the rep was just standing there idly. God bless you, dear Andy!

This should be enough for now. Next time: Salamanca and Zaježka – you’ve been warned!