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APASS 2005 - Obóz językowy Puławy - WEEK ONE

2005-09-21Return to Firetop Mountain Poland. Now with planning!


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Last time I went on a TEFL language camp through APASS I packed the night before, slept most of the journey over and didn't write a lesson plan in three weeks. This time, well, two out of three ain't bad. It happened like this...

Sometime last year, my sister (modern languages student, affinity for east European languages) thought she'd get in contact with APASS and see if language camps were running in 2005. (In 2004 only a few camps had run, probably due to the national elections and much non-essential stuff being put on hold.) Mr Palka at their Leeds office proposed an experiment: Sally would get together a team of friends and lead it, with the idea that a group who already knew each other would be fine for an undergrad to manage. (APASS team leaders are usually practising or retired teachers.)

I agreed to go along on the basis I could plan other things around it, which evolved into "we could run it as a duo"—which seemed reasonable, as neither of us had led a camp before, though we'd both been on one and had an idea what was involved. Plus it seemed an excellent opportunity to steer my CV back in the direction of teaching.

Like I say, the idea was for us to joint-lead the camp, amended in my head after Sally got talked into leading another camp before ours to, "pick up more tasks on the second one, give the kid an easier time of it." (I get to call my sister things like kid. I'm officially old. And besides, it's one of the politer things.) I'm glad I considered the possibility of winging things without her, because that's what eventually happened. Thankfully, I had a great team—rather a testament to her social nous and good taste in friends.

Anyway, covering my sentimental side back over for the time being (and trying not to break up chronology too much) I'll get onto what's involved with team leading before camp starts—this is, in part, an attempt to pass on some tips for anyone thinking of teaching or leading in future, and a bit more personal and involved than a FAQ whilst hopefully more relevant and coherent than my 2003 writeup.

First suggestion: learn some Polish. It isn't necessary for everyone on staff, but you're going to function better at organising things if you can manage at least a few words. I was fortunate enough to have Sally around to make first contact with our translator and liason in Puławy, and she's good with Slavic languages. I've no idea how much sense I made when I gabbled "Cześć? Jest Pani Moravska proszę? Anglikiem lektor..." when we finally got into Warsaw, but I couldn't really bank on an English-speaker making it to the phone first. (Not that I could manage much more than just recognise if someone said "no, sorry" in response, and my grammar is atrocious, but if you can get meaning across that's the most important thing.) Past that, learning to ask where things are, follow simple directions and observe some basic social niceties are all useful—even if only as an accompaniment to nodding, pointing and smiling. The worst thing for me about being abroad is language barriers, but communicating in spite of them is very rewarding.

Getting a group together involved my sister press ganging most of the people she was living in uni halls or going out with, spreading the word to one or two other places college friends had ended up, sticking posters up on the Nottingham campus, and I inquired after the handful of acquaintances I have who could possibly travel for a month mid-year. This gave us most of the twenty probables or definites needed before APASS reopened for registrations in the new year. (APASS is a fairly small organisation in the UK, mostly running offices for the periods required to organise Summer camps.)

Having got our bunch more-or-less together, Sally got a phone call saying that the Polish ministry were keen to run some extra camps and that it was worth putting the word out further for people to get involved. Nottingham uni got postered and mails sent around through the English and Education departments, and I passed on details to Aber in case there was any interest there. This was getting quite close to pre-book deadlines for APASS working out travel, and universities had started winding down for Summer, but I think the ratio of people interested to camps being run worked out roughly. It's harder to sort out group leaders at that sort of notice, though, which is how Sally ended up leading another group to Łukow before our group was due to go to Puławy. Whilst I could've gone on that one as well, it made more sense for me to be in the UK to relay messages and to lead out the second group. This turned out particularly fortunately, as the leader's pack I scanned and précised parts of for my sister before sending on from home disappeared in the care of Royal Mail.

Not being in Nottingham, I figured a decent place to post information centrally and chat would be a forum. So I set up a very stripped-down phpBB install behind .htaccess protections (and I'm glad I passworded the directory, as this was just before a range of phpBB exploits surfaced—including the Santy.A worm, a self-replicating nasty that trashed whole sites.) It worked reasonably well, though never got that busy. As we got closer to departure, rounds of email reminders were sent out about travel insurance, changing currency, UK docs (E111s for us, but it'll be EHIC for future travellers) etc.

A particularly useful thing that came from having a comms net was that we were able to work out ahead of time lists of partners for teaching and room-sharing, plus pass on to Magda (our Polish contact) some suggestions for classroom supplies and get an idea of what facilities we'd have to run afternoon activities with. (I'll talk about camp timetabling in the next entry.) Doing things via phone instead would have proved incredibly time- consuming, not to mention expensive, since a fair number of our group were language students and on placements abroad or travelling during the run-up to departure.

I think I'll also save the breakdown of packing for the TEFL FAQ elsewhere on the site, lest this get overlong. I'll reiterate briefly that taking your own music and stuff for making tea may help maintain sanity, drawstring bags are great for carrying a few things around and organising papers with, and a keyring you can easily clip extra keys onto will be handy. In terms of teaching resources, vocab wordsearches are good for all ages, tourist leaflets and menus are useful idea material, and having some songs plus printed lyrics may help to keep things interesting for more able groups.

We got down to London via National Express from Birmingham, booking ahead to take advantage of their funfare pricing. Chris had had to drop out at short notice after slicing up the tendons in his hand, but he'd gotten his travel deposit refunded so there was a good chance Mr Palka had arranged a substitute. As it turned out, Rich phoned whilst we were waiting to meet up with people in Birmingham—and we later found he knew people from Nottingham and had been accepted to the scheme some time earlier, so he'd assumed he was travelling with us but hadn't been in the loop with emails as we didn't know about him. There's a good chance that had we not lost Chris, Rich might have been on another camp departing from London the same day as us. But we did, so he wasn't, and things turned out well in our leg of the trousers of time.

I think it was Glyn, me, Steph, Paul and Elly that travelled from Digbeth. We'd been expecting Katie and Geoff to turn up too, which occasioned wandering around with the "APASS || PUŁAWY" sign I'd prepared for London and getting into conversation with more than one Polish national who happened to be travelling in the same direction. We were a bit worried when we left Birmingham with no sign of them, but managed to get through after a bit—they were coming by train, and had no reception en route. The only thing left on my mind was the nagging sensation I'd forgotten something...

Meeting in London was pretty straightforward, following road signs round the corner to Victoria coach station and doing the usual "I'm standing by the entrance with a phone in one hand and waving" to pick up Richard (a surprise to the last second, as the guy crossing the road in front of him also looked like he was packed for a month abroad.) Almost everyone else had already gathered by the fountain inside the complex. This is probably the worst bit for both leaders and staff—you're standing around, having lugged stuff around that weighs as much as you and probably been travelling a couple of hours already, there's someone waving paper trying to work out who they're missing, and then they bugger off trying to find a coach. A plus point is that most of the others already knew each other, at least by name, so it may not have seemed so daunting and chaotic—for those new to APASS and their group, though, don't worry; you'll bond after a forty-eight hour coach journey or a few days of camp. You have to, so it happens.

The coach showed up a bit late (after I'd worked my way down the opposite coach rank looking for ATAS company boards and asking for Warsaw routes) and Steph—the only one of us who'd actually studied Polish—managed to sort us out tickets whilst I rounded people up and got them to hand in passports en masse (it saves time at borders if the coach staff can vouch that all ticket-holders have valid passports.) Again, this probably wasn't particularly fun being shunted around by a random stranger, plus we had to get baggage stowed, so you're trying to keep track of people whilst letting those who haven't had time for toilet and food breaks nip off for ten minutes.

One important point: ATAS don't seem particularly bothered about the 15Kg weight restriction on hold baggage—it's not like they bring scales, so if it can be lifted easily enough you're fine—but do charge extra for extra items, even if you've only got two small bags that together weigh less than 15Kg. It was £10 for an extra suitcase tag. Viks and Anj pooled luggage so they only had one extra bag, and Glyn decided to pay rather than nurse a guitar case on his lap for the journey.

Only half-an-hour or so behind schedule, and not because of us, we actually set off.

Very soon afterwards I confirmed I'd forgotten my alarm clock... but still, so far so good. I had eighteen people, which I hadn't entirely been expecting. A small part of me was also keeping an eye out for flying chunks of bus as we drove through London... indeed, I know some parents were wary about their offspring travelling in the area... plus there's always the chance someone will fall ill at the last minute, etc. But we made it.

The second annoying discovery of the day came when our ATAS stewardess announced that the on-coach toilet had become out of order on the trip into England. She seemed quite scared of Elly (who apparently gets travel sick quite a bit) so we let her do the talking. Still didn't get a whole lot of useful information out of the woman, but another lady who was travelling with her kids helpfully translated the causes of various delays as they notched up, in the process of complaining about unscheduled detours. In fact, I'm sure we went in a circle at one point, through a tiny little deserted village with narrow roads that wouldn't have been out of place in Wales...

By the time we checked in at Dover we were hours behind schedule. I think what had happened was that ATAS had made arrangements to pick some kids up from places that were off the main route, then couldn't find the places. There was also a mix-up with a guy being on the wrong coach, which either involved waiting for the right coach to catch up or us waiting for the guy and him switching further en route. Somehow we eventually caught all this time up, but as we couldn't get an ETA out of the coach stewardess for most of the trip, there was some understandable concern about turning up in Puławy in the early hours of the morning, or not being able to make a connecting coach.

I got royally screwed by the gift shop at the port; eight quid for a travel alarm clock. There's an incentive to not forget in future. I could possibly have used a phone but didn't want to assume I'd have plug points throughout the month, and mine has never lasted more than a few days (it didn't manage even that whilst we were travelling.) I also got some touristy knick-knacks I figured we could put with alcohol as leaving presents after camp, and we got greasy chow from a terrifying Burger King supervisor who'd obviously been wound up throughout her shift and looked and acted as if she was ready to kill people.

The ferry over was uneventful; we went up on deck for a bit and took a few photos, but it was chill and windy... the sun was almost down, too. I handed out wallet cards with the address of camp (something someone had suggested to Sally for Łukow for if people wanted to go out of an evening or got lost in town so they'd have something to show cab drivers) and dutifully read the brief spiel APASS ask us to about drunkenness, improper behaviour and being ambassadors for your country whilst abroad.

Around this point time starts to blur. I find I start hibernating on long journeys, dozing most of the time and finding bodily functions slowing down in an obliging manner. I don't know how much that's automatic, but would suggest trying to get water intake from food and not drinking too much from the ferry onwards—you're spending over a day- and-a-half on a coach, and on-board toilets aren't the most practical things, assuming that yours are actually in service...

At 1am there was some kind of gangster film playing on the coach vidscreens, making me extremely glad I had my hat to pull over my face and zone out under. At 3am we made the first service stop in a good while... or rather, the coach stopped next to some bushes, which people were less than happy about. Actual services were arrived at by 5:30am, then we pressed on through until breakfast. By this point my metabolism hadn't so much slowed down as stopped, and I decided to doze through to lunch.

Lunch was at a restaurant ATAS frequently use as a meeting point, a little way over the border into Poland. It's notable for its castle-like design, inexpensive but quality fare and extremely slow service. In fairness, most of ATAS' customers speak either German or Polish and will have no problem navigating the site or menus (which are handily illustrated, and the place accepts Euros) but it would be a nice gesture if their staff took passengers down to the restaurant and attracted a waitress for them, as it's quite difficult to get food and eat it within an hour even if you know what to expect.

Nevertheless, I felt much happier when I got back on the coach carrying my omelette. Water, latrines, a bit of sleep and warm food—perfick. People had had chance to try a few words of Polish if they hadn't already, and there'd been opportunity to introduce national eccentricities such as toilet tolls and to chat a bit.

(Toilet tolls? Eateries usually levy ~1zł for facilities, especially establishments that have a lot of tourists coming through who aren't necessarily there for food and drink. Since you can't get Polish coinage in the UK, best plan is to break a note at first opportunity; remember to warn your party to get some cash in advance for things like this. Most of ours followed the drill and got Euros and Złoty ahead of time, or covered each other.)

I tried to get through to Magda at this point, without success on either number. Not helping things was my phone, which doesn't travel much, being down to the dregs of its battery... I was switching it on to text people or try to get through. With hindsight, I could have charged a spare handset and taken it with me—or gone and bought one of those AAA emergency charge things, perhaps—but I really wasn't expecting mine to die so quickly. Calls organising stuff the day before and switching between foreign networks obviously added up. (Also, I think more power is drained to boost receiving where signal is weaker, and a Nokia 3210 is both anything but state-of-the-art and has an internal antenna.) As always, hindsight is 20/20, and doesn't forget alarm clocks. Anyway, Mark very kindly lent me his handset so we could leave a phone on in case Sally or Magda tried to get through. I think it was me who managed to in the end, just after we got switched to a connecting coach from Warsaw to Puławy. Somehow we'd made up most of the time lost in the UK; we didn't seem to have gone all that fast on the German autobahn (an obvious place to try to catch up) so perhaps it was a combination of short breaks en route and a large built-in buffer. Whatever it was, it worked.

Sal had gotten in earlier that evening and dropped her stuff off at camp before coming back out with Mags to collect us. It turned out to be just around the corner, though we could have done with a bit less dashing around as some people didn't have wheeled cases. Rooms in the small separate dorm building were quickly keyed out to people, stuff dumped and we went back across to the Bursa for a late supper. Everything on site was conveniently close together, including the Bursa (which housed all of the kids' dorms), sports areas, dorm building and the large traditional school next door.

A round of introductions were made, everyone tucked into ham and cheese, we made arrangements for meetings the next day, went back, unpacked a bit and crashed.


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