Archive | January 2011

A difference of opinion

What do you do when someone says something to you that is so foreign to your way of thinking that it’s offensive?

I just got back from a private lesson with Patrizio, who is back in France for another month or so, after having spent December at home in Milan. We were doing a class with conversation topics under the heading ‘Sex Sells’.

In case the name didn’t tip you off, the topics were all related to sex, and I find controversy is usually a good way to get people talking (though you do need to pick and choose your students carefully).

We’d been chatting for about 30 minutes when this topic came up:

What should the legal age be to have consensual sex?

Not too controversial – I said that in Australia the age is 16 so, as long as it’s consensual and one person doesn’t have authority over the other, then that’s fine. He said 18 for the same reasons, the only difference being that he said the legal age in Italy was 18.

The next topic was:

What should the legal age be to have consensual gay sex?

“I think never,” Patrizio said.

“Okay,” I said, “and why is it different to consensual straight sex?”

He shook his head a bit bashfully, “no, I don’t want to injure your opinion.”

I grinned, “look, the point of these topics is that they’re controversial, which is supposed to get you talking. I’m always going to ask ‘why’ to get you to speak more – this is just about practising your English.”

“Well, for me, gay people are not right. A person who is gay is a . . . personne malade.”

“A sick person?” I wondered if I heard correctly.

“Yes, mentally,” Patrizio said, “and we need to help them to become better.”

What the hell?! I tried to understand. “So what you’re saying is that being gay is like having a mental illness.”

“Yes,” he nodded.

“. . . so if they are cured of this illness, they’ll be heterosexual again?”

He looked at me blankly.

“I mean, if they get better, they’ll start to like women again.”

“Yes,” he said.

What do you do when someone says something that is so different to the way you think? Do you argue and say that they’re wrong? Do you ignore it and move on? Do you pretend to agree so you don’t lose a student?

I’ve used these topics in one other class, and the question about consensual gay sex was interesting because the student looked at it and her instinct was to say that the age should be later, but she acknowledged that there was no logical difference.

Who’s to say that it takes a gay person longer to realise that they’re gay than for a straight person to realise that they’re straight? If straight wasn’t considered to be the ‘norm’ in society, would I have really cared one way or the other until I was attracted to someone?

I’m straight, but I became interested in guys quite late. I went to a Catholic girls’ school and, at fourteen, I couldn’t figure out why the girls got so excited when they could see boys from our brother school walking past. At our Year 9 and 10 socials (Jolie at ages 14 and 15, these were held with the brother school), I flirted and got the attention of boys, though if I was honest it probably had more to do with the excitement among the girls about the event than with interest in the boys.

I still remember my first crush – Julian (sigh). I was seventeen (see – I told you I started late. A single-sex school, ballet as a hobby, and a general lack of interest resulted in a lack of exposure to boys). It was in January 2003 at a two-week maths camp (yes I know – I’m a nerd). That was the first time I’d been attracted to anyone in that way and, if it hadn’t been for society’s expectations, I probably wouldn’t have thought about whether I was gay or straight before that. I’d never been attracted to any of the girls at school, but I’d never been attracted to a guy before either, so how could I have really known?

And who’s to say that a boy or girl who’s attracted to someone of the same sex at the age of twelve doesn’t really know?

So to hear Patrizio saying that consensual gay sex should be illegal at any age, not because people don’t know who they are but because people who want this are mentally ill made me so angry!

I generally think that I’m a tolerant person – you can live your life the way you want, as long as you’re not hurting anyone, it’s not my place to say. But to hear someone condemn the way someone else lives his/her life . . . it got me so mad. I didn’t want to pretend to agree with him. But I also didn’t want to get into an argument that could quickly become quite heated.

I was going to move on, but then he asked, “and you?”

I answered carefully, “I think a bit differently to you. I think people should be able to live their lives as they like – as long as they aren’t hurting themselves or anyone else. I don’t think that people having consensual gay sex are hurting themselves or each other, so I’m okay with it.”

“But, when you think of it,” Patrizio seemed to be searching for words, “when I think of two men . . .” he couldn’t find them, but I could see the thought made him uncomfortable, maybe even queasy.

I shrugged, “look, I’m straight. I’m attracted to men, so it’s not for me, but I don’t have a problem with gay couples of either gender.”

“So if a woman came to you and asked you . . . ?”

I smiled, “I would say that I’m very flattered, but no thank you.”

Patrizio smiled. He almost seemed relieved.

I wonder if he would have cancelled our classes if I were gay.

Being sexy

After returning from Brighton, there was a parcel of presents waiting for me! My parents had sent it from Oz in early December, but the snow meant that it didn’t arrive in time for Christmas.

“I’m not bad; I’m just drawn that way.”

Of the gifts in the box, I think my favourite might be a 2-inch Jessica Rabbit pin (though there was also some Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup lip gloss that I can’t stop eating), courtesy of my sister.

Last April I dyed my hair red. I’m also rather curvy, so when I upgraded my hair some of the guys in the office started calling me Jessica Rabbit. I was extremely flattered – she’s so sexy!

As I’ve been feeling a bit hippo-like since the holiday (a cute, happy hippo, though. Like one of the ones from Fantasia), I now have the pin sitting on my desk to remind me of my mantra – thanks Rhiannon 🙂

Hyacinth the hippo

I haven’t worn it to class yet . . . I’m not sure how my students would react.


Brighton Pier

After spending Christmas in my old house in London, we went to Brighton for the New Year.

It was so much fun! We walked along the pebble beach, explored the narrow passages and cobbled lanes of jewellery shops and cafés, looked at the historic buildings, and counted the gay couples (though you never know . . . at this time of year the straight boys might have just been lonely).

Brighton’s such a beautiful town – small enough to be intimate and homey and large enough to entertain for a few days.

Other than an amazing dinner on New Year’s Eve at Sawadee (the sauce of the beef masaman curry was like velvet, and delightfully peanutty), the high point was probably the Royal Pavilion.

Royal Pavilion

Built between 1787 and 1823, largely a project of King George IV, the Royal Pavilion has a white Indian-inspired exterior – architect John Nash built a metal frame around the original farmhouse to support the white domes, towers and minarets, a design which caused some controversy at the time (one woman was quoted on the audio guide saying that it looked like a giant turnip).

The interior is decorated in the Chinoiserie style, with oriental designs on the walls, bamboo lining doorways and Chinese dragons and snakes curling in the corners or on the ceilings. The banqueting room and the music room were the most impressive – the banqueting room had a one tonne, 30ft chandelier hanging from the claws of a gilded dragon! Six smaller dragons balanced on the outer rim, their heads upturned with lotus shaped lights bursting from their mouths.

The music room is almost as impressive with its hanging lotus lights – a large one hanging from the central dome and eight smaller ones in the corners of the octagon-shaped room. The thick curtains are blue and red with gold tassels, held by green dragons and snakes. 26,000 gold cockleshells line the central dome of the music room – unfortunately the building was not entirely water-tight, which caused wet and dry rot problems, and the damage took 11 years to restore before it was damaged again. One of the reasons for this was said to be all of the snakes and dragons in the room, which were bad luck, according to the Chinese.

Some other interesting things (well, things that I found interesting) are a cushion on a stand that women used to shield their faces from the fire when they checked their makeup in the mirrors over the fireplaces – apparently back then the makeup had a beeswax base and would slip off if it got too hot – and the exhibition of thousands of black butterflies around the Pavilion. Apparently they are there to ‘judge the decadence’ of King George, though I just found them to be incredibly beautiful and haunting – some of them were hanging behind the translucent white curtains, where they looked like shadow puppets.

So, other than having the most annoying audio guides in the world (“How did you feel when you entered this room?”, “Take the door to the left, find a place to stand, and press #’, “Let’s walk through there now . . .” – seriously, I don’t need that much direction), seeing the Royal Pavilion was wonderful, and I hope I have an excuse to return to Brighton in the future.

Back in London

I hope you all had a lovely Christmas and that Santa gave you everything you wanted (I’ve been without internet since the 26th, but now I’m back!).

So, I went to London for the holidays and, for the first time, I was struck by how foreign it felt.

At Kings Cross St Pancras I said “merci” to a woman. I also find myself saying “pardon” and wondering what I should have been saying instead. And at Morrisons I had to restrain myself from greeting the cashier with a cheerful “bonjour!

When I was grocery shopping I kept saying “Paris has this,” or “you wouldn’t see that in Paris,” or “things are so much better in Paris”. The cheese aisle and a half-baguette labelled as “French bread” were both low points, and I soon had to bite my tongue as I was even annoying myself.

All of the bakeries in Paris had Bûches de Noël on display.  None of the bakeries in London did.

I felt strangely out of place – could it be that now that I’d decided to leave Paris, I’d finally started feeling at home?