Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ranch Life

I have been confronted by nature here. Gecos, rats, scorpions, lizards. I moved into the ranch about 3 days ago and share my room with a geco. I haven't named him/her yet. In fact, I rarely see the little one, which is good news because my heart races every time I see it.

Yesterday I was eating breakfast in the kitchen when I saw a mouse trying to squeeze through a slither of an opening in the back window. As if that wasn't enough, I came to the kitchen an hour later to wrap a bandaid around my finger when i saw a rat on the ground right by my foot! We usually put rat poison out, and this particular rodent had clearly consumed some which was clear by its twitching, withering, and writhing on the ground. I still let out a scream. Man, I'm a pansy. Daniella, Frank's partner, accurately pointed out that my reactions are most likely due to the fact that I haven't spent much time growing up in the bush. Right you are, Daniella. We tossed the dead rat into a compost pile, watching it take its last breath in a pile of banana peels, apple cores, and left over macaroni. How ironic that a rat who always snooped around the kitchen looking to munch on snacks took its final breath on a pile of food it was too weak to consume.

I think that the two flies I killed at breakfast were an omen for the two rodents I would soon see after.

Two days ago, I was shoveling sand into a cement mixer for the stone wall I am building with Uwe. It takes nine scoops of sand into the mixer along with two scoops of cement and two scoops of lime for the perfect mix. I jabbed the shovel into the sand pile, and just as I was lifting the heaping scoop into the air, out popped a scorpion. A scorpion! It looked exactly like what I had imagined, and had Uwe not been there, I surely would have screamed and ran back to Paris. It was about the size of two iPhones put together (Mel would claim this reference reveals how "Generation Y" I have become), and moved surprisingly slow. Uwe flipped into a bucket with his shovel and tossed off into the distance.

There are three poisonous creatures here. Scorpions (check), centipedes, snakes. Their venom is not deadly, but apparently, if they get you, it really, really hurts. Just extra motivation for me to be careful. Yesterday, I finished reading Thomas Eidson's "St. Agnes' Stand", and there was a scene where Swanson, the protagonist, hides under a horse to avoid being spotted by nearby Apaches. They move in closer, and he has to slide in under an alcove of rocks next to him. Soon, their feet are right in front of his eyes, and he is fighting to keep quiet, to silence his breath even though he has a broken arm and leg. Then, he feels something. First it's subtle, a soft stroke, a fuzz of sorts. Then another. Then another. Then five. Now it's more apparent. One of them crawls down his pants, another down his shirt. He's got five centipedes on him, and they all begin to bite him!!!! That really got me chippy and jippy for ranch life.

Being around Australians and Brits has really expanded my understanding of the possibilities of English. Dialects are really fun, especially when they come from across oceans. In America, we definitely have a fair set of dialects - the Hillbilly, Texan, New Yorker, Bostonian, Californian, Western Drawl, Baltimore Hon, etc. But hearing Aussies and Brits takes English to a new level. Some new words and phrases I've learned:
1. a bloke - just some guy (GB). ex. The bloke came to dinner with a goat handcuffed to his ankle.
2. woop woop - middle of nowhere (AUS). ex. I am in woop woop. Whoopie Goldberg is not.
3. plunker - an idiot (GB). ex. George W. Bush is a plunker.
4. Reading a book now called "Quartered Safe Out Here" which are the recollections of a British soldier who fought the Japanese in Burma in WWII. The particular English sub-dialect is Cumbrian (from Cumberland). If you think you can understand this sentence without reading the translation, then I will personally send you a scorpion in the mail :):
Cumbrian: Est seen a coody loup ower a yett?
Translation: Have you seen a donkey jump over the gate?
5. wombat - also, an idiot (GB). ex. The wombat does not realize that America is a modern day empire who teases political, economic, and military allegiance out of weaker countries by overwhelming them with debts incurred from "modernization contracts" (infrastructure, telecommunications, etc.) carried out by American engineering firms (Bechtel, Haliburton, etc....note: if you haven't, I implore you to read John Perkin's "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man" if you want to understand the underpinnings of American imperialism and the power of "corporatocracy").

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

In the middle of Woop Woop

It took me two days of train travel to reach this place. I went to the Marseilles train station thinking I could easily reserve an overnight train ticket from Paris to Lisbon to arrive here at the Quinta do Estrada da Barranco hotel on the day that I had told its owner, Frank, that I would. How naive I was. All the Paris to Lison direct routes were booked for weeks, and quickest way for me to get to Lisbon, and ultimately to my eventual destination in southern Portugal, was by travelling from Marseilles to Montpellier, Montepllier to Barcelona, an overnight train from Barcelona to Madrid where I would arrive at 730am and would have to wait the entire day for the next night train at 1030pm from Madrid to Lisbon, arriving at 8am, and then taking regional trains south with a stop over in Pinno Novia, and ultimately reaching the closest train station to "paradise in portugal", santa clara~saboia. I would arrive one day later than I had told Frank, but really, I had no other choice. So I reserved the tickets and got on with it.

I was lucky to catch the connecting train out of Montpellier to Barcelona becaue the small window of stopover time was taken away by the obnoxiously late departure out of Marseilles. It was sad to leave my cousin who I really have come to love so much. Nanor wrote farewell messages on the exterior of my dusty window before we left, and I took it with me all the way through. FOrtunately, the connecting train in Montepellier was right next to the train I arrived on, and was soon headed to Spain for the first time.

No bed this time. I was crammed in a small car with 5 others, two of which spoke great english. One was named Adrian, a student of engineering and innovation management ~when he inquired about my journey, he challenged me to identify my passion, to state my goal. How very contrary to my purpose. I told him that he had the mind of an economist, which as an aspiring innovation manager he was trained to have, and he saw my side of things. Next to us was an oboe player who stumbled onto the train drunk with his oboe case, excited to meet his friend in Madrid. Sleeping was impossible because there just wasnt enough space. I dozed off in the cafeteria car for a bit before we arrived. I needed some more z's beore exploring the city, which I had all day to do.

The first thing I saw in Madrid when I exited the metro statio in the heart of the city bright and early on a Sunday morning was a pack of prostitutes. I wasn't quite sure of it until I walked past them and one of them latched onto my arm and started sweet talking me calling me a big boy and telling me that she could rock my world. I told her I had no money. She asked how old I was. I said 5. She laughed and delatched, "Five. You'll always be that way," she said. "Just a five year old." That sounded good to me. I went on.

Madrid was interesting - the women were fantastically georgous, the city fantastically hot. I had some time to practice my harmonica skills which I decided to cultivate on the beach near Marseilles. It was good to swim in the Mediterranean that day, and by george, I was surrounded by more bare~chested women than I could count on my fingers, toes, ears, and nostrils. Madrid was mostly relaxing. I got on the train to Lisbon, and getting down to the connecting city of Pinna Novhio was easy. I had a few hours to kill there, so I walked around, bought a great straw hat which has served me well since I am constantly working under the sun here (just the way I like it).

The Santa Clara/Saboia stop, my meeting point with Frank, looked more like a deserted gas station surrounded by cactus and bores than it did a train station. I got off the train with my backpack and slim guitar. There were only two people at the station, one of them was Frank. He spoke in a charismatic british accent that has since been a privilege to hear and study.

"Have you ever ridden a bike?"
"Of course," I told him. I love to ride my bike. It's one of my favorite activities and has become a fundamental part of my identity ~ just pedalling and pedalling and pedalling.
We turned the corner and I saw a motorcycle. Frank handed me a helmet. "Good." He jumped on to the chopper, "Hop on."
I then told him I had no clue how to sit on one of these things or what to expect. He quickly instructed me, and soon we were speeding through sparsely populated mountain valleys. My backpack was on my lap weighing me down, and I just hoped nothing would go wrong.

No problems ~Frank, it turns out, is an expert motorcyclist and has been riding his entire life. We arrived just in time for dinner at the hotel, where the first things I met were the four dogs! Molly, Lucky, Sideways, and the yet unnamed pup are all fantastic personalities with loving spirits. After the customary jumping and barking, we plowed through to the dinner table where I met the hotel's only guests, a honeymooning couple from northern portugal.
The food was incredible, prepared by the master vegetarian chef, Daniella, from Austria.

Anyways, a quick rundown is in store. This place is not in fact a farm, although I found in on the "Willing Workers on Organic Farms" (WOOF) network. It is a hotel truly in the middle of nowhere ("woop woop" as my fellow australian volunteer calls it), sitting at the lip of Europe's second largest man made lake. Check it out at www.paradiseinportugal.com . It is absolutely georgeous here.

I must wrap up because dinner approaches. Yesterday, I worked with a truly incredible individual from East Germany named Uwe. We built a wall around a building with a generator ~with cement we mixed ourselves and shattered stones. Bricklaying! We did it today to, but down at Frank's residence where a wall had collapsed.

I must go now, but things are fantastic here. There are two other volunteers « Francoise from Quebec, and Mel from Australia. i dont know if i want to part ways with this place to hike 800km for 5 weeks, the life is just too goodright now. we will see.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Videos and Pics

My friends,
I have a lot of great videos and photos which I cannot post right now because of computer problems.  If I can do it in Portugal, I will.  If not, then text it is until I find a more suitable opportunity.
Be Well.

Bastille Day in Marseilles - videos to come

I’m back in Marseilles at the home of my cousin who is eight years younger than my father and also my godfather. I have been very close with his family for my entire childhood when me and his kids would play in Beirut in the summers. It has been awesome reconnecting with them since they have moved to France about five years ago. I visited them last year twice while studying in Copenhagen, and now with another opportunity to be with them before heading off to Portugal.

Bastille Day is the French Independence Day. My cousin Nanor and her boyfriend Mano took me down to the Marseilles port where we witnessed quite a spectacle. Fireworks were to begin at the port at 10pm, and we arrived about an hour and a half before, where not a minute passed without some kind of amateur firecracker went off in a dense sea of humanity. One nearly hit Nanor’s head.

After a few hours of waiting and being joined by more Armenian friends, the fireworks began later than expected, much later, at midnight. It was worth the wait. I have never, ever, in my life thought that fireworks could be a true art form until this night. This display in Marseilles seemed to be more like a glorious cohesion of symphony and ballet than it did mere fireworks. Colored explosions rocketed not only from boats lining the entire harbor, but also from forts overlooking the harbor. I hope the videos below can give a hint of how incredible it actually was to see how fireworks can create mood and movement, tone and spacing, energy and tranquility, like a symphony or ballet.

Switzerland



Thanks to my gracious classmate Amalia who I met in Chinese Thought class, I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Switzerland. She is currently in Lausanne involved in a twenty-or-so person scholarship where she works in a neuroscience lab. On my way from Amsterdam, I learned that a train in Switzerland had derailed and that the train I had planned to take into Lausanne would not run until the morning, so I had to spend the night in Basil, Switzerland.

My original plan was to find a nearby hostel and then return to the station in the morning, but by the time we had arrived at the station, it was midnight, and all of the public transportation had stopped running. I found some others who were stranded – two students from Georgia Tech on an engineering program in France. We decided to sleep in the train station on the benches, agreeing to take shifts throughout the night watching each other’s belongings. The thought of splitting a taxi to the hostel occurred to us, but our early morning departures (6 and 6:15 am respectively) compelled us to stay in the area.

Sleep did not come as easily as I had hoped. Twenty minutes after lying down and teetering on the edge of consciousness, a man in an orange shirt adorned with a carrot-pin approached me holding a white box. He held it open and approached me with a look of offering. “Please, take,” he said. Scrumptious cubes of carrot cakes sat lazily next to each other crying for consumption. Behind the cake-offerer emerged a man dressed in a carrot costume. Then it made sense to me – bachelor party. In the back of my head, I vaguely remembered a motherly figure telling me to never take cake from a stranger, but the situation was to novel for me to turn away the offer.

Soon after I finished the piece of cake, an old drunk man stumbled into the station muttering broken German and French. Soon he left, and in walked a group of five fifteen year olds who at first seemed to be getting along just fine. Then one pushed another, punches began to fly, and shouts rang through the station’s high ceilings. For half an hour they beat each other until blood stained their faces and fists. When it ended, they hugged and left. I guess these kids used fighting as a way to bond.

Caught a few hours of sleep before my 6 am train to Lausanne. A very kind lady from Guatemala helped guide me from the station to Rue du Geneve where Amalia was staying. I had the opportunity to speak some Spanish with her, comprehensible enough although utterly abominable. I was happy to be in Lausanne. Very happy, in fact, because I wrote a 38 page history paper about how Armenian and Turkish interest groups in the 1920’s lobbied Congress to ratify or reject the treaty of Lausanne – which drew the borders for modern day Turkey and reversed the boundaries set by the treaty of Sevres.

Lausanne, Geneva, and Montreux all surround the second largest fresh water lake in central Europe – Lake Geneva. The surrounding lake towns are all very easily accessible by lake, and the first day we went to Geneva where some sort of dance festival was going on. The girl sitting across from us in the train in the shortest shorts I have ever seen with long legs under fishnet stockings made it clear that it would not be an ordinary day in Geneva. Actually, it was. We had a picnic with Amalia and her Brazilian roommate Estefania, and then “walked around”, taking in the city and such. That night we came back to Lausanne and went to the fete de la cite, a festival full of music and food vendors in Lausanne’s old town. I met another student from my college, Paul, one class below me who is in the same program working in a different lab. When we came back, we played ping pong for hours, and it was a great way to meet the international crowd at the residence – Kiren from Mauritius, Ibrahim from Turkey, Estefania from Brazil, the two girls from Italy whose name I can’t remember, the nice kid from Azerbaijan, united around a ping pong table, fun and games.

The next day we went to Montreux for the jazz festival. The atmosphere was fantastic, with food, instrument, and spice vendors displaying an international mix of goods. We discovered a tent of breakdancers (“bboyz” – according to Ravi from Ohio who can dance like Prabu Dehva, breakdancers want to be referred to as bboyz) before going to the Montreux young jazz guitar player’s contest. The contest’s final featured four incredible players all under the age of 25 – Mark McKnight of Ireland, Jeff Miles of the US, Alex Pinto of Bethesda, Maryland (!), and Vitalyi Zolotov of Ukraine. The judges told us that the four parameters they would use to judge the performers were 1. Originality 2. Personal Language 3. Interactiveness with ensemble and 4. Instrumental Mastery. All had absolute mastery of the instrument and it was really neat to watch them and juxtapose their styles and approaches. In my mind, Pinto satisfied these parameters the most, but it was definitely a toss up that could have gone either way.

Here are some breadancers, or "bboyz" as they like to be called, performing at the festival.

video

What The Brain Can't Perceive

In “This Is Your Brain On Music” by Daniel Levitt, I learned something fascinating – that color and pitch are constructs of the brain.  Color and pitch do not exist independent of human cognition.  There is no true red, no white, no A flat, no G sharp minor seven.  Color and sound exist in the world beyond human brains as light waves and sound waves.  Our brains have specialized mechanisms to process these waves and use their physical properties to categorize them as particular colors and pitches.  Further, there are colors and sounds that our brains are simply unable to process.  For example, we cannot distinguish the pitch of a sound wave below 20 or so Herz (HZ) – the unit of measurement for sound waves.  This is explains why we can barely discern the pitch of the last key on a piano, and why pianos don’t go beyond 88 keys – because the further we would go in either direction, the more the pitches would exceed our brain’s capacity to process the sound waves.

 

The astounding implication behind this is that pockets of reality exist which we cannot perceive.  As incredible as the human brain is, it does have limitations, and there is an entire reality that exists beyond our brain’s comprehension.  So how much more is there to outer space that our brains cannot perceive?  How much more to time?  How much more to everything?  I think institutionalized religion can often take liberties in defining these things – giving them names, symbols, and establishing entire cultures and heritages around them, which in turn become intense objects of devotion and protection to the legions of followers around the world.  But the question I have been asking for years now and have not received a single honest response to (presumably based on the feared implications) is: does God exist independent of religion?  If God created the world, what was he doing before creation, and why is the universe so large if humans are the only beings created in His image?  Anyways I don’t want to wander to far down this path because it is it’s own topic of exploration that I don’t want to mix too much with this brain perception stuff.

Philosopies II

Spouse Selection – Am I racist?

 

            Meeting so many fantastic people over the past few months has challenged many assumptions I’ve had about the future – one of which being a possible desire to marry an Armenian girl.  In a walk through Christiania, Copenhagen’s alternative “society within a city”, I had the pleasure to spend time with my friends Nika, Zach, Corey, and Angad.  I asked Angad, who is Sikh, if he wanted to marry a Sikh girl or if that parameter did not concern him.  “I’m open to love,” he responded.  “And besides, there’s something racist about choosing your partner based on their race or religion.” 

 

            Angad did not really consider this issue one worth the time of personal philosophical reflections, but the way he described it really struck me and made me think about what I want in a future spouse and what that says about me.  Am I, in fact, racist for wanting to marry a girl because she is Armenian, because she belongs to a certain race?  What are the racist implication of my excluding non-Armenian women of my love, commitment, and devotion? 

 

            My first reaction was to take a step back.  If one is overtly racist, I reasoned, then there are no doubts about it.  I do not feel like my race or any other race in this world is superior or better than others.  I truly believe that if an individual is racist, then it is obvious.  We can see it in the way they look at others, describe others, and interact with others.  I have respect and love for all people of the world, of all races, all religions, and I refuse to create any type of objective hierarchy which is often, and sadly, subtly imposed on me by a variety of societal and cultural forces.

           

            But what is to be said about using race as a parameter to select a spouse?  There is indeed an implicit racism in this.  At first, I argued that one can make a racist decision without being racist.  My example would pertain to this category as someone using race as a parameter for spouse selection.  Yet this does not alter my outlook towards the world and people of other cultures, nations, religions, and races.  I love them all. 

 

            But then I realized that, no, selecting a spouse based on race is not a racist act because discrimination is the very foundation of the spouse selection process.  When choosing who we want to mate and spend the rest of our lives with, or even who we are attracted to, we use discrimination as a tool to (sorry to put it so bluntly) weed out individuals who possess undesirable traits and focus on those who possess the qualities we desire.  Some discriminate based on physical features including weight, muscularity, eyes, nose, face, etc. etc.  Others discriminate based on personality types, political stances, hobbies, on and on, until we reach race and religion.  When it comes to spouse selection, I believe that race and religion belong to a laundry list of parameters we discriminate among to select with whom we want to mate and spend the rest our lives.  Accepting that we use race and religion as parameters for spouse selection does not imply that one is racist.  So how do we define racism?  What is race?  How does it differ from ethnicity?  Is discrimination an evolutionarily adapted trait that promotes human survival and longevity? 

 

Applying History Lessons to Contemporary Issues

 

            When history is taught, it ought to be connected to (potential) contemporary applications.  History can maintain its distantiality from the present and simultaneously shed light on current affairs.  For example, in my junior year of high school, we learned about the “trail of tears” where president Andrew Jackson (the twenty dollar man) ordered the evacuation march of thousands and thousands of the indigenous Indian population.  This is an absolutely critical lesson in history because it describes the injustices committed in the establishment of the land of the free and home of the brave.  However, I think that when we study this injustice as history and then “move on to the next lesson”, we implicitly tell our students that these wrongdoings belong to the past and not to the present.  But the fact is that these indigenous Indian populations still live in America, their ancestral homeland, and they continue to suffer injustice committed by the American government.  But this is not taught in history classes.  We need to link such history lessons to contemporary issues and emphasize how history informs and sheds light on the present. 

 

Time Perception

 

            In the Netherlands, instead of saying “45 minutes”, the Dutch say “3 quarters of an hour”.  What does this say about how different countries perceive time and how language influences how we think about time?  

Yo Yo Story

Once upon a time in Amsterdam’s early evening hours, I decided to bike to a supermarket to pick up some groceries for dinner.  I had not become entirely acclimated to the chaotic character of Amsterdam cycling and the cumbersome California-cruiser bicycle I was riding. 

The road I coasted down was typical of Amsterdam cycling – trams whizzing by inches away, pigeons bobbing about the bike lane, dolled up girls chatting on their cell phones in the bike lane. 

I reached a curve in the road and handled it with the same grace that has sustained me for thousands and thousands of miles bicycled with only a single crash.  Suddenly, a pedestrian stepped out into the street right in front of me and just before slamming right into him/her, I jerked the handlebars to the left and narrowly avoided a disastrous collision.  My organic, gut reaction in this moment to warn the pedestrian was to shout “Yo!  Yo!”   I zipped by her every-so-quickly and turned around to notice the unintentional faux-pas I made.  The pedestrian I had nearly hit was an African-American woman in her mid-thirties with long, curly hair, cherry-red nail extensions, high heeled shoes which looked better than they probably felt, and a leopard-print fabric belt.

She stopped in her tracks, shot me a death glare, and as I biked away, she shouted, “Boah!  Who you think you are talkin’ dat shit to me?!  Aymabouta whoop yo sorry ass!” 

So she took my “Yo! Yo!” warning as a derogatory affront.  This was not my intention, and I think that this occurrence did reveal a tension between what some call a hyper-sensitivity to racial stereotypes and what others would call racial categorizations ingrained into society’s subconscious.  

I AMsterdam

Houseboat neighborhood in Amsterdam

Tamar, my gracious host whom I met through the Humanity in Action program, enlightened me to the frustrating stereotypes tourists impose on her city.  Drugs, sex, and rock and roll – but mostly drugs.  It is not a city of hedonists running around naked swinging from street lamps while saluting a supposedly benevolent liberalism (as I had once thought…maybe…).  It’s actually a normal city.  Very quirky, very original and unique.  It is kind and oftentimes orderly, even its established drug and prostitution markets. 

            Tamar has been an absolutely incredible host.  When I first met her, I was slightly surprised because I have only met Armenians named Tamar – I didn’t realize the name translated across different cultures.  Tamar is Jewish, and once spent eight months living on a Kibbutz in Israel.  Amazing.  The Kibbutz specialized in cultivating decorative fish and fostering the communal living philosophy which to me seems totally fascinating and worth trying hopefully sometime in the near future.  She just finished studying philosophy in Amsterdam and before going to get her PhD, she plans to study creative writing for a year in the US, most likely at St. Lawrence college in upstate New York.

            Tamar lives just outside of the city, but to my great fortune, she was house sitting at her aunt’s place for a few weeks while they were in Italy on a film shoot.  The house was absolutely incredible and I was extremely lucky to be there.  The home overlooks one of the city’s many canals on a street called Prinzengracht.  It occupies three floors of a five floor row house where Tamar’s aunt, a psychiatrist, and uncle, a filmmaker, reside.  My sleeping situation was pretty interesting – they psychiatrist aunt’s office was in the home, and there was a beside along one of the wall’s of the office.  When I would lay my head down, I would start to wonder about the confessions that took place in the room, the emotional breakthroughs, and the psychological barriers.  I thought of adolescents with obsessive-compulsive disorder, middle aged men who couldn’t stop smoking dope and visiting prostitutes, and couples who argue incessantly about how to arrange the couches in the living room.  Then I would fall asleep. 

            What I’ve noticed about European cities so far in my indefinite journey is that they are all, for the most part, unique.  They each have their own character, their own personality, their own identity.  This does not occur to me when I compare Omaha to Oklahoma City (although I have never been to either – I just like city name’s with O’s), or Baltimore to Philadelphia, Chicago to New York, Boston to Providence (I have been to these places).  American cities are definitely unique, but because they are far younger than their European counterparts (we might call American cities “adolescents”, and European cities their elders), I believe they are rather similar – architecturally, ideologically, linguistically.  In the US, when one travels from Baltimore to Boston, the contrast between the two cities does not outweigh the similarities.  It is, after all, the same nation, the same language, the same general cultural codes, the same dance, etc, even if the street names and climate differ. 

            Translate to Europe the distance from Baltimore to Boston and one can travel from Copenhagen to Prague, Barcelona to Milan, Athens to Istanbul.  Different worlds.  Different language, different history, different codes of conduct – yes, they do share their similarities.  Throughout history, economic trade and travel brought cultural exchange and interaction for people around the world, but when comparing European cities, I would say that the differences far outweigh the similarities.  This reality has made my experience traveling in this content intriguing, and Amsterdam definitely had a strong identity.

            Although I will always consider Copenhagen the ultimate city for cyclists (for the time being – I’m always open to adjusting my stance if another city strikes me the way Copenhagen did), Amsterdam definitely had more bikes.  One of the first things I did with Tamar was rent a bike, the vehicle upon which existence can be at its best.  Riding through Amsterdam was extremely different from riding through Copenhagen.  In general, Amsterdam is far “cozier” than Copenhagen with more people living and moving in a smaller space.  If city cycling is a real-world obstacle course, then Amsterdam presents many more obstructions than Copenhagen.  Aside from dodging the customary array of other cyclists, cars, and buses, hordes of pigeons love to fly around the bike lanes, and trams can present deadly danger when making u-turns.  If you are looking to enhance your survival capacities atop a bicycle in an urban atmosphere, I would highly recommend Amsterdam.

             The van Gogh museum was fantastic.  I’m usually not a big museum-goer because I have a strong aversion against tourist culture (of which museum visits compose a significant component).  When I travel somewhere, I want to make unorthodox contributions to the country in addition to/instead of the standard expenditures that contribute to the economy’s tourism sector.  This is why I was so happy to be part of the fellowship and why I really look forward to farm work in Portugal (still waiting to here about the job in Armenia).  But my appreciation for van Gogh plus visiting the museum with Will, Alice, and Michael from HIA who were in town outweighed by aversion.   

            The museum itself did an excellent job of contextualizing van Gogh’s works with his personal story, which is of itself as interesting as his art.  He decided to become an artist at 26 years old after spending time working for an art dealer and observing trends in the contemporary art world.  He had no formal training until he put his foot down and decided, “you know what?  I’m going to be an artist.”  And he did it.  This is the power of the human will.  The museum showed works from the different phases of his ife, from when he just started to when he moved to Paris then to the south of France.  Van Gogh’s contemporaries were also highlighted in the exhibition, and watching the interplay between the artist’s styles was really fantastic.  I had no idea that van Gogh drew great inspiration from Japanese prints, and that he considered himself an absolute failure (which is why he killed himself).  I was inspired by Theo van Gogh, his older brother who supported Vincent financially as he struggled becoming an artist and trendsetter.  In America, there is such a dogmatic reverence for individualism that can lead to neglecting our closest friends and even families in times of need.  Theo inspired me because he believed in his brother’s mission and vision, and was willing to sacrifice his hard-earned resources on an investment that, in their lifetimes, did not pay off, but in ours, most certainly has.  The museum also featured a number of works by the Russian avant-garde artist Malavich who took form and geometric expression to a whole new level – he’s the guy who painted black boxes.  Just black boxes.   

Train Ride to Amsterdam

My first stop after Copenhagen was Amsterdam, on a 12+ hour night train with beds inside many cabins!  Even though I had a ticket for this train ride, a reservation was compulsory.  But both times that I went to Copenhagen’s central station to make a reservation, they told me that they could not because “the German system was down”.  In hindsight I wasn’t exactly clear on what this meant, but it sounded official enough for me to believe.  I asked if there was anything I could do, and they just told me to talk to the conductor and go to the train.  So I thought to myself, “This is Europe.  I’m sure it won’t be a big deal.”

            I wasn’t the only one without a reservation when boarding the train.  Many around me held panicked discussions wondering, “what will they do to us?”  Each cabin sits six people and many of them have beds in them, and I found one with five guys in it, around my age.  Two were college kids studying in Utah and Colorado respectively, two were college kids studying in Copenhagen, and one was a German student studying in Sweden.  They had reservations. 

            We spoke and got along well.  Shared stories, ambitions, perspectives.  About an hour in we made a stop, and soon after a very tall and domineering fellow stood before our cabin looking back and forth between his ticket and the numbers written on the wall.  I quickly got up, grabbed my bags, and headed off to a different part of the train in search of a new seat. 

            I found one in a different section of the train where the cabins were bedless.  This cabin had three young, blonde-haired Finnish girls who struck me as incredibly exotic.  Then there was a couple from Utrecht in the Netherlands.  I would later learn they were animators and we had a great discussion about stop-motion animation and how they go about their work.  As I was sitting getting to know my new cabin mates, the conductor, a young and power-hungry German blonde, came by and asked to see our tickets.  When she saw I had no reservation, she instructed me, “you will have to get off the train at the next stop and wait until the morning when you can make a reservation.”  The others in the cabin looked at me.  I furrowed my brow and internalized my disagreement and just said, “thank you.”  She left, and I grabbed my bags and went to yet another part of the train.

            This time, instead of just sitting down in the first open seat I could locate, I found the car’s conductor and asked her if she had any open spots.  Indeed she did!  So much for the ravenous German blonde.  I found myself in a cabin with beds and 5 others.  One was a Danish schoolteacher, one a mechanical engineer at a Swedish coffee factory who drank 15 cups of joe a day, a social worker, and a guy in a Yankees hat who spoke very little, but just enough to comfort any doubts I might have had about his sanity.  The engineer and social worker were friends who had a third travel companion with them who had to bail out at the last second, leaving me with a quite a fortunate opportunity. 

            The next morning after a pleasant night’s sleep in my train bed, I walked around the train and noticed many of the fearful from the day before were gone.  When I asked about them, I was told they had gotten off to wait for the next train, like the conductor had instructed.  Ultimately, I made it to Amsterdam in one piece, ecstatic to establish my own impression for a city with such a strong reputation.

Stop for Blink

Returning to the city where I spent a semester of study has been a great joy.  Oh Copenhagen.  Oh to your endless cyclists and street performers, to your hot dog stands and alternative societies, to your quirky orderliness and unified anarchists.  Better than Copenhagen was the joy of reuniting with all of the friends I made at the beginning of the program in the US before we were divided into our country-specific groups across Europe.  We compared and contrasted our experiences – the kids sent to Germany enjoyed football fever all the way to the UEFA finals; those who went to Poland experienced first-hand that nation’s endless love for their very own pope, Johns Paul II; the Amsterdamites found a city rich with an identity beyond the hedonistic stereotype. 

            The closing program of our Humanity in Action (HIA)a fellowship luckily coincided with the Copenhagen Jazz Festival.  It was hard to miss one of the thousands of performances going on around the city over the course of the week.  I caught only one – but it was all I needed to catch, for this band was truly incredible.  I was walking with my buddies Zach and Sandra when we heart sounds a few blocks away.  We followed the source, and soon found ourselves among a sea of faces at a sidewalk café with a lively quintet unleashing a shockingly fantastic performance.  Il Bastardo, they were called, a gypsy/Balkan influenced jazz ensemble.  Their sound was incredibly unique, and their instrumentation, which added a spicy accordion to the classic jazz instrumentation of sax, trumpet, bass, and drums, enveloped the atmosphere with bright and dynamic textures. 

Jazz often frustrates me because it seems that musicians devote more attention to solos than they do to the compulsory melody to set it up.  I loved Il Bastardo because they gave their melodies as much, if not more, attention as their solos.  The gypsy/Balkan influence brought rhythmic surprises in every single song, something that rarely happens nowadays with jazz riding symbols and walking along base lines.  I found the drummer particularly impressive, the way he attacked his beats and established highly energetic foundations atop which the rest built fantastic musical structures.  When the concert ended, I emailed my friend Sam with whom I had studied in Copenhagen spring of 07.  I’ll never forget hearing Sam rave about a Balkan-influenced jazz ensemble he had seen at a small club, and I asked him through email if the group he had seen over a year ago was called Il Bastardo.  Damn skippy it was.  I think Sam would agree with me when I say that you should most definitely check out Il Bastardo. 

The closing program for the fellowship involved a series of lectures and celebrations. Each country group (Poland, Germany, Denmark, Netherlands, France) made a small presentation with research findings, sketches and songs, and slide shows.  It was a nice glimpse into the lives of our fellow fellows on similar missions throughout Europe.  We heard from former fellows who discussed life after HIA using the organization’s networks and resources to advance human rights projects of their own.  One speaker founded an organization called Play31 which instituted the simple idea of providing underprivileged children in Sierra Leone soccer balls.  Play31 now works to promote play for children in Sierre Leon by giving them soccer balls.  My description does not really do the organization justice, but you can always check out their website at www.play31.org.  Another fellow discussed an extension of a project popularized by the documentary Born into Brothels about the children of prostitute’s in Calcutta who are given cameras to photograph their lives.  The extension involved a shorter version of this project in a village in Kosovo, where adolescent male children were given three days to photograph their village life.  I felt that three days was not enough time for the project to really flesh itself out, but I am hoping the fellow will return to the idea. 

 

HIA threw its tenth anniversary party in the city and it was a fantastic bash.  So was our goodbye dinner party which they took us to by boat.  Riding through Copenhagen by boat was a great experience, and the party was a fantastic farewell full of positive energy.  On the boat ride, we passed by a sign that said “stop for blink”.  I had to use it somehow.    

           

Copenhagen central station

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

C'est la vi

This morning was sad. My host parents left the house to travel to America for a three week trip to visit their son Sebastien at a Buddhist monastery in Greenville, NY. They are extremely kind and generous people who I really enjoyed interacting with after long days of lectures and travel throughout the city. But much has been going on in my life here that I have not written much about. Like I said, my parents are Buddhist, and we have this fantastic tree in the backyard from which they have draped multi-colored flags, each with a prayer on it written in Tibetan. The idea is that when the wind blows, it will spread the positive message of these flags. Here's what it looks like:




I’ll start with the now – our dogs are hollering again. The symphony of barks can begin at any moment, and always happens when the other dogs living on this block decide they want to communicate with each other. I did not grow up with pets, so having two dogs and a kitten has really been exciting and educational. Here's a video I took of a great game of our dog and cat playing cat and mouse. The German Sheppard is Molly, and Diky is the name of the kitten. Watch this video if you like animals staring at each other, chasing each other, and head-butting each other. Thats a picture of Diky next to it hanging out on me bed.


video

I’ve been playing a lot of pick up basketball and ping pong lately. There are two public bball courts in the park by the Eiffel Tower. I found one court in a different section of the city populated by lots of students called cite universitae, but the court was really small and of bad quality. Playing pick up with the French has also been educational. Basketball here is much more social than it is in the US. Part of the reason might be that it just is not a popular sport here. When a player walks on the court in France, regardless of whether or not they know others, it is compulsory to greet each player individually with a high give-pound combination. It’s also compulsory when you leave the court – otherwise you are just being rude. They don’t call fouls as much here as they do in the US (foul is pronounced more like “fole”), and they always check the ball with the person who scored, not at the top of the key. Don’t you dare spit on the courts here – that just doesn’t happen. In America we flood the courts with the fluids of our salivary glands, but here, the spit stays tucked under the tongue. Picks and screens are as uncommon as NBA games here. Here is a photo of one of the nice courts i've played on, and then one in theheat of battle.




Ping pong is much more popular, and there is a great park right across the street from Humanity in Action’s office in the city with 4 ping pong tables with steel nets! It’s located right next to a playground, which only becomes a problem on Friday afternoons when school lets out and all kids want to do is run in big circles, chase each other, scream, throw water balloons, and play football. We learned our lesson this past Friday trying to play. Jokingly, my opponent looked around at the sea of screaming children and said, “this is the ultimate birth control commercial”. Anyways, there are lots of good ping pong players here, especially the homeless guys who live in the park. They are quite good and passionate about ping pong, and are always willing to keep the score (sans tip!) for you as they wait they turn to play. It feels good to escape the intellectual blitzkriegs and just go into the park, under the trees, feel the wind blow, and my worries melt away as I focus on the ping pong match. I remember playing with my dad one time in a family friend’s basement. I thought he had no idea how to play, but man was I wrong! He mastered the Chinese grip, making the ball almost impossible to return because of the unpredictable bounces it would take. Anyways, I think now I could take him on and make it competitive.

I ran into a random Armenian from Beirut two days ago. It was after a lecture from a California-Berkley professor who argued that color-blind discrimination legislation doesn’t work. I was walking towards the metro and passed a university building with a large stage under construction in the elaborate building’s main lobby. I asked a man with a security shirt what was going on, and he asked me where I was from. I returned the question, and he said in broken English “I am Armenian from Lebanon”, and so began my one hour conversation with Arka Kojayan from Bourj-Hammoud. He told me that he had live in Forest Hills, NYC in Queens about 20 years ago for a brief period. In France he found a government that took better care of blue collar workers. He prized the socialist system as a very generous one, elated that medical payments never crossed his mind twice, and that getting paid for sick days was a clever way to earn extra money on the side with a second job. “So you’ve got the system figured out pretty well,” I asked. “No, no, no,” He replied. “I’m the master of the system. I teach it to others.” I also checked out the Armenian church in Paris. It was a very odd feeling you know - I felt at home, but I also felt a very strong sense of confinement, that when I walked in I was being defined. I was chastised by one of the men at the door for trying to light my candle just before everyone in the hall was to light their candles together. Church traditions sometimes make me laugh. Anyways, here are two Armenian churches in Paris that I visited. One has traditional architecture and the other is far humbler and modern - can you guess which is which?



About a week ago I witnessed something I have never witnessed in America – an entire city getting its groove on (a quote from double L Paull). It is called the “fete de la music”, a music festival with hundreds of stages scattered across Paris. The entire city was dense with bodies – hundreds of thousands of them – dancing, drinking, people-watching. We watched Kool Shen perform, a popular hip hop artist in France. Lots of people were throwing their hands in the air, including a 6 year old hanging on a lamp post. We also went to the Institute du Monde Arab to watch an Egyptian band perform by the Seine. Here's a photo of Kool Shen rocking the crowd.




Saturday night was salsa night by the Institute du Monde Arab. It was crazy. Hundreds of people salsa dancing by the river, music blasting, bodies spinning, ladies bumping, guys trying to keep up. I stood on an a large elevated flower pot and spent a good half an hour dancing with the entire group before some ladies pulled me down to dance.



The report portion of the fellowship has begun. I have teamed up with a peer born in Gabon and raised in France named Karine Rumanyika. We are writing about Memory Laws in France, specifically looking at the Gayssot Act (the law criminalizing Holocaust denial), Taubira Act (the law labeling French and European involvement in the slave trade a crime against humanity), and the act criminalizing denial of the Armenian genocide as a springboard to analyze why Memory Laws exist, whether or not they are consistent in their restrictions across an equal range of tragic historic events, if they are effective, and what the laws imply about the lawmakers and their vision of the French state. It’s a lot of work, but Karine is a fantastic partner, very intelligent, and diligent. Karine, myself, and the rest of the fellows were invited to a party hosted by Humanity in Action at the Publicis Group building atop the Champs Elysees . It was a swanky place as one might gather from the view in the photo below. All of the lecturers and friends of the organization were also in attendance, and it was a rather fun and relaxing event. The photograph below is the view we enjoyed. I like the photo (I doubt I'm the first to have ever capture this image of parallel structures) because the Arch d'triumph in the foreground La Defense mirror each other not only architecturally, but also historically. The Arch is a symbol of French history, and La Defense of French modernity, globalization, and industrialization. I like how they interact in the picture - and the photo was taken as the sun was sinking - so the lighting also gives it a nice effect.

Yesterday Karine invited me over to her home to work on our report. I love the opportunity to travel to different parts of the country and seeing how the people really live. The Parisian fantasy does not really paint an accurate picture of the French reality, so I take every chance I get to immerse myself in life beyond the city. Karine lives with her mom who works at a university teaching Spanish. After a few hours of work, we sat down with Karine’s mom and ate some delicious salmon draped in slices of tomato with rice, spaghetti, and homemade coconut rum – a specialty of Martinique, a Caribbean island colonized by France. Karine’s mom did not speak English, so it was the perfect opportunity for me to brush up on my rusty Spanish. I studied Spanish for seven years in middle school and high school, and while I can understand fairly well, speaking does not flow as easily, but I was very satisfied with the conversation I was able to have with Karine’s mom. We talked about her experiences on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage trail leading to Spain’s city of Santiago de Compostella. It is this trail, beginning in southwest France in Roncesvalles, traversing 750km of northern Spain, which I intend to hike from late August to late September (just in time for my sister’s early October wedding in Florence). Here's the map of the planned hike. I'll start in that purple box on the right to the purple box on the left!




There is, however, one factor that may withhold me from taking on this trek. I am applying for the position of Director of the Armenian Volunteer Corps. It’s an organization that I really love and believe in, and hope to contribute my skills to. If it works out then it is off to Armenia as of August 15, but if it does not, then my journey goes on. Both situations are wonderful, so I’m just happy to be in this situation, and even if I don’t get the position, I’ll still be returning to Armenia sometime in the near future.

That’s all for now. Be well.


If you're into metro musicians playing exotic instruments:

video

Philosophies

Ideas strike me in random places.  Sometimes I let them swish around in my mind and then pass on.  But now, more often than not, I keep a small green notebook in my pocket to scribble down the idea before it undulates back into the expansive ocean of inspiration and imagination from which it came.  Below are two of these ideas, one about how photographs can rob us of our identity, and the next about how urban settings can swallow a sense of self:


 

I)

A human is not defined by a single moment.  If this were the case, life would be rather dull and one-dimensional.  Given this assumption, photographs frighten me.  First, I have to acknowledge that there are various kinds of photographs.  Landscape photographs, city skylines, cars, houses, etc; then there are those with human subjects – graduation portraits, prom pictures, candid moments slurping spaghetti or making an emphatic remark at a dinner discussion. 

Now for my point: photographs frighten me because when a human is the subject, more often than not, that individual is dehumanized.  The photograph decontextualizes the person and tries to define their entirety with a single frame.  We lose a part of our identity, our self, our humanness, when the shutter opens and shuts, the iris takes in light, and the image is recorded onto film or a memory card.  We are no longer a composite of moments.  Instead, we are what we are in that single frame, and as time passes and we continue to change more and more from the “individual held captive”, then the photograph can become a tool of negation, denying the evolution of the human identity, the constant morphing and evolving of the self, and insist on a one-dimensional single-framed rendering. 

I know, I know – photographs can’t think – but I’m talking about the implications and consequences of a photograph.  A human is a river, constantly flowing, always evolving, and the photograph disrupts the current, stealing a glimpse and using that frame to define the whole.  Imagine 200 years down the road, when (“if”, should you insist) aliens land on earth and inspect our planet’s knick-knacks to piece together who these humanoid inhabitants were.  In this example, our lives on earth have long since expired, but our photographs remain in the cabinet of a descendent somewhere, say Benkleman, Nebraska.  The alien strolls into our descendant’s home in Benkleman and finds the cabinet.  They find a photograph of you and Billy Bob as children on a seesaw in a playground.  The alien looks at the photograph probably unaffected (don’t worry – I had a consultation with an expert on alien emotions at the university) because there is not much of a context.  Who are these kids on the seesaw? What did they become?  Who were their families?  What were their hobbies?  None of this is evident from the photograph because – like I said – the subjects are decontextualized and without a context, our identity is thrown into doubt because the subject in the image is less of a human and more of a “human rendered”.

 

Think – compare meeting a stranger to seeing a photograph of them riding a bicycle.  Which gives us more information about the individual?  Which provides a more accurate representation of who that person was, is, and may become?  I hope we agree that it is the former.  Photoalbums can make up for this.  Albums contextualize images, usually placing them in a chronological progression where they interact with other photographs and belong to a greater narrative that do indeed convey more about an individual than a single frame.  I am much more comfortable with albums and other mediums of context.  The Holocaust Memorial Museum, for example, is very effective in evoking individual subject’s humanity in photographs because the museum provides the background, the circumstance.  So anyways, this was just an idea I had when somebody took a photograph of me that I wish they had not taken.  It also got me to thinking about how cameras can intrude on the sanctity of the present (check out Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida).  This may be a subject to explore in a future post.

II)

A second thought that occurred to me when I was on a metro connection in Paris.  When I walk down a flight of steps surrounded by a sea of souls, I lose the sense that I am an individual organism functioning separately from the rest.  Rather, I feel like a mere component of a machine.  Sense of self is lost when I’m flooded in a sea of humanity.  Social psychologists describe it as the difference between controlled (the mind is sharp and focused) and automatic (the mind is in auto-pilot) processing.

   

I think that dense urban life can also dehumanize us.  Without regard, we rush by beggars, the mumblers, and the utterly destitute because we are too preoccupied with getting from A to B.  The A to B life is endemic in urban settings, and harmful to how we treat one another.  I encountered similar experiences in New York City where a disheveled homeless man covered in rags under years worth of hair and beard lay on a street corner screaming for help, clutching his stomach with one hand, and reaching out with another.  An ambulance passed him slowly and the driver just shook his head, and drove on.  Passers-by tuned him out.  In social psychology, there is also an idea of a diffusion of responsibility.  The idea is pretty simple and frighteningly real: the larger a group, the less impetus individuals feel to act on behalf of the group.  They assume that because the group is so large, someone will get to it.  Problem is – when everybody thinks somebody else will take care of a problem, nobody acts.