Honesty is in the Ear of the Beholder

•September 20, 2013 • 7 Comments

I told a lie today.

It was an innocent lie.  It neither served a purpose nor caused injury.  The sort of lie that floats out of your mouth and hangs suspended in mid-air momentarily and then pops, disappearing and leaving no trace.

It was 100% inconsequential and unnecessary.  So why did I do it in the first place?

In some ways it happened because I was being too honest.  I went to our local farmers market, to pick up some ingredients for dinner.  I was passing by a vegetable stand when a man asked me what I wanted to buy.  I said, in French, “Well…I am going to make borscht.”  He looked at me quizzically and I repeated, “I want to make borscht.”  His eyes widened and I repeated the word borscht, realizing of course that he had no idea what that was, and it wouldn’t matter how many times I said it or how clearly I annunciated the strange array of consonants.

He then asked me if I was speaking in French or not, at which point I flushed violently, and stammered, “Of course I am speaking in French, well actually not exactly in French because borscht is not a French word, it’s a soup, a Russian soup, well not just Russian, also Polish and Ukrainian and probably some other places.  But the word borscht is Russian.  So I guess I wasn’t exactly speaking in French, since 25% of the words in the sentence “I want to make borscht” were Russian.”

He looked even more unconvinced that I was in fact speaking French.

At this point my heart was racing from the immense vulnerability of not being understood, and I was hit by the queasiness that accompanies me in moments of trying and failing at something.

He peered at me and asked (though it was phrased more as a statement), “So, you’re not French?”

“No, not at all,” I said and attempted a breezy laugh.

“Where are you from?”

“I’m Spanish.”  (In case you hadn’t guessed, that right there was the lie.) “From…the…south. The south…of Spain.” (And that was me continuing to lie).

“Oh,” he said. “From blahblahblah?” (blahblahblah being some Spanish region that I didn’t quite catch and maybe have never actually heard of).

And I nodded vigorously, “Yeah, right near there!”  (more lying!)

He smiled and said that he was Moroccan, from the north, so we were neighbors. We chatted for a few more sentences.  I bought beets, onions, potatoes, leeks and carrots, and left as quickly as possible, before he could ask me any more questions that would expose me as the lying fabricating fibber I had suddenly become.

***

Spanish??  WTF?

As I disappeared from the view and therefore potential scrutiny of the Moroccan (I could imagine him suddenly saying to himself, “But wait that’s not how Spanish women walk!” or “Hold on there, why is her hair cut so symmetrically and only one color – she couldn’t possibly be Spanish!” or something equally ridiculous), I felt utterly bemused by what had just happened.  I certainly hadn’t intended on, wanted to or needed to lie…why on earth had that come out of my mouth?

And not only that – why didn’t I feel bad about it?

In fact I actually felt strangely empowered by my lie…sort of warmed up, shielded, strengthened.

It felt like I’d gone into the market all raw, vulnerable and squishy, and suddenly I’d found some sort of magical armor.  I felt light and free.

***

To provide a bit of much needed context – this trip I took to the market was practically the first time I’d left the house and ventured into town since my cat died.  I was not at my best.

A few weeks ago my precious, delightful, amazing cat  got very badly hurt, and after struggling for a few days ultimately had to give up the fight. I was in another part of France at the time of his injury, and I rushed home by train – but I didn’t make it in time to see him again alive.  It was a totally unexpected tragedy – very hard to digest and accept because it went so against my hopes and expectations; he was only 3 years old, and I thought he and his sister would be with me for the next 15 years.  We were a family – he was my cat child.

I don’t really want to try and explain here just how much I loved that cat, or describe the intensity of my grief or the horrible hole his absence has created in our lives.  I don’t want to try to explain how the loss of an animal can be as intense as the loss of a friend or family member, or justify the difficulty I’ve had functioning on a normal level – eating, sleeping, socializing, working.  Let me just say I am devastated, heartbroken.

***

When I am going through difficult things, my tendency is to withdraw from the outside world.  I feel singularly incapable of presenting a happy or normal face in public when I am going through highly emotional moments.  I am not very good at being reserved, at keeping the private thoughts and feelings to myself. I find it almost physically painful to have something important going on (good or bad) and to have to hide it.  So if I am deeply depressed or in the middle of intense grief, while I am CAPABLE of going to a party and putting on a bright smile and saying “great” when someone asks me how I am, I feel sick doing so.The act of hiding my feelings and pretending things are fine can feel physically painful.  I’d rather stay home – and so when I’m going through stuff like that, that’s exactly what I usually do.

When I am feeling squishy and emotional, doing something simple like going to market can seem tremendously challenging.  In the market I am somehow required to exude personality, even if it’s only minimally  – and there are moments that inevitably come up where I have to choose whether to be sincere or not; being sincere feels dangerous and vulnerable, while being fake feels painful.

Because of this, I probably wouldn’t have left my apartment for several more days at least – but we ran out of things that I could creatively combine into something vaguely edible. So I ventured out hoping to avoid all but the most basic verbal exchanges.

I have been trying to understand why a lie materialized so unintentionally and yet so effortlessly in that particular moment, a lie that gave me a completely new identity. I think I felt a need in that moment to not reveal anything.  I wanted a kind of anonymity, invisibility.  I think in some way – in saying I was Spanish, I felt completely released, completely protected. Now I wasn’t myself at all.  And in that way I no longer had to struggle between being too open and being insincere.  Giving myself a new identity gave me complete invulnerability and no need to actually tap into myself at all.

I think on some level I was making it possible for myself to avoid the following conversation:  “Where are you from?” “I’m American. And my cat just died.” Because that’s probably what I would have ended up saying, if I hadn’t said “I’m Spanish” instead.

***

To be clear – I am perfectly capable of feeling and acting like a normal well-adjusted adult human being.  Just not ALL the time.  There are certain periods of time when I feel OFF.  It’s hard to explain – I feel raw, skinless, and absolutely certain that everyone that I walk by can see right inside me.

In these moments I tend to feel I really have no business leaving my apartment, because when I do I always end up feeling horrible due to my insanely neurotic response to every interaction.   I ran into this problem a few days ago when I had to leave my apartment to go see my chiropractor for the first time in 6 months to fix a displaced rib.  I described my discomfiture later that day in my journal:

“When I saw her and she asked how I was and I said fine there was this pause afterwards that felt increasingly awkward…and then after a certain number of seconds, I felt the need to fill in the space with, “I mean relatively speaking,” and I tried to form my mouth into a smile.

It was so hard for me to squeeze the word ‘fine’ out. “I’m fine.”  But I’m lying! I’m not fine.   And then I felt like an impostor…and I felt like she could see all the way through me. And in those few seconds of silence as she looked at me I was sure she could tell that there was something absolutely wrong with me.  And in those few seconds, a reel of thoughts and feelings went through my head – most of which were totally, completely and utterly neurotic. 

First of all I felt the awkwardness of not having been there for a long time – I felt guilty, like I had been untrue to her and our relationship somehow – like I was a bad patient.  Like she was wondering if there was something wrong or if I’d just decided my body was no longer a priority. 

And then I felt the tears welling up – the unspoken real answer NO I AM NOT OK MY CAT DIED! That thing I am not supposed to say to most people because that would be more awkward than comforting and I feel in a certain way that I do not deserve so much sadness, so much grief for the disappearance of this one little creature who has now been gone, has not existed for an entire 23 days…23 horrible, long, painful days…I feel people will think I am being indulgent in having daily breakdowns, tears falling, where it all feels surprising and fresh and horrible.

Besides – when she asked how I was – she meant my body, not my heart.

And in the how are you I felt the embedded question, the what have you been doing – to which I could only really answer truthfully – going through a year of loss, depression, and partial recovery paired with more loss. I’m still trying to figure out how to make myself do stuff…but I haven’t really managed to do anything yet. I track the inches, the millimeters I hope I’ve moved forward but sometimes the units of measure are so small that I can’t tell if it’s forward or backward or standing still.

And then I feel her thinking – why is this girl so awkward and raw, so not like other people, not put together, not neat and clean in her lines – why is she so wavy and permeable, like a jellyfish, like you could push molecules right through her, or take something right out of her, right from her and steal it away.

And then I imagine her judgment – wondering what I am doing here in this country, how all these months could have gone by since she last saw me and I have nothing to show for it but a lost house and a dead cat and a long history of tears and days of squishiness.

And I hear her switching into english and I imagine her wondering if I even know any french and wondering how  a person could live in a country for years and not speak the language. Of course I do speak the language- but she’s never heard me so she must assume I don’t. And then I prove my ineptitude to her by misunderstanding when she wants me to lie down on my belly because she says the word in french and then she says both back and belly in english and I am not sure which she wants and so my brain freezes and I just go for one. And it’s wrong – and I feel like I am showing her evidence of how I clearly don’t even understand easy french (but I do! I speak advanced French! I promise! I want to tell her – but then I know that if I tried to speak with her the pressure would be too much and I’d stumble all over myself and sound like a 3 year old). and how this is clearly evidence of not only my lack of motivation and general intelligence, but also proof of my inadequacy on pretty much every level. What a stupid, pathetic person…so supposedly smart and yet so useless! Hasn’t even learned French (oh but I have I haveI have!)

And then I lay there feeling horrible – like an absolute complete and utter failure.  All because I turned on my back, not my tummy.

Of course it’s not like I feel this horribly insanely neurotic and insecure all the time – but it’s a vicious cycle on a day like today where I am already worn thin by grief and then just didn’t really get anything done. I already felt a bit defeated, a bit frustrated. I think if I’d managed to spend a few hours writing, putting something together, putting something out there, I would have felt more immune…but on days like this I have no shell – I go out of my house as slug-woman. I feel faceless, formless, yet ugly, squishy, permeable, easily damaged, and generally off-putting.”

Luckily I didn’t actually tell the chiropractor how I was really feeling!!

***

I would say that in general I usually don’t lie enough. Lying, or at least severely disguising the truth is a necessary part of functioning in public and I am not always as good at it as I would like to be.  It is hard for me to hold my cards close – it goes very much against my nature – I tend to be very open about my opinions and the things I’m going through – to a point where I sometimes reveal things that I don’t actually WANT to reveal, and often to the wrong people. If I am not really paying careful attention and actively and consciously exercising my filtering capacity, I have the very bad tendency of just letting whatever is on my mind come tumbling out, and saying what I actually think about things, even when it is totally inappropriate.  For example, I once asked a man whose OCD had been described in great and hilarious detail to me by his wife, if I could see his closet because I’d heard so much about how he keeps his shirts folded.  Or that time I asked a young Frenchman that I had just met if, given that he said there was nothing he particularly liked or was passionate about,  he had found any compelling reason to continue living (his response was that he asks himself the same question every day.)  Or once a friend of mine was talking about potential baby names for some time in the future and mentioned a name she liked which I said I thought was just horrible, like a little crunched up old woman who smells like mothballs and likes to crochet doilies.  A year later my friend HAD a baby, and named it the very name that I had been so unfortunately honest about.  Awkward.

***

I was surprised by how completely unrepentant I felt after lying.   But I knew that in a few weeks the Moroccan man wouldn’t even remember me – that I’d be able to go right back up to his stall, buy more beets and onions and he’d have no recollection of having met me, let alone where I said I was from.

If it makes no difference to anyone, if no one is really listening, is it still a lie?  And if it doesn’t stick, but drifts away and  vanishes, does it even matter?

As children we are taught that lying is unethical, but as adults certain kinds of lying are not only expected but frequently required of us.  Lying is part of what we are trained to do all the time – we are required to learn how spin narratives into selective and twisted truths.

And when you run into acquaintances who ask how you are, they don’t actually want to know.   We are supposed to say “I’m good,” or at worst “I’m fine,” no matter what is actually going on inside.  And if you are honest, unless it is a good friend, it is bound to be awkward.

And when you meet new people most of them don’t ACTUALLY care where you’re from, what career you define yourself with or how you spend the days of your life.  They just ask to keep life moving, to keep the awkwardness at bay, the horrible realization of our own solitude and how very difficult it can be to connect, to love and be loved, to find ones tribe, one’s place, to actually be cared about – to have the things you say mean something to someone besides as a way to pass the time.

***

There is a lovely old gentleman who lives in my apartment building with an absolutely delightful puffy white mustache.  Every time he sees me in the elevator or stairwell his face lights up and he gives me a wide and charming grin.  He always has a kind word to say and I’ve always found him so adorable.

But lately I have come to notice that if we walk past each other on the streets of Pau he does not recognize me and never smiles.  I tried many times to smile at him on the street, but he looks past me, uncomfortable, unsure why this strange young person is making faces at him.

It is only within the context of our shared building that he knows “who I am.”   Something about this makes me very sad.

I think it is because it reminds me how much of an illusion connecting often is.  We pretend connection, recognition, but really we are just finding quick and easy ways of categorizing one another, usually missing 99% of what is actually important, relevant or interesting about a person.  I realize that it’s not just the mustache man, but most of the people I have met in Pau that only recognize me due to a specific context that defines me for them.  “The girl who lives in that apartment.”  “The lady with the cats.”  “David’s girlfriend.”  “The American.” “The journalist.”  Etc.  So very few people care to know more than enough to put you in a box, and put you neatly away.

***

How can one actually tell the “truth” anyway? Isn’t one always misleading people in some way?  For example if I’d told the Moroccan that I’m American he would have immediately assumed all sort of things about me based on whatever his idea of being American means, most of which has next to nothing to do with my actual identity.  There are so many things that I could say about myself that are true technically, but put me in the wrong box…a box I do not fit in, do not belong in.  It is so hard, so impossible to pin the self down, and find an honest box to inhabit. I am not defined by my job, by my nationality, or by any other box.  Neither are you.

It is so nearly impossible to be recognized for what you really are, and it often seems barely worth the effort to try.  I think in observing myself actively lying in the market, I realized that it wasn’t that different from how we all end up behaving with one another most of the time.

That is why I want to learn more and more how to ask the questions that don’t just put people in predictable boxes, but give them the space to be themselves, to expand past the definitions of their career or spouse, nationality or gender, to surprise me, to show me something special if they so choose, something that defies my expectations and the predictions of their supposed definitions and designations.

And perhaps that is why I need, in the times of vulnerability and heartache, to come here to this space more often rather than shy away.  Because my words and thoughts don’t put me neatly into any boxes, and I would have to believe that anyone who has read this far is not solely interested in putting me in a box, and putting me neatly away either.

***

France Sauvage…?

•June 14, 2013 • 2 Comments

It is a very rare moment when France strikes me as wild.

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Picturesque? Of course.

Quaint?  Most definitely.

Provincial? Frequently.

But wild?  Almost never.

***

Not much more than a century ago, apart from a handful of relatively small cities, most of the geography of France was untamed, and unseen by the urban citizens.  Not so long ago, hundreds of dialects were spoken throughout the country in such variety that villagers just miles apart often could barely communicate with one another and viewed each other as foreigners.

This was an era before all the Italian grey wolves that had originally descended from the Alps and roamed the center of France uninhibited for centuries were extinguished by an aggressive government program meant to civilize the country, and overly-effective sheep farmers brought the population of Pyrenean brown bears down to under 10.  This was before rails and paved roads began to extend their webs in every direction, connecting the country but also domesticating it.

Modern France feels tame, tranquil, sleepy: a land fettered by humanity.  A land stripped, toiled and tied down.

But a few weeks back I lived in an alternate reality – one in which the people of France had disappeared, their buildings, dwellings, amusements, places of worship were empty and deteriorating; their roads were broken, washed over with mud, sand and grass, and you couldn’t hear their cars – no –  just waves, wind, birds and the swish and crinkle of passing storms assaulting trees and bushes.

I rode on my bicycle for hours every day through the heavy pounding rain, day after day without seeing a soul, and I suddenly found myself in a France that was momentarily unhinged – and I saw that no land is ever completely tamable.

***

I’ve been depressed this year.  Mostly it’s just me.  Personal stuff, family stuff, anxiety issues (hence not blogging much).  But some of it has also been the town I live in – Pau…a claustrophobia I’ve begun to feel living here, this seemingly idyllic little French town, “a place, a place where nothing, nothing ever happens.”

That feeling has been magnified by the truly crappy weather inundating Western Europe for the last many months and months and months.

Day after day.  Rain. Chill.  The rain has been falling a majority of days this year, as though the clouds are stubbornly trying to clean the landscape.  And according to meteorologists last month was the most consistently cold May in France since people started recording such things.

The asphalt is crumbling on almost every street in Pau, like some cheesy metaphor for the breakdown of the glue of society.  It feels like there is no reason at all to leave one’s apartment – because what is there outside besides puddles and at the very best, a few pockets of glum, resentful fortitude?

Central Pau on any typical day this year:

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Lonely, decrepit streets

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The main plaza of Pau – eerily empty in mid-June

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June Pau Fashion

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This sculpture immortalizing the moment of the kill, and the vulture that constantly hovers over us, appears all the more uplifting after 7 months of rain.

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Blue skies surprise me, the sun surprises me, seeing human beings surprises me.  And it’s definitely not just me – last week I was at the supermarket and a cashier was coming back from a smoke break and enthusiastically said to another cashier that it was a miracle, she had ALMOST seen the sun through the clouds!  She said this without sarcasm.  She was genuinely excited.

Two weeks ago an old Spanish man stopped us in the middle of the street in a small Basque town we were visiting, pointed at the sky and then bringing his hands together in front of his chest, said “We must all pray that it will not rain today!”  and then walked on.

France is officially in a recession, as though the economy itself (along with the collective spirit of the people) has been weighed down by Seasonal Affective Disorder, by the wet, muddy, indifferent greyness of everything.

No wonder I’ve been depressed!

***

A few months ago I bought some Groupon deal for seven nights in a chalet on a “campsite” along the Basque coast, but it had to be used before the high season.  So my boyfriend and I drove to the coast on a Saturday in the end of May in the midst of a deluge.

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When we arrived it was clear that we were some of the only people in France who thought it would still be fun to go to a campsite in bad weather.

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Despite the fact that we were almost the only people arriving on the property built to accommodate many hundreds of people, we were told we had to must wear wristbands at all times to help “identify” us.

The cheerful brochures we were handed advertising a sunny campsite brimming with smiling tan families contrasted beautifully with the mournful, desolate emptiness of the site, and the colorful structures at the entrance had an effect opposite of the intention – serving to emphasize the solitude.

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After we’d settled in, we walked around the property and by the endless row upon row of chalets and mobile homes, nearly all empty.

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I was very happy.

I usually feel claustrophobic doing French “camping.” I’m from California and Alaska – so when I want to camp, I want to go OUTside in nature, not to a fenced property full of little boxes, that are full of people packed together like farm animals pretending to be feral.

But the complete quiet of this place almost felt akin to real camping…all this emptiness almost seemed perhaps just the slightest bit wild…

***

My solitude increased when my boyfriend left on Tuesday morning to return to work in Pau.  I had hoped there might be some breaks in the rain when I could take out my bike and explore but no such luck.  I stubbornly began biking in the rain every day.  Initially I only intended to go out briefly – but the stormy landscape stripped of humans was so compelling that I found myself leaving for hours at a time, returning drenched and invigorated.

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Every day my adventures by bicycle took on the fantastical qualities of some particular novel or another, as my imagination in its isolation ran away with me.  Every image I saw became part of a new story…and these stories had to be wordy, a bit silly and hopefully quite melodramatic.

On Tuesday, it was Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood) where Pacifica finds herself as Jimmy, the sole human survivor in post-apocalyptic world where human objects and structures have begun to break free from their originally designated identity.  

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Despite biking for hours I saw no other human beings, only  what started to appear like the broken remnants of a civilization. Campsite after campsite, chalet after chalet, mobil home after mobil home, empty and lifeless.

I was in a landscape strewn with flimsy human constructions.  Despite the intentionally transitory nature of such structures, when I walked on the muddy dirt pathways between them, I got the kind of feeling one has walking through old cave dwellings or Roman ruins: People inhabited these spaces – ate here, slept here, made love here – and the only mark that is left from all of the living that was done is the structure itself.

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I felt the weight of the imagined destruction, a nostalgia and sadness for the nature of seasons, of eras, of epochs – the certainty of change.  As much as it seems like the French will come to inhabit these little structures every July and August like clockwork, bringing their carloads full of mostly unnecessary camping supplies, and all the comforts of home for their time inside a mobile home in the “outdoors,” someday this too will end, and these buildings – what will happen to them – how long would they take to rot away if they were left like this, just like this – empty, uncared for, until the plants break them down into more hospitable homes for different sorts of life forms?

I biked along a fat little river into the forest.

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It was so well-fed it no longer seemed to be moving quickly. Instead it seemed to take its time, moving its incredible girth with confidence and assertiveness.  It was full, ripe, ready to spill out and give itself to the land.

The only life forms I spotted were some quail that darted across the path in front of me, and several horses. I felt supremely alone on the planet and despite being within constant site of human structures, closer to nature than I had felt in a long time – like the forest and river had just woken up, stretched out, and taken one deep long breath.

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Wednesday I went wandered along the coast itself. As I got closer to the wind-whipped beach the sound of the sand flying became stronger and stronger, the rattle of tiny fractions of stone against stone, multiplied by the millions.  It was such a complex sound, too complex for human understanding, a wheezing, rattling, whistling sound, like a monstrous invisible snake, sliding along, hissing louder and louder as it approaches you and surrounds you, the force of its movement sending sand flying.  And then I was perhaps a little bit Harry Potter – facing my inner snake song, and the inhospitableness of the landscape.  It was not a place where humans should be in that moment – not an environment made for human skin, for human membranes.

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With grit in my teeth and my exposed skin smarting from the bite of each grain, I turned around and continued on a path North.

The only other human I saw was a man on a bicycle heading towards me, with a round leathery face, looking not unlike an apple doll.  He scowled at me as he passed by.

I ended up wandering down a bumpy dirt road, stumbling into mysterious dilapidated ruins, where I found myself considering ghosts.   I was transported from the beach to the moors.  Then in Wuthering Heights, I myself the narrator wandering in the heath, I tried to piece together a sad story from the remnants of destroyed lives I found around me.

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I kept thinking I saw flickers, shadows through the broken glass – but it was hard to see through thick rain. IMG_2832 IMG_2836 IMG_2839

Why was this tumbledown church forbidden?  I wondered who was buried beneath it, and if they wished to return…IMG_2844 IMG_2845

And as I explored on Thursday, the empty beach village of Labenne-Océane began to take on the look of a deserted carnival.  I suddenly entered the science fiction world of Ray Bradbury in Something Wicked This Way Comes.

There is something horrible about beach paraphernalia when it’s raining, something sinister about the once-bright bleached signs hanging over barred doors and shuttered windows, something disquieting about deserted toys and games and fun left to rot.

Where is Mr. Dark? In the Fun Palace or perhaps the Reptilarium?

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***

France is full of wide-open space and is still predominantly a country of villages and small towns; only 11 French cities currently have more than 200,000 inhabitants.  But despite the fact that there are plenty of stretches of land where you can still feel far away from urban humanity, the general pulse of the land of France is sluggish and sleepy.  Cows and sheep that loll across the mountains only have a vague, ancestral memory of quick hunters with sharp claws and teeth, and the prickle of anxiety that spread through their ranks at the smell of musty predators’ sweat. Now sheep, cows and horses wander the mountains, valleys and plains knowing no fear, imagining no danger, startling at no crackle of branches or quick movement out of the corner of their eyes.

It was a different land not too long ago.  But what changed France?  Transportation – roads, rails, bicycles. Tourism and money and travellers, radio and television and now internet. The slow enforcing of a common tongue, and this strange new thing called French national identity – an invention of the 20th century. And industrialized farming changed the landscape – cleared the land and gave it a strict utilitarian purpose, but no freedom to express itself.

Personally, almost all land in France feels like farmland or people-land.  Even the mountains.  So being outdoors never quite feels wild, never quite feels savage.  It’s hard to find places in nature where humans haven’t left their controlling mark.  The ancient forests where you might have walked for days and days, barely even seeing the light of day through the treetops, so thick was the growth, are mostly gone – manicured down and thinned out to little splotches of deep green between flattened farmlands.  The forests that remain are just a little too friendly and full of easy trails.

But…

When the people are hiding in their houses, I can feel that the land still has some mischief left in it.  That much is clear.  When the tourists have given up, the rain having beaten everyone into glum submission, the forests seem cheerful and the beaches are breathing more steadily.

It’s in these “civilized” places, the places that are designed to be full of people, that I see the wildness, the potential savagery of French nature.  You can imagine the decay, the loosening grip of the human hand on things, and the wind and waves and aggressive roots and tendrils taking over.

***

Spring Snow in Pau, France

•March 14, 2013 • 1 Comment

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The past year has been without much rhythm, a time of starts and jarring stops, a year a bit here and there and everywhere.  I have only spent six weeks in Pau total since October, four of which I was too sick with a flu and a deep, body-shaking cough to even leave my apartment.

As soon as I’d recovered, I went home to California.  But for the first time there was no home there, there was no house, no room, no bed.  No driveway to bump into and park myself in.  The bed I have had since I was a child, had been disassembled and living sideways in a storage unit with all my remaining artifacts of my childhood home since December.  I have been a traveller in so many places, but this was the first time I felt like a traveller in California too.

While I was in the states I slept in a total of 12 different beds, 2 air mattresses and 2 couches.  So it was with relief on Tuesday night, that I curled up in my own bed in Pau,the small French town I’ve been living in for the majority of the last three years, after what seemed like a lifetime away.

Despite having been 10-18 degrees Celsius in the previous weeks, the temperature dipped suddenly on the day I arrived back in France, and while I slept gratefully in my bed it began to snow.  It doesn’t snow often in Pau, although we are within site of the Pyrenees – in fact I have only personally been present for one day of snow in the last two years – so I was thrilled.  I spent several hours on Wednesday, my first day back, just walking the slick, cold streets, looking around me, taking pictures.

It’s been a long time since I have really made the effort to look closely at Pau.  It is a small town and because I have already been here for what seems like a very long time, and I don’t particularly want to live here much longer but may have to anyway, I have felt somewhat trapped and claustrophobic.   There is so much beauty here, but sometimes it seems very static.  And when I am so aware that there is a such a big, bright world beyond these small streets, I can feel very limited here, with life narrowed down to just one fine point of view, one small vantage (even if it IS a beautiful vantage overlooking the Pyrenees).  I miss cities, and I miss wilderness, places full of life and energy, and I find that Pau usually feels somewhere uncomfortably in between.

But yesterday’s walk reminded me I have to try to be more present and engaged here.  This may not be the ideal place for me, but I am here, and there is of course a lot to appreciate all around me every day.  My boyfriend asked me where I walked for so many hours, because he knows there isn’t really anywhere to walk TO.  The truth is I walked in many circles…and for awhile it seemed like the town inhaled deeply, and the world around me expanded somehow.  When you take the time to look closely, small things and places seem to grow, because the details add depth if not length and breadth.

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Snow in the near springtime seems like an apt metaphor.  Something about the fresh, innocent vulnerability of the all the new blossoms wilting under the intense coldness of the fresh, wet snow seems important.  Renewal and healing can be a messy process, and learning does not happen in a straight line.  For awhile it can appear like we are getting somewhere, only to find ourselves seemingly back where we started later on.  And yet if it snows in mid-March, do we start to doubt spring is still coming?  While the macro-graph may show progression, things on the small-scale don’t move forward in a predictable, constant way, but rather in tides, sometimes smooth, sometimes in fits and starts, sometimes regressing, sometimes leaping ahead.   I need to have a little more faith in my own process; I have to be patient, and just do the work I need to do.  It has been a hard year or two, but I can feel so much strength and potential peeking through the broken pieces, through the still-falling snow.

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And if you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy the following:

*Taken Captive by Spain

*Sensational Zaragoza Street Art

*A Weekend in Florence in December

*Prague: Image and Impression

Majorly Blinkered Mainstream Media does Mali

•January 18, 2013 • 36 Comments

Should I still be surprised when journalism doesn’t do the job it’s supposedly meant to do? When articles in the most important newspapers in the world are riddled with massive blind spots, coming off as either shockingly naive or else blatantly misleading to anyone who has done a bit of further reading?  Should I still be unnerved when headline stories take powerful governments at their word, digging no deeper, just regurgitating what has been said at press conferences?

I know I shouldn’t be surprised, it’s nothing new.  These are symptoms of the disease that has afflicted American mainstream journalism for a very long time (has it always been this way?). No I can’t say it surprises me exactly – but it still disappoints, saddens, frustrates, and angers me.  I am angry at editors with an agenda, at journalists without enough backbone or imagination and at readers/viewers for being spoon-fed crap and not demanding better.

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The New York Times is one of the most respected newspapers in the world – and I DO love some of their op-ed columnists (Nicholas Kristof! Yes I love you!). Occasionally they have talented stringers that break great stories, and have spots of quality investigative journalism or features.

But.

But….

The New York Times (like most mainstream news coming out of the US) is frighteningly America-centric; a lot of their justifications, arguments and explanations look tremendously sloppy for the lack of global or marginal perspective.  I have long found that when it comes to reporting on global breaking news, they tend to stick to the obvious, conventional American wisdom about geopolitics; they rarely challenge the typical government storyline about why the US does the things it does, or question the dynamics of power and how politics shapes these narratives about other peoples and places.

A tremendous example of the NYT’s frequently lazy or one could even say misleading approach to complicated issues is the latest reporting on Mali.

I read the NYT front page articles on Thursday about French military intervention in Mali, US expert perspective on Mali threat, and the related attack in Algeria, and I was quite struck by the NYT angle on these stories.

The thing I noticed most was how single-focused all the articles were on Islamists and terrorism, as though that was explanation enough for everything that was happening – French intervention, US promises to help the French, the many years of US covert involvement in the region, and the tragic hostage situation in Algeria. They tell us there are dangerous militants in Mali threatening to take over so OF COURSE France has sent in its military, and of COURSE the US will help!  What other explanation is necessary?

Wait what?  Why? Slow down…what’s happening?  In particularly why were the French so quick to jump into a very volatile situation?  Do they have the military and the money to spare or something?  Then why not Syria? What exactly is going on here? Why aren’t you asking why?

I’m not saying you should have all the answers – but you are journalists…why aren’t you asking why?

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If I knew absolutely nothing about what has been happening in Mali and I were to read yesterday’s headlining NYT piece on the French fighting there, I would understand the following:   1) The French are now at war in Mali 2) The President of France, François Hollande, is determined to kill terrorists, 3) The International Criminal Court is very upset about human rights abuses in Mali.  From the information supplied by the article, the conclusion I would probably have to come to is that France, righteous country that it is, is at war in Mali against terrorists, to protect Europe from attacks and innocent Malians from human rights abuses.

Would I be close enough to understanding the situation, as close as one could expect from a simple news piece?  Is the NYT pointing me in the right direction, helping me to understand?  Or are they leading me to false or at least only fractionally true conclusions?

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The NYT left out some rather important pieces of information that might give a slightly more nuanced context to the situation. For example, neither France’s relationship to Mali historically (Mali having been a French colony not all that long ago) nor its relationship economically (France is quite dependent on the region for a lot of important natural resources) were alluded to once.

Mali has vast natural resources, and many companies from many countries really want Mali to be safe and accessible.  Mali is a traditional mining country, and Africa’s 3rd largest producer of gold, with seven important gold mines in operation, and exploration for more ongoing.  Mali has potential for diamond exploration as well as garnet.  Mali has  calcareous rock deposits, and iron ore, bauxite, copper, marble, gypsum, kaolin, phosphate, lead, zinc, lithium, bitumen schist, lignite, rock salt, and diatomite reserves, among other things.

And Mali also quite possibly has exploitable uranium and oil.  Uranium exploration is currently being carried out by several companies, with clear indications of deposits.  The Taoudeni Basin in Northern Mali, extending far into Mauritania, and somewhat into Algeria, is thought to be the location of significant reserves of oil.

While French companies are not necessarily deeply invested in Mali, not enough to justify military involvement per se, the stability of region as a whole is of vital strategic interest to France.  Given that France has 58 nuclear reactors that supply 75% of the country’s electricity, and also generate enough surplus to earn France EUR 3 billion annually (making them the world’s top exporter of electricity) the continued well-being of their uranium supplies is of great importance to the French economy and energy security.   France gets more than 1/3 of its uranium from Niger, to Mali’s east, the world’s 4th largest producer of uranium.   Niger’s two main uranium mines are owned and operated by French nuclear giant Areva, Niger’s biggest investor. If all goes according to plan Areva hopes to boost Niger’s uranium output to 5,000 tons per year by 2013 or 2014, making it the world’s second-largest exporter of the nuclear fuel.  If all goes according to plan…

The French oil major Total has prospects not only in Mali, but also in neighboring Mauritania, Algeria, and Cote d’Ivoire, and nearby Nigeria and Ghana. Stability of the region therefore is crucial to French mineral and energy prospects, and to French energy stability.

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Control of resources is an important element of most global military decisions.  To ignore that is to ignore one of the driving forcing of human history.  This is an important part of the picture that somehow the NYT never even ALLUDED to. How could they fail to even MENTION these things in an article about a European power taking military action in Africa?

Well I wanted to give the NYT a fighting chance, the benefit of the doubt – after all, the situation this week in Mali has been complicated, and constantly evolving.  I thought maybe the NYT’s coverage failed to mention France’s complex relationship to the region in TODAY’S piece, because they were focusing on the details of the actual military operation instead.  Maybe they’d gone deeper in past articles?

SO – I read every single NYT article I could find about Mali from the last week (since France began military action there) as well a vast number of articles about Mali from the past year.  All told I read over 30 articles.  I also ran searches on the NYT website for keywords “France Mali economic”, “France Mali gold”, “France Mali uranium”, “France Mali oil,” “France Mali colony,”  “France Mali ex-colony,” etc. to see if I could find some buried articles that might make reference to France’s vested interests in this particular African nation.

I couldn’t find any relatively recent articles (from the last year or two) that discuss France’s economic interests in Mali and bordering countries.  There was almost no mention of Mali as an important producer of gold in any of the articles I read.  There was no mention at all of how the regions uranium might affect the situation (in fact there wasn’t much mentioning of France’s interest in uranium during the Niger coup d’état in 2010 either!).  There was minimal mention of oil.  It was only a handful of mentions that Mali is France’s ex-colony.

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I’m not saying the NYT has to come out blazing, accusing France of covering up their true motives.   But I also don’t think the NYT should take the French government’s motives at face value and refuse to complicate them by adding salient details about France’s history in this region and France’s stakes in the resources there.  This information IS relevant and the NYT avoidance of it is negligence at BEST.

Out of all the articles I read the only motives ever given for French military action in Mali were short statements like:  1)”France, plagued by kidnappings of its citizens… and fearful of a radical enclave so close to the Mediterranean, has been the most vocal about kicking out the Islamists. 2)”Mr. Hollande said that the capture of the northern half of the country by Islamic radicals posed a clear and present terrorist danger to France and to Europe.” 3) “Responding to an urgent plea for help from the Malian government, French troops carried out airstrikes against Islamist fighters, blunting an advance by hundreds of heavily armed extremists.”  4) “President François Hollande of France has been blunt about his overall intentions, however. “What do we plan to do with the terrorists?” he said on Tuesday. “Destroy them. Capture them, if possible, and make sure that they can do no harm in the future.”

Out of DOZENS of articles about Mali, this is the closest the NYT got to explaining why the French would RASHLY begin military engagement there.  It’s so upsetting to have a “trusted” news source go for the most simplistic reasoning for all actions by all players when it comes to geopolitics.  Their explanations seem lazy and frighteningly specious. To try to convince readers that this is all about battling terrorism is irresponsible and manipulative, not to mention plays right into the government’s line, their catchall reason since 9/11 for letting them do whatever they want abroad and increasingly at home:  “Terrorism: Global Enemy #1.”

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If France is in Mali just to fight extremism, why isn’t France in every other country threatened by jihadists? Most people that understand a little bit about governments, military, and economics should realize IT’S NOT THAT SIMPLE!  So why do prestigious papers like the New York Times keep stuffing terrorism down our throats as the obvious reason for everything?

To be fair – I did a much quicker skim of a selection of articles from the Washington Post, the LA Times and other important newspapers, as well as articles written by television news sources, and the results were the same.  US mass market media nearly across the board is discussing Mali from the sole vantage of TERRORISM.  ISLAMIST THREAT. JIHADISTS. Etc.  (My other favorite explanation was that France was getting involved in order to protect its 5 or 6,000 citizens that live in Mali.  Right.  Protect them…by invading the country they live in, making them an immediate target by making their nationality an even more obvious count against them. Protect them…right…) This is an epidemic of specious reasoning.

I understand why the government would be crying terrorism left and right – it’s a very powerful idea, even more effective in a sense than demonizing communism was back in the day – because terrorists could be anywhere, and it is almost impossible for US citizens to be able to clearly see whether or not the target justifies the fuss.  Threat of terrorists is this wonderful blank card that can be played at almost any time and in any place justifying military involvement there.  The government doesn’t want to give that up.  I get that.

But why is the media involved in emphasizing terrorism?

It’s interesting to note that this is not necessarily a global media trend.  I haven’t thoroughly checked out other english-speaking countries’ news outlets – but I can tell you that the French press has no problems asking whether the government’s actions have more to do with economics than terrorism or humanitarianism.

For example French conservative newspaper Le Figaro openly discusses France’s economic interests in Mali and the surrounding region in this piece, immediately broaching the subject of oil and uranium: Les intérêts économiques limités de la France au Mali.  This article claims the interests in Mali itself aren’t large, but the government’s interest in maintaining stability in the region as a whole is obvious.

Or French national TV channel TF1 on the same subject: Mali : la France a-t-elle un intérêt économique à intervenir ?  which reached similar conclusions – Mali itself may not be a key economic partner, but the destabilization of Mali would affect the entire region, which would be problematic strategically for France.

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I searched only for seconds before finding these kinds of analyses in mainstream French news – because it turns out its not that hard OR that controversial in France for journalists to dig a little bit under the surface.  These are obvious questions to ask, and the French media is doing its job by asking them.

So what’s up with American media?  Do they believe their jingoism themselves?  Are they that naive, or does terrorism sell better than more complex reasoning?  Is the US in such an information bubble that the media as a whole completely believes in the narrative of “hunting terrorists” as a reason for all military involvement everywhere?  Have they been selling terrorism for so long that they no longer even ask themselves if it’s true?    Or do they have a specific an agenda?  Are they pawns or are they players?

Why have they stopped asking why?

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Bill Clinton and a Dirty Beach: Nostalgia and Denial

•September 18, 2012 • 1 Comment

I haven’t actually been back to the United States, my home country, in over a year.  But I don’t think it matters how long you stay away – what’s happening in your place of origin continues to matter to you.

Especially during an election year.

Of course I also happen to be from a country that has so much power and such a big military, and uses such a high percentage of the world’s available resources that each election matters not only to the 315 million or so people that live there, but tangentially to the rest of the world.  So I’m paying close attention because it matters to me on a personal level, but of course on so many other levels as well.

It’s strange to be so far away from the US during an election cycle, and not be surrounded at all times by talking heads.  To not feel like the world revolves around our political machinations and functions by virtue of them.  To not to be inundated everyday with speeches, ads, gaffes, news coverage on gaffes, apologies or explanations of gaffes, news analyses of explanations of gaffes, use of gaffes by opponent in stump speeches, news analyses of opponent’s use of gaffes, rebuttal of incorrect use of gaffe by other opponent, news analyses of this, at which point no one is sure who actually said what or in what context and who it was that “gaffed” and what the whole point of any of it is anyway.  Rinse and repeat.

Gripping stuff!  Ok, I guess it’s actually nice not to be inside the fishbowl that encloses the maelstrom of American political shit-flinging, distorting everything beyond it.  But I do miss being able to get a sense of how normal people are really feeling and thinking.

To make up for not being right there in the thick of it, I’ve been reading and watching a significant amount about said political shit-flinging from here.  So it was with a cold and analytical eye that I started watching Bill Clinton’s speech two weeks ago during the Democratic National Convention; I was curious to see how he would champion Obama given that he was not always Obama’s biggest fan – I thought that at the least it would be interesting politicking.

And then there was Bill on stage speaking.  And a strange thing happened to me.  Watching him I felt this warm, fuzzy affection for the man and then for a moment, just a moment my vision blurred a little, as tears filled my eyes. And I felt desperately nostalgic…homesick for childhood, for the United States of the 1990’s.

This bizarre physical and emotional response to Bill Clinton took me totally by surprise. Sentimentality is such a strange and almost uncomfortable sensation in these cynical times, especially if it’s directed towards politicians of all things.  But it was also peculiar because from what I recall, I was quite skeptical of Clinton when he was in office, skeptical in that way teenagers often are about so many things – organized religion, teachers, parents, government. He was only the third president of my lifetime, and really only the second I was truly aware of in that role. By the time he had finished his 2nd term, he had been president nearly half my time alive, and he didn’t seem specifically good or bad, he just seemed like a fact of life.  I recall thinking he was competent and intelligent, not quite trust-worthy, a sweet-talker and wonderfully easy to ridicule thanks to Monica Lewinsky and Saturday Night Live.

But the criticisms teenagers are often willing to profusely articulate I think in some ways often betrays their actual confidence in a fundamental unshakability to their world…like it is safe to be so critical because at that age you usually don’t yet have anything at stake– you are not yet struggling to be a real adult, taking responsibility and trying to make something of your life. You haven’t actually imagined the ramifications of the alternatives to that you decry. You can blithely throw rocks at the structure so long as you’re sure it won’t come crashing down around you.

So I think this sentimental moment of practically tearful nostalgia that struck me out of nowhere while watching Clinton speak wasn’t just about the man, but about everything related to the time he was in office, and to being a teenager, back when everything seemed a whole lot more straightforward, and yes, despite the Lewinsky-driven attempted impeachment, less dirty.  Seeing him speak felt like a kind of time warp, where I could go back for a moment to an era of relative simplicity and safety, and pretend that everything was still ok.

I’m trying to decide – were things actually different in the 90’s or is it just that I was quite young then? That I was too immature to complicate the issues by reading between the lines, fact checking, and inserting perspective via knowledge of history and geo-politics? Do things seem more complex now because I am more capable of seeing their complexity, because I myself am more complex? Or were the 90’s actually the way I remember them to be, a more innocent time, less weighted with frightening visions of myriad possible global catastrophes?

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Growing up in the 90’s was a pre-climate change, pre-melting arctic, pre-recession, pre-Iraq and Afghanistan war, pre-China as world power, pre-9/11 world, and we were too young to feel the weight of the wars, crises and economic meltdowns that came before.  We grew up in an unusual calm amid more regular turbulence.

It’s not that my life in the 90’s was idyllic. Far from it.  I became a teenager in the mid-90’s, and teenage years are by nature rife with their own brand of horrors and trauma. On top of that my family was all kinds of crazy, and our life was brimming with bizarre drama as well as periods of financial insecurity.  And yet, the instability seemed internal to my family, not nationally let alone globally pandemic.  My family was unhinged, but that seemed the anomaly in our overly normal, predictable neighborhood, in a sane and benignly stable country, in a world that seemed too big to fail.

But of course to a child everything SEEMS stable until you see it break.  For example at the age of six I was convinced my parents would be married for ever and ever, until the following year of course, when they got divorced and I learned a little bit about life and human relationships. Without realizing it, I also deep down assumed the stability of the 90’s was the status quo, and took it completely for granted, until I grew up and learned better.

Of course lots of dramatic and challenging things happened in the world while I grew up – but it all seemed impossibly far away from California and Alaska.  Apart from some family trips beyond our borders, the closest the outside world came to me as a child was during the Gulf War, when a little girl from Kuwait joined my class at school.  I remember being fascinated one month when she wasn’t allowed to eat or drink until sunset and she had to skip Physical Education class and stay out of the sun– this was my first contact with a practicing MuslimShe had an amazing Macaw as a pet that I liked to visit at her house.  It all seemed very exotic.  That was the extent to which foreign affairs touched my life at the time.

What a strange way it was to grow up, with this subconscious false expectation of stability and prosperity in the world. The 90’s were of course very different for children growing up say in the Balkans or Rwanda, Algeria or Romania – anything but a safe, simple and happy time.   But in the US we have lived in a relative bubble for much of our history due both to our distance from much of the world as well as a certain amount of willful ignorance.  This is what happens when you live in a country that is almost never attacked and has the biggest military in the world…you feel sheltered in a way that is unnatural.  You grow up expecting to feel safe in a world that is anything but safe for the majority of the people living in it.  It is a rude awakening to have to learn the meaning of fear and insecurity as an adult.  And many of the obscenely wealthy in our nation (Mitt Romney is a fine example) never learn this at all.

Now as adults many of us are more acutely aware of threats to ourselves and to our world via the flailing economy, climate change, pollution, globalization, corporations on steroids, dwindling resources, droughts and earthquakes and tsunamis, nuclear weapons, nuclear meltdowns, terrorism, and so much else. It isn’t easy to learn how to cope with all that is frightening and devastating and tragic about being alive…all the things that could hurt or destroy us. So when we look back on our childhood many people are nostalgic for a time when life seemed simpler and safer, not because the world was any less cruel, but I suppose because they implicitly felt someone was taking care of them and protecting them.  For some reason, for a moment there, Bill Clinton made me feel that way – like someone was there, taking care of things, making things make sense again, making Romney and all the GOP rigmarole nothing but a bad, illogical dream.  But then the illusion melted…and I was brought back to a place and a time where it feels so often like nothing makes sense, and that truly horrible things could happen and that the future might be very grim – in a world where we have taken everything for granted for far too long.

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Last weekend we went to the coast for a last taste of summer sun and sea.  When we arrived the beach was full of nearly naked French people with deep leathery tans

Late in the afternoon we decided to take a stroll. We were warned that if we walked south the beach became nudist, but naked bathers weren’t going to deter us so we headed that way, walking past a little plastic barrier that I supposed was meant to indicate the end of the bathing suit zone.  We saw two or three fat bare-butted old people soaking up sun, looking not unlike sea lions, and beyond that there were no people at all.  Just the two of us, the sea birds, the waves and the wind. It was tremendously non-traumatic.

But it became traumatic as we continued to walk and walk across what should have been an amazingly beautiful coastline along the western edge of France, but was instead a beach littered as far as the eye could see with plastic.  Plastic stuck in the brush and bushes, plastic buried in the sand, plastic broken to pieces, plastics in patterns of the tide, plastic everywhere, stretching on and on and on. Plastic reds, whites, greens, blues and yellows dotted the beach, making the coastline seem like a confetti-strewn, trashed post-party mess. This was not litter left by irresponsible beach goers but garbage washed up regularly by the tides, some of it fresh and new, some worn down by the salt and the pounding waves, releasing toxic particles into the water with every crash.

It was a shock to realize that what appears to be beautiful pristine beach was merely a small section of coastline that was routinely cleaned for appearance’s sake.  Because most people don’t rove far along the beach, the clean part they see is how they imagine the whole coastline must look.  The citizens are kept happy and comfortable in their leisure activities, this ‘natural’ setting tidied for their better enjoyment,  and the truth of what pigs we are as a species, and the very clear evidence of the constant and tremendous damage we are doing is conveniently hidden away, past where most people bother to venture.

We walked back to the public beach and I felt queasy from my confrontation with reality.  We passed back into the miraculously clean beach region and it looked so different from when we left – instead of looking like a normal, natural beach and sea landscape, we realized it was just an illusion. The REAL coastline was covered in our refuse, and all those happy, salty, sweaty, smiling people wouldn’t ever notice.  Here nature is made convenient for their optimum pleasure.  They will drive up to the beach in their climate-control vehicles, clamber down onto the little square of clean created for their enjoyment conveniently located close to the restaurants and the parking lot.  They will get a tan, play games, and enjoy some fresh air, before crawling back into their cars, which will carry them back to their houses or apartments, back into the urban areas where garbage is gathered and made to vanish so we never think about it again.

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I think most people have that craving from time to time to feel cozy and safe and taken care of by some benign greater power – be it parents, god or government.  But – the problem is that that very tendency seems to color our capacity as adults to deal with reality and the very significant problems we have made for ourselves.  So many people don’t want to face what’s really happening – they want to be distracted and entertained and numbed and sedated.  They like easy targets, as much as they like easy answers.  Soundbites that pretend to explain it all.  Beaches that seem clean, even if they aren’t.  Blinders on, fingers in our ears, we greedily swallow the happiness pills that are handed to us, pleasantly swathed in our own cozy state of denial.  It’s easier I guess to obsess over the possible outcomes of favorite TV shows or celebrity marriages, than the frightening specter of the real problems coming to a head on the planet.

The way we lived in the US in the Clinton years seemed lovely at the time – but as we should know by now it was not sustainable.  The developed world in general is not sustainable as it is now.  Are we grown up enough step away from our daily concerns for moment and take a good, honest look at the world we are creating, and ask ourselves if the way we are living is worth the tremendous cost that will come?  Are we willing to ask ourselves if there are sacrifices we could make to live more sustainably?

I don’t know.  And I worry because the US is a country accustomed to taking things on credit, with the idea of paying in some undefined future.  It’s only later we understand credit does not mean free money, but paying a lot more than something is worth later on.  We are still children in this way, still assuming our way of life as it has been is how it ought to be.  It is only when we have seen it break completely that we will stop taking it for granted and realize, perhaps too late, that that’s what we’ve been doing all this time.

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Out to Sea – The Plastic Garbage Project has been on display in the Museum of Design Zurich / Switzerland.

Every 15 seconds this amount of plastic garbage gets released into the sea:

© ZHdK

This is the amount of plastic garbage an average Swiss person throws away in 100 days:

Please see more about this exhibit and project:

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Taken Captive by Spain

•August 29, 2012 • 5 Comments

Last week I wrote about depressing effects of the overwhelming youth unemployment in Spain.  I wanted to take up some space here now and balance that perspective with a window into the beauty, passion, and grace of Spain –  some glimpses of the landscapes, the architecture, the art and the wonderful people.  Despite the horrible economy and spreading poverty, the true wealth of the country remains in the incredibly rich culture and the resilience of the people.

The following photographs are but a small sampling of images from my various trips to Spain in the last year or two.  The pictures gathered are from the cities of Barcelona, Madrid, Toledo, Bilbao, Zaragoza, Grenada, and Cordoba, and the towns Irun, Hondarribia, Tozar, Alcala La Real, Zuheros, Priego de Cordoba, and Uncastillo.  (If you would like to know where a picture was taken place your cursor over it, and you should see a description.  You can also click on them to view a larger version).

Spain has taken some part of me captive. I hope after viewing these images you can understand why.



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If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy the following:

*Sensational Zaragoza Street Art

*A Weekend in Florence in December

*Prague: Image and Impression

*Ten Rupees

*A March to the Tune of Tradition

The Indignant Indigent Youth of Spain

•August 23, 2012 • 11 Comments

Last week we went to the “Semana Grande” Festival in the beautiful Basque city of San Sebastian, along the Atlantic Coast of Spain.

We left our car in a parking station under one of the main squares of the city and headed to the nearest exit.  We spiralled up a cement staircase carelessly, wending our way upwards towards the sunshine.  As we rounded the last bend I found myself staring up at a young man, seated in a corner of the stairwell.  As I climbed up towards him our eyes locked momentarily.  Spanish eyes are often so beautiful, and his were no exception -almond shaped and brown with thick black lashes.  As his eyes met mine, I saw sadness, embarrassment, and worst of all perhaps, a look of defeat, of helplessness. He held a slightly crumpled used coffee cup sheepishly in one hand.  He did not hold it out to us as we passed by him however, but held it almost imperceptibly closer to his body, and gave a little shrug as though saying, “I know you won’t give me anything, but I do not know what else to do.”

He was such a normal looking young Spaniard – in his early 20’s, slightly bearded, with kind, soft eyes, longish but well-trimmed hair, wearing jeans and a striped collared shirt.  He did not look like he was into drugs or booze.  He looked clean, as did his clothing.  He could have been any guy anywhere walking down the street or working at any job.  But instead he was crouched uncomfortably in a stairwell, looking so out of place.

He looked nothing at all like the people begging for change on the streets of our town, Pau, with their dogs that sport spiked collars, their dirty cargo pants, their funky rebellious hairstyles and piercings, and their “I’m cool and I don’t give a fuck” attitude. In Pau there are dozens of street characters like this who are used to their lifestyle and (at least outwardly) unashamed.   They reach out their hands or cups towards every passerby, looking them straight in the eye like a challenge.  They sit on busy streets, next to ATMs or bakeries, places calculated for highest foot traffic, highest probability of handouts.  They have a sense of humor about who they are and what they do.  They don’t care what you think.  When you meet their gaze, they give nothing away.  It’s a hardened, practiced look, studied nonchalance.  They have learned to protect themselves.  They make their lifestyle seem like a choice, their choice, and they hold their cards close.

But this man was different.

Even the place he had chosen to sit screamed rookie.  He was out of the general eye of most of the people walking around the city – he would only be seen by people ascending from the parking garage, and these people would come upon him and pass by him so quickly, they wouldn’t have the time to register his existence and think about giving him money before they were already past  him, above him.   And besides, there is an inherent awkwardness about stairwells –  an intimacy in the tightness of the space. Very few people would stop in such a small, confined place, to dig in their pockets to give money to a stranger.

It was all wrong.  But I think he cared more about not being seen and exposed to too many people, than being in the best begging location.  I think he chose his spot because it offered a bit of psychological protection that he otherwise was sorely lacking.

When our eyes met I felt like we had a whole conversation

“you don’t belong here, do you?”

“No and I don’t want to be here”

“what are you doing here then?”

“It was the only thing left to try”

From this small moment of contact, of connection, he let me into his world a little bit, mainly because he has not yet learned how not to be so emotionally available, how to put up the walls and stop caring what people think.

And in my imagination, this is what I saw, this is how I envision him:

He is not homeless but lives in an apartment with other family members – probably an apartment far too small for all the people who live there.  He is probably college educated.  Maybe he didn’t always get perfect grades, but it was a good degree, a respectable degree. But he has never had a job apart from a few part-time things here and there that fell through.  He has tried for over a year to get a job.  None of this friends have jobs either.  He has gotten to a point where it feels pointless to keep trying because of one simple fact – there aren’t any jobs to be had.  But he feels so guilty – his mother’s part-time job was just axed, and his grandparents’ pensions are helping to support them both, not to mention his siblings.  He hates knowing he is taking away from anyone, at an age when he should be at least providing for himself, and the older people in his family should be comfortably retired. Instead the entire family is cramped, stretched, barely getting by.  So he has decided to spend his days begging for change, trying to take the burden off of those older, hunched, tired shoulders.  This wasn’t how it was supposed to be…

Now obviously I can only imagine his situation, I do not really know. All I know is the impression he gave me – he did not look like someone who had met with some horrible tragedy or addiction that drove him into the streets.  He didn’t look at all crazed.  He looked sober and serious and embarrassed.  He looked like someone who was fully ready and able to go out and live his life, responsibilities and all, but for some reason, some twist of fate, of the economy, of the world, his adult life has not been allowed to begin, at least not in the way he would have expected.

I’m sure it sounds like I am romanticizing this man and his situation…but I am not imagining anything that is farfetched…in fact statistically speaking it’s a highly probable scenario.

Try for a moment to wrap you head around this statistic: As of June, 2012 the unemployment rate for  people under the age of 25 in Spain was a shocking 52.7%.  The general unemployment rate is also horrible, at 24.8%, the worst in the European Union.

So, given that one in two people under the age of 25 who are trying to get work have not been able to, it is not at all farfetched to imagine this twenty-something year old sitting in a stairway is one of the millions of young Spaniards who have tried, and tried, and tried again to find work but failed.

To further extrapolate, imagining he is living in tight circumstances with his family is not such a stretch either – as this seems to be the common storyline according to this recent NYtimes piece on the subject:  Spain’s Jobless Rely on Family, A Frail Crutch

***

With one in two young people out of work, protest has been a popular way to pass the time in Spain.

Los Indignados camped in Bilbao

A protester tending to a community garden created by the Indignados in center of Bilbao

Protesters in Pamplona

Protest rally in Bilbao

Protest in paint on the rooftops of Barcelona

A young American student I know recently went on a trip to Spain and saw protesters camped in cities there.  He told me how interesting it was to see how much Occupy Wall Street had spread around the world.  Oh you charming American youth, always assuming everything starts in the US!  But you see, before anyone was occupying any part of the United States, streets of Spain were being occupied by the “Indignados”, The Indignant, who were inspired in part by the Arab Spring.  Their protests shook Europe, and arguably inspired some of the protest organizers in none other than Wall Street.  From the perspective over here last fall, it looked like the Indignado movement was spreading West, spreading all the way to the US of all places.  But things always look different from within the US, within the bubble, the fishbowl.  With this magical, particularly American slight-of-hand, everything always seems to have started there, even all the things and ideas that we lift from other places.  But that’s the US – take an idea and refurbish it, tweak it, improve it, buff it up and resell it as an original.  Even US protesters seem to have remarkable marketing and branding skills, because although they may have arrived a little later to the party, Occupy became the symbol of a global complaint, and the word Occupy is now being carried on signs all over the world, even by the Indignados of Spain.

***

Something has gone horribly wrong in Spain – but what exactly caused it and who is to blame is a source of constant debate here in Europe.  See for example very different perspectives on this subject:

I am not an economist, and truth be told, the more articles I read, the less I feel I really understand what is going on and why.  Perhaps that is because most economists seem to only marginally understand what is happening to our world in any case, using old models and theories that have nothing to do with today’s globalized reality.

What interests me more I suppose is the bigger picture, and the human reality within that picture.

In 1975, after 40 years of brutal, unbending dictatorship, Spain became free…free to develop, free to be capitalist, free to grow, free to make mistakes. It was hard at first – everything was falling to pieces in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  But then things shifted, and the economy grew.  And then the economy skyrocketed. And Spain prospered.  It was a golden age, the kind parents now tell their teenage children about with misty eyes, where everything finally seemed to be going right.  But what a fickle, capricious word is prosperity in contemporary economics.

There was something beautifully and horribly idealistic about the Spanish boom of the 1980’s.  The brazenness, the bravado, the youthful excitement, the allure of wealth and power and capitalism.   Maybe an arrogance too.

But today’s Spanish youth have none of that arrogance, nor the idealism.

***

A Spanish friend of mine, Mariano, recently posted this on his Facebook wall – a passage (attributed in the post to the famous Spanish graphic humorist, Forges, however it would seem from my research actually written by Spanish Journalist David  Jiménez) that has gone viral in Spain.  This is my own translation:

Maybe the time has arrived to accept that our crisis is more than economic, it goes further than this or that political group, than the greed of bankers or the risk premium.   To assume that our problems won’t end by changing to one party or another, with another set of urgent measures, or a general strike.  To recognize that the principal problem of Spain is not Greece, the euro, or Mrs. Merkel. To admit, in order to try to correct the problem, that we have become a mediocre country.

No country achieves a similar condition to Spain’s overnight.  Nor in three or four years.  It’s the result of a chain that starts at school and ends in the establishment.  We have created a culture in which the most popular students in school are the mediocre ones.  The mediocre are the first to get promoted in the office, are those we are made to listen to most in the media, and the only ones we vote for in the elections, regardless of what they do.  Because they are our own.

We are so accustomed to our mediocrity that we have come to accept it as the natural state of things.  We use the exceptions to this mediocrity, which almost always come down to sports, to deny the evidence.

– Mediocre is a country where its citizens spend an average of 134 minutes a day in front of a television that principally broadcasts garbage.

– Mediocre is a country that has not had one president that spoke English or had some minimum understanding of international politics in its entire democratic history.

– Mediocre is the only country in the world that, in its rotten sectarianism , has managed even to divide associations for the victims of terrorism.

– Mediocre is a country that has reformed its education system three times in three decades, until its students were situated at the bottom of the developed world.

– Mediocre is a country that doesn’t even have a single university within the top 150 in the world and forces its best researchers into exile in order to survive.

– Mediocre is a country with a quarter of the population unemployed, that nevertheless finds more motivation to be outraged when the talking heads of a neighboring country joke about their athletes.

A country is mediocre where the brilliance of others provokes suspicion, and where creativity is marginalized and independence sanctioned.

A country that has made mediocrity the grand national aspiration, unabashedly pursued by those thousands of young people seeking to occupy the next spot in the Big Brother contest, by politicians who throw out insults but don’t provide ideas, by bosses that surround themselves with mediocrity to conceal their own mediocrity, and by students that ridicule their peers for making an effort.

Mediocre is a country that has allowed, encouraged and celebrated the triumph of the mediocre, marginalizing excellence to the point where one is left with two options:  leave or be swallowed up by the unstoppable tide of grey mediocrity.

***

In reading and translating this, I admittedly feel it’s a bit hard on poor old Spain…especially given that my country, the good old US of A, most certainly meets and exceeds most of the qualifications for mediocrity as put forth by this author.  That being said, I think that the most powerful and insightful criticism generally has to come from within. And whether you blame mediocrity or call it by another name, there is a crisis in Spain, and people are most certainly leaving.

2011 was the first year in Spain’s history when more people left the country than entered it, according to the Spanish National Institute of Statistics (INE).  Young Spaniards looking for opportunities are leaving the country in droves.     In fact I have met many young Spaniards here in Pau, studying at the university, looking for jobs, biding their time.  They are smart, kind, fun, open and interesting.  These are the people who are coming to be known as Spain’s Lost Generation.  They are drifting, waiting to land.

One of my favorite people here in Pau is just such a person.  Mariano (mentioned above), from Albacete, did a Master’s degree in Environmental Science, never found work in Spain and ended up in Pau for a while because his long-term girlfriend is from this region and she was doing a Master’s degree here.  He didn’t find work in Pau, and has been living in a beach town about an hour from here, working as a waiter since June.

It was his birthday last Sunday, so we decided to drive out to the coast and invade the restaurant he’s working in to bring him a cake.  Mariano is one of the most likable people I have met in my life.  It’s hard for me to imagine a person who wouldn’t be charmed by him – he is genuine, quirky in a fun and light-hearted way, tremendously warm-hearted and has an amazing knack for getting along with basically everyone, somehow putting them at their ease.  You can imagine – he makes a phenomenal waiter. Not quite the same as working in environmental science though…

He works from 2 PM till 11 PM with no more than a small meal break, and the rest of the time he’s running.  Some nights he works well past 11 PM and into the early hours of the morning, but doesn’t get paid any extra for the time he puts in.  But he says he can’t complain – his bosses gave him a free place to live above the restaurant. He’s not in a position to protest.

Mariano hasn’t had a single day off since the beginning of June. Sunday, his 26th birthday was no exception.  It’s a very busy restaurant and the clientele, from what we observed, are quite demanding.   He spent his 20-minute dinner break with us, and also managed to sneak away now and again, finding little quiet moments to chat with us in between meeting customer needs.  He told us the sad news – he had applied to three Master’s Degree programs in France, and had been told at the beginning of the summer that he’d been accepted to his program of choice, which included free tuition.  However, a week ago he was sent notification that in fact he will not be taken into the program.  No explanation, no nothing.  No more degree.  No idea what to do now.

It is heart-breaking to see such an amazing, intelligent, good person with so many excellent skills and attributes so adrift.  And not for a lack of trying, not for a lack of taking risks and attempting to make things happen.  But time is passing and his degree is getting older and colder, and he is getting no work experience in his field.  What will this mean for his options in the future?  It is a hard thing to be 26 and have no useful work experience.

He has no idea what he is going to do now…his job on the beach will end in early September, perhaps he’ll look for another job waiting tables in Bayonne.  His girlfriend will be done with her masters in 6-12 months…he’ll try to take odd jobs here and there, somewhere in the region and get by.  And then?  Maybe they’ll move to Latin America because the jobs are plentiful there at the moment and the economy is booming.

Surprised?  As Europe decays, Latin America is in a surprisingly stable position.  Let’s take an example – Colombia, an absolutely lovely country, which also has a stable and growing economy – with a real GDP growth rate of 4% in 2010, and 5.9 % in 2011, and current unemployment at 10%.  This compared to Spain with real GDP growth of -0.1% in 2010, 0.7% in 2011 and -1.8% so far in 2012 and unemployment at nearly 25%.

After all the floods of immigration from Latin America to Spain over the last decades, after all the racism and prejudice this inspired in the native Spanish population, the tide has turned and their youth are now finding that the Americas could hold the promise of opportunity in a new world, an escape from a dying, decaying one.  Spanish youth will arrive on the new continent, many helpless and hoping for work of whatever kind, just some kind of opening, some opportunity, exiled from their own impoverished world.  How quickly things change.

***

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like the following posts:

*Taken Captive By Spain

*Protest: Egypt, France, Venezuela

*Caracas:  Rotten Town

Bitter Fruit

•June 8, 2012 • Leave a Comment


Saturday morning.  It is a sunny, mild day, everything you might demand from early June.  We walk into Les Halles, into the bustling farmers’ market section of the building and the first thing that grabs my attention is a man selling watermelons.  He has about 10 left – the deep green kind, round and reminiscent of bowling balls.  I am thrilled – the first watermelon of the summer.

As they are heavy we decide to do our other fruit and vegetable shopping first and circle back to buy watermelon on our way home.  When we return to the stand there is just one whole watermelon and one half remaining.  I feel lucky that we got there in time.

A middle-aged woman with an early tan, wearing sunglasses and a grim look articulated through the slight jowls formed between her closed mouth and her decisively extended chin, is arguing with the watermelon man.  She points to the remaining half-watermelon insistently, and he repeats that it is not possible to sell her that half, as it has already been sold to someone else.  She says that she wants that half, as it will be sweeter than the large, uncut watermelon still remaining.  She looks absolutely sure of herself.  There is no doubt, no possibility that the remaining whole watermelon will be “sucré” like THAT half is “sucré,” the half the man is denying her. She has a look that says she knows watermelons, and the man can’t fool her into buying an inferior one.

We interrupt the standoff and ask to buy half of the whole remaining watermelon.

The man deftly slices through it and weaves his hand slightly in the process, removing a delicate tranche from the center.  He hands it to the woman to sample.  He smiles easily, warmly, confidently, as though saying she need only try it to understand.

Her face remains impassive, her eyes hidden behind her reflective sunglasses. She grasps the green rim of the translucent slice and brings it to her mouth.

Time freezes for me in that moment.  In my childishness I expect the watermelon to work magic.  I expect the age, the weariness, the depression, the dissatisfaction – her constant nagging sense that nothing is quite right or quite good enough, to melt from her face as the pink flesh hits her taste buds and she remembers it is summertime, and everything is really alright after all.  Watermelon!

She bites down.

She purses her lips tightly and makes a slight frown.  Then she shrugs simultaneously with her mouth and with her shoulders.  Bof.  One of the most French of all gestures.

And then she turns her back on the marvelous fruit and walks away, looking triumphantly unimpressed.

We carry our half watermelon home, the very watermelon the woman has just scorned.  I think – well even if it isn’t really sweet, I’m happy to have it. How can I complain, after not having had ANY watermelon since last fall? I’m excited anyway, even if it isn’t as sucré as it could be. It marks the beginning of summer.  Watermelon season!

We get home and cut the piece in half, putting one section in the fridge and splitting the other half between us.  David takes a knife and fork and I take a spoon and we each cut into our pieces and begin to eat.  After seeing the French woman’s complete repudiation of the quality of this melon, I almost expect it to be flavorless or squishy – subpar somehow.

But the flesh is bright and juicy, tangy and delicious.  It is not at all mealy but firm and cool. It has both crunch and tenderness.

And it is one of the sweetest watermelons I have ever tasted.

***

Maybe I was overcome by the concept of the re-arrival of watermelon, and was unable to recognize the grim reality – that the watermelon was not perfect. It could be that after having not tasted watermelon all year, I no longer was able to compare it accurately to all the sweet watermelons that have come before it, and know how it ranked.  It’s possible that it COULD have been slightly better somehow. All I know is that it was no challenge at all to enjoy.

But perhaps my senses are not refined enough to really know watermelons, like the woman who found within her first bite of watermelon of the summer, not sweetness, but the taste of dissatisfaction (with the watermelon, with the weather, with her husband, her children, her life, and with the present and future of the French nation) and a hint of the unmistakably bitter flavor of the futility of existence.

I thought it was delicious.

Note:  I am starting a new blogging project in addition to the Annotated Zoetrope, where I will be posting much shorter ideas.  It’s a different concept, which is intended to be complementary to this blog.  Please check it out and follow it if you are interested:       The Gesture Hunter:     http://thegesturehunter.wordpress.com

Ten Rupees

•March 28, 2012 • 3 Comments

Some years ago…

We are in India, driving deep into the state of Karnataka, the Land of Monkeys. I stare out the van window at the strange, lunar landscape, that seems to emerge straight from myth.

The hilly horizon, sprinkled with vague green underbrush, effuses faded shades of reddish-browns, and beiges. Tawny boulders, some small, some like elephants, are strewn in every direction. Whole hills are made of these massive rocks, like a giant’s child has been playing there, piling them into haphazard bastions and pyramids.

In the ancient Indian legend, the Ramayana, the 10-headed king Ramana kidnaps the hero Rama’s beloved wife. Rama’s loyal servant, the monkey god Hanuman, gathers an army of monkeys to fight an epic war against Ramana’s army of demons.

It is said that Hanuman had the power to lift mountains with a single finger. It is said that in the battle that ensued, boulders the size of houses were flung through the air like pebbles. It is said that the land was torn to pieces in the fight.

It is said that this battle took place in what is now Karnataka.

We arrive in the village of Hampi, exit the van into the thick, sultry air, and are immediately descended upon by a horde of thin, brown-skinned boys. While their heights and ages vary, they all wear oversized buttoned linen shirts and clutch postcards that they push in our faces.  They chant, “Only 5 rupees, only 5 rupees!”

They follow us down the wide bazaar of little shops, full of trinkets. We can already see part of the temple in the distance, beige and ornate, crawling languidly upward into a point where it pierces the gathering monsoon clouds.

We march down the avenue past the occasional sprouting palm tree towards the temple.   We make a comical parade: harassed looking American students trailed by Indian boys who tumble around us, yelling without pause, “Only 5 rupees, madam these are very nice, you want them please!”

The guard shoos the boys away as we enter the ruins, where the quiet adds weight to the humidity.

We are told a rich, tragic history by a distracted looking man with a droning voice: In the 14th century, this was the heart of the Vijayanagra kingdom, wealthy and opulent. Then it was attacked and conquered. The echo of clashing weapons still bounces along the corridors of the broken city.

In the corner of the temple chained to a column, an elephant with eyes half-closed is standing,  covered in faded, cracked paint of many colors. If you pay the guard a few rupees, you can feed the elephant some peanuts. Pay a few rupees more and you can have your picture taken on top of it.

While other students take turns clambering onto the beast and smiling for the camera, I walk alone past the famed stone chariot and lose myself in the dusty corridors. The ornate columns holding up the archways snake upward and then spread outward like the few gnarled trees that have somehow nested into the stone, bringing a bit of quiet life into the ruin.

We leave the temple just as the rains begin to pour, and bustle inside a neighboring establishment for a steaming lunch of rice and daal. Then we sit in silence drinking spiced tea, wrapped in cloaks, while we wait for the rains to lighten and finally cease.

The moment we exit the restaurant, the boys flock to our sides, postcards in hand. Their persistence rattles me after the melancholy serenity of the temple and the rainfall that seems to have washed away all other life from the streets of the town.

They are stuck to me. They circle in closer and closer. I am feeling desperate, so I give one particularly insistent boy with a clever, mischievous look, a 10-rupee bill and choose two random postcards from his stack.

After taking my money, he looks through the cards one at a time, and finally pulls one out – a beautiful photo of the river that winds right past the village. He hands it to me with a smile. “A gift,” he says.

But then the other boys crowd in and start clamoring for me to buy, buy, buy.

Exasperated, I tell them I have no more money. They smirk. I promise them I have no more money. They have heard it all before, and press in closer to me. I plead with them to believe that I truly have no more money. Their faces are hard, calculating, strangely adult, and their shrewd eyes follow my hand as I open my wallet and show them every part of it.

They see for themselves that it is empty.

Then they laugh, tension melting from their faces, and they become children again.

They ask me questions about where I am from and why I am here. They are eager to know and eager to share.

I ask the mischievous boy why they sell so many postcards that are not pictures of Hampi.  He says what is on the postcard does not seem to matter so much, and that people who come through the village always want to buy pretty pictures of things they have not seen.  I ask them where they get their postcards, and they tell me they are from a factory not so far away.  They buy them for three rupees each, which means that for every 10 postcards they sell they make 20 rupees, or about 60 cents.

The boy looks 11 but he is 14. “But what about school?” I ask, and he says he has taken some school. He can read and write. He tells me he has an eight year-old sister, and he wants her to be able to take some school too. That is why he sells postcards.

Joined by three of the boys, I hike up the hill above the main square as the sun, glowing orange, descends. We sit in silence side-by-side, watching the river beyond the town snake through the shadows, as companions.

Sensational Zaragoza Street Art

•March 21, 2012 • 18 Comments

One of the great perks of living in Pau, France, is how close we are to Spain.  In December I spent two days exploring the northern Spanish city of Zaragoza.  I was particularly struck by the wealth of amazing street art and graffiti that lit up what would otherwise have been dark, cold winter streets; it was bright, bold and bizarre in the best way, and to be discovered all over the city in the both the smallest and broadest of spaces.

 

 

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