30 December 2009

Babel - or the art of staying sane as a polyglott

You know you learn to many languages if...

- You speak at least two languages - in the same sentence.
- You ask yourself things like, what is "deja" again in French?
- You start doing stenography in character-based languages because it's so much faster.
- You own all the volumes of Harry Potter books multiplied by the number of languages you speak.
- Spanish and Indonesian sounds the same and therefore "dan" keeps popping into your head instead of "y" and "dia" instead of... what is it again?! "El(la)"?
- You say "Bom" but 98% of the sentence is Spanish.
- You can have a political debate with someone who only speaks Portuguese while you only speak (broken) Spanish and you both understand each other!
- In Indonesian class, when you can't think of the verb in Indonesian, if in doubt, try German then image how a Dutch person would say it and maybe you're right!
- You're annoyed that when you have finally got yourself not to confuse a map with a folder (since the German word for folder is "Mappe"), the Indonesian "map" (sic!) becomes a folder again! Argh!!!

"I only speak English!"
I remember a time when I was at the first meeting of the year of the infamous and popular SOAS world music choir. It usually attracts 100+ students to gather weekly to learn new songs from different parts of the world, always in foreign languages (African, Bulgarian, Swedish, Maori...), by repetition in several voices. The instructor invited us to introduce ourselves to each other by going round and saying our name, where we're from and what languages we speak (let's hope nobody discovers this as recruiting ground...). A lot of people were from the European continent but also from some parts of Asia or British. It makes for an interesting survey. Most spoke on average three languages, usually their native, English and another foreign language. Perhaps since it's SOAS, there weren't a few who spoke four up to seven languages, especially among the South Asian members of the choir. Among the British, half "only speak English". The other half either spoke one or two continental languages or a clearly SOAS-related language. One English person emphasised defensively that she spoke English sign language.

"J'en ai sudah un" and "Je suis masih di toilettes" - French/Indonesian:
The lady whom I was trying to converse with from the Institut Francais must have thought I had a logopaedic predicament for I spent an awful lot of time chewing out sentences, spending several seconds on thinking about what I wanted to say before I said it and how to structure the sentence accordingly when all I needed to do was to blurt like I would normally do in English or even German (is blurt transitive?). That's when I realised that Indonesian syntax has firmly colonised my brain and firmly overridden well-trodden pathways, like a snow caterpillar the traces of skis that have carved down the piste in hundreds. I also had to fight against (loud!) voices in my head prompting to say things like "Merci, mais j'en ai sudah un", because I just could not recall the word for "already" in French, strangely enough. On the other hand, sudah is a nearly ubiquitous word. It's like having to add, "I do/I don't" if an English speaking person asks you a yes/no question. In Bahasa Indonesia (BI), the answer to the same question would more often than not require you to indicate whether you have "already done" sth or "not yet".

I was forcing each French phrase out of my brain as Indonesian language requires advance thinking of what you are going to say, for example due to different affixes and other changes depending if the word is transitive or intransitive. Another thing to consider before speaking a sentence is shifting object and subject around and altering words if you speak in object focus form which for some reason "is what is done a lot (by) Indonesians". I am starting to get the feeling how tough it must be to learn German as a second language. The elderly beautiful lady walking with an air of classic elegance who was supposed to gauge my course level listened patiently and quietly while in my head, I heard the loud groan of a polar icebreaker laboriously crunching its way forward - inch by inch.

So I go to this class reunion/Christmas party and start talking to my friend's Brazilian boyfriend who only speaks Portuguese and a little English. It was the first time we got to really chat ever since I arrived so I asked him a lot of stuff about Brazil, as I have never been and pretty much all I know about this beautiful country I know from my friend's adventures while there and perhaps a little about labour rights and markets from the Enlazandos Alternativas summit back in Vienna a few years ago. My chance to brush up the gaps in my knowledge and learn something new about another place in the world! After like half an hour of me asking questions about Brazil in broken Spanish (and I guess, improvised German sign language every now and then) and him replying in Portuguese, I learned to my astonishment quite a lot about labour syndicates and Brazil's relationship to its neighbours and development and realised suddenly that there was a round of classmates staring, fascinated.

I also had another multilingual experience at my family's Christmas party when I spoke to my uncle's Indonesian girlfriend in BI who nearly dropped the phone when I started "Selamat tahun baru! Saya bisa berbicara bahasa indonesia!" (Happy new year! I can speak Indonesian!) which my mother - never before having heard much Indonesian before - jokingly interpreted, "Baha sa Indonesia?" (in Tagalog, "It is flooded in Indonesia?")

Mnemonics rule!
It's not that hard to learn a non-European language, especially if there are loads of loan words you are already familiar with. You can always use friends and family for help - I for example have a Dutch friend staring at the lamp in his bad quality fridge wearing a skirt who then takes an envelope out of his bag. He remembers he has to drop by his office to put it in a drawer before he goes to the cinema (lampu, kwalitas, kulkas, rok, amplop, tas, kantor, laci, bioskop; in order of appearance). Meanwhile, my Filipino auntie is preparing for church on Sunday, puts on her best shirt takes some cheese from the table and a volleyball from the closet and puts both into the car (gereja, Minggu, kemeja, keju, meja, bola, lemari, kereta).

Learning BI is challenging but I enjoy it a lot. It's much easier if you screw the class textbook and write your own grammar. I would love to publish the first(-and-a-half) paedagogically modern language book (there is one book which is very good already but costs £40!) which will surpass all the old-fashioned 1950s-1980s books in revenue and kick them off the shelves and mejas for good! I guess if I don't envisage a career in teaching, then that's an incentive for me to push my Indonesian language skills!

And for those of you who think they are fluent enough in German, check out this video where endless German euphemisms live up to the language's reputation!

P.S. Sorry about missing special characters in the roman languages, I can't be bothered copy/pasting them right now!

28 December 2009

Save the Christkind!

A few weeks ago I received a strange message from a friend of mine based all the way in NYC: "What is christ-kind and how can I become Austrian??" to which I replied, albeit with some delay for the news of revived Christkind activism in Austria only reached me when I was googling for good English descriptions to include in my reply.

"The Christkind is the good spirit that makes sure you get wooden logic puzzles, bended log deco art or organic ripened cheese with alpine cow milk or self-made organic mango&sallow thorn jam for Christmas instead of iPods, Wiis and a netbook!

You can become Austrian by learning five things: How to play a classical instrument (or two), how to ski, how to appreciate the taste of Austrian wine, how to bake (you get more credit if you know the different nuances in the taste of Apfelstrudel depending which secret spices you add to the recipe) and of course, you need to campaign in your country of origin
a) for the Christkind
b) against Sound of Music and ...
c) for quality free public health care.

Then sit on your application for some 10-odd years until you may be awarded an Austrian passport.

The fast track is to man a Christmas stall for a whole Austrian winter week at -15°C for eight hours straight for seven days in a row on a traditional Christmas market and come out of this alive.

Of course, in either case, if you are seen yielding an umbrella against the snow (like the clueless British like to do), you forfeit your eligibility and will be deported straight to Northern Scandinavia to learn how to deal with snow and ice, after being detained on a Tyrolian mountain village for a few weeks, with Sauerkraut on the daily menu!!!"

The good news is that despite travel chaos, I got to have my first proper (read: white with all the paraphernalia) Christmas in at least three years and was completely over the moon! I went completely crazy on the Christkindlmarkt (traditional christmas market)!

The day after I arrived, my sis took me to the one on the Freyung, a place in the core of the city centre where the Christkindlmarkt (Santa Claus banned!) usually has an emphasis on domestic organic food and other products such as:
  • Hand-stirred marmelade with interesting taste (mango-sallow thorn, apple&ceylon cinnamon and cherry-banana-cinnamon; as well as banana&white chocolate spread)
  • Sage wine (good to keep warm and the cold away!)
  • Drinking chocolate to die for - apparently sth we're famous for, according to a conversation I had with an English guy (also available at Cybercandy's in Covent Garden for those of you based in London). At the stall you could buy the chocolate itself as a gift or pick a flavour of your choice from a menu and have it prepared with a hand whisker. Imagine doing that for a whole day at -15°C. At least you get to move around, other people (wo)manning their stalls just sit there with a blanket or hugging a portable radiator.
  • Hot organic pear wine - a delicious poem! And not sweet at all, just the taste itself :)
  • Nutty hard cheese made with Tyrolean alpine milk

  • Shaped (=turned) log bowls and other things made of large log - beautiful.

  • Gingerbread hearts and gingerbread in all shapes, paintings and sizes
  • Roasted nuts of your choice (almonds!!!)
  • Mohnstrudel (an Austrian baked poppy roulade)
  • Styrian apples (apparently, there is an "apple trail" in Styria which you can follow to learn more about the farming and processing of apples; it also is the state Schwarzenegger comes from and no, I don't know if there is a Schwarzenegger museum)
  • Styrian pumpkin seed oil (the second specialty the region is famous for - therefore also dubbed "the green gold"), filled into hand-labelled decorative bottles
  • Wooden caterpillars, logic puzzles and other toys for kids.
  • All kinds of hand-made products made of rose: rose mustard, rose soap, rose peeling, reviving rose eye treatment, rose vinegar, rose pepper... Yeah, I did consider too giving the rose mustard a try but the farmer said that due to the limited number of roses, he can't give away free samples but I could try and imagine the taste ("think of roses and let it linger on your tongue" was the exact enthusiastic suggestion of the visionary; I replied that, "I still have the taste of cheese I bought from the stall opposite on my tongue" )
  • Yellow candles made of pure beeswax, (hand-)rolled or molded into all kinds of shapes

In another Christkindlmarkt focussing more on arts & crafts, I found a Thai (!) woman/artist selling ingenious necklace pendants, earrings and hair stuff made of woven coloured and uncoloured bamboo fibre that is shaped or even tied into knots that look like stars or hearts.

In yet another market we pilgrimaged to, we saw/had:
  • Flat bread on demand fresh from a fire oven with topping of your choice together with mulled wine
  • Pony-pulled cart driving you and/or your kids around the park
  • The most beautiful hand-painted and Christmas tree balls made of hand blown glass which unfortunately you can't possibly bring with you when you travel (to bring Christmas with you wherever I go in the world, especially if I can't be in Vienna at that time), so I settled for a small solid tea light holder made of painted glass instead.

At home we had a GIGANTIC turkey and I was spoiled with an array of traditional Christmas cookies (vanilla crescents, miniature linzer cookies) self-made with spelt flour and brown sugar (the healthy variant!) by my sis and a chocolate advent calendar taller than most children by my mum. Bliss galore!!!

19 December 2009

London-Vienna by Coach or: European Odyssey

It's a coach journey. Of course there's inconveniences about it but I had two, actually three very good reasons not to take the plane as usual:

  1. Privacy gets so invaded, that I am getting more and more freaked out about security checks on UK airports. Sometimes, they take pictures of you when you enter the duty free area and scan your ticket along with it, so they can check both again when you enter the gate. No visible notice whatsoever was in Gatwick airport about what the hell that was about and how it is legally justified and whether and if so, for how long your picture will be held on record.

    In the summer, they also introduced new legislation that you are only allowed one single item of cabin luggage per person which means that the laptop I used to take with me suddenly became was categorised as an extra item without any warning (the airline you're flying with could notify you that regulations had changed, as a lot of people won't be following the UK news if THEY ARE ON HOLIDAY ABROAD). Also, it is totally ridiculous, as in one of the busiest airport hubs in the world, Frankfurt, they too manage to scan all your cabin luggage AND let you into your plane in time. It's about technology but then the British were never good at engineering, now were they? Also, if I was to refer anybody taking my picture to the ECHR Article 8, they would probably refuse me entry AND get the police to subject me to a Section 44. Seriously, I'm not joking. Although Article 8 does accommodate exceptions in the interest of national security, I think the way this “loophole” is used shows that the UK is not trying hard enough to find other ways in order to upheld people's liberty by interpreting the Article in spirit and thereby accommodating civil rights. If the UK turns into an authoritarian police state, in which ways does it then differ from those states it goes on war against? The latest clou was also, that in Manchester airport the “x-ray machine for humans” is already on trial!!! If Orson Wells was still alive, he'd probably be an enemy of the state. Who knows, in a parallel universe, the population of a peaceful democratic state of Burma would probably stand up in solidarity, waving “Support the civil rights defenders' protest in the UK!” signs into the global cameras...

  1. Climate change needs to be taken seriously. Since a person I know from Switzerland tends to take the train from London to Geneva, I thought: Vienna is not that much further and it would be cool to set an example for my friends and family that it is indeed feasible. The train does it too, folks! Except I did not get affordable tickets for the Eurostar at Christmas anymore. Then again, that turned out to be a good thing for as soon as I arrived in Vienna, I saw the reports on TV that the Eurostar was stuck for 15 hours without anybody making announcements at all.

  2. It is good value as well. Often when I told people I was taking the coach, the first thing they say is, “But taking the plane is so much cheaper!!!” meaning why pay £70 if you could pay £45 and arrive so much faster. That's a typical response in the UK where mostly, everything is about profit and personal gain. How selfish. And it also shows how dominant low-fare flying is in people's consciousness and way of life. After the recession, savings went “back” to investing in gold, bonds and storing cash at home. Wait until the planet's climate gets really bad. Then the people who today smirk at (smart) people who believe climate change requires minor adjustments in the domestic sphere that benefit us all, will suddenly take the train and ferry from London to Mallorca.

But let me tell me about my (rather adventurous!) coach journey!

6.30am GMT I left the house, the sky skill dark. It had started to snow just two days before in London, to the glee of many a Londoner. I was happy too but already wondered what it would mean for my coach journey, as if it is a British bus, it is unlikely it will have winter tyres.

The new Kings Cross underground passageway on the Pentonville Road side is beautiful, especially as the ad signs are empty yet and no idiots have vandalised the white, marble-like tiled walls yet. The floor tiles are like those in St Pancras, a light grey and the whole place well-lit by some minimalistic neon-lights in simple but stylish long suspenders. Finally, some architects used space as part of their design and there even is a piece of art embedded into a wall. Probably best about it is that there now is brand-new escalator on the Pentonville Road end of the Piccadilly platform, so that finally, the people heading for Victoria “only” have to carry their suitcases down a short flight of stairs to the Victoria line platform anymore whenever they change. The whole thing really is more friendly towards people with trolleys or wheelchairs. The only annoying thing is that at the moment, it is also the only link to the Northern line, as due to engineering works moving on to it, you now have to walk through half of central London underground only to change to the Northern line!

8.15am GMT We're scheduled to leave Victoria Station, I'm so glad that the two mothers with babies who arrived panting at the bus at the last minute, actually mistook our bus for theirs. I sit in the very first row and get to enjoy the great view all on my own. The driver, a perhaps 50-odd Flemish no-nonsense down-to-earth continental man and really relaxed, keeps telling people running to our bus to “take it easy”. He radiates calm efficiency and will prove all his qualities later for he managed to keep everyone's spirit up despite the snow chaos on the streets we don't yet know anything about.

Having napped only three hours that night, the rhythmic movements of the bus quickly put me to sleep after the initial hour and a half it takes to drive out of London and which I used to admire the sights along the Thames, St. James, Westminster, the City, Canary Wharf, Tower Hamlets. I wake up a little bit later, to see that we were stuck in a really. slow. traffic jam. on the snowy highway. From my pole position, I could hear the frequent radio announcements. That there are severe delays on the M20 near Leeds, due to three trucks having an accident. We hardly ever moved AT ALL. The traffic jam was EPIC. I picked out my mobile Facebook and posted just that to pass the time, checking out our position on my phone GPS. It was already noon and we were only halfway to Dover!!! At one point, I even saw a girl getting out of the car and making a snow man!!! In the end, we arrived in Dover, at last and entered the Eurotunnel site. There are like, ten lanes open with booths on either side, depending if the driver's seat is on the left or on the right. For some reason, our bus driver always took the lane with the booth's window facing the continental car's door on the right, so he had to climb out of his seat every time. At every step, he would mention that he already had three hours delay and we must make it onto the next train as the next two would not take any buses. The people giving us the letter of our train are friendly and put us straight onto the next one. The bus driver says (among other things), “We have finally managed to get here and the French let us onto the next train, at 2.50pm. Late is late and I thought I give you the opportunity to stretch your legs, have some fresh air and get something to eat, buy something to drink. Therefore, we will stop at the Eurotunnel shopping centre, please everyone be back in 20min at 2.30pm so we can get onto our train. Please do not be late.” Since we were all longing for refreshments, having not rested at all on the highway to my knowledge, it was really great to have that break and buy some water, use the loo and breathe some fresh air actually. I look onto my watch. Five and a half hours from London to Dover, can you believe it!!! 20min later, we follow the huge sign “France”, freshly inserted by three contractors who look unhappy with the sign, to get out of the parking lot and across to the ramps. The sign is askew, and the guys wave at us as if to say, “Nooo! Don't follow this sign” while we were halfway past it already. The driver breaks and reverses. We all laugh, me thinking the sign was wrong. Turns out, we nearly forgot two English people. A Dutch Sri Lankan guy said he saw them eating and would go run and get them but as soon as he was out of the bus, the two came from around the shopping centre and apologised to everyone in the bus for being late. We move on to the border for passport control. The French policeman collecting all our passports was helpful, hurried up and just returned the passports onto the dashboard for the bus driver said, he would try and return them to us later, as we really needed to get onto that train. Next was a security inspection of the bus. A (naturally) British young girl (perhaps about 18) turns up and rudely orders him, “Sir, I need you to turn off your engine, step out of the vehicle and open the luggage compartments for me”. If the average population does not have common sense then yes, you need to overdo it in order to appear assertive and gain authority. Then again, an 18 year old ordering a collaborative man who could be her young grandfather around in that tone, unprovoked, seems rather badly raised indeed. He hadn't even said anything about the three hours delay yet. So, he climbs out of the car, in come the people searching for traces of whatever. Next stop is luggage inspection. The driver tells us to wait inside just now, he will try and talk to see if “the French” will perhaps let us skip the part. “It is all up to the French now”. Well, the French lad says, definitively but civilly that he has to do his job. “Is there anything you can do, we are already missing this train and the next two don't take any buses. This means we have to wait until five for the next train to take us!” - “Sorry, but I can't do anything” - “I understand, you have to do your job”. The border police lad stays outside while we're waiting for some police officers to arrive and prepare the hut for us to enter. The Flemish driver gets back into the bus, takes the microphone, explains what just happened and can't help but add, “France: Beautiful country, full of the wrong people”. I'm sure the guy must have heard. And so, eventually we have to undergo an inspection of our luggage, we enter the hut, there are only four tables, six officers and no machines. Indeed, it is going to be an old-fashioned manual check. Of course, the French policeman doesn't speak English and won't even attempt to converse with my broken French (at least I'm trying!). Instead, he gets a folder, goes to the German page and lets me read: “Have you got anything to declare? Are you carrying more than 10 000 Euros in cash?” I grin and tell him sarcastically, “No, I wish”. While waiting for the rest to finish, I sit in the bus, overhearing a phone call the driver got from somebody and them both speaking in Flemish about the fact that yes, he is still in Dover. And then sth about the French... After half an hour with everyone back inside the coach, the driver announces that “thanks to the French”, we missed the train and will have to wait until 5pm now. We drive on, expecting to spend two more hours on a car park. The handsome Eurostar guy with the Santa hat who stood on the road and distributed everyone onto different ramps looked at our windshield tag, cocked a comical eyebrow and then looked at his watch in mock surprise when he saw the letter M printed on it (trains had moved on to R) and our driver grunted humoured and shrugged his shoulders in reply as if to say, “I know, tell me about it!”. Against all odds, we get waved onto a ramp after all, “apparently, they changed the programme”. Indeed, there are other buses in front of us on the ramp. The one on the platform right in front of us for example of course does not know how to properly drive into an open carriage. I don't have a license and even I can see he started at the wrong angle or perhaps he was doing this for the first time. Even the sun sets faster than that! It takes him 10 minutes (!) in the end, our driver gets really impatient and the young woman from Eurotunnel supervising the loading, grins at our driver, sharing amusement about the bus in front of us while reporting on her walkie talkie that it's taking a bit longer on her side. Eventually, hallelujah, we make it onto the train. Now it's all about trying to catch up some time to Brussels from where many people were expecting to transfer onto another service, including me. There was the option of going straight but I thought it very smart to book the one with 45min break in Brussels, considering the amount of time spent sitting. Very smart.

Suffice to say, by the time we reached Brussels, the transfer coach to Vienna had already left. At least the streets of Belgium were functioning without problem. Good to be back on the continent where life doesn't stop at the slightest whiff of snow. What to do now? The Eurolines guys were totally efficient and two taxis were already waiting to take those of us who were going to Vienna to Aachen, to chase our bus. Wait, is there an Aachen in Belgium? They can't possibly mean Aachen in Germany – or can they? The taxi driver confirms that indeed, we're going to drive all the way to Germany and meet the bus there! Wow, adventurous! SatNav switched on, we embark on another leg on Belgium's infinitely straight autoroutes and after some 30-45min reach Aachen. The girl whom I share the taxi with and I start a conversation. Turns out she's black Austrian who studies in Warwick. We both are looking forward to the Christkindlmarkt and living decently for two weeks. I told her about my sleeping conditions in the virtual shack I'm living in (you can't call that a house!) and how freezing it is in there despite full heating and that I haven't slept deeply for months. She knows what I'm talking about and bitches too about housing in the UK, how everything is so expensive, how in Austria, even if the heating's not on, the house is warm because they build proper houses. How she told her tutor that in Austria, council houses don't smell. They're really nice, clean and kept in order and sometimes are more value for money than other houses. He didn't believe her! Eventually, we reach Aachen and drive off the highway and through a narrow residential street at 30km/h. I wasn't sure if this was the right way. It was also 11pm at night and it was a bit weird. Then we reached an abandoned parking lot, no lights, only a single sign pointing into the far corner, lit by our headlights, saying, “Krematorium”. Hm. Final destination?!

What irony! The other taxi comes up from behind us; the two drivers debate across the window, “Tu pense que la station est ici? Ils disaient Aachen Chapelle mais je ne vois pas de chapelle, mais il y a seulement un Krematorium.” Both snort in amusement. “Il y a pas de bus ici mais demandons l'homme-là”. A young man who is standing in the light of what looks like a taxi stand or a sausage stall. Indeed, a tiny unlit sign says it's Eurolines. The drivers throw each other a glance and grin again at the stupidity of such an unreadable sign below eye-level somewhere in the outskirts of Aachen next to a Krematorium. Well, the German guy is waiting alright, but for his bus to London. Our driver jokes to us, London, is that where you want to go maybe? It was hilarious. So we park for 10-15min as we can't reach anyone on the phone. Eventually, we get through to the Brussels Office we just came from which gave us the number of the bus driver we're supposed to chase after. The taxi driver then rings the bus driver who is Hungarian, speaks good German but no English. The taxi driver though, speaks little German but good English. So for about ten minutes they try to find out from each other where they are and if they had already left or are still coming. I can't believe this, it is beyond hilarious. Eventually, the taxi driver answers my thoughts, “Est-ce qu'il y a qn. de vous qui peut parler allemand?”, he asks us at the back. “Oui, je peux” and grab the phone right out of his hands, tell the bus driver we are five people and we were delayed three hours due to the snow. The bus driver is very understanding and adds that he too, is three hours delayed and that he waited 10-15min but nobody came so he left because he has three hours delay himself AND the same bus needs to go back to London within the next 24 hours. I ask him where he is, he says he is already after Cologne, direction Frankfurt or Siessburg whatever at a gasoline station. I translate it back, totally boggled by this acute nocturnal translation job.

I hang up. It looks like a dead end, like we're going to spend the night on a dark deserted parking lot somewhere in Germany next to a Krematorium while it is snowing or we accompany the drivers back to the Gare du Sud and wait there for the next bus (probably sometime next day). Taxi driver calls Brussels again who give permission to continue to Cologne. As we turn back into the autoroute, I ask the driver if by any chance he has Vienna on his SatNav as by now the taxi ride must be more expensive than the whole coach journey. Now that we're on the way to Cologne, we might as well go all the way! He finds it funny. We have a great time! Passing Cologne, he suggests I call again to let the bus driver know we're nearly there. The bus driver at last budges and agrees to do a 30min break but tells us to please hurry. At last, we make it. Hallelujah! I thank both drivers profusely on behalf of all the passengers and then, as I am the first person onto the bus, the passengers for waiting, with a short explanation about the snow in London. I think people even if frustrated were generally understanding.

I sat down next to an Eastern European woman who I later realised was seriously ill. She slept a lot, wiped her nose, must have had a sore throat by the sound of her occasional cough, moved very slowly with hunched shoulders and stiffly as if she had a stomach ache (or bug). When she was on the phone, she barely moved her lips and hence spoke in an unintelligible shallow-breathed slur. She seemed very weak and went to the toilet a lot, even asked me to change seat with her, so she could sit next to the aisle. The steps down to the toilet were right next to us. She looked miserable and I was kind of concerned she might eventually collapse entirely.

Several hours later, I awoke to the sight of onion-shaped church towers – Bavaria. There were a lot of cars too on the road, it was fluent. I saw at least five snow clearance vehicles spread out along the way and driving fast, two or three German police vans and/or tow trucks but unlike in the UK, traffic stays in motion throughout, no jams whatsoever. We get a 15min stop at a restaurant and it's so typical German. Double-glazing, thick window and door frames. Solid structure. Even floor tiles. I look for the loo. It's high-tech. I get a ticket with a holograph strip (!) and bar code to say I've paid 50c. I can later have it refunded in the restaurant if I buy anything (which I don't as the WC is cheaper than the Semmel). The toilet cleans itself. The hand-dryers are the same as the new ones at SOAS, the air jet ones. You would never find a rest stop like this in the UK!

15.19 MET Eventually, we reach Austria. What an odyssey!

It is only now that I find out that people were actually stuck in the Eurostar for 15 hours. Guess I'm glad I did not get an affordable train ticket after all...

Pictures from my phone following later!

11 December 2009

Human Rights Day

I have heard from some people have doubts about the sincerety of human rights advocacy as they think it is "a lot of noise but then nothing happens" and consider providing services to victims of human rights abuses as more "useful". I have heard from others that although they were hired by what was supposed to be a human rights advocacy group that they were later told that politics is their real trade. And we all have seen certain Western governments yielding the flag of human rights when accusing other governments to uphold them while at the same time turning a blind eye towards what is happening in their own backyard.

I am writing this not to discredit the concept of human rights but to give you insight into some of the challenges faced...

Some people criticise that human rights is an empty concept. Others (like legal anthropologists for example) criticise its universal applicability, given that it was drafted in 1948 within a predominantly Western context (for a brief intro in some of the issues regarding the moral universalism vs. cultural relativism debate, see this link from Wikipedia). An extrapolation of this is the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights drafted by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) adopted in 1990 and eventually the Arab Charter on Human Rights from 2004. Luckily, there are great opportunities at SOAS and elsewhere to deepen one's knowledge regarding the contested compatibility of Islam and human rights. Yet others push governments in enshrining them in legislation while at the same time pushing states to hold non-state actors legally accountable for human rights abuses as well. And then of course, there is the broader definition of human rights in regards to ESCR (Economic Social and Cultural Rights) and their linkages with Corporate Social Responsibility.

About a month before Human Rights Day, Irene Khan came to SOAS to launch her book Poverty and Human Rights. To her credit, Amnesty's secretary-general said that although she has been credited with it, it is the work of many people. The concept itself, even though it has gained momentum recently, is not an entirely new one and moreover, has been picked up and engaged with by a lot of (I)NGOs, like for example UNESCO's human rights approach.

Having done my duty in human rights education for Human Rights Day, I shall not keep you any longer from the multimedia material from around the world. It was my intention to find documentation about how it was celebrated in different places on different continents (if at all), however, I could not find much presentable and not enough comparable material and so resorted to giving you a bit of Asia and two excellent documentary trailers.

Video by CEO of Asian Human Rights Commission (based in Hong Kong) to 60 years of UDHR last year:

Trailer of Burma VJ:

Armed with small handy cams undercover Video Journalists in Burma keep up the flow of news from their closed country. Going beyond the occasional news clip from Burma, acclaimed director Anders Ostergaard, brings us close to the video journalists who deliver the footage. Though risking torture and life in jail, courageous young citizens of Burma live the essence of journalism as they insist on keeping up the flow of news from their closed country. The Burma VJs stop at nothing to make their reportages from the streets of Rangoon. (www.burmavj.com)

Video reportage about peaceful Human Rights Day celebrations in Malaysia which were stopped by Police before it even started:

Trailer of War Child:

"18th Street Films presents War Child, a feature documentary film on Emmanuel Jal, former South Sudanese child soldier turned international hiphop sensation (ER, Blood Diamond, Live8).

War Child has been in production for over two years and has been shot all over South Sudan including the contested oil fields, the slums of Nairobi, the vast Kakuma Refugee Camp and in New Orleans, DC, and New York.

Please visit our website to learn more about the film and register for updates."

To blend this post off, a few inspiring quotes by notable people:
Vaclav Havel once said, "Genuine politics - even politics worthy of the name - the only politics I am willing to devote myself to - is simply a matter of serving those around us: serving the community and serving those who will come after us. Its deepest roots are moral because it is a responsibility expressed through action, to and for the whole." "Nations will rise and fall, but equality remains the ideal. The universal aim is to achieve respect for the entire human race, not just for the dominant few." (Carlos P. Romulo, Filipino diplomat and called "Mr. United Nations" by Kurt Waldheim)
"I am only one, But still I am one. I cannot do everything, But still I can do something; And because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do."
(Edward Everett, US politician and former president of Harvard University)
Keep the flame alive!

05 December 2009

London swept away by The Wave!

London is swept away by a wave. A wave, as in a democratic tsunami. A wave, as in an figurative heightened sea level threating the shores of many a city, including those co-symbolic of the hegemony of capitalism exclusionary of long-term plans to climate change and to preserve the environment for future generations.
Or so I thought anyways.

The flyer was not very expressive at all, for sure. At first I was under the impression that The Wave was a form of Rhue-inspired literary activism about climate change.

However, the website was definitely more expressive, not to say to the point, very accessible and definitely conveying the peacefully demanding spirit of what was pitched as UK's biggest climate march in the run up to the Copenhagen climate summit. Organised by a cross-spectrum coalition (Oxfam, CAFOD, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, WWF, Tearfund, UNICEF UK, the World Development Movement among the biggest names), the whole thing is simple. Meet at a time on a day in a place and dress blue! Great Sunday out with the kids, or just a great time with like-minded people who will all stand up to deliver a message to Gordon Brown.

Some people even left their homes days ago to cycle or march all the way to London starting from mini-waves in other UK cities! Impressive! When I found out what it was all about, I badly wanted to go to but instead slept through the whole day (literally), catching up on some sleep and consequently missed what will be known in future history books as historic event!

Check out the official video of the Wave (many more all over the internet!):

04 December 2009

World AIDS Day - Living Positively - Positively Alive

December is a festive season - it starts with World AIDS Day (1 December) and is then followed by International Human Rights Day (10 December).

London is a great place to be for World AIDS Day, as people are generally not persecuted for being HIV positive or for their sexual orientation. Also, a hub of people engaged in HIV/AIDS research can be found in London, among them natural scientists, the human rights and development lobbies, students, various groups across the LGBT spectrum and other groups of people standing up in solidarity for those who have been infected with the virus.

Therefore, it was not really surprising to be invited to the launch of the documentary "Courage & Hope" in the Houses of Parliament, organised by the Partnership for Child Development at Imperial College London. The event's keynote speaker was no-one less than former Executive Director of UNAIDS and former Under Secretary-General, Peter Piot (MD PhD) who has moved on to direct the new Institute of Global Health at Imperial College London.

Courage & Hope is a documentary based on a book with the same name collecting the experiences of twelve teachers across Sub-Saharan Africa. The movie highlights four Kenyan teachers who speak about their diagnosis, the stigma they faced from different sides and how they eventually have managed to prevail by engaging in a network of teachers who face similar problems. Some of those teachers featured in the film came all the way from Kenya to attend the launch. The film was first screened at the International Conference for AIDS and STDs in Africa (ICASA) in Senegal last year. The documentary is well worth watching, you find the whole version of it below. If you want to watch the trailer first, then just watch the first 1.30min.

Courage and Hope Video:

I liked the documentary for portraying people living with HIV (or PLHIV as they are sometimes abbreviated to) positively and in charge. In fact I would like to show this documentary to a person I know in Vienna who, despite having a multinational family network and being generally welcoming to people from anywhere, still uses the word Orientalen in what she believes are politically correct intentions and uses exclamations such as "But that's like in the third world!" - And this is a woman who has travelled a lot around Europe but has never even set foot on Africa or Asia beyond the Jordan and South of the Sahara. She admires the natural healing methods from "the third world" but apparently she needs a bit of... enlightenment by a development anthropologist. She was embarassed when I told her but I think that a bit of Bildungsarbeit or awareness raising might not be out of place.

In fact, - tying this to a bigger picture - the reason why the image of development in Austria is the way it is, is because subjects of development work are portrayed as powerless victims who never stop asking for money in catchy TV ads, with no agency of their own and no ability to be entrepreneurs. The "third world" is merged into a single apolitical and ahistorical group represented by a malnourished Sub-Saharan African child with sad dog's eyes appealing for a donation or a sponsorship. Popular causes in Austria (acute wars and disasters excluding) are health (especially the blind), food and sanitation; AIDS not so much and community development is considered a luxury. Sadly, since this figurative child tends to come back year after year, its psychological effect is that the viewers believe that their money does not seem to make a dfference after all.

At SOAS, being the place it is, some societies organised some awareness-raising events and featured a movie movie called Tapologo:

Synopsis: "In Freedom Park, a squatter settlement in South Africa, a group of HIV-infected former sex-workers, created a network called Tapologo. They learn to be Home Based Carers for their community, transforming degradation into solidarity and squalor into hope. Catholic bishop Kevin Dowling participates in Tapologo, and raises doubts on the official doctrine of the Catholic Church regarding AIDS and sexuality in the African context" (from the movie's website)

Tapologo Video:

In Malaysia, AIDS Memorial Day, as it is called there, is celebrated in May. A brief summary with pictures about the events the Pink Triangle Foundation (THE NGO for HIV/AIDS in Malaysia) has organised this year, can be found here. The list includes a cemetery clean-up in Gombak (a "suburb" of KL), a multi-faith prayer with guests such as the Deputy Minister of Women, Family and Community Development (I wonder what the actual Minister was up to), the Vice-Chancellor of the National University (same here) and the Chairman of the PTF; finally, a Candle Ceremony at a Men in Tutus performance with the UN Resident Coordinator for Malaysia

Another event organised by the PTF but mentioned on a separate web page since it took place right before World AIDS Day, is the annual street carnival in Sungei Wang Plaza, a big centrally located shopping mall! Although it was advertised big including TimeOut KL, there are hardly any pictures - probably to provide privacy and ensure outreach. The event: "Last year our 200 volunteers managed to distribute 35,000 Red Ribbons, 30,000 pieces of Safer Sex information and 1,268 people took part in our survey on discrimination towards the marginalised community."

As it is a global event about a global issue, I tried to capture the issue of AIDS in different parts of the world, and since most HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns in the West focus on sub-Saharan Africa where it definitely does claim the most lives, I decided to highlight Southeast Asia instead.

The first video is about HIV/AIDS in Vietnam by a US-American NGO based in Washington D.C., the International Research Center for Women, who to be honest, I have never heard of before. Although it is narrated by what at least sounds like a non-Vietnamese person (for lack of visual reference), and is actually an ad in character, I chose it because it shows how advocacy and awareness-raising look like in practice. Probably due to (fear of) censorship and the strong stigma still prevalent in Vietnam, it was hard to find a video by Vietnam-based civil society group.

The second video is about HIV-positive settlers in Cambodia who were forcibly relocated into what in the global media became known as an "AIDS colony". The news on this broke end of July and news agencies from the Jakarta Post to CNN have covered it, so you might have actually heard about this scandal. Watch the report from Al Jazeera:

In Southeast Asia, the countries with highest estimated prevalence in numbers of infected people aged 15-49 only are:
  • Burma: 240 000 (0.7%)
  • Thailand: 610 000 (1.4%)
  • Vietnam: 250 000 (0.5%)
  • Indonesia (especially Papua): 270 000 but due to its large population, Indonesia's prevalence rate "just" makes up 0.2% of the population
(Source: UNAIDS)
Although of course, numbers can be very impressive, what matters most is the (government) response to the disease (ie to reduce the number of newly infected, raising awareness, providing education for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS), the inclusion of people in society, and last but definitely not least, their access to ART (Anti-Retroviral Therapy) treatment.

The most severely affected country by HIV/AIDS world-wide in numbers is Zimbabwe with 1 300 000 people infected or 15.3%

At last, be safe my friends! It can happen to anyone anywhere!

21 November 2009

10-15 (material) things I wish for this Christmas (or birthday)!

OK, I know what some of you are gonna say: Oh no! Heidi has been gripped by the commercialisation of Christmas now too! In short: that's not true. I refuse to put up Christmas decoration or even THINK about Christmas before mid-November when I personally deem it appropriate and adequate to do so.

When I was still living with my parents, Christmas used to be an opulent affair. Loads of energy went into honing and watering a perfect tree which was sometimes so tall, there was no space anymore to fit a golden star on top. Usually it was accompanied by the disco-decibelled voices of the Russian Don Kosaken choir or the Vienna Sängerknaben or some ancient German-German recording of traditional Christmas music. To balance the five-fold CD changer, my mother and me used to put some Mariah Carey or The Carpenters Christmas CDs in there to the endless chagrin of my father. A lot of frustration and anger also went into the annual self-made family photo shoot, the dreadful result of which would be sent to around 100 friends and relatives around the world. And of course, Christmas would be accompanied by loads of presents - too many! I ended up feeling guilty (and sometimes dissatisfied)! So I eventually told my parents to cut it back - which they did in the end after I insisted for a few Christmases.

Ever since I moved to the UK though, I haven't been around for much of the Christmas period and don't get the excitement from baking (crappy ovens and unfindable ingredients) or from attending Christmas fairs (none-existent, London only has tacky ones that resemble a mini-Prater) to compensate. Also, life in London is so expensive, many students choose not to give each other stuff or decorate their flats or halls (or are prevented from doing so due to health&safety regulations). So I end up missing the joy of opening and exchanging presents, being spoiled for a week and eating loads of hand-made cookies baked by friends and family!

And I also know that in the recent past, people who did want to give me a present have knocked their brains out in a frustrated effort to come up with a gift idea for me because I refused to give out lists to family and friends alike on the grounds that it would make Christmas a simple transaction!

So therefore, without further ado, the 15 short-listed candidates for this year's presents!

1. A History of Modern Burma from £8.96 on Amazon
The book I've been wanting to read ever since KL (and even before I've been eyeing it through the back of my mind)!

"An excellent work that deals with the period from the annexation of Upper Burma by the British in 1886 until the devastation of Cyclone Nargis in 2008. The focus is on the period from the 1930s, as self-government was gained in 1937. Charney, Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at SOAS, is well-qualified to write this work and he offers a careful account, one that is particularly nuanced in its coverage of the civil conflict and totalitarianism of recent years." Jeremy Black, The Historian

2. Freedom from Fear from £2.50 on Amazon (widely available elsewhere)
Aung Sang Suu Kyi's famous publication. Did you know that while she did her BA in New Delhi as well as the renown PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) course in Oxford (renown because it has notoriously produced high-profile national and international politicians - find a list of notable alumni here), she did her PhD at SOAS? :)

P.S. Be careful, there are quite a number of authors using the same title.

3. Chris Patten - Not quite the Diplomat from £5.50 on Amazon

Lauded latest book by former Conservative MP, Minister of Overseas Development, Secretary of State for Environment, Chairman of the Conservative Party, Governor of Hong Kong as well as Austrian Benita Ferrero-Waldner's immediate predecessor as European Commissioner for External Relations. Must-have!

4. The Wisdom of Whores from £3.99 on Amazon
An entire website dedicated to this rather insightful book widely welcomed when it was published in 2008.

About the book:
" [...] The Wisdom of Whores punches holes in many of the orthodoxies that have grown up around HIV. It shows how more premarital sex could lead to less HIV in Asia and Latin America. It points out how dangerous it is for young men in Africa to get married, now that so many young women are bringing HIV into the honeymoon suite. It questions the effectiveness of many of the best funded HIV prevention initiatives. And it does it all with solid science and a wry sense of humour. Author Elizabeth Pisani has spent ten years working as a scientist in the belly of the bloated AIDS industry.

This book unfolds a universe of brothels and bureaucracies, of bickering junkies and squabbling charities, of men who sell sex and men who would rather prohibit it. We’re endlessly told that HIV is about poverty and underdevelopment and human rights. But in the pink neon of Asia’s red light districts, HIV is mostly about people doing dumb things in the pursuit of pleasure or money. We’re just not supposed to say so. The Wisdom of Whores throws political correctness to the winds. It describes how we could shut down HIV in most of the world with a few, simple steps. It suggests that we could do it with less money than we already have. And it explains why we won’t.

This book shows how politics, ideology. and money– lots of money — have bulldozed through scientific evidence and common sense. Transgender prostitutes and drug injectors in Indonesia, policemen and sex workers in Cambodia, UN bureaucrats and ambassadors in East Timor, Christian campaigners in the United States — all appear in the book and have their say about what we should be doing differently. But all, the author included, are trying to sell themselves to the highest bidder. In the AIDS industry, the author concludes, we are all whores. [...]" (from the website)

5. International Human Rights in Context: Law, Politics, Morals (Alston/Goodman/Steiner) from around £18.99 on Amazon
A bit more pricey but it's alright, as it would be mainly for personal reference and I'm sure we got a couple of copies in the library!

6. Triage: Dr James Orbinski's Humanitarian Dilemma - hmmm... I'd say ca. £15 in the UK

Tried to get the SOAS library to get this movie shown at Sundance but back then it was not yet on DVD and so they couldn't find it and nothing ever came of it. Better to have my own copy!

"Triage: Dr James Orbinski's Humanitarian Dilemma follows the powerful odyssey of James Orbinski, a humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize-winning doctor, as he returns to Africa to ponder the meaning of his life's work and the value of helping others.

Drawing on a lifetime of experience deep in the trenches of genocide and famine, this extraordinary man relives the triumphs and tragedies of relief work in Somalia, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Triage will unsettle and move as it pointedly asks disturbing questions at the heart of the humanitarian dilemma. What can any one individual really do to bring peace to those who suffer? Where does humanitarianism end and raw politics begin? How does the sight of unspeakable evil affect the soul? Smartly directed by Patrick Reed, this remarkable film provides no definitive answers, but celebrates the best in the human spirit while staring unblinkingly at the worst." (from Amazon.com)

8. DELF/DALF materials from £0!
If anybody happens to have a copy of a DELF/DALF prep book/kit they want to get rid of, pray pass it on!

9. Solar Charger from £30-60 (widely available)
There are a couple of those around, like this one as an example. Ideally clippable or carabiner-able to a backpack to charge while on the go or just to fix it into the optimal place to soak in the sun! They usually come with a crazy toolbox of adapters, most importantly for me are laptop (USB; streamlining my experience at internet cafes - plug independence and no lassoes!), iPod and Nokia phone plus perhaps digital camera. Doesn't need to be ultralight but don't want to get weighed down while travelling. Oh, and the perfect one would not be bulky but robust enough to withstand minor shocks and must fit snugly into a backpack! *dream on* I honestly don't expect anyone of you guys to spend so much money and do prefer choosing it myself anyway as I do have quite a few minimum requirements for this gadget but if anyone of you sees one of those coming close to the description above at a reasonable price, please send me a link or info!

10. Magno Cube Wooden Radio £175 at the Design Museum (but I believe, available elsewhere too)
*sigh* Probably another unfulfilled dream!

"Hand-crafted in an Indonesian farming village, the Magno Cube is a 4 band FM/AM/SW1/SW2 radio receiver with a highly appealing mix of retro and modern styling.

Each wooden radio is made through an environmentally sustainable production process, which covers fair social standards for workers. The profits from the sale of the radios to the Design Museum Shop support the development of a plantation surrounding the production facility, including the ongoing education of 30 young people in handicraft and work skills.

Only new growth plantation wood is used and for every tree that is used in production, a new one is planted.

MP3 compatible. Each radio arrives with a wooden connecting cable to connect iPods and mp3 players directly to the radio, so it can be used as a speaker." (from Design Museum Shop's website)

11. Liberty T-Shirt £15 + £1.50 directly from Liberty
One of the few causes I advertise on myself for!

12. Arun Ghosh CD £10 + £2.50
Bumped into an open concert while brunching in the City. Had vaguely heard of this jazz prodigy before but now entirely convinced! He's got a website and is also on MySpace. CDs available directly from there!

13. Burma Chronicles £8.98 at Amazon

"The "comic" (I don't want to call it a "graphic novel" because it's not a work of fiction) documents a year that he spent in Burma with his wife (who worked for MSF) and baby son, and gives you a good feel for the people, architecture, politics and various expats working out there." (a review on Amazon)

14. MoMa cup holder US-$5 at the MoMa (Museum of Modern Art, NYC but am sure must be supplied to other museum shops or on the net as well)

A heat-resistant silicone mug sleeve (I prefer to call them mug huggers!) as an alternative to paper sleeves! Coffee to go in style! Hurray, going orange when one can't be green all the time anywhere!

15. Strawberry Hat - £8.50 at Daisy Daisy
Looks like a strawberry! The best part: Made in Nepal and Fairtrade! Because I love it!

This is how it works:
If you want to indicate that you want to go for one of these fifteen beauties, just leave a brief note as post with a number and/or description to warn others not to get me the same thing. You can even post it as anonymous for more suspense! ;)

If you require my new postal address, please drop me a message!
Note: I will be in Vienna this Christmas!!!

15 November 2009

A Development Worker's Dream?

That's what happens when you watch two Hollywood productions in a row about times of upheaval in two (African) countries (Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland) while your subconscious processes the risks of a possible next internship.

Dili, East Timor. An excursion or exchange with people from my Masters. We're invited for lunch at the house of our host - in my dream, a senior member of society, like an elder. We are seated around the table and I watch any of the locals calculatingly. It is an important meeting as we just arrived and are hear to learn and obviously want to gain and gauge the trust of the people we will be dealing with for our research, whatever that is. I have a feeling as if the older man has been looking at me in a funny way and while everyone is chatting away over food, I am reaching out across the table for a dish when suddenly this very guy grabs my upper arm or lower arm around the elbow, leers at me and makes some comment I do not hear. I pull away, stand up and scream at him, giving him a piece of my mind about sexual harassment, turning the centre of attention of the table to him. Then I bolt out of the door.

I am in my "home" or a small empty local family house where I was accomodated in. I am still furious and decide to go out and do something that will take my mind off the incident. I wonder if it is safe to do so on my own, after all there was some violence in the last election (in 2006), the president barely survived an assassination attempt (in early 2008) and there sometimes is still some petty crime. It is hard to gauge the safety when you have never been to a country before. I go for a change of dress and spend a while in front of the mirror deciding which clothing would be appropriate. I decide for a 3/4 skirt and a long-sleeved shirt. My other local coursemate or local exchange student living with me suddenly appears and says to hurry up or we won't make it to the supermarket. He unlocks the front door, peeks out and warns to be careful as we live near a dodgy area. Suddenly, I decide to put on something else after all and tell my flatmate. He is impatient but waits in the shadow of the house the door opens to. Once I come out again, I don't see him so I decide to walk on the opposite side of the house, in the sun. As I watch my feet walk across the open space of sandy street, I see some casings from used automatic rifle ammunition and wonder in my dream if some of them will explode if you step on them and they're not yet "detonated". So I try to avoid stepping on them, doing some weird movements in the process. Suddenly, I hear shooting! I look up and see a bunch of men firing their AK-47's from an open jeep driving fast into my direction from the far side of the space I was now running across in a ducked position, occasionally taking cover behind a mini dune of sand, wondering if they have seen me. Then I see that I am not the only one on the run, my flatmate is doing the same, except he is running into the other direction, to distract them, I guess. Eventually, we manage to reunite in this chaos and go to the supermarket (!) as if nothing had happened (!).

We are standing in front of a low concrete warehouse and I have my doubts as if there indeed is a supermarket in there. My flatmate says, that yes, some things here are underground, and have been for a long time. We walk into a lift that looks just like your average cold metal cargo lift from any horror movie. It doesn't help that the corridor to it is dark, damp and dirty. After what seems like ages, the lift finally arrives and we step in. The lift is operated by a knobbed long handle instead of buttons. For some reason (dream logic), we go up instead of down. There are already some people in there. One of them is a tall Western man in a dark grey pin-striped suit, a beige raincoat over his left arm and a leather briefcase in the other, wearing polished shoes. His manner calms me down for he looks like he's done this ride a couple of times before. I don't know where this cliché comes from, but I figured the way he is dressed, he must be working for the local UN office. I'm thinking of whether I should approach him about an internship. Hmmm, how to do introduce yourself, exchange niceties, confirm his work place and ask for an internship in less than 20 seconds without being presumptuous? That's when the man starts to speak to me like foreigners abroad on an endless lift ride do. I tell him I find the lift creepy and ask him if there really is a supermarket in here. He smiles, amused and says yes, the warehouse does not only house a big supermarket but also some offices on the top floors, which is his reason for being in the lift. I introduce myself and why I'm in East Timor and ask him if he's working for the mission. Dili is small after all and there is not much to attract foreign business and since he doesn't look like a tourist... And indeed, he is, he says! That's when I see the head lights of a supermarket coming slowly nearer. After some more talk, he offers if I wanted to go out and have a drink sometime (in Southeast Asia, "to go drink" usually implies non-alcoholic cold drinks during the day to rehydrate from the heat). I am hesitant and relieved at the same time. Nothing about him indicated he was a sleazy guy who was looking for something else. The impression I got was that he would really like to meet other foreigners and since what I was doing sounded interesting, it is likely his motive was genuinely platonic. However, I say, "Some other time maybe", just in case. If he really works here, we're bound to bump into each other again on the street anyway. I think he noticed my hesitation for the diplomat he is, he glances over my shoulder and says, "Your supermarket's coming up on this level but I'm going to give you my card." I leave the lift and tell him I'm going to take him up on this.

There indeed is a supermarket in this forsaken place. Brightly lit shelves upon shelves of wares! My flatmate had disappeared in the meantime, so I was dodging the shopping carts on my own. I don't buy anything. I'm too distracted, thinking about the encounter on the lift.

I am suddenly back on the surface. It is a normal street, it looks Austrian but in my dream I am in the UK and the person whom I exited the building with was a very familiar-looking girl. Apart from us, the street is deserted. However, on one end, there is a train which frequently appears and disappears, like a holograph or as if it was spinning around itself. I think to myself, wow, that could be something like the Hogwarts Express. It must have been pretty evident I was thinking that for the girl said to me, "Of course it's the Hogwarts Express, don't you see?!" And indeed, I turn around to look again and now see a conventional-looking witch with long chin, hairy wart on her nose and pointed hat. Everytime she touches the carriage with her wand, it spins again and now even changes colour and appearance! I say to the girl, if I had known that there was another way out of the building, I would have just taken that instead of that crappy snail-slow lift and I ask her if we can still make it to the train (to get to some other location). She says, yes we can but she is waiting for a woman who she is supposed to meet first. As if on cue, a beautiful woman appears, giving her a piece of colourful cloth in a rather ceremonial way. The girl bows her head just like the woman and receives the cloth politely with both hands and then proceeds in tying it around her head. That's when I realise it: Oh my God, Hermione is a Muslim?! Now THAT's a storyline JKR did not explore...

I refrained from adding pictures of East Timor from the net to illustrate my blog as I did not find it appropriate to use graphic pictures of violence to visually support this kind of post. Also, I don't want to misrepresent the situation in the country and the country's image by throwing in some pictures of violence OR landscape. Also, I do not want to alarm anyone of you as I am still exploring different destinations for my next internship.

11 November 2009

Heidiwitz discovers the Blitz (Remembrance Day)

Nearly a year ago, I found myself in a bus half-way around the world on an island, anxious not to miss my stop and my single shot to see the Tropical Spice Garden in Pulau Penang, Malaysia. In front of me what looks like a laid-back expat retiree or returning tourist. I bend over and ask him whether he knows what stop to get off. He does not only tell me the right stop, he also gives me a very good description how to find the Spice Garden off the main road. Noticing his accent, I ask him if he's from the UK and indeed, he identifies himself as English and returns the question. I can't quite remember how he steered the conversation into that topic - I believe he once visited a war museum or concentration camp in Austria or something like that - but I felt compelled to offer that in Austria, the Holocaust is still very much in the collective memory of the nation, that although it used to be a taboo to teach our parent's generation in school about it, it has become a crucial and central curriculum topic with my generation and is considered so important, it comes up at least once every year in at least one or not seldom two subjects if not more and is chewed over and over so much so that everyone knows about it and it is a matter of frequent public debate on TV etc. I concluded, more rhetorically and sarcastically than literally, that there is hardly any aspect of the war I haven't learned about. The chat continues and I ask him about what the public perception was like in the UK and if it was very badly affected at all. He looks at me, in shock that I did not know, and once he found his speech again tells me that England and especially London was really badly affected during the Blitz. I probably flashed him a blank face at the term Blitz, for his eyes grew even wider. Right on cue, it was his turn to get out of the bus and I was left pondering the gaps in my education.

Although Austria and Germany alike both teach the Holocaust extensively at school, they usually (naturally?) focus on the political events and the Jews in Austria and Germany with a bit of Normandy, Mussolini and Stalin's Russia and Rommel's ops in Africa. They do mention the allies but usually only in conjunction with how they tried to defeat Hitler and liberate Germany and the Jews. The Blitzkrieg was only mentioned in passing and not really elaborated on and apart from Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima, the war events in the Pacific were entirely omitted. I made a mental note to look it up and keep my antennas open once back in the UK. When I did read about what was going on in Southeast Asia and London during the war, the scales fell from my eyes.

In WWII, London was one of the most severely destroyed cities in Europe next to Berlin. Bethnal Green, Hackney, Islington, Tottenham and Finchley were among the areas that were bombed the worst during a German raid which prompted the British to attack Berlin and made Hitler so furious he ordered a retaliatory attack. About 43 000 civilians died during an aerial attack the Germans led for 57 consecutive days on London. Other cities affected were those with ports (ie Southhampton and Swansea) as well as industrial centres (ie Liverpool, Birmingham and Coventry). The City of London was hit as well in what would later be coined the Second Great Fire of London (after the one in 1666) and even the fortified Cabinet War Rooms were hit. A famous image became St. Paul's covered in Smoke (you can still see it on pretty many DVD and book covers). Further away, the British Museum was hit (I had known that though) which was why it got its new beautiful and distinctive roof in the first place. A lot of children were evacuated too, from London to the countryside and many to Canada until a number of ships carrying children across the Atlantic were sunk by the German submarines.

Since I am aware that most of my current readership would feel burdened with an extensive account of the War in Southeast Asia, I am not going to elaborate on the events in Malaya, the invasion of Burma, the battle around Ceylon that prompted the British to retreat to Kenya and Japanese war crimes. A good place to start reading up about WWII in the Pacific would be here though.

So, when the poppies were popp(y)ing up in town for upcoming Remembrance Day (an interestingly predominantly white British affair), I decided: What better time to learn about the Blitz and the UK's attitude towards the war?

First stop: Air Raid Shelter
After a ride in a manually operated wooden lift, the doors open into a dimly lit low-ceilinged short tube tunnel lined with bunk beds and wax figures and their possessions in them. The air is rather thick too and I wonder for a moment if the museum is deliberately creating this effect or if it's what the place really smells like. A small table holds a large water kettle and some cups, all operated by the YMCA canteen. A sign above appeals to the morale of the people seeking shelter and says, "If in doubt, brew up!"

It seems unimaginable to think that people actually slept and lived in tube stations and that there was a thriving underground community with bars and canteens etc. On the platforms, there used to be lines to divide living space from walking space.

As this tunnel unfolds, so does a museum with loads of informative stuff and a great collection. A BBC intelligence station, a disabled bomb with warning signs like placed all over London back then. There is info on the voucher system and cigarette cards - Since tobacco was thriving during the war, it was a popular way of disseminating information by inserting cards with instructions on how to make a window shatter-proof, gas-proof, first aid in a gas attack and loads of do-it-yourself advice. A collection of kid's toys shows that Monopoly was even then a hit game and makes one wonder with what simple things children used to entertain themselves before Wii's and other commercial games turned them into avatars. On the more sinister side, you could look at gas maks - and masks that covered babies from head to toe with manual air pump and reservoir attached so it can survive for a while if nobody is handling the pump. Creepy to see gas masks the size for toddlers - but they are still around in other parts of the world.

Other interesting things were rent-a-cakes. Since food supply was scarce (partly directly and indirectly due to the fact that sea imports were affected due to the war) and rationed and people poor, bakeries used to rent out a fake cake for weddings with a small drawer at the bottom, big enough for a tiny piece of real fruit cake for the newly-wed couple.

There also is a soundscape experience where you can sit in a self-made shelter people were taught to build in ditches outside their homes and listen to an air raid siren, German and British airplanes in the sky, an air battle and a bomb being thrown off - it really goes under the skin as you sit in the semi-darkness of a petroleum lamp and experience what it's like to see with your ears. To experience the dreadful seconds of silence between a bomb being thrown off and the moment of its impact.

I also learned about the women "manning" the war factories and taking over farming. Kinda weird to look at a black and white picture of a woman in nothing much of protective clothing apart from an apron putting together the pieces of a bomb or a mine with her bare fingers...!

Second stop: Imperial War Museum
The Imperial War Museum was even more impressive. Some four large floors covering everything from WWI, WWII, crimes against humanity, peacekeeping forces and Korea, Vietnam, Africa etc.

Right next to the entrance are the oral accounts and stories of early veterans from the West Indies serving the British Army. Then follows a huge hall full of planes, tanks and torpedoes. I did not even know there was such a thing as a human torpedo (of which the Italians were the most famous users) the purpose of which was to send two people as quietly as possible (for a sonar) down to the rump of the ship or even submarine to plant a time bomb.

There also is such a thing as a floating bomb (which may seem obvious but I take it as a good sign I never thought about that) which floats like a buoy close to the sea surface and detonates as soon as a vessel hits it and breaks a glass which connects two fluids that galvanise enough electricity to explode a gas. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of those floating in the Channel and around the shores of Europe, especially of France, creating a danger for trade ships and other civilian vessels, not to mention water sport hobbyists.

Speaking of the sea, you can also experience what life is like on a submarine. Toilets or also called "the heads" in nautical English, are very difficult to operate and there are not less than eight different instructions you had to follow in order to flush them. If you do them wrong, you might end up having the contents of the toilet fired back at you. Now there's a comforting thought.

Particularly interesting (in a shocking way) were the emergency evacuation procedures for officers and the "primitive" rebreather you are supposed to use until you reach the surface, especially if you know about the effects of diving on your body. Also quite informative is the challenge to distinguish objects by their sound on the sonar. Is it a cruiser, another submarine, a torpedo or a scuba diver?

But interactive ways of teaching about general warfare aside and back to the UK side of things: During my research about the Holocaust in the UK and more recent genocide around the world, I discovered that Daniel Radcliffe seems to be a "prominent supporter" of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and has narrated a 10min educational short film called Legacy of Hope which you can find here. I guess it adds to a more "grown up" image of the Harry Potter star.

The Holocaust Memorial Day (or HMD for short) takes place every year on 27 January in the UK and started in 2001. There also is a Genocide Memorial Week every spring (around April). While the former tends to conjure events more exclusively related to the Holocaust (to its criticism by some), the latter comes with loads of events covering genocides like those in Rwanda and Cambodia, Rwanda still being one of the less glorious days of Kofi Annan's tenure as UN Secretary General. He was later even quoted by Gil Loescher to have said in an interview (I can't remember with whom), that looking back today, he would not have done anything differently. So many lives lost due to the reluctance to call a genocide by its name for whatever diplomatic reasons. Since the last two decades are known to have seen more internal warfare than international armed conflicts, the reluctance to swing this politically explosive very club at another nation actually also affects the policy towards and therefore fate of many (internally) displaced people today.

The question remains: Has the world learned its history lesson? One thing is for sure: I have had my own today.