The urgency of now

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We were walking through Wrocław, a place he knew better than I did. It was only my first visit, but he had been living there part time, on and off, for months. During our walk, he grabbed my hand, with some urgency and purpose, less as a tender gesture and more as the take-charge guide, leading me to the next spot on the tour he had apparently planned and perfected.

“Poland,” he said authoritatively, “is a hidden gem.” I smiled but said nothing. Poland is a kind of hidden gem. I had no argument and nothing to add. It’s an especially bright gem once you start being able to pronounce the words. Say it with me: Wrocław. Could you do it? No? Give it time.

I didn’t tell him how much I had once dreamt of visiting Poland, at the apogee of my “Slavic/eastern-central-southern European studies” life. In fact I shared so little about myself because that was not the nature of things. This was not going to be one of those ‘confessional’ entanglements. Revelations about ourselves were doled out not as linear narratives but as footnotes to what we observed around us. Strolling past a courthouse, for example, he might comment, “It was total drudgery practicing law”, which would lead to a lecture on corruption in the legal system where he came from and the complete sense of helplessness and anger that arises from being unable to do anything but quit (which he did… and moved to Europe). But this was not deep or personal reflection on his vocation or life events that led him to or from it.

In this way, we knew each other incrementally, just as we came to know the city. Nothing of the roller-coaster arc on which most stories jaggedly rise and fall. Even more liberating, there was nothing of the “who-I-was” and “who-will-I-be”. No, there was only right now. Fortuitous, given that the “right now” of those moments filled quickly with the challenges of mastering the idiosyncrasies of basic Polish: dziękuję. Or most useful of all for two itinerant non-Poles wandering around together: nie mówię po polsku.

Photo (c) 2014 Nico Trinkhaus used under Creative Commons license.

Present possibilities

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How foolish you can feel after everything is said and done. First that you let yourself walk down the path, however gingerly, with however much trepidation felt and caution you thought you exhibited, in the first place. Winding up steep hills, when suddenly, the path ends, and you’re lost and deep into the woods. It’s getting dark, and what shadows and figures you can faintly make out are unfamiliar. How can you not want to cry, get angry and overreact in frustration? It’s temporary, as all things are. Light will return. You will find your way back, the biggest, self-effacing wave crashes over you, leaving you feeling more foolish than ever for the overly emotional, panicked reaction. But how could it have been otherwise? It is as though, suddenly, you wandered off the safe, clear paths to which you were accustomed. The sense of adventure, openness to feeling new things, awakened. You were confident you could keep your footing, but a whirlwind of different circumstances conspired to… knock you on your ass. In hindsight the whole thing is embarrassing and laughable. Oh, the misguided, animated imagination, once aroused.

And how far away from these minor misadventures you can so quickly feel. One moment fretting and regretting, hot tears welling up as you ask yourself what you were thinking going up there, climbing deeper into the woods. The ground underfoot covered in damp moss, becoming increasingly swamplike. The very next moment, feet on the ground in cities new and old, concrete and cobblestone, breathing in the world of literature read long ago, reminiscing about people you once knew, tasting everything like it’s the first time – and sometimes it is. There are always the phantoms of the past haunting, keeping certain addictions flickering, but mostly faded into some archive of past transgressions. They return sometimes, and it is almost a relief in some way to feel the pounding familiarity push-push-pushing its way in. As if the past can breathe new life into the future, and push you on your way to the new.

But what of the limbo of the present moment? Or, as Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians propose regarding time: it’s all happening at once in different dimensions: past, present, future, life, death.

It is within these present moments, when the mind still wanders back to what might have been (Kierkegaard’s ‘future you will never have’), when your guard should be up most of all, but isn’t. In one moment or another, roaming in the Baixa or Belém or Katowice or Kraków, dredging up images of the dreary recent past, only to live moments of Invisible Cities as though they were almost your own:

“But the special quality of this city for the man who arrives there on a September evening, is that he feels envy toward those who now believe they have once before lived an evening identical to this and who think they were happy, that time” … or more fitting, a “city where the foreigner hesitating between two (wo)men always encounters a third”.

The present opens and widens the world and its possibilities again, anew. You regain footing, and it is then that the possibilities present themselves.

Flakes like feathers

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How is it that I have never written about Prague before? Actually, this is not totally true. It got a brief mention in a recent post on 1999. Prague has not been a huge part of my life, but at the same time it has always been on the periphery. My Russian, eastern and central European studies years – all the literature, history and folk music. My brother and his friend making fun of my folk music purchases. The dear friends with Czech roots. Friendships and strange connections to this place. The memory of traveling to Prague for work in a change-infused period soon after I had left Iceland for Norway. The trip with colleagues to Prague for a photo shoot (and ending up, haphazardly, at a random restaurant we still refer to as “the old place” because we went in there first, left, wandered around aimlessly looking for somewhere else to eat, but ended up back in “the old place” – which was technically the first place. It was called U vejvodů, which I remember because I am that kind of person – the one who remembers the name of every place and street, even years later). The constant travel back to the Iceland for which I felt desperately homesick. The even more constant pull of Paris affairs. It’s no wonder that in those first dark months, Oslo felt more like hell than home. I was never even there.

How could all of that have been nine years ago already? How is it that it has taken nine years to find my way back to the old place?

Photo Ryan Lum

dashed

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The major purpose for my Gothenburg visit – Steve Mason concert – was canceled, along with his entire European tour. Hmm. Oh well. I really want to go to more live shows but looking at the upcoming music schedule (particularly for the nearer Oslo), it’s pretty pathetic. Bryan Adams, anyone? Ugh.

I found some notes I wrote ages ago, a few years after I had moved to Iceland. I look at it now and ask myself, “But at what point did I cease to be a tourist?” And that has different answers – there was probably a time that I no longer felt like a tourist, a point when I was legally no longer a tourist and a point when Icelanders begrudgingly no longer considered me a tourist (even if, despite having Icelandic citizenship slapped onto my forehead, I would never be a native, a local or anything more than a “paper Icelander”).

I can only imagine what Iceland is like now, overrun by hordes of tourists as it has been the last two or three years. Summers were always rich with them, but recent years have become seemingly unbearable if I am to believe media accounts. If I had issues dealing with the few I encountered in 2001 or 2002 (see my judgmental nature on display below), what would I think now?

“At last writing I mentioned that most people don’t come to Iceland, so they don’t understand why I like it nor indeed why anyone would choose to live here. However, having been a tourist here myself once, I am well aware, as any resident of Iceland is, that there is in fact a large contingent of tourists who do find their way here each year. Naturally I cannot characterize ALL tourists who come to Iceland because some of them blend in with the scenery, both innocuous and semi-chameleonic. The majority, though, observe a sort of tourist credo: let’s make ourselves as obvious as we possibly can. Of course this is not just the case in Iceland. Tourists are like this everywhere you go, but there are some unique aspects to the tourists who come to Iceland. Where else do you see couples adorned in bright, matching winter gear in the middle of summer, perhaps even carrying something like a walking stick, or worse yet, an ice ax, on their initial stroll down Laugavegur, the main shopping street in the city? One afternoon I saw a couple wearing matching, elaborately embroidered jackets with “New Zealand” stitched on them. Who could forget the lovely groups of tourists wearing lederhosen and thick, woolen socks pulled up to the knees?

Although these tourists stand out like a sore thumb to the naked eye, there are always the tourists who manage to be even more obnoxious. (They usually tend to be American, I should add).

At one of Iceland’s two Indian restaurants*, Shalimar, two older American tourists came in and the woman announced loudly, “We’re back!” The husband, quiet and subservient, cowered as his wife asked the proprietor what was being served that day. She ordered for both of them, getting wine for herself and insisting on water for her husband. “Yes, dear,” he humbly mumbled, as if he had an alternative. Talking to no one in particular, as she wandered away from the counter to choose a table, she exclaimed, “This is beautiful!” Through her Coke-bottle glasses and mop of mousy grey hair, she trudged toward her chosen table in squeaky bright turquoise rain boots. As she and her husband sat down (far too close to me for comfort), she practically yelled, “This is such a sweet place!” What followed was hideous, “Mmm. Mmm. Mmm. This is delicious. Mmm. Mmm.” With every bite there came an emphatic “mmm” accompanied by some unabashed lip smacking. “Mmm. Mmm. Mmm. Good. Mmm. Mmm. Mmm. Ah.” When one of the servers brought her some naan bread, she used her one word of Icelandic, not once but twice, “Taaaaaaaak. Taaaaaak.” Soon she was slurping, excitedly, as she resumed, “Mmm. Mmm.” And with that I finally had to leave.

Speaking of the use of “takk”, since tourists are quite proud of having mastered this useful word, I have sometimes found myself sitting in Café Paris, which is almost always filled with tourists. One can invariably observe the diligent tourist with a Lonely Planet Guide to Iceland and Greenland as well as several maps littering his/her table. On occasion, two such tourists will be drinking or dining and suddenly their eyes will meet, they will smile at each other, and often conversation (loud, of course) ensues. One day I heard an American woman and an Australian man discussing their own experiences in Iceland at length. Until finally, the woman decided it was time to be on her way and paid her bill, exclaiming, “TAAAAAAAAAAAAAK” (always far too much emphasis on the “a”) before leaving and wishing the Australian “un bon voyage”.

Another time when I had the misfortune of agreeing to meet with someone at the Dubliner (not my sort of venue), I waited there while an American woman sat at the bar spouting her expertise on “all things tourist”. She informed everyone at the bar (and indeed anyone within hearing range) that, “Americans have ruined Mexico. Damn tourists completely ruined it.” I very much wanted to approach her and say, “Yes, tourists like you…” However, that would have been both rude and would have drawn attention to myself. And unlike tourists as a whole, I don’t care to draw attention to myself. This is, I guess, the point and the best part of observing tourism in action. You can learn so much about people and their personal lives, not only because they are so loud but also because, quite often, tourists bond with other tourists and share personal details across crowded cafés. Indeed you also learn why people wanted to come to Iceland in the first place, and their reasons are as diverse as the tourists are loud.”

*I believe there are more now, but back then there was only the veteran Austur India Fjelagid and the upstart Shalimar, technically Pakistani, not Indian.

Photo (c) 2013 Terry Feuerborn.

Berlin in a world of lists

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Berlin is always changing. I was just at Berlin Tegel a couple of weeks ago and the “restaurant” in terminal C has changed from one thing to something entirely different in that time. This place has banh mi and pho ga and is apparently here temporarily until the new airport opens. Haven’t we been hearing about the mythical opening of Brandenburg airport for … an eternity already? Will it ever happen? I will believe it when I see it… except that does not really apply here because, well, you can see the new airport. As you disembark flights at the other airport, Schönefeld, you can see the disused, empty shell of the long-promised Brandenburg Airport in the distance. So instead, maybe I will see it (open) when I believe it.

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I was doing my Germany sojourn during a merciless heat wave, which, if you know me, you know I hate. I experienced small mercies at various stages – empty seats and rows on some of my plane rides, a traffic-free taxi ride between Schönefeld and Tegel (could potentially have been pretty annoying to schlep across the entire city from one crappy Berlin airport to the other).

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Nothing to say about the details of the trip – was just getting away for a while.

And, sitting for too long in the airports as I always do, I have some time to reflect on random stuff. As everything around me grows more digital and I lose some of the traditional tools, I sometimes do go backwards into the world of handwriting. I bought a 2017 daily planner book from the Fabriano store at Tegel – one of the few stores there and the only interesting thing in that terminal. I make lists, and I prefer making them on paper. It’s been years since I had a formal annual planner (perhaps the last one was 1998?). I wonder if it will help.

It is still raining in Tokyo

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As I fell asleep last night the meteorologist on Al Jazeera English stated, “It is *still* raining in Tokyo.” A deliberate pause and emphasis on “still”. I was half asleep, but it is amazing how a simple statement like, “It is still raining in Tokyo” immediately jolts vivid memories into the active mind.

I was suddenly walking in a downpour in Tokyo, perhaps the only one on the busy street without an umbrella. It was September, hot and even more humid.

Kickstarter and crowdfunding: Traction or drag of the crowd

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I think a lot these days about the crowdsourcing revolution. Whether it’s crowdfunding in the form of Kickstarter and its peers, or crowdhosting like Airbnb, or crowdsharing of information, like on sites such as Trustpilot or Yelp, these things definitely have their good and bad sides.

Today: Crowdfunding

Many times in recent weeks I have been traveling – and every single time, I face some kind of phone-charging crisis. I don’t think I am alone in this. We’re all busy and counting on our phones as our connection to the world – to stay in touch, to take and send photos, to do our online banking (in fact if my phone dies and I lose access, I can’t access my online bank at all). And now that the TSA is apparently asking people to turn their electronic devices on to prove that they actually are working devices, having a charged phone while traveling is a necessity for security reasons. Since I am one of those people who worries when there is not even a reason to worry, I am always thinking about whether I have the right cable, or where I might find a power outlet wherever I happen to go. I know from experience that the phone battery is only going to last X number of hours, maybe fewer hours if I engage in more activity – and that’s a strangely helpless feeling, especially when you’re in the middle of Budapest or sitting in one of those not-so-business-friendly airports that has NO power outlets anywhere.

With this panic in mind, I often flip through projects on Kickstarter and Indiegogo to see what kinds of things might solve my problems. One day I found a smartphone keyless door lock, the Goji, on Indiegogo which got me pretty excited since I live in multiple places and often panic about what might happen if I lose my key in one city and arrive at one of the other places to find that the key is missing? (My neighbors have keys – but what if they aren’t home? And maybe I don’t want neighbors to have keys. A keyless locking system controlled by mobile phone would let me give them immediate access if they needed it – but then rescind it just as easily so the nosy old lady up the hill doesn’t just come in whenever she wants. Haha!)

And recently I found the Revocharge system – which is a magnetic, snap-on battery and case for iPhones and Androids. This might not have excited me to such a degree had I not just experienced a series of on-the-go battery failures, the elusive hunt for a power outlet and then losing the one power cable I had for my iPhone 5 while wandering around in Berlin. Does the Revocharge solve all the problems? No, you still have to not lose the battery or the case – but the chances are good that they would be connected to the phone anyway – it is not like some stray cable that could fall out of my bag or be left anywhere. My only disappointment, of course, is that this is not available right now! It’s still seeking Kickstarter funding. (For that matter, the Goji is not shipping yet either. AND… if I want to operate all my door locks from my smartphone, I need to have my phone charged all the time, too! So these products go hand in hand… our lives are more entwined with our phones – we can’t afford to let them die!)

When it comes to successful crowdfunding campaigns, though, I keep looking at different campaigns and am never really sure what propels some of them to success and not others. The two aforementioned campaigns absolutely serve real needs and are not “pie in the sky” ideas – both exist (at least in prototype form). In the case of Revocharge, it is addressing a universal problem. This campaign has a long way to go, so its funding goals may be met.

But I wonder about some of the campaigns that create a desire – that definitely do not serve a real need. Case in point: the “coolest cooler”. Serves NO need at all – and has more than 8.5 million dollars pledged to its cause. Or the campaign that famously set out to get money to make potato salad.

Why are people inclined to give money to something that is gimmicky and has no real real-world application?

here in berlin world cup

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staying for a wee bit in mitte/prenzlauerberg, in berlin, watching opening match of the world cup (brasil and my beloved croatia).

berlin always amazes me.

“you’re still not in it.”

“i am just looking at you because you’re bossy.”

more soon. i need to get my hands on some sweet rice flour and some xanthan gum.

Beszél magyarul?

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An interesting overlap between the latest season of the TV show Louie and my work trip to Budapest has been this Hungarian connection. Louie begins to date a Hungarian woman this season. They can’t communicate – she speaks no English. She speaks quite a lot of Hungarian during the show. No subtitles. We are not meant to understand – and probably to assume and “grope” as much as Louie has to. I, of course, don’t speak Hungarian. Just before departing for Budapest, though, I started paging through my old Hungarian textbooks, and read an article on a website that tried to position Hungarian as “a language as easy as any other”. I learned a few fundamentals that actually were never explained well in textbooks – including a piece of information that helped in trying to figure out which bottles of water were carbonated and which were not (later I discovered that the color on the bottle could just as well have decoded that little mystery – but hey, I worked with what I knew!). In one of the latest episodes of Louie when the Hungarian woman started chatting with a Hungarian-speaking waiter, I was happy to understand a few words (basic!) – but the whole feeling produced by Louie’s relationship with this woman he could not understand (and who could not understand him) was certainly a hallmark of the Louie “sitcom” style. It’s not a sitcom, it’s not a comedy show. It lacks linear storytelling, goes in sometimes strange, unusual and even sometimes boring directions – but the fact that it dares to do so is what makes it unique. There has been a good deal of everything from discomfort to controversy generated by the show this season (e.g. attempted rape, “This would be rape if you weren’t so stupid.”) and some meandering – but it’s Louie. It’s what I’ve come to expect, even if in expectation, I can’t predict anything. On a side note, Charles Grodin showing up as a doctor in Louie’s building has been highly enjoyable. “Enjoy the heartbreak while you can, for god’s sake! Pick up the dog poop, would you please?* Lucky son of a bitch, I haven’t had my heart broken since Marilyn walked out on me when I was 35 years old. What I would give to have that feeling again. You know I’m not really sure what your name is. But you may be the single most boring person I have ever met. No offense.” My final thought after returning from Budapest (apart from having noticed a plethora of coffeehouses – a dream for a coffee lover like me) was its continued clinging to a complete lack of service-mindedness, reminiscent of Communist-era eastern Europe. It may have improved slightly since I last visited Budapest in 1999, and it might not even be an eastern bloc thing so much as part of the mentality of the Hungarians (since people working in the services now would not have been that exposed to and trained in “customer service” of the past). Everywhere I went – and everywhere many of my colleagues went – we’d ask for something very normal (e.g. exchanging money at a money-exchange desk or asking a normal question in a store), and the employee(s) would give a short, uninformative answer and stare/glare at me (or whomever) as though I had just asked the dumbest question in the history of questions. How could I have been so stupid? In one coffee place, there was a sign by the cash register in English, which read: “We only accept euros” (and then something about the denominations of euros accepted). I found this misleading – it should probably have been clearer that they accept euros in addition to their own currency (the forint), so I asked about it (dummy!), and the barista looked at me like I had just dumped a bag of dog shit on the floor and just repeated the amount I owed her (in forints). (Incidentally my favorite coffee place – maybe due to its convenience in the place I stayed in the city during non-work-conference days – is Coffee Cat. Not the place that had the misleading “only euros” sign!) Sigh. The fun of traveling to different places.

everything's gone kuka - budapest

*everything’s gone kuka – budapest – another coincidence