Sunday, July 29, 2012

Gripping expat novel, Youth, by J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee's novel, Youth
On a recent work-trip to Pisa, Italy, after setting the group up with advice, directions and a meeting point to meet me at a few hours later, i had some time to myself. i had not foreseen this free time though so i had brought no book of my own or any other personal stuff to pass the time, so i wandered into an Italian university book store. In Italian, i asked the shop keeper whether he had any books in English. Without speaking he lead me to one book shelf full of English language books.

As i thumbed through classics like Shakespeare and fads like Harry Potter, one book figuratively jumped out into my lap. From the moment i laid eyes on it i knew that it was what i had come into the shop looking for:

Youth, by J.M. Coetzee, the South African writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years back. At that time i read Waiting for the Barbarians and was impressed by Coetzee's expressive, concise language and interesting showing (not telling) of social ideas.

The book's main character is a young, South African man who is passionate about poetry and about doing things well. He is uncomfortable with his home country, its political situation and the effects that that situation had on social sensibilities. He was not blind or conservative enough to go along with Apartheid attitudes, which saw black Africans as pests in their own land. Nor was he radical (or confused) enough to think he had anything in common with those black Africans with whom he empathized. And perhaps worst of all, he believed that that backwardness of Afrikaaner politics also left their culture behind in terms of poetry and art, love and passion, any cultural measure worth noting.

So he saves up his money and expatriates, to England.

The bulk of the book takes place there in England as we watch this character search for himself/happiness/satisfaction through a parade of ridiculous adventures with women, Europe and the (assumed) voices in his head. He finds the English women too picky to choose him and his fellow foreigners he judges below himself and treats them poorly. He seemed to be both in love with and loathe his own unhappiness. The one thing he does seem sure of though, is that he is an expatriate, that he does not want to end up back in South Africa.

Some fascinating perspectives that the book brings forth from the 1960s: 

When the character is fired from IBM and later hired by and English company working to compete with the Americans in computer technology, he makes friends with a colleague, Ganapathy, who is Indian, but lived in America and worked in computer programming there. The friend tells him he should go to work in the States, that America has more of a mentality for big ideas. But,
"he has read Allen Ginsberg, read William Burroughs. He knows what America does to artists: sends them mad, locks them up, drives them out. 
'You could get a fellowship at a universtiy,' says Ganapathy. 'I got one, you would have no trouble.'
He stares hard. Is Ganapathy really such an innocent? There is a Cold War on the go. America and Russia are competing for the hearts and minds of Indians, Iraquis, Nigerians; scholarships to universities are among the inducements they offer. The hearts and minds of whites are of no interest to them, certainly not the hearts and minds of a few out-of-place whites in Africa." (p. 151-152)

Then, the progress and world of computers. The narrator, who is the main character though he remains unnamed, get his first employment in England with IBM, billed as the top company in its infant field, and as an American entity. He works on a room-sized computer that helps collect, collate and calculate data. At that time, there were so few functional computers in all of England that he sometimes has to take a long train ride to use the one computer during the night when nobody else is using it. Obviously, iPods were a long way off 50years ago. 

"He is reading the history of logic," the narrator tells us of himself, in a weird twist of omniscience that happens repeatedly in the book and that creates an air of confident wisdom,

"pursuing an intuition that logic is a human invention, not part of the fabric of being, and therefore (there are many intermediate steps, but he can fill them in later) that computers are simply toys invented by boys (lead by Charles Babbage) for the amusement of other boys. There are many alternative logics, he is convinced (but how many?), each just as good as the either-or. The threat of the toy by which he earns his living, the threat that makes it more than just a toy, is that it will burn "either-or" paths in the brains of its users and thus lock them irreversibly into its binary logic.
He pores over Aristotle, over Peter Ramus, over Rudolf Carnap. Most of what he reads he does not understand, but he is used to not understanding. All he is searching for at the present is the moment in history when either-or is chosen and and/or discarded." (p. 159-160)
If this had been actually written in the 60s, i would say this was the stuff of a prophet, or that the author was really deeply in touch with the universal truths that are being so widely neglected today (as i think Mike Dooley, or Neale Donald Walsch, or the Dalai Lama actually are). But even for being written 10years ago, this observation on our current culture is remarkable - an evil influence i had yet to pin on computers and their use.

The other incredible insight from the 1960s perspective of this narrator is about the Cold War. He describes it as, "this quarrel between Britain and America on the one hand and Russia on the other." (p. 164) i think that first part is easy to forget - Britain was still losing/coming to terms with losing its grip on its Empire. Certainly no Brit, and especially no recently-bombed-Londoner was going to have much sympathy for Germany right then, but with the Nazis gone the race to decide who the world's next hegemon would be. The US had moved ahead in the race not just with their military effort and leadership in World War II, but perhaps more importantly by financing the reconstruction of most of the war-torn countries. It was refreshing though to see Coetzee's character's perspective on the Vietnam War:

"In a photography on the front page of the Guardian, a Vietnamese soldier in American-style uniform stares helplessly into a sea of flames. 'SUICIDE BOMBERS WREAK HAVOC IN S. VIETNAM," reads the headline. A band of Viet-Cong sappers have cut their way through the barbed wire around the American air base at Pleiku, blown up twenty-four aircraft, and set fire to the fuel storage tanks. They have given up their lives in the action. 
Ganapathy, who shows him the newspaper, is exultant; he himself feels a surge of vindication. Ever since he arrived in England the British newspapers and BBC have carried stories of American feats of arms in which Viet-Cong are killed by the thousand while the Americans get away unscathed. If there is ever a word of criticism of America, it is of the most muted kind. He can barely bring himself to read the war reports, so much do they sicken him. Now the Viet-Cong have given their undeniable, heroic reply. 
...despite his (Ganapathy)'s admiration for American efficiency and his longing for American hamburgers,"  (p. 152)
both characters are definitely sympathetic to the East in the Cold War divide. The narrator, assuming the Viet-Cong would not ignore his origins and let him help as a soldier or suicide bomber or even a porter, turns to the Vietnamese allies. He writes a letter to the Chinese embassy in London, offering to teach English in China with or without pay, to do his part in the war effort. When no reply arrives, he gets nervous. "Is he going to his lose his job and be expelled from England on account of his politics? If it happens, he will not contest it. Fate will have spoken; he is prepared to accept the word of fate." (p. 153)

i highly recommend this author for both the powerful prose and the fascinating, rare perspective.

"F@%king Muslims!"

Assem was in a good mood that evening in June 2012. He was an Egyptian guy that worked in tourism there in the Cairo area that i had become friends with over the last couple days, bonding over our common work background and taste for fun and women. Yesterday i had gone to his home to meet his family. As a Muslim, Assem's wife would cover her head in public, but not her face. "Why cover face?" Assem said to me. "Just the head is enough. Most of the women you see all covered in black, hidden except for their eyes, their husbands usually have the big giant beard. Those guys." he said. "I am Muslim, but sometimes I pray and sometimes I don't. My father, he always pray."

Tonight though was not family time. He wanted to take me to a friend's shop to roll and smoke hashish. The shop was a wholesale store for carved stone statues and stuff. At the entrance of the shop, on a quiet, residential, mostly closed up street, i said hello to a large man in the traditional long, Muslim robes. Assem introduced him as Maomet, he was maybe 50years old and had very yellow teeth. "Hello," said Maomet, "Which country from?"

"America," i said.

"Welcome! Welcome!" And then he showed me in to the shop, telling his assistant to get us some Egyptian tea. He asked me how many sugar cubes i would like in the tea and got us all stools to sit on among his mini-sphinxes, pharaohs and gods.

Assem got to work on warming the little piece of hashish so that it could be made into a sort of sand that would be sprinkled on the tobacco to roll into a spliff. There was a tv set up in the corner of the room pointing down towards us. In its screen i could see the inside of a mosque with a huge congregation inside chanting together. "Is that the call to prayer?" i asked Maomet. With a lit spliff at the corner of his mouth, sitting relaxed like a school boy slouched in his chair, legs open, one foot up on a smaller stool, Maomet raised one eye brow and nodded yes. i asked him some more questions about it (is it live or a recording, how often is it, at what times) and he answered all my questions with very little interest.

After a pair of spliffs had been puffed into oblivion and the tea was finished, Assem and i said good night to Maomet with hardy handshakes and lots of platitudes and we continued on into the night.

We stopped at a road side cart to get fresh grilled corn on the cob. As he chomped on the cob and drove with his other hand in the crazy Egyptian traffic (photos), Assem rambled. He talked politics, he talked about his family, and he liked to say "fucking" a lot. Not in a negative sense, but in a happy, giggly way, it seemed to really amuse him to use this English word. A car would pull out in front of him and he'd yell, "Fucking car!" with a smile, forgetting to feign annoyance. When the street congestion slowed us to a stop he would say, "Fucking traffic!" and grin like he'd just won a prize! His English wasn't perfect but he had definitely figured out the right contexts for this idiom!

After a while, we started talking about women. The conversation began because we just missed running over three of them in the street when Assem swerved to avoid another car. "Mwuza!" Assem yelled out the window.

"Mwuza," he told me, means "very beautiful."

"Mwuza?" i asked, excited to learn a cool Arabic word.

"You just said banana." he told me, "It's 'mwuza.'" But i couldn't hear the difference. ...guess that's not such a useful foreign word to use then.... "Mwuza, mwuza," he said, trying to get me to hear all the nuance of his vowels.

"Banana, banana," i apparently repeated back to him.

A few minutes later there were some young women at the edge of a little park, sitting near the road as we slowed down in traffic. As our car pulled up in front of them, Assem yelled out his open window, "Mwuza!"

Now i don't speak Arabic so i couldn't understand exactly what they yelled back, but the tone was certainly not appreciative. They had definitely rejected his car-window-flirting.

"Fucking Muslims!" Assem said to me and smiled, though shaking his head in mock or actual annoyance.

i froze for a moment. Then i burst out laughing, and we cracked up together.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The month of incredible travel

English/Arabic sign at The Light and Sound Show,
"May Peace Prevail On Earth."
June 2012:

1 month, 3 trips, 7 countries, 3 continents!!

It was a big month! And, i made a profit off the 3 trips combined! i love my life:-)

i started the month by traveling to Egypt by myself, for a history and culture adventure. Since there was lots of FoxNews-ish talk about riots in Cairo, i stayed outside of town in Giza. From that home base, i spent three full days sightseeing and getting to know Egypt and a few Egyptians. My path took me through the ruins and museum of Memphis, Egypt's first capital; to the pyramids and pyramid-builder-school of Imonhotep at Saqaara; into the Sahara desert at Dashur; through the mosques, synagogues and churches of Cairo and into the museum there to find the mummy of 2 of my favorite Egyptian personalities, Ramses II and Akheneton; not to mention the wonders of Giza: The Great Pyramid (of Cheops), the Sphynx, and  The Light and Sound Show there!
The Light and Sound Show, Giza

i found the Egyptian people to be down-trodden, maybe, but optimistic, incredibly friendly (though, as vendors, annoying persistent), excited to meet an American and severely sheltered from the outside world (knowing nothing about the condition or location of Egyptian art abroad, which their people made, nor of the Occupy Wall Street or similar protests around the world, which their own Revolution helped to ignite!) (You can read several more blog entries on the Egyptian trip here.)

Then it was time to get to work:

i had been hired to lead a "student group" around Italy and Greece. "Student" in quotation marks because it was actually a pair of professors who instead of students, had invited mostly friends, family and colleagues (bravi!!).

Rio-Atirio Bridge, Greece, and our bus

i helped them (a group of 28 Americans) get used to the Old World in Rome and Florence. Then one day we hiked to the top of, and looked down into the active crater of, Mount Vesuvius, the volcano that destroyed the ancient town of Pompei...then we went to see the excavations of Pompei itself. Then we drove across the boot of Italy, through the thousand-year-old olive trees of the Puglia region to the port of Brindisi, where we boarded a ferry to Greece!

From the port of Patras, our first stop was Delphi. On the way there we took an especially long break at the lunch restaurant, as it happened to be right on the Strait of Corinth and we wanted to go swimming! Floating on my back there on the coast of Greece after a delicious meal of moussaka i remembered, "Oh yea, i'm working!" ....and i remembered that my life is pretty awesome.

(Though i am a local tour guide in Rome and The Vatican, when i travel like this i am an accompanier, meaning i have to help clients with logistics, planning, communicating, navigating, historical and cultural context, etc., - it's like i'm a personal assistant for the group.)

Penny teaching ancient Greek to a student, in Delphi
Next day we visited the fantastic ruins of ancient Delphi, where the Oracle of Delphi (or Delphic Sybil) doled out advice that was never needed and rarely listened to: the inscription at the entrance gave all the worthy advice there is to give: "Know yourself" and "Everything in moderation." Our tour guide there, Penny, is not only the most fluent and interesting licensed guide i've ever seen in continental Europe, she is also the only one that both encourages and effectively stimulates critical thinking - for days after this tour the group was still discussing the civil, philosophical and historical topics that Penny told us about (watch for an upcoming blog post with more about that.)

Then it was on to Athens, where the American-fueled agency i was working for had forbidden any of the paricipants, even on their free time, from going to the main square of the city, Syntagma Square. So, we went to the city credited with inventing democracy, but we were not allowed to see even the outside of their Parliament, because we don't like how (in months past, not recently) their democracy looked when they held protests.
Syntagma Square, Athens, June 2012

(i would later find out that if they had been allowed to see this forbidden Syntagma Square, they would have found a peaceful, quiet space with grandmas and granddaughters playing, dorky foreigners toting H&M bags, stray dogs sleeping in the grass in the shade - they would have found that this supposedly scary place was actual peaceful and normal.)

Maybe by coincidence, but the agency did not even put us in a hotel in Athens but in a nearby suburb called Glynfada which has...shops. We did get one day to actually enter Athens, an hour-long bus tour of the city followed by a trip up onto the Acropolis to see the Parthenon, all with a local Greek tour guide (entering at about 9.30am was a baaaad idea, it was so crowded that i personally did not even look around. i went back a few days later at 8am and had the place to myself;-)

Syntagma Square, Athens, June 2012
Then off on a ferry to Greek Islands and Turkey: First Mykonos, the island famous for windmills, shopping and nude beaches. It was pretty cool, but our stop there was in the evening and didn't leave very much time to enjoy the island.

That night we sailed to Kusadasi, Turkey, where we went on a guided tour of the of the Roman ruins of Ephesus. The ruins there are amazing, the entire city is intact, unlike anything we have in Italy. After the tour the local guide took the group to a carpet shop. Acting on instinct, my friends and i skipped out on the carpet presentation and went to get a good Turkish meal near the bazaar of Kusadasi Our other friends told us we had done well by not going. A bit of advice: always, for your entire life, in every moment, avoid eastern carpet demonstrations....unless of course you thoroughly enjoy a never-ending hard sell!
The ampitheater of Ephesus, in Turkey.

Already then that afternoon we had sailed to Patmos, the island where the guides would like to tell you that the Book of Revelations was written. ....there are also shops there that rent scooters for 15euros per day, so i found some beautiful, wonderful female company and cruised out to a nice quiet, unpopulated beach off the beaten path;-)

Roman mosaic, Ephesus, Turkey - i found it!
Our final stop, the archipelago of Santorini, was perhaps the most spectacular. The main island there, Thira, sits above huge cliffs that lead to the water's edge. Several of my friends and i had bought the Volcano and Swimming Tour (its real name was much less interesting than that!) that took us to Nea Kameni, the island at the center of the archipelago where a very nice, British guide told us all about the formation of the islands, the volcanic activity in the area past and present, and all about the islands themselves. Then we got back on our caique (sailboat with a motor) and were taken to a volcanic spring that spews hot, volcanic water up into a cove where people go swimming. Looking back on it, i don't really understand why it was so nice: sulphur water STINKS, so many people visit the cove that it's dirty and full of garbage, plus there were many boatloads of people all there at the same moment so it was packed......but somehow i still came away thinking it had been an awesome, fun time!

Then that afternoon i rented another scooter and zipped over to the excavations of Akrotiri (amazing to think about and to have witnessed maybe, but definitely not much to look at..) and then to the famous Red Beach (beautiful, and seriously red!) and then to Kamari beach to meet friends. Kamari is a cool, commercialized beach with the excellent innovation of apparently pouring smooth concrete into the water's edge, making a nice (urchin-free) surface to walk on in the swimming area.

On our cruise ship, crossing between Greece and Turkey. (The photo was taken through the sun-shading glass of the tower bar;-)
Then the cruise ship took us back to Athens where we went just from the port to the airport, and i had to sadly send those 28 Americans back home, and i went into Athens by myself.

i had a couple of days before i was scheduled for any tours in Rome, so i got an hotel near the Archaeological museum with the intention of both relaxing and getting out to see some of Athens. That evening i watched sunset from the hotel roof pool bar while enjoying 13year old brandy while in a pool on top of a building with the Parthenon on the Acropolis visible on the horizon (and savored the fact that both the hotel and the brandy together had cost me less than $40!) ....and again i remembered that my life is good:-)

Construction equipment and soldiers at the Parthenon
On my one full free day in Athens i got up early as if i was still working and got to the Acropolis just before it opened at 8am. Since it wasn't open yet, i went across the walk way to the Hill of Mars, where Saint Paul and others preached and debated, and was there completely by myself, not another person within view. Then at 8 i went back to the Acropolis entrance and found it wonderfully quiet. As i arrived to the top near the Parthenon, there was one other tour group. Then were just a few families of travelers - the opposite of the experience i'd had when i entered later in the morning.

i must say though, it is a relatively lousy time to visit the Parthenon, these years. It is heavily covered with modern construction equipment as they work on restorations.

Fiber optic wires monitoring the Parthenon
Then i went to the (waste of time) Acropolis Museum. It was RIDICULOUS. There is precisely one thing museum-worthy in the whole museum, and that is 5 of the original 6 caryatids (beautiful woman columns) of the Erechtheion temple. It is a farce. The only reason they built this whole (modern, air conditioned, huge) museum is that the British Museum supposedly told Greece that the reason they couldn't have the frieze of the Parthenon back is that they did not have a museum to hold it. ....Greece!! What are you thinking about?? That's not why they are never going to give you back the frieze of the Parthenon! It's because THEY HAVE IT. And if you had been capable of not losing it, you'd have it instead. But you weren't, probably aren't, and are simply never getting that lost art back, unfortunately for you.

i went back to The Athens Archaeological Museum and it was, again, fantastic. i love the ancient gold death-masks and the bronze and marble statues that have been discovered in shipwrecks.

Then i flew back to Rome and thought i was done with traveling tours for the season. But the very day i get back the Rome office of this huge agency calls me to ask if i would please go do one more tour. i said no and hung up. A few minutes later though i called back and asked what the tour would be like. Turned out they needed someone to immediately fly to Paris to pick up a group 6days into their tour because they had chosen to fire their Tour Director. Oh, and it was a group of 50 Girl Scouts, who are not supposed to get male Tour Directors anyway. This cemented the case for me: again i said no and hung up.

Then, for some reason, i called back once more and let myself be talked into buying a ticket to fly to Paris right then and there during the phone conversation and fly the very next morning! Once i arrived in Paris i went to the agency office there to get what info there was to get from the fired TD (she didn't speak English. She is a licensed, local guide in Spain, but i could not manage a conversation with her in English. AND that apparently wasn't even the worst of her problems! EF later asked me what i thought of the situation she had created - i told them to keep assigning her tours, and to keep my phone number handy!...but i was kidding. We should really push, instead, for a higher standard of English among European tourism professionals.)

Our Chalet WAGGGS World Center, Switzerland
i met the group at their dinner, and then boarded them in the morning onto a bus to Switzerland where they had an appointment at Our Chalet, a small international conference center of WAGGGS, the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. It was a wonderful place to work, as the Girl Scouts running the place pretty much made everything happen and i was at my leisure to participate or not (when there was a hike to a waterfall, i definitely participated, and it was pretty cool...but i skipped Arts and Crafts!)

After their time there with the Scouts, we drove to Lucern where we had a scheduled "Swiss Culture" lunch where the entertainers yodeled and sang, spun flags and blew horns, all while we happily ate cheese fondue. i don't have the enthusiasm to describe it much here, but it was actually really cool and many of the Scouts told me they'd enjoyed it. Then, most of us had chosen to go up onto Mount Olympus. To get to the top, we took the steepest rail road in the world....and promptly found out that visibility at the summit was approximately one arm's length. ...luckily the trip down was on a series of gondolas and that was pretty cool.
A Swiss guying showing the Girls Scouts how to blow an Alpine Horn

And from there, we drove on into Italy!! Pisa, Florence and Rome, i thought this was a pretty good introduction to Italy for this group. Four days: One on travel arrival time, and half day in Pisa. Then a full day in Florence and two full days in Rome. Obviously the more the merrier, but i thought this group was lucker than some others i've seen that get just one day and a quarter, or even less, for Rome.

A while back someone asked me if i travel much. And i immediately said no. Because i've never thought of myself as someone that travels a lot.....but i have in fact realized that by any reasonable standards, yes, i do in fact travel a lot. And i'm not someone who loves traveling - instead, i live in the wonderful places other people wish to visit;-) But i am a very and increasingly able and efficient traveller, so i am so glad to have found a niche of lifestyle that combines employment and travel. And what a way to live! Not that it's not hard work. It's ridiculously long days (usually 12hours minimum) with no days off or even designated breaks. Most of my friends and colleagues that have seen me do these tours, or even just heard about them, think i'm crazy and they want no part of it. But i love it most of the time, even if some times more than others.

That work-travel combined with the flexibility of being a free-lance tourism professional in Rome means....yea, i guess i do travel a lot, especially this month with these 7 countries (Egypt, Italy, The Vatican, Greece, Turkey, France, Switzerland) on three continents, it was a pretty memorable month!:-)
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