Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mimesis... Acting... Becoming.

“All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.”
~Shakespeare, As You Like It

“The individual “assimilates” himself or herself to the world via mimetic processes.  Mimesis 
makes it possible for individuals to step out of themselves, to draw the outer world into their 
inner world, and to lend expression to their interiority. 
~Gebauer and Wulf.  Mimesis: Culture - Art - Society.  Don Reneau,
trad.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.  2.
So, about three and a half weeks ago, my good friend Carey came to me with a part in her Shakespeare "café theater" show.  Due to unforeseen circumstances and scheduling issues, one of her actors would be unable to do a particular scene, and she wondered if I might be interested in playing the role of Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream.  It didn't take me very long to make the decision.  YES!  

Little did I know what would have to take place in order to transform into Helena... I'm still not entirely sure a total transformation has taken place.  What I do know is that learning this part and rehearsing it all day last Saturday and Sunday were exhausting... in a good way.  Trying to become another person is, well, not easy.  And trying to do that in a context that demands a certain level of movement to keep the audience engaged and a certain clarity of voice and diction to make sense out of Shakespeare?  Well, it's pushed my limits, challenged me in ways I didn't expect.  I'm used to things coming easily, and this?  Not so easy.  During the dress rehearsal, we actually had to stop our scene.  We just had no idea where we were... granted, the dress rehearsal was in a different location, so we literally DIDN'T know where we were.  But still... it ended with me in tears and thinking--what have I gotten myself into?  If the scene goes like that on Friday, well, it just CAN'T!  People are paying to see this, and our scene closed the show. 

Needless to say, I was nervous when it came time to do the show last night.  The other actors had set the bar high, and I wanted to match them. (Seriously, this cast was AMAZING!  I love these people!)  There were 85 guests at the Ethnobar, and it was the first time we would be doing our scenes with people actually in the seats we would be jumping over.  And you know what??? WE DID IT!  The show went really well.  People have asked us if we will be doing repeat performances, and we're already doing it again in June at the Fringe Festival.  It's amazing how much progress you can make in such a short period of time, how much you can get to know your character and grow to trust the other members of your cast.  It's also strange how much of an out-of-body experience it is... all of a sudden, our scene and the whole show was over.  Back to real life again... weird. I also realized this was my first true acting experience in English.   My limited experience elsewhere has only been in French... Hector in La Guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu and my improv group here.  I definitely want to keep doing theater in the future, any way I can.  There is nothing like it... because even as you are attempting to "become" another person, who you are is slowly becoming something else, too. 

(That last line reminds me of a character in our French play, a Russian theater expert, Vladimir, who says, "Le théâtre n'est pas... il devient."  True indeed.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On Women...

Back on March 8, 2011, an idea for a new blogpost took root.  Women.  And more specifically,  challenges we face that are particular to our sex alone.  This isn't going to be a feminist rant per se (though I would say I'm a feminist), but I've been reading some things of late: The Millenium Series, Columbine, 3096 Days, to be exact, and had some encounters of my own that have gotten me thinking.

So first, a belated reflection on International Women's Day.  What does this day commemorate?  According to the official website, "International Women's Day (8 March) is a global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future... International Women's Day honours the work of the Suffragettes, celebrates women's success, and reminds of inequities still to be redressed."

You may have seen Daniel Craig's video where he's dressed in drag and Judi Dench intones:

"We’re equals, aren’t we 007? Yet it is 2011 and a man is still likely to earn more money than a woman, even one doing the same job. You have a far better chance of entering political office, or becoming a company director. As a man, you’re less likely to be judged by promiscuous behavior…which is just as well, frankly. And hardly any chance of falling victim to sexual assault. And unlike the 30,000 women in the UK who lose their jobs annually due to pregnancy, there will be virtually no risk to your career if you chose to become a parent. Or, became one accidentally. For someone with such a fondness for women, I wonder if you have ever considered what it might be like to be one.

The world has changed. But the numbers remain stacked against us. Women are responsible for 2/3 of the work done worldwide, yet earn only 10% of the total income, and own 1% of the property. It’s not just about money and power. Every year, 70 million girls are deprived of even a basic education. And a staggering 60 million are sexually assaulted on their way to school. We’re afraid to walk the streets at night, yet some of us are even more afraid to return to our own homes. At least 1 in 4 are victims of domestic violence. And every week, two women in the UK are killed by a current or former partner.

So, are we equals?

Until the answer is yes, we must never stop asking."

So much of what she said resonated with me, particularly when she talks about sexual assault, domestic violence, and being afraid to walk the streets at night.  Did you know that one in two women will be a victim of some form of sexual assault in the course of her lifetime?  That, to say nothing of the 1 in 4 who are victims of domestic violence, is a staggering statistic.  I have been fortunate thus far, and have not been a victim of sexual assault, but I know people who have and work with women at DAIS who have suffered in an abusive relationship.  I shook with terror as a neighbor was beaten by her partner, uncertain of what to do (I called the police, but it didn't put an end to things).  I know the fear that comes from walking alone at night and the anger and frustration that comes from being accosted in the street by guys who think it's perfectly okay.  Before I went on my snowboarding trip (at 6:45am!), a dude approached me and said, "Weeds".  Not expecting an English word, and really, it's not a standard conversational greeting in any language, I said, "Comment?" ("What?"), and he promptly took some weed out of his pocket and proposed we smoke a joint before I hit the slopes.  "No thanks, and please leave me alone" was my response.  His reply?  "Je t'encule."  Most offensive, male-to-female insult ever, much to my horror.  I was not a happy camper, but I also wanted to be sure I was safe.  Frustrating that the best way to defend myself was silence, when what I really wanted to do was yell at him.  Sadly, I think this is often the course of action taken in even more serious situations.

This experience was only further thrown into relief by what I've been reading lately.  Take The Millennium Trilogy, for example.  Apparently, Stieg Larsson witnessed a gang rape when he was younger, and part of his goal in writing the series was to create strong female characters who can outsmart and outwit their masculine counterparts.  He also relays stories about real strong women as narrative frames for different sections... like the some six hundred women who served during the American Civil War and the Amazons.  I loved that about the series, but there are also some gruesome scenes of violence against women.  The violence certainly flows in both directions, but there's a certain mentality that is disturbing with regard to the violence against women.  Those scenes, though fictional, are not far from reality, as I discovered when I read 3096 Days, Natascha Kampusch's memoir.  She was held captive and brutalized for 8 and a half years by a guy you would never expect (so much so that the police actually came and talked to him early during her captivity, and didn't pursue further investigation).  EIGHT AND A HALF YEARS.  From age 10 to 18. 

Eric Harris's journal entries in Columbine were no different.  His reflections and fantasies about raping and harming women in particular, to say nothing of his desire to cause the extinction of his entire high school, are, well, alarming.  I know these are extreme cases, but such examples are certainly not few and far between, and I can't help but wonder about the root cause of these types of behaviors and why they are particular to men (studies on psychopathy indicate that about 3-5% of the population exhibit characteristics of the anti-social personality disorder, and 1% are truly psychopathic.  According to this article in the Scientific American, the majority of those are men. It's definitely related to brain chemistry (psychopaths actually respond differently to images of pain!  the parts of the brain related to empathy aren't active!  whoa!), but there are other factors as well. 

All thoughts on psychopathy aside, if I have sons, I want to be sure I raise them to treat women (and everyone else, but particularly women) with respect.  And I'm grateful for the men in my life who aren't aggressive, disrespectful, or violent.

My thoughts on these things are still a little disorganized, disjointed, un peu flou... there may be another related blogpost on the subject in the future, but for now I'll just leave it in the same place Judi Dench did--until we have reached the point of equality, we must never stop asking why that is and how we can change it.  

Monday, March 14, 2011

It's a small world...

So, it occurred to me that in very recent history, I've experienced two run-ins with some of my favorite people in international cities, namely Geneva and Venice, that were entirely unplanned. 

The first story involves a certain Ginny Horner Hodum, who crossed the seas to do a J-term study abroad program in Fribourg.  Obviously, we were delighted at the opportunity to schmance on a different continent, and I was excited about the possibility of her meeting my dad who was visiting.  (Both Ginny and my dad are mirthful individuals.)  Unfortunately, Ginny had a required trip the day we originally scheduled to meet and have lunch with my pops, but we arranged to meet at a later date, sans papa.  My dad and I went about our day, which included a trip to the Geneva UN Headquarters.  As chance would have it, that is exactly where Ginny's required trip took her that day (we had not exchanged this bit of information beforehand!), and we did a little song and dance when we crossed paths in the gift shop.  United Nations indeed... bringing people together all the time.  And Ginny got to meet my dad!

The second story involves a former student from my French 203 class, Dan a.k.a. Danger (as in dangerous on the dance floor!) Rebholz.  He's spending the year in a town outside of Lille working as a teaching assistant at a French high school.  Gallivanters that we are, we both had made plans to be in Venice for Carnevale and exchanged contact information, so we could meet up for a spell.  As (bad) luck would have it, my phone failed to send him a text message to coordinate a time and place for a reunion.  No matter... just as I had stowed away my phone, resigned to the fact that our paths would not cross, my friends and I were leaving the little bar/café where we had indulged in a little afternoon wine and tiramisu, and who did I see walking toward us?  DAN!  Venice is a small city, that I grant you, but we were on a little side street.  What are the ODDS that we would roll out at JUST the right moment? 

It's a small world after all.  And I just don't believe in coincidence.  :)  Meant-to-be reunions are grand...

Sunday, March 6, 2011


So, I've been seeing a lot of things on the news and around the world lately that have gotten me thinking about integrity.  You know what exactly does the term mean after all?  Are you born with it, or can it be cultivated?  And can it be recovered?

Webster's says it is:
"1firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values : incorruptibility
2an unimpaired condition : soundness
3the quality or state of being complete or undivided : completeness"
Incorruptibility...  we've seen lots of examples of the opposite recently.  You know, like the Lehman Brothers and their shady accounting and the dictatorships in Egypt and Libya covering up their human rights abuses as they tried/try to put down opposition. 
One of the examples that hits closest to home at the moment is Scott Walker's attempt to pass budget legislation through a political sleight of hand move.  Scoffing at the thousands of people who are unhappy with this move, rather than listening to unhappy constituents (there are plenty of constituents who voted him in and are okay with what he's doing, too, but his job is to listen to everyone!), he is taking calls from "David Koch" (or so he thought!), one of his key campaign contributors, to discuss how to get around the opposition.  Meanwhile, he refuses to take calls from the average, everyday citizen, or you know, Democratic senators.  Money and power apparently get you on the fast track to be heard.  How's that for corruptibility?  Ezra Klein has more to say about the subject here, but I think the key lesson in the exchange is you never know who you may be talking to, so it's better to try and live a life above reproach.  Sure, we all mess up, but I think that's the biggest part of integrity, really.  Being able to acknowledge your shortcomings and say when you've done something wrong.  Facing the music is more honorable than covering it up.  The truth usually comes out anyway. 

On a related note, there's the question of reporting with integrity...  The O'Reilly Factor did a story on the "violent" union protests taking place in Madison, WI.  Lacking any truly violent footage from the Capitol, images from some other protests in a land populated with palm trees (read: NOT Madison) were spliced in.  The uninformed viewer may simply latch on to those images and think, hey!  Violent protests are BAD!  Those union workers in Wisconsin are BAD!  Did the dog wag its tail here, or did the tail wag the dog?  Here it is: Palm Trees  (and p.s. what does that phrase mean, anyway, "professional left-wingers"?)

And then there's just the idea that integrity consists of what you do in your life when other people aren't watching.  That's what J.C. Watts said integrity is (well, character anyway): "Character is doing the right thing when nobody's looking.  There are too many people who think that the only thing that's right is to get by, and the only thing that's wrong is to get caught."  The whole ethical question of...  Do you take massive amounts of office supplies because you know it won't be detected?  Would you report an accounting error that's working in your favor?  Or would you cheat on your partner if given the opportunity, and you knew he/she would never find out?  Or let's say you hit a parked car, and there's some damage but no witnesses, would you hit and run?  Or leave a note?  Feeling bad because you get caught doesn't count... it's what you do when you know you won't get caught that counts, at least as far as I can tell, in terms of integrity.  I'm sure French Prime Minister François Fillon and French Foreign Affairs Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie would take back those free private jet rides to Egypt and Tunisia if they could.  And Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, and Nelly Furtado would probably like to take back their private concerts linked to the Qaddafi family, too.  (They have, donating the millions to human rights groups instead.  Wrongs can be righted, after all.  Would they have done it if the press hadn't found out though?  Did they know that was who was paying them the millions or not?  Food for thought.) I guess the minute you think you're above reproach is when you tend to fall off the bandwagon.     

What about intellectual integrity?  Did you see the story about the German Defense Minister who resigned due to plagiarizing his doctoral thesis?  I mean, I'm working on a doctoral thesis at the moment, and it's a tough slog.  But taking credit for someone else's ideas and passing them off as my own would make me feel unworthy of and more than a little guilty about those three letters after my name.  Hence, my utter familiarity with the quote mark key on my keyboard.  It's not so hard to use, really.  Apparently, it's beginning to be a common thread though, as some of my teaching colleagues have discovered, and considering the success of outfits like these: The Shadow Scholar.  What kills me about this guy is that he isn't willing to own up to his profession and provide his true identity.  If you're ashamed to claim your job (and not under a pseudonym), shouldn't that tell you something?  How do you market those skills on a resumé?  (Although maybe the folks on Wall Street would eat it up.)  And why the hell were details of assignments changed to protect the students in the article?  They're being PROTECTED from being found out as cheaters and plagiarizers?  Because they paid a fee and had a contractual bargain with this dude?  Doesn't that just REWARD the behavior?  Few things make me angry in this world, but this?  Kills me. 

So, to close this little reflection, I'll post one of my absolute FAVORITE movie scenes.  It's about integrity.  Not selling your soul and stepping all over someone else just to get ahead.  The reality is... you have to take responsibility for your actions.  And live as though everyone is watching (I mean hey... YOU are watching). 

My favorite parts of the clip (the really good nuggets, in my opinion, are underlined)?   

Col. Slade: "I don't know who went to this place — William Howard Taft, William Jennings Bryan, William Tell, whoever. Their spirit is dead; if they ever had one, it's gone. You're building a rat ship here — a vessel for sea-going snitches. And if you think you're preparing these minnows for manhood, you better think again. Because I say you are killing the very spirit this institution proclaims it instills! What a sham! What kind of show are you guys puttin' on here today? I mean, the only class in this act is sittin' next to me. And I'm here to tell you, this boy's soul is intact. It is non-negotiable. You know how I know? Because someone here, I'm not gonna say who, offered to buy it. Only Charlie here wasn't selling.

Col. Slade: "Out of order — I'll show you out of order! You don't know what out of order is, Mr. Trask! I'd show you, but I'm too old, I'm too tired and I'm too fuckin' blind. If I were the man I was five years ago, I'd take a flame-thrower to this place! Out of order? Who the hell you think you're talking to!?  I've been around, you know? There was a time I could see. And I have seen, boys like these, younger than these, their arms torn out, their legs ripped off. But there is nothin' like the sight of an amputated spirit. There is no prosthetic for that. You think you're merely sending this splendid foot-soldier back home to Oregon with his tail between his legs, but I say you are executing his soul! And why? Because he's not a "Baird man." Baird men — you hurt this boy, you're going to be Baird bums, the lot of ya. And Harry, Jimmy, Trent, wherever you are out there — fuck you, too!"

Col. Slade: "As I came in here, I heard those words, "cradle of leadership." Well, when the bough breaks, the cradle will fall. And it has fallen here, it has fallen! Makers of men, creators of leaders — be careful what kind of leaders you're producing here. I don't know if Charlie's silence here today is right or wrong, I'm no judge or jury. But I can tell you this — he won't sell anybody out to buy his future! And that, my friends, is called integrity. That's called courage. Now that's the stuff leaders should be made of. [pause] Now I have come to the crossroads in my life. I always knew what the right path was; without exception, I knew. But I never took it. You know why? It was too... damn... hard. Now here's Charlie, he's come to the crossroads. He has chosen a path. It's the right path. It's a path made of principle, that leads to character." 

Now that's good writing. And it wasn't plagiarized.  We should be thinking about how to instill that value in our education system, rather than rewarding the kids who pay to have their essays written or the bankers and investors who have made a big mess of the economy thanks to some accounting adjustments.  Thank goodness some models of integrity--incorruptibility, soundness, completeness--still exist.  (I know a good number of them :))  And they should be the ones rewarded... 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Swiss Singing

So today on my way home from Bern, I listened to RadioLab's Lost & Found podcast... amazing for several reasons: 1) I always get lost, and apparently there's a people in Australia who NEVER get lost because it's a feature of their language (yeah, that's right... how are you translates to where you going, which has approximately 80 answers based on how precise they are on that compass rose).  I was trying to figure out which direction I was walking on the way home... going to work on that, maybe my sense of direction will get better.  2) There was this beautiful story of a couple in love and how a young man roused his beloved from the dead, "pulling her out of the wall" she had been shut in after a tragic accident.  Seriously, I had to restrain myself from weeping.  It was also oddly reminiscent of Le Scaphandre et le Papillon.    If you want to listen to the rest of the podcast (it's pretty sweet!), check it here:  New Episode: Lost & Found

Aside from that, with about ten minutes left to go in my podcast, I could hear something else through my headphones: a young man across the way was singing it out.  SINGING IT OUT, I tell you.  The two ladies who were sitting near me (directly across from me and across the aisle) smiled and chuckled.  It was a nice little neighborly moment... the Swiss crooner was hilarious.  And he didn't care what anyone else thought about it.  So sing it out... it'll make someone's day. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

On revolution...

Ever since I studied the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution in my IB World Studies classes in high school, I've been intrigued by the idea of popular uprisings as a way to bring about social change.  To say nothing of our own American Revolution.  

One of the greatest books I read then was Crane Brinton's Anatomy of a Revolution (shout-out to Mrs. McGloine, the best history teacher ever!), and here's what he says about the revolutionary process:

"financial breakdown, [to] organization of the discontented to remedy this breakdown ... revolutionary demands on the part of these organized discontented, demands which if granted would mean the virtual abdication of those governing, attempted use of force by the government, its failure, and the attainment of power by the revolutionists" (p.253).

So, it seems that in Egypt they're at the "attempted use of force by the government, its failure" part... Here's hoping the power goes to the revolutionists soon, before more blood is shed. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Life ain't a track meet... it's a marathon.

So, as I've been tying on my running shoes lately, four times a week, religiously, as my training program prescribes, I've also been thinking that maybe I should approach my dissertation writing with the same zeal and rigor.  I mean, let's consider the similarities:

Marathon: Sixteen-weeks to train                 Diss: Twenty weeks left in Geneva
It's a LONG haul: 26.2 miles                         It's a LONG haul: 250 pages
Sometimes I hate it... I don't WANNA run    Sometimes I hate it... I don't WANNA write
Sometimes I love it... Runner's high              Sometimes I love it... Light bulb goes off
Requires daily commitment                           Requires daily commitment
Easy to procrastinate (ooooh, just ate)           Easy to procrastinate (new Glee show!)
I have to do it... even if others are training.   I have to do it... even if others are writing.
It's tiring!  My legs are pooped!                     It's tiring!  My brain is pooped!   
Apparently, you hit a wall (mile 20 or so)     Apparently, you hit a wall (chs. 1.5, et al.)
Equipment required: shoes, goos, carbs        Equipment required: compy, Coke, books
Reward=satisfaction and a medal                  Reward at the end=satisfaction and a
                                                                       piece of paper with three little letters on it   

I'm pretty sure there are other similarities, but maybe if I start thinking about my diss as if it were a marathon, I'll make steadier progress.  Rome wasn't built in a day, I won't run a marathon tomorrow, but I will in May this year.  I won't finish my dissertation tomorrow, but I will hopefully have it done and defended by May 2012.  Let the training begin!  Petit à petit, l'oiseau fait son nid.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Don't Stop Believing...

Recently, I've had this song on repeat on my iPod:  Don't Stop Believin' (Glee version)

Whenever I feel downtrodden, it lifts my spirits... I'm a bit of a sucker for cheese.   And I'm not afraid to say it. :)

But seriously, Journey had something right when they wrote this song...

We may not be able to choose what happens to us all the time, but we can choose how we react. Negativity usually begets more negativity--it's a downward spiral.  But smile at the world, and it often smiles with you.

I've become a bit disenchanted with the whole academic enterprise, with all the reports about slashed budgets, fewer positions, and an overall bleak job outlook for my field... but I really want to finish this dissertation and earn my degree, no matter what I end up doing with it.  Don't stop believing in achieving the dream. 

We can move mountains if we want to--see Tunisia and Egypt.  Our voices can and should be heard.  Don't stop believing in our power to affect change. 

When it comes to matters of the heart, as Jamie Randall says in Love and Other Drugs: "You meet thousands of people, and then you meet one person, and your life is changed… forever." And when it's the real deal, it's the real deal.  Don't stop believing in true love.    

And as far as matters of faith are concerned... questions and doubts abound sometimes.  I believe there's a reason for everything though, and asking the questions, trying to make sense of it all is half the fun.  Don't stop believing...

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Le regard de l'autre... through the eyes of my father

Speaking of the other's gaze, it's been wonderful to have my dad around for the past ten days or so.  We went all around town, and his gaze was drawn to things I've never given a second glance... Oh, look at that, Mary, what are THOSE for?  I had never even noticed the teeny-tiny chimneys on rooftops all over!  He wanted to drink everything in and kept exclaiming how beautiful the city is (he's right :)).  Even the landscapes and images he tried to capture on film were different.  Kinda makes you wonder what it might be like to be in someone else's brain for a minute... is the way I perceive the physical world the same as the way someone else does?  Probably not. 

As for how he views others, he wanted to jump right in and get involved in the action.  He's like that in the United States, too, and it just might be where I got my tendency to talk to random strangers (though I'm more inclined to do it in the U.S. than here).  In Paris, he wanted to greet people and interface with them, like he does back home.  He wanted to look into their eyes, SEE them, and I wanted to avert my gaze and blend into the background as much as possible.  Why? Because that's kinda what you do in Paris, and I had assumed the others' gaze (without worrying too much about my own), so as to avoid being on the receiving end of theirs.  You know, avoid any potentially embarrassing situations!  Try not to bother anyone!

The reality is, the general response to my father's gaze was always one of welcome, amusement, and kindness... in Geneva, a café owner offered us a second round of coffee and apricot juice; in Paris, we made friends with two servers at a crêperie, one who actually apologized for her chilly welcome (she had scarcely said bonjour) and explained that she wasn't normally like that, that mankind had been getting her down lately.  She thanked us for our smiles, my dad gave her his famous cheesecake recipe (which I then had to translate--whoa, metric measurements and words like "springform pan"), and she finished up her shift with a smile on her face and a bounce in her step.  The other server saw us in the street the next day and stopped to shake our hands and ask how our visit was going.  At the Chinese/Japanese restaurant we went to, the owner offered us an after-dinner drink.  And on the way back to Geneva, we met a lovely couple, Marco and Létitia, who invited us to come to their Italian restaurant (I LOOOOVE Italian food).

We went there for lunch the next day (sidebar: we had some difficulty finding the place initially... our taxi driver suggested we call information at 118, since the restaurant didn't seem to be at the address I had found on Google.  I did, only to discover that I had called the FIREMEN!  At first, I thought this was a very disappointing linguistic error on my part with respect to the number, but no, as I discovered thanks to the interwebs and a fiery debate over the subject (pun intended!), the number for information in France is 118, and here in Switzerland it is 1811... for the folks who live on the border, not so easy to keep all the numbers straight! The fireman on the end of the line graciously gave me the correct number for information, and it turns out I had the right address.  The restaurant was just set back a bit from the street and not easily visible), and they offered us a complimentary apéro, an extra pizza, and a free dessert.  Seriously, when others see my dad, they must think:  give him something!!! :)  I will miss having him around (not just because of the free goodies), but I'll try to keep a bit of his vision... eyes wide with wonder, trying to see and drink in every sight and sound.

Le Regard de l'autre... Israel/Palestine and religion

To continue on with this idea about the other's gaze, I'd like to reflect on a recent trip to Israel/Palestine and the role of religion in general.

When I arrived at the Jerusalem airport, one of the first things I was asked when I got off the plane and was waiting for a sherut to fill up with passengers was:  "Are you Jewish?"  Soon after, a Moroccan taxi driver told me, out-of-the-blue, with no preamble, "I hate the Palestinians."  The only thing I could think of was WHY?  I couldn't help but wonder if he'd ever even seen a Palestinian, sat down for coffee with one, looked him squarely in the eyes.  There would be plenty of emotions there...  And I wonder if that sea of emotions would prevent that Palestinian from truly seeing the Israeli, too.

The real question is why does the lens of religion so often determine our perceptions?  Once there is a label assigned, a corresponding reaction is developed.  And it wasn't just in Israel.  The question of my faith came up in Cairo quite a bit, too, only there the question was:  "Are you Muslim?"  I would reply, "No, no, I'm Catholic, you know--ahl al-Kitab (people of the Book!)"  This prompted amused smiles, and I even had an interesting conversation with one of the guards at the Citadel about religion and inter-faith marriages, what works, what doesn't. 

Overall, my experiences in both countries, juxtaposed one after the other just confirmed what I already believed about religion.  First, we should all be so lucky as to be free to practice our religion as we see fit: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Atheist, Pagan, Zoroastrian, whatever.  Faith isn't about twisting an arm or burning at the stake in order to force conversion.  We can arrive at these conclusions on our own, hearing the voice of God or the Universe as it speaks to us.  Second, the instant religion is invoked to inflict pain or suffering on another individual, I think it is no longer serving its purpose.  No religion has the monopoly, and I think it's truly about teaching us how to live with one another peacefully (even if through history it has led to quite the opposite).  I happen to enjoy practicing my faith as a Catholic, but I don't hate anyone who doesn't share my beliefs. 

There seems to be one common thread across all faiths and life philosophies, and I think that's the primary thing we should be focusing on... 

Judaism: From the Torah~Leviticus 19:18: "Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself." (This verse was actually written on the wall between Palestine and Jerusalem.)

The 20th-century Jewish theologian Will Herberg argued that "justice" is at the heart of the Jewish notion of love, and the foundation for Jewish law: "The ultimate criterion of justice, as of everything else in human life, is the divine imperative — the law of love .... Justice is the institutionalization of love in society .... This law of love requires that every man be treated as a Thou, a person, an end in himself, never merely as a thing or a means to another's end. When this demand is translated into laws and institutions under the conditions of human life in history, justice arises.

Islam:  From the Qur'an~41:33: Nor can Goodness and Evil be equal. Repel (Evil) with what is better: then will he between whom and thee was hatred become as it were thy friend and intimate!

60:8: Allah does not forbid you respecting those who have not made war against you on account of (your) religion, and have not driven you forth from your homes, that you show them kindness and deal with them justly; surely Allah loves the doers of justice.

From the Hadith-~"You will not enter paradise until you have faith; and you will not complete your faith till you love one another." (Muslim)
Christianity: John 13:34~A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

1 John 3:18 : "Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and truth".

Buddhism:  The Buddha taught the following to his son Rahula (from "Old path white clouds" by Thich Nhat Hahn): "Rahula, practice loving kindness to overcome anger. Loving kindness has the capacity to bring happiness to others without demanding anything in return.  Practice compassion to overcome cruelty. Compassion has the capacity to remove the suffering of others without expecting anything in return.  Practice sympathetic joy to overcome hatred. Sympathetic joy arises when one rejoices over the happiness of others and wishes others well-being and success.  Practice non-attachment to overcome prejudice. Non-attachment is the way of looking at all things openly and equally. This is because that is. Myself and others are not separate. Do not reject one thing only to chase after another.  I call these the four immeasurables. Practice them and you will become a refreshing source of vitality and happiness for others."
Hinduism:  The religious teacher Sri Ramakrishna (1836–1886) taught that "Lovers of God do not belong to any caste . . . A brahmin without this love is no longer a brahmin. And a pariah with the love of God is no longer a pariah. Through bhakti (devotion to God) an untouchable becomes pure and elevated."

Secular Humanism:  Carl Sagan~ "For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love."

"The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity -- in all this vastness -- there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It's been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."

To sum it up, all you need is love, no matter where you sit.  If anyone has other examples of religious traditions or philosophies that focus on the same thing, feel free to comment or share a quote..,

Le Regard de l'Autre...

As someone who studies colonialism and post-colonialism, I'm often thinking about "Le Regard de l'Autre" (the Other's Gaze).  How do we perceive others, and how do others perceive us?  When misperceptions take place, what is actually the root cause of them?  Perhaps the real problem is that we're not willing to look our neighbor, the one we call the Other, the one who certainly is nothing like ME, straight in the eye.  Instead, we cast sidelong glances or make eye contact only to look away...

Aside from my area of study, several recent experiences have prompted me to do a series of blog posts to reflect on this idea... the Other's Gaze. 

To start, let's consider a warm-up activity my improv theater group does from time to time.  Pick a partner, any partner, stand facing each other, about two feet apart, and look  at each other directly in the eyes... first, just to SEE them.  Your eyes can wander a little bit on their face, but the point is really to lock gazes.  And the exercise lasts for about five minutes or so, just this first part.  Let me tell you, it's not easy.  The immediate reaction is nervous, twittering laughter, followed by looking away.  How often do you truly lock eyes with someone you hardly know, and when you do, how long does that eye contact truly last?

For the second part of the exercise, an emotion is chosen, and you have to continue looking into each other's eyes, only this time you're communicating something... anger that this person has just stabbed you in the back, happiness that you are finally reunited with a long-lost friend, sympathy for a friend who has just lost a parent.  It's really hard to sustain what feels like a genuine emotion through extended eye contact.. but there really is so much that can be communicated there, if we just look.  I need to practice looking with compassion, rather than a critical eye.  And I guess we all could do better at that, huh?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Dead Sea Dreams Died and Rose Again

Well, I'm back from my journey to Jerusalem, Palestine, Cairo and Alexandria... and there are so many things to write about I scarcely know where to begin!  Posts on the Israel/Palestine conflict, religious tensions, muddling through al-3amiya al-miSriya (the dialect of Arabic spoken in Egypt), haggling over cab rides (and even getting assaulted in one!) to follow.

This story had to come first. 

Anne-Marie and I enjoyed our days in Jerusalem visiting with Terry and seeing all of the sites.  We checked everything off my list, in spite of sandstorms, wind, my persistent cough, and site closings due to Shabbat.  All that remained was the Dead Sea!  We planned to head out early in the morning and stop off in Ein Gedi for two hours before continuing on our epic journey across the border into Egypt.  We arrived in Ein Gedi, and it seemed the plan was going to come off without a hitch.

However--the beach was empty.  Not a soul in sight, except for the brave folks on staff at the Ein Gedi canteen.  AMA and I took it all in and discussed our plan of attack.  "Well, no one else is here to go in the water today, but WE are!"  Enter mean-spirited, cowboy hat-sporting ranger fellow.  "Oh no, you're not either!", he sneered.  "See that black flag up there?  It means you can't go in.  Ouch.  Have a nice day."  Ouch?  Followed by "Have a nice day"?  My dead sea dreams were dashed.  I had not noticed the black flag.  So what if the Dead Sea wasn't placid and flat as usual, the wind stirring up the sand and the surf?  My shoulders slumped.  I was so close to completing the Dead Sea float I could taste it... but it was not to be.

AMA could tell I was visibly disappointed, and we trudged down to the water with our luggage in tow, at least to get a closer look.  AMA even took a faux "floating" pic, a great camera trick involving my leaning back on a rock.  Almost as good as the real thing.  We stared at that ominous black flag and shook our heads, our hair whipping around wildly.

But wait!  A sort of lifeguard hut loomed above next to the black flag, and there seemed to be signs of life inside it.  When you're on the verge of achieving your dream, sometimes obstacles arise... and you have to overcome them.  We got the guards' attention, and I approached the window and asked sweetly... "Any chance that black flag will be coming down in the next hour or so?"  And they replied, "Oh you can swim.  Just be careful.  And it's very cold."

I leaped for joy.  Take that cowboy/ranger dude! The lifeguards from above had resurrected my Dead Sea dreams.  Appropriate, given our location.  I was so excited I started shedding my clothes on the beach (I had worn my bikini bottoms, but I needed to figure out a way to strategically put the top on underneath my shirt.).  The lifeguards called out to us and kindly offered their hut as a changing room.  Oh right, modesty.  They had beer and some kind of PlayStation or Nintendo system in the front room and some American eagle knicknacks in the back room (and heat!).  I rolled out of the hut and went on to complete my float, as you can see here:  Dead Sea Float 


The moral of the story?   Matthew 7:7-12
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Winter Wonderland Train Ride and RAKs

I've been meaning to write this post for a while now, and it's only today that I'm getting around to it, as the second winter wonderland train ride has already occurred (and then subsequent rides have NOT occurred due to weather). 

The first winter wonderland ride occurred about a week ago...  No snow in Geneva to speak of really, just a few flurries, but on the way to Bern, a field of white dotted with deer, snow-crested evergreens, just beautiful.  On the return trip, I was seated across from a young girl, a student.  We arrived in Lausanne, and I saw a few gentlemen pick up an abandoned scarf to return it to its rightful owner.  I smiled at their kindness, then noticed that across from me, the young girl had dropped her "Abonnement Général" (a fare card for which you pay a large sum up front that allows you to take any train, tram, or bus in Switzerland, with only a few rare exceptions--I have one, and it is AMAZING!).  I paused, not sure what to do, the girl had left minutes ago, but those gentlemen had done a kind service, so what was I waiting for?  I glanced out the window, and the young girl was standing on the platform waiting for someone.  Without thinking, I grabbed the card, dashed down the stairs, ran over to her a bit frantic for fear that the train would leave with all my belongings still aboard, screeching "I think you left this!" in French and handing her the card before dashing back onto the train.  She was a bit stunned (by my screeching?  by the fact that she had left the card?  by the fact that I ran off the train to give it to her? I'll never know).  But as I regained my seat, she gave me a grateful wave and a big smile through the window.  And I was glad I had paid it forward... 

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Oh Snow!

Well, apparently I can't get enough of the white stuff... Geneva is supposed to get 24 cm of snow in the next 24 hours, and I feel quite at home, like I never left Madison, at least from a climatic standpoint.  It did put a bit of a kink in things though, as the train route from Lausanne to Geneva is blocked.  For whatever weird reason, I left work a bit earlier today, thankfully, because when we got to Lausanne, a voice came over the loudspeaker and announced: "Ce train ne continuera pas jusqu'à Genève en raison d'un dérangement.  Veuillez descendre du train"  (This train will not continue to Geneve due to a disturbance (a.k.a. the SNOW).  Please get off the train.)

Oh dear, how will I get home to Geneva, I wondered?  That would be one hefty taxi fare.  All of a sudden, all the people who had just gotten off the train with me were running toward platform 6... we clamored to get on the InterRegio train, which promised to bring us to Geneva, albeit an hour later than expected.  All told, my commute took two hours and forty minutes on the way back today, rather than an hour and forty minutes.  The plus side?  I got to see lots of little villages that I wouldn't have seen otherwise (Morges, Nyon, Gland).  And it felt a bit like I was riding through a Christmas card, even if I was standing up squished into the empty space between two cars like a sardine for a lot of that extra hour. 

Tomorrow... SNOW DAY!  Which means I will write.  A lot.  For the diss. And have tea while I look out my window at the falling snowflakes...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Interesting Sales Tactics

And now for the funniest story from the Barcelona trip.  It was not the champagne-drinking birthday crew on the Easy Jet flight, nor the sweet French/Spanish bilingual little boy Maxime asking me... "Vous avez des enfants?" and "Pourquoi venez-vous en Espagne?" (though that was probably the cutest story of the journey), nor the crowds of older Spanish folks holding hands and dancing time-tested steps on a public square.

Oh no... this story is a tale of a Foot Locker employee's brilliant marketing skills.  The story begins with my need to find basketball shoes cheaper than I might find them in Geneva, where everything is ridiculously expensive (i.e. $250-$300 for b-ball shoes).  On Friday nights, I shoot hoops at the University's Centre Sportif Universitaire, and I am hooked.  I might be a little "nulle en attaque" (horrible at offense), but I love the game.  My old running shoes had me sliding all over the place when we had to do suicide sprints (oh yeah, we're core), so I knew I would want to find a pair eventually.  Carina and Felipe suggested we hit a few Spanish department stores, but there were no basketball shoes for women to speak of.  Felipe suggested Foot Locker--it's an American store!  They are sure to have them.

I roll in the store on my own, while Felipe and Carina printed pictures.  I perused the shoes on display but decided to be brave and ask a salesperson for help... starting in Spanish, then going in to English, once I knew he could handle it.  I explained what I was looking for, and the transaction proceeded apace, as he asked my shoe size.  41.  Interesting sales tactic number one: Raised eyebrows at the mention of my giant foot, he gently explains... well, we don't have any women's shoes in that size.  The basketball shoes we have though, they're all unisex, so don't worry about that.  You just want a shoe that fits.  I laughed, saying I knew my feet were large, and he said, no, no, it's really the Spanish women who are the anomaly: they have really small feet.  Good save, Jordi, the sale is not yet lost.

We stroll over to the selection of basketball shoes, almost all of which look decidedly masculine.  I will NOT be buying the LeBron James model, thank you very much, though the Jordans are tempting, more because they promise to make me fly and score mad points than for aesthetic reasons.  Then there's a pair of straight-up, practical, black Nikes... not too expensive and expressly made for basketball.  Yes, we'll try those and the Jordans, gracias, and the other glaring neon green monstrosities will be for some other unwitting customer.

Interesting sales tactic number two: Jordi returns with the big honking shoes, and I try them on.  Felipe has returned from photo developing and is there to offer his opinion.  I'm not sure how I feel about the black ones... are they comfortable enough, can I run around and potentially slam dunk (or at least score a simple layup)?  I'm not convinced.  So I try the Jordans.  I feel a bit like I'm an astronaut walking on the moon in these shoes... not so bad if I want to defy gravity? And this is where it gets interesting-- Jordi explains that the Jordans are not just for basketball, but really for walking the streets, a sort of status symbol... he'd go for the cheaper ones.  You know, Michael Jordan, the US, F**K the US, who needs the status!  The black ones, they're especially made for basketball.  Wait a minute, did a salesperson just say F**K the US to an American? (And how did he NOT know I was American with my non-British English accent?)  I laugh nervously, not sure if I heard correctly... a bit stunned, I look at Felipe, equally stunned, this time HIS eyebrows raised, not Jordi's.  I pretend to be a Harlem Globetrotter a bit, and I'm feeling the black ones more now.  I tell Jordi so, and I say, yeah, I'm American, but no Jordans for me.  Interesting sales tactic number three: Jordi covers his face with embarrassment, then says... typical Spanish joke, F**K the US!  You know?  F**K Spain!

Well, that convinced me.  I bought the shoes... and some socks, too, and as Jordi walked to the cash register with my purchases, his co-workers murmured in admiration: He's a professional... I laughed and said yeah, he's a REAL professional.  Jordi sheepishly grinned.  His co-workers just didn't know the code word for selling to Americans.

Post-script to this story... this is exactly why we need good language teachers.  Pragmatics.  What is appropriate to say and when.  This guy clearly didn't get that during the slang lesson.

On kindreds and "âmes soeurs"... reflections in Barcelona...

This past weekend I traveled to Barcelona to reunite with two of my dearest friends from my first year abroad, Felipe Welsch and Carina Haldenwanger.  It had been eight years since I had seen Felipe and four years since I had seen Carina (we reunited in Morocco a while back and had also seen each other in Montpellier before that...).  In any case, the point of the story is, that while "things" change--we've all moved on in our lives, moved around, worked different jobs... and they even got married (to each other!)--some things just never change.  It was such a joy to be in their presence again... we had lots to catch up on, and then there were also the contented, comfortable silences born of just being together.  The weekend really wasn't about touring the city too much (Carina and I had done that when we came to Barcelona the first time when we were living in Montpellier :)), though we did some... it was lovely to see the Mediterranean and enjoy the energy of a city by the ocean.  It is amazing what a temperate climate can do for the soul!  It was more about enjoying each other's company (and lots of great food!) and talking about things that matter, as we always did before.

It called to mind a passage I read in Khalil Gibran's The Prophet, which I sent to my kindreds before I left Madison...

"And a youth said, Speak to us of Friendship. 
And he answered, saying:
Your friend is your needs answered. 
He is your field which you sow with love and reap with thanksgiving. 
And he is your board and your fireside. 
For you come to him with your hunger, and you seek him for peace. 

When your friend speaks his mind you fear not the "nay" in your own mind, nor do you withhold the "ay." 
And when he is silent your heart ceases not to listen to his heart;
For without words, in friendship, all thoughts, all desires, all expectations are born and shared, with joy that is unacclaimed. 
When you part from your friend, you grieve not;
For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.

And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit. 
For love that seeks aught but the disclosure of its own mystery is not love but a net cast forth: and only the unprofitable is caught. 

And let your best be for your friend.
If he must know the ebb of your tide, let him know its flood also. 
For what is your friend that you should seek him with hours to kill? 
Seek him always with hours to live. 
For it is his to fill your need, but not your emptiness. 
And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures. 
For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed."

As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches (tomorrow!), I'm thankful for the friends in my life to whom I give my best and who give me their best in return... for the friends who enrich my life with meaning and are willing to ponder the important questions with me (even if they don't necessarily have the answers)... for the friends I am sad to leave but whom I know are never far from my heart... for the new friends I have discovered who make me feel at home... for the friends I know I will find again, and it will be just the same as always.  What a wonderful gift!

Friday, November 19, 2010

More train philosophy...

Apparently, the commute to Bern provides endless fodder for blog entries.  This past week, I ran into a friend at the train station (Bernard--he's an older gentleman in my theater workshop, a retired physics professor from the Université de Genève who enjoys talking about philosophy and religion.  We bond.), and this made the hour and forty minute ride fly by.  Geneva is kinda like Madison in that you're sure to run into someone you know at some point throughout the day.  Further reinforces the whole "I am never lost" idea. 

The ride home was also interesting, as there were two people quietly reflecting on their commutes: one woman was peacefully reading the Bible, and one gentleman was peacefully reading his Qur'an.  I don't know if they even noticed each other, but I did, and again, it made me smile.   No conflict, no violence necessary.  Just communing with God, Allah, whatever you want to call the Supreme Being out there... in peace.  There's certainly a lesson in there somewhere. 

As for the lesson in Wednesday's train ride home... well, I was eating an early dinner on the train because I was going directly from Bern to a university lecture by Franco Moretti, and I went to throw away my garbage in the little trash cans provided underneath the fold-out tray tables.  Unseeing, I plunged my hand into a big pile of mustard, thrown away by a passenger who came before me.  The gentleman next to me, obviously amused and better prepared than I, offered me two tissues to clean up the mess.  Lessons from this particular encounter?  Look before you leap (or throw away your trash).  Think about the messes you are leaving your successors.  And thank goodness for random acts of kindness.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Seeing and Blindness

Every Tuesday and Wednesday I travel to Bern, and every day the commute is different.  The light seems to make Lac Léman shine a bit differently each time, sometimes there are groups of rowdy high school kids making their way to the nation's capital on a school trip, other times there are feisty jokers offering me coffee and poking fun at passengers, mouths open, softly snoring.

This past Wednesday, a blind gentleman sat down next to me in Geneva, and in Lausanne, a group of blind people and their companions joined him.  First of all, I was amazed that they found each other--there are just so MANY cars on a train.  I was typing away on my dissertation for a while, but I couldn't help but listen as they chattered about censorship for audio books.  I had no idea this existed, but they were very emphatic as they explained the situation: many blind folks listen to books on tape rather than read them in Braille, and a certain books on tape company decided not to record a book that had erotic material in it.  Fascinating.  Of course, hearing a book and reading it are two very different activities.  On one hand, there's a certain level of theater and performance involved; on the other, it's a very intimate, solitary activity--the voice in one's head reads all the words and characters, and no one risks hearing any racy material, since it's all enclosed somewhere in the safe confines of the skull. 

Aside from this conversation, which I quite enjoyed, the woman sitting across me was sharing her delight about taming the beast of the ticket machine on her own.  (Man!  Delighting in such simple things--which aren't so simple, when you don't have the gift of sight.  The machine is all touch screens.  Imagine!)  When the controller came around to check tickets, she proudly furnished hers, and the controller explained that she didn't need a ticket, since she was accompanied!  Apparently there's some Swiss law or regulation that allows a blind person to ride for free, if his/her companion buys a ticket.  He reimbursed her for the ticket on the spot, and she kept exclaiming how charming he was to do so!  She took the majority of the refund, but she asked, ever so politely, if it would be a case of corruption if she gave him the 3CHF in change that remained in thanks for his kindness.  You know, treat him to a coffee.  He sheepishly smiled and accepted the gift.  And it was one of those moments that made me happy I'm human.  Just people being nice to other people.  It happens all the time, on trains, if we can just open our eyes and look.

"On ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur.  L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux."

Live like we're dying...

This past weekend I visited a dear friend from college who was visiting his aunt and uncle in Basel.  Unfortunately, the circumstances of his visit were not happy ones.  His aunt was recently diagnosed with leukemia, and his family made a special trip to be with her while they can.  As we wandered the streets of Basel, the conversation turned to the big question: If we ourselves were pronounced terminally ill, would we do anything different in terms of how we live our lives?

My friend's aunt has decided to continue to live her life as she has been all along.  No need to do a million things she hasn't done yet because she has lived her life with no regrets along the way, taking advantage of everything this life has to offer.

The question gave me pause for reflection... Do the people I care about most know it on a daily basis?  Am I happy with my profession, and do I feel like what I do matters?   Am I living my life fully?  As it stands at the moment, I think I am... and that makes me happy.  I think I could always do better at the first question, but I try to let my friends and family know I am here and that I love them. And ever since I decided to do the Ph.D. in French, I've been much happier professionally--it's opened many doors for me, introduced me to lifelong friends, and in general, I love being in the classroom and thinking about how French language and literature are relevant and pertinent today. 

Today of course, was a bit of a lazy day... the first in a long time.  And I think that's important, too.  Sometimes we need some time to just mellow out.  I don't want to be so busy that I can't enjoy the life I'm living either. 

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


It may serve as a comfort to us, in all our calamities and afflictions, that he that loses anything and gets wisdom by it is a gainer by the loss.
~L. Estrange

Today I've been thinking a lot about things that cause discomfort and things that bring solace.  Discomfort is often caused by separation from the very things that comfort us most--family, friends, and loved ones who are our rocks in times of trouble, the routines of daily life that are known commodities--whether picking up staple items at the grocery store (yes, thank you, I know exactly what brands i want, and a lip gloss will not cost me $22) or getting a document printed at the university (about 40 minutes for my first print job at the UniGe... now that I've got things down, I think I can do it in 5-10).  Small, seemingly mundane things take on new meaning in an unfamiliar context.  

A few things that have brought me comfort in the past few days?  My discovery of Lay's potato chips, peanut butter, and M&Ms available for purchase in Bern (I know--ridiculous items, horribly bad for me, but alas... I'm American. :))  Tea and real conversation with a kindred.  Halloween festivities with new friends.  The promise of a real, homemade Thanksgiving meal.  Skype/gmail conversations with my besties.  Sunset over Lac Léman.

Then there's the news of the mid-term elections... Russ Feingold didn't get re-elected?  The House is now dominated by the Republicans, while the Senate remains controlled by the Democrats?  A country divided. Hardly comforting news, this.   

But maybe there is some comfort in it after all--America is founded on a democracy, and the people have spoken.  I don't agree with "the people's" decision, but then again it's their right to vote, and my right to disagree with the outcome.  We have a right to express our opinions freely (unlike some countries), and America has sent a message.  And those of us who don't agree with the message should take heed.  As Estrange says, if we lose and gain wisdom, then our loss is gain.  It's change we can believe in.  There are still two years to work to correct the damage wrought by previous administrations... and doing that together is the only way to succeed, really.  All politics aside.

On a personal note, I am continuing to embrace all that Switzerland has to offer, transforming my temporary loss of country and "dépaysement" into wisdom (hopefully! though I'm not planning on growing a white beard in the process) and indescribable benefits.  The passage of time will bring me all too soon to another departure... and there will be loss and gain all over, comfort and discomfort when I return.  But also the knowledge that yes, I can.  :)  

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Retour en arrière... le premier jour où je suis tombée amoureuse du français.

"Ma bouche sera la bouche des malheurs qui n'ont point de bouche, ma voix, la liberté de celles qui s'affaissent au cachot du désespoir."

When I first read Cahier d'un retour au pays natal in Montpellier, France, I knew.  This literature stuff really COULD move mountains, change the order of things, express what you can't express on a day-to-day basis.  It could be put to good use, serving as a witness to events and experiences that otherwise go unheard.  

Last night, I went to my first (of many I hope!) theater performance in Geneva, an adaptation of Cahier performed by the director of my theater workshop.... and it was a return to my initial love story with Francophone literature.  I remembered why I do what I do, why I love listening to the French language, reading it and sharing it with others.  It was my first night out on the town since my quarantine phase... and it was great to bring together a crew of people I adore in Geneva.  On a fait trois soirées en une!, as my friend Bérengère put it (We had three parties in one!).  Theater, followed by a drink at a bar, followed by the American Party.  And then... we could have made it four with the Usine folks near Plainpalais, but it wasn't much of a party, so we continued along on our journey home.  I must say, whizzing around Geneva at night, with all of its twinkling lights, that is pretty magical. :)    

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Following up on the Pilgrims piece, while it was an excellent idea--in theory--to walk 25km on the Chemin de Compostelle on Saturday and to run 14.6km the following day with the Run Evasion Rhône, it was not an excellent idea in terms of my health.  I have spent the last three days sick and at home.  NOT my idea of a good time.  I won't go in to the sordid details about my condition (one word: mucus), but let's just say it isn't pretty.  I'm really not good with enforced down time.  I enjoy relaxing, don't get me wrong, but I hate it when I don't have the choice to do so, and I simply must, as the world goes on outside my windows.

I know, enough of the complaining.  It could be a lot worse.  Still... That doesn't change the fact that I have had LOTS of time to think about all of the people I miss back home and all the fun events I've missed going on here.  And it makes me sad.  Even if I sound like a whiney baby, that's the truth.  Quarantine sucks.

They say that life's a journey... Pilgrims on the road in fact.

This past weekend I walked 25km with  Olga, the woman who is in charge of the Foyer International pour Jeunes Filles, where I live, and Bérengère, a new friend who also lives in the Foyer, along with 125 or so other pilgrims. 

The day began with mass in Moudon--held in a small Protestant church actually that opened their doors to us (quite interesting really--it was a Catholic church pre-Reformation, has been a Protestant church ever since, and they still let us come in).  The minister of the church actually gave the sermon, and the main point was "Heureux plutôt ceux qui entendent la parole de Dieux, et qui la gardent!", a statement Jesus declared to underscore the fact that faith has nothing to do with being a birthright or an inheritance.  Rather, it's a personal choice that comes from within, rather than without.  It's not just a family upbringing, a mindless routine, something I've been forced to do every Sunday.  It's a choice... and I'm grateful that it is that.

Following the mass, there was a benediction and a prayer asking for safety for our footsteps... and we all chose to embark.  We were asked to spend the first hour in meditation (and that hour flew by!).  I thought about and prayed for my grandmother, who had suffered a stroke the day before, and was giving thanks for this adventure I've been granted.  Lots of other friends and family were in my thoughts as I was walking...  and then the hour was gone, and the walking continued, alternating between quality conversation with newfound friends and comfortable periods of reflection.  We were tired at the end of the 25km, and there was a closing service at a church in Lausanne before we got on the train to return to Geneva.  More time for walking and reflection would have been a good thing... but my growing cold had steadily worsened over the course of the day, and I knew the next day held 14.6km of running.

The Run Evasion Rhône race was not my best, in terms of time and comfort.  But it was a beautiful trail run through the forest and countryside... I'd like to do the same route again, when I'm healthy.  As the first leg of the relay though, I couldn't leave my new friends Carey and John in the lurch!  I finished the 9 miles and enjoyed the race considerably, given my state! :)  And I have the best European race schwag ever... a beach towel that I will surely use, as opposed to an ill-fitting race t-shirt. Proof that I survived!

Both of these journeys called to mind The Servant Song--"We are pilgrims on a journey, we are travelers on the road, we are here to help each other, walk the mile and bear the load."

I'm so grateful to have found kindreds along my way here in Geneva... people with whom I can see this journey through. :)

Friday, October 8, 2010

Coup de théâtre...

Soooo, today I am on a bit of a high from last night's theater workshop.  Three hours of theatrical play--the first hour consisted of warm-ups and introductions.  We had to walk around the room as if we were in a cemetery, then pay our respects to the person we had lost.  Too morbid you say?  Five minutes later, we had to pretend we were on the beaches of Bali, after a night out on the town... We could interact with other folks as much or as little as we wanted.  After we were warmed up, dans le bain, si vous voulez, we were put into six groups of five.  We were given some sheets of paper with elements that we had to incorporate in our scene.  My group had an article about firemen selling a sexy calendar to benefit children with cancer, a sheet with horoscopes, and an ad for a live chat phone number for gays. We had to incorporate at least one element from each sheet of paper.  So our scene?  Three girls giggling at home, reading their horoscopes... two gay firemen come to the door, acting as if there was a fire... in reality--they were selling their calendar.  The scene ended when we decided to go grab a drink somewhere.  Not exactly Shakespeare--but THERE WAS NO SCRIPT.

Before we performed, we watched everyone else do so... there were some really good scenes and some not so good ones.  But it was amazing to see everyone think on their feet and try to let go of their inhibitions.  Improv in English always interested me, but there's something about doing it in French--I just know I'll make progress in the language this way, even if I make a fool of myself in the process.  And since there's already the risk of making a fool of myself linguistically, I think I'll feel a bit freer to do so when it comes to the acting part as well.

So--the best part: after we performed the director says... Alright!  I have found my heroine for the next game we're going to play, a large group improvisation.  And he was talking about ME.  He says to me, You're going to play the role of Doris Leuthard (WHO? I thought to myself... no idea who that is).  He could tell I had no idea, and said, don't worry, not important, here's who she is: the president of the German part of Switzerland.  Anyway, the scenario was this: I was coming to give a speech to a crowd of people who were pissed off about legislation passed on insurance/unemployment benefits.  Journalists were there to pose questions, as well as angry citizens.  I had to calm them down, and say nothing that might set them off... although inevitably, I would-someone would throw a pie at me, and my security guards would have to take me away. 

Sure!  No problem.  A cake walk. :)  Having NO background on this stuff, it was hard to improvise my way through it, but I did--I tried to be a regal presidential type, turning the crowd's questions back on them, just as any good politician would.  Not an Oscar-worthy performance, but not a completely failed attempt either.  The worst part?  When I'm nervous, my accent and grammar kinda go down the tubes.  Hopefully doing this more often will make those problems become less pronounced.  I'm definitely thinking I will learn some new vocabulary. 

The challenging part--LOTS of people want to participate (around 35?), and only 20 people were admitted.  I had enjoyed myself so much, and I knew I was on the waiting list.  After the workshop, I learned that the director is doing a performance of Cahier d'un retour au pays natal in the next two weeks (for those of you who don't know, that is one of my all-time favorite books by Aimé Césaire... I just knew I was in the right place!).  So, when I got home, I wrote the director--not to harass him about letting me in, but just to say how much I really enjoyed it, and I hoped a spot might come open for me.  He wrote back and said--I was thinking about you, you're in.  You were great.  See you next week. :)  YAAAAAAAY!  Oh dear... that means I have to do this again....   MERDE!  (in both senses of the word... that's what you say in French in theater--it's like "Break a leg!").

Monday, October 4, 2010

Justifying language study's raison d'être

Today has been a great day... I've navigated the aisles of the Coop grocery store in French, listened to the news on TF1, attended a trauma theory class in English, and worked on my Arabic homework via the intermediary of French.  To say nothing of discovering how to say "lint," since I failed to remove it from the lint trap and got it all over my clothes as I was removing them from the dryer (I'll need to know how to explain myself as I hit the streets covered in "des peluches").

All was going well, and then I received an email about the deactivation of the French, Italian and Russian programs at SUNY-Albany.

Needless to say, this is mildly depressing news as I embark on my second to last year of my French Ph.D. program.  Seven fewer tenure-track positions to fill; seven experienced, accomplished professors back on the market.  If a huge university system like SUNY can disband its foreign language programs (except for Spanish), then any university can.  My reaction?  Anger.  Disbelief.  Disappointment.  For such a forward-thinking nation, our university education system--especially if it gets rid of foreign language programs--is slowly losing its mettle on the world stage.  I'm currently studying in Geneva, Switzerland where everyone is raised speaking at least two, if not three languages, or more!  Of the foreign students I've met from Austria, Canada, Finland, France, the Czech Republic... all of them speak more than one language, and they do it WELL.  They haven't taken a language for only three years and are now purporting to be fluent... they actually are.  Denying future American students the opportunity to do the same will only put them at a disadvantage on the world market.  We're already behind linguistically as it is, and decisions like this will only make the situation worse, fueling the attitude that English is more than enough, especially if it is US running the proverbial show (double entendre intended--did you catch it?  See?  Language play!).   

What has language study given me?  Another perspective on how to perceive the world (make that three!).  An openness to other ways of thinking.  An appreciation for words and meaning.  A capacity to communicate and express myself through more than one media.  The ability to put people at ease when they do not speak English as well as their own native tongue.  An introduction to literature in the language it was composed in (what, you mean The Count of Monte Cristo wasn't written in English?).  Jobs that I am passionate about--both teaching and translation.  In short, language study has dramatically shaped who I am--for the better.  Moving in the direction of professional degrees only simply isn't productive!  And this is not to say that I want to continue in the way of the old guard, writing articles that will be relegated to a dusty shelf and producing graduate student progeny that will struggle to make ends meet as adjuncts.  I want to become like some of my most admired professors and colleagues who are doing applied humanities work, putting language to functional use in society, and inspiring students on a daily basis.  There is definitely room for improvement and innovation in the humanities today, but deactivation will not allow us to do either.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

LOST... like the TV show. Only not at all.

I've been thinking a lot recently about the whole concept of being lost.  Here in Geneva, I have found myself lost on more than one occasion.  You know the feeling... you look around, nothing looks familiar, your pulse starts racing, and you revert back to those moments in your childhood when you were sure you could handle venturing away from your parents in the department store and then suddenly they are nowhere to be found?  Even with map in hand, I sometimes can't figure out which way is north.  I will walk along for a bit, then realize I am going in the completely wrong direction.  And so it goes...

But then I got to thinking about it some more... and in the grand scheme of things, can I ever TRULY be lost?  And I mean this even without the help of my iPhone--which I unfortunately don't have here.  The fact is--I know exactly where I am.  I'm in Geneva.  In Switzerland.  In Europe.  On the planet Earth.  In the universe.  So even if I may not quite know all the landmarks yet or have trouble knowing which way is north, I know I'll eventually find my way.  Comforting.

All of this reminds me of Le Renard in Le Petit Prince...   Le Renard explains to Le Petit Prince that he needs to be tamed if they are to be friends, that in this way they will become unique to each other:

- Qui es-tu ? dit le petit prince. Tu es bien joli...
- Je suis un renard, dit le renard.
- Viens jouer avec moi, lui proposa le petit prince. Je suis tellement triste...
- Je ne puis pas jouer avec toi, dit le renard. Je ne suis pas apprivoisé.
- Ah! pardon, fit le petit prince.
Mais, après réflexion, il ajouta:
- Qu'est-ce que signifie "apprivoiser" ?
- Tu n'es pas d'ici, dit le renard, que cherches-tu ?
- Je cherche les hommes, dit le petit prince. Qu'est-ce que signifie "apprivoiser" ?
- Les hommes, dit le renard, ils ont des fusils et ils chassent. C'est bien gênant ! Ils élèvent aussi des poules. C'est leur seul intérêt. Tu cherches des poules ?

- Non, dit le petit prince. Je cherche des amis. Qu'est-ce que signifie "apprivoiser" ?
- C'est une chose trop oubliée, dit le renard. Ça signifie "créer des liens..."
- Créer des liens ?
- Bien sûr, dit le renard. Tu n'es encore pour moi qu'un petit garçon tout semblable à cent mille petits garçons. Et je n'ai pas besoin de toi. Et tu n'as pas besoin de moi non plus. Je ne suis pour toi qu'un renard semblable à cent mille renards. Mais, si tu m'apprivoises, nous aurons besoin l'un de l'autre. Tu seras pour moi unique au monde. Je serai pour toi unique au monde...

Instead of applying these words to a person, I'm thinking of how they apply to place.  Two weeks ago, this city meant nothing to me.  The jet d'eau was just a fountain, the streets all looked the same, nothing about this place was special.  But little by little, as I spend more and more time here, I will tame the city and the city will tame me.  It will be imbued with meaning, unique, as no other city can be.  I certainly won't be getting lost any more by the end of my ten months here (I hope :)).  And I'll recall those first moments of fear.... and smile.  As Le Renard explained his greatest secret, "On ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur.  L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux."  So far I've only been looking with my eyes... Here's to "l'apprivoisement" and the many steps that have to take place in between in order to see rightly.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Pasta, Pinot Noir, Pensées... Patience.

Following my delicious dinner of pasta and pinot noir, I have some time to record my thoughts about the past couple of days.  I forgot just how much of a whirlwind it is to get settled into a new home for a year!  Thursday was a bit of a recovery day.  I did a few errands--got a few grocery/kitchen items, got my demi-tarif card for the train, and my first snafu of the trip occurred.  My debit card got refused at the train station, so I went to an ATM machine, thinking it must have been an error in reading the card.  And then... THE MACHINE ATE MY CARD.  SWALLOWED IT WHOLE, WITH NO HOPE OF RETURNING IT.  Pas de panique, I went home, called the UW Credit Union from my computer and sorted the whole thing out (even though I had put a travel alert on my card, due to a large sum, they had put a hold on my account!  arrrrrgh!  the replacement card should be arriving in the next week).  A bit of a bummer, but I knew I would get my fellowship in cash the next day, so not a huge deal.

On the whole though, I was having a bit of a sad and lonely day  until I went to a practice for the Cercle Choral de Genève, a group of about 80 singers who remind me of my choir back at home--welcoming, a bit silly, not afraid to use a finger to indicate where the pitch should be on an imaginary scale suspended in the air. :)  The walk there took about 45 minutes (since I got semi-lost twice--more on the whole concept of being lost later!).  When I arrived they knew exactly who I was, were eager to try pronouncing my name à l'américaine (I LOVE hearing my name pronounced by French speakers--there's something about those long vowels that proposes a challenge!), and directed me immediately to the Alto section.  This choir is different from the one back home in that they memorize their songs.  This definitely helps with working on pitch!  We practiced a few other songs, and then we took a break.  During the pause, the Présidente of the Chorale introduced the two new members: me and a woman named Sandrine.  I couldn't stop smiling the whole time, and I thought of my first choir practice with Jen, three years ago. I kinda had the same feeling.  These are good people :) The practice ended with a little mingling over wine and snacks, and I really enjoyed speaking French with them all.  The only difficult thing is that the Chorale meets 30 minutes away from where I live!  The Director was gracious enough to drive me home, but I need to master the public transportation options to get there myself.  Even with public transport, it will probably take around 30 minutes to get there.  I need to decide if it is worth the commute and try a few other groups closer to where I live, but I think it just might be worth it. 

Today was the séance d'accueil, or orientation, for international students who are here as part of a departmental exchange.  After being bombarded with information (and discovering I had a 2pm meeting that I did not know about!), we were served coffee and croissants and spent time introducing ourselves to one another.  The majority of students I met were there as part of the ERASMUS program--second or third-year university students, which makes me ancient by comparison. :)  I did meet a girl from Johns Hopkins University who is a doctoral student, and we enjoyed chatting about our research.  All of these introductions made me think back to my first year abroad--how much I absolutely loved it and how far I've come since then... I'm a lot less frightened by these types of situations now, a lot less concerned about my French (even with all its rusty edges), a lot less reticent to ask questions when I need to!  After this first meeting, I had to get the first installment of my fellowship--in cold hard cash.  Admittedly, I felt a bit like a baller walking around town with a 1'000 CHF note.  And then some.  Not a practice I plan on cultivating.

With that administrative detail taken care of, I went back to Uni Mail and ran into my new American buddy, Matt.  We had lunch at a great pizza place and agreed that we were both a bit overwhelmed.  Then it was on to the next orientation meeting for the Faculté des lettres, where we met our advisor and talked about course planning.  Just before the meeting, I crossed paths with Patrick Chappuis--pretty much the only person I knew prior to getting here.  It was a complete and utter coincidence.  The world is so SMALL!  And he's not even at the university anymore!  He just happened to be there taking his students to see the university.  Amazing.

As for the orientation meeting, about five minutes in and after some brief introductory comments, Professeur Tinguely told me I was free to leave, since the remaining information was not really pertinent for me.  I was the only one who got dismissed.  Everyone else is doing a certificat.  I still have the option to take courses--and I plan to!  "Langage des médias (arabe)," a course I've ALWAYS wanted to take and that isn't offered at the UW, and a course for exchange students called "Activité théâtrale: du texte au spectacle" where we'll be reading theater and going to see productions in town.  Those classes both meet only once a week, and the rest of the time will be dedicated purely to the dissertation.  Sunday will DEFINITELY be a writing day, too, since most everything is closed.  My goal is to write a chapter over the course of three months, so by the time I'm done here--three chapters down, only the introduction and conclusion to go! 

Freed from the meeting, I went to a stationery store bought a $9.00 notebook (yes, you read that right!  but I need a notebook that has a larger surface area than an iPod!).  They didn't have change for a 1000 franc bill, so I proceeded promptly to La Poste and opened my bank account.  And then went back for the notebook.  (Just kidding.  Fortunately, I had exactly the right amount of coins to pay for the notebook.)  The last errand of the day was getting my monthly bus pass and more passport photos.  Next week, I'll master the TPG.

 The biggest lesson from all of these things?  Patience.  There are often more steps than anticipated to accomplish a task.  Les commencements sont toujours difficiles.  I've been here less than a week, and I'm already getting a better feel for the city.  The only really major errand left is the permis de séjour, which I'll take care of on Monday.  Classes and writing begin in full effect on October 1st.  Practicing patience until then... with the process and with myself as I get acclimated. :)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Bien arrivée... come what may!

I have been in Geneva for less than 48 hours, and I am happy to report that the flight over went without incident.  Letters to Juliet and L'Arnacoeur were the two in-flight movies I enjoyed (I love Romain Duris!), and my neighbor's dad offered me some sour Skittles and Starbust to further my enjoyment of the flight.  I got to London, where I awaited my next flight to Geneva, nervous about having to either get an expensive taxi or navigate the train system and walk with my copious amounts of luggage to my new home.  The decision was made for me when I found out that only one suitcase had made it on the plane (the heavier one!).  This was actually great news because 1) I had dealt with lost luggage before in France, so no big deal, I was a seasoned veteran on that, and 2) This helped me make my decision about how to get to the Foyer International pour Jeunes Filles!  With about 40 pounds less to weigh me down, I found the train station and then hauled my luggage to my quintessential Swiss apartment (aside from the no male visitors thing!).  My studio is AWESOME--kitchenette, bathroom, plenty of closet space, a sweet desk (which I anticipate will inspire some great dissertation writing), a balcony (which I anticipate will inspire some great dissertation writing distraction) and a bed that can sleep all 5'9" of me.  :)  Pictures for your viewing pleasure are below.

The woman who runs the residence has been such a huge help--she advised me on where to eat for cheap, gave me directions to the closest SwissCom to get my new cell phone, and even loaned me a hairdryer for the year--no purchase necessary! :)  Aside from that, she's been very motherly, in a good way, and I'm looking forward to meeting the other girls who live here on Friday for our first group meeting.

My French is rusty, but the good news is I think I'll get along just fine.  UniGe has cours d'appui for French, and I intend to take one to improve my spoken expression.  The first gentleman I spoke to at the cell phone store couldn't place my accent, and the second one I spoke to at a different cell phone store asked me if I had lived in France before, since I couldn't have simply "just arrived" given how well I spoke.  You can guess which gentleman got my business. :)

Other snafus and cultural frustrations?

In spite of my great French at SwissCom, when I installed the SIM card (not something they do for you here, like they do in the U.S.!), it was set to the German language.  After some coaching with my good friends AMA who speaks German and Carina who IS German, I fumbled through and found the SIM language setting.

I went to the grocery store, located all the items I needed (GREAT! NOT TOO EXPENSIVE!) and promptly felt like an imbecile when the cashier told me that I needed to weigh the produce.  :)  She was very understanding and even ran over to help me as I muddled through.  The other customers in the check-out line took it well, too.  The guy behind me must have been American because he said, "Don't worry, it happens to everybody." Whew.  At least I didn't start a riot.

I also checked out the bank to see about opening an account, but alas--no can do, until I have my student ID from the university.  Unfortunately, I won't get that until our séance d'accueil on Friday.  Until then, I'm working on locating a bike to get around town and exploring the town.

This evening I tried out the Geneva Runners group--I met a few people, but didn't go for the whole run, preferring instead to return and meander through (read: got a little lost) the jardin botanique.  I'll need to go on a few solo runs before I'm up to their pace.

All in all, a pretty good day, given it's only Day Two.  I can't believe I'm here and this is the life I'm living!  Lots of changes and new things to come in the next few weeks!  And I'll continue to update you all here.