Updating Belgrade

The bombed buildings of Belgrade: first stop on every bus tour of the city.
Eerie skeletons of former Yugoslavia, bearing the scars of the ‘NATO aggressors.’
Fascinating historical landmarks with big gaping holes through which one could see crumbling staircases, wiring stripped bare, and yes, the odd tree branch growing through the rubble.
Tony Blair called them a health hazard and insisted they be torn down.

The former Yugoslav Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Internal affairs, situated on a busy main street, and a staple view of my daily bus route to work.

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These buildings were bombed by NATO in 1999 and left, untouched, ever since. They serve as…a reminder? A statement perhaps? Or maybe there just wasn’t enough money or bureaucratic motivation to ever do anything about them. Anyway you put it; these buildings are one of the highlights of any trip to the Serbian capital. Grim, dark, morbid, and utterly unique.

Today, as I rode the bus home, sweating through my teacher-appropriate blouse and inwardly grumbling about the lack of personal space in Serbian culture I looked up to find that one of these dubious cultural institutions had been covered foundation-to-roof by an enormous advertisement. The broken bones and gut-rot of Serbian victimhood had finally been hidden away, and, judging by the newly landscaped front lawn, soon to be replaced by an updated space for a city that desperately needs updating.

I suppose even in the the Balkans one can’t hold on to the past forever.

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Senses and Scents

Smell

Your senses trigger memories so that every stimuli you receive is not perceived as new and leaves you perpetually confused. You see something with four wheels and moving fast past, your memory helps inform you that it’s a car. The olfactory bulb is activated by smell and triggers your memory. Smells are a powerful sense. When I started writing about smell I wanted to give a thorough list of the delicious and distracting smells I encounter in Hong Kong. But every time I tried to capture the sensation of a scent I was reminded of a memory, time traveling without leaving my shoes.

 

Hong Kong is made up of smells of people. Seeing animals is a welcome anomaly. You smell people’s sweat, smell people’s food, the oil from fried food, savoury deliciousness mixed with sweet custards remnants of Hong Kong’s European colonised past. Smells like these make sense in such a populated city, smells move quickly and never linger for longer than it takes to trigger a memory.

 

Hong Kong smells like five spice. This spice is sweet but salty like soy sauce and has an almost indescribable but unavoidable smell. I first encountered this smell on a school trip to Taiwan. The smell of five spice is strongest in 7/11. In Taiwan it was the sale of Thousand Year eggs, in Hong Kong it’s the sale of fish balls on a stick, both bobbing in brown liquid.

 

The staff room at my room smells like every staff room. A mix of coffee, Tupperware soaked lunches and exhaustion. My work is right by the ocean and the whiff of salted fish sometimes crawls up and surprising me. It reminds me of the supermarkets fish section I avoided as a kid afraid of the smell and the carcasses. There are a pack of cattle acting like loitering youth causing you to change your route and taking up way more space than they should.

Cows gonna cattle, ladies gonna tai chi
Cows gonna cattle, ladies gonna tai chi

Senses are only activated by new sensations. I’m in my third week in Hong Kong, into my first full week at work. Sensations are becoming less novel and just becoming life. It can feel deadening not realizing new sensations. The smells are less distinct, falling into familiarity the way a smelly room no longer becomes noticeable. During moments like these I look for new sensations to make me feel alive. The heat feels familiar, a recent rain making me feel chilled. The bus and metro of my commute feeling longer and shorter at the same time. I have my seat on the bus, I have my routine. I started coaching again, following that up with practice at a sport I know nothing about. I’m going to a ska show tonight having been invited by my co-coach. I’m going to play in a soccer tournament. When I take a moment I realize I am experiencing new sensations.

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Familiarity becomes memories and after comes expertise. I’m excited for my experiences, my new sensations, to become memories and to become an expert in living this life.

Be it Death or Be it Mercy, Just Let it Be

My aunt died. She died a couple of days ago and it’s okay. I’m okay, or at least I will be. She had been such an unconscious influence in my life that it’s the moments that came today that gave me the freedom to think about her unencumbered by all else except, of course, her death. These things happen; the life and death of loved ones. It is trite and admittedly cliched to mention that I have begun the reflecting process. Death does this. It was the was the moments of discussions regarding funeral planning that opened me up to drift.

She was always different. I remember only a few times ever asking what was wrong with her. My family is not the best with being open, so I was usually scolded or simply told that there was nothing wrong with her hidden by a smiles of those explaining. The question went away easily as a child. A thing I forgot to ask about again later until I got older. She had one of those awful neurologically debilitating disorders. It doesn’t matter what or which, that’s not the point. She limped as long as I knew her the left side of her body never quite worked. Her left hand was in a perpetually crooked, slung fashion. With all this I probably remember her aggressively Canadian accent over everything. It’s funny how that works as a kid, the truly odd weight of little things and the ignorance of the grand.

It’s made me think a bit about the bigger things in life. There are so many things for which I am ill equipped. There are even some things for which I am well prepared. Above all else, I am open to the knowledge that I truly don’t know. I am wholly aware of the vastness of the things that I don’t know. This is not to pontificate on the unknown, it is merely a constant that we all ebb and flow with and against.

On my birthday this year, a friend of mine asked me to go on a bike ride and he hit me with the huge, “So, what do you think it’s all about,” and I clarified asking if he was talking about life. He said, “Yes, what do think we’re here for? That sort of thing.” The odd thing is that he didn’t know it was my birthday, it just never came up, so it hit me rather poignantly. We rode quietly for a while and I told him that I have thought about this plenty, as anyone does, and that I didn’t have an answer. What I had was what we do here. The time we fill, or better, the hole. The deep pit inside us trying to find out what everything is about. It’s the great unknown and I am awful with unknowns. (You should see me with something as innocuous as misplacing my keys.) We fill the question-marked hole with physical things, clothes, food, money, sex, maybe even crafting. Hopefully, if anything we glean from the act of filling the hole, it would be smiles and true shared human experience.

My aunt lost her ability to fully smile and walk about 10 years ago. A few years after this, she was brought to a family wedding. She did what she could to ask if my wife and I were having a baby. We told her not yet, and she said that practicing to have a baby is more fun anyway and made me look in her eyes until I cried with laughter. She showed me her smile. She joked with me as an adult for the first time and held the eye-to-eye gaze until we really connected. We were never particularly close, but by no means distant. This was the moment when I noticed real connection and loss before she was gone. I knew that she was losing these interactions quickly. She was losing what it was to really have true human connection. That stuff can be lost too easily when people are feeding mashed food to you.
I don’t pretend to know what it’s all about. I still have the same massive hole that I try to fill with fleeting hobbies and culled laughter. What I do know is that real human interaction is the highest form of currency for the soul. Those moments where you can feel everything about a person with prolonged eye contact can not be replicated with any purchase or something manufactured. I will forget this soon and avoid people at work or out in the world, but for now I feel the fleeting importance of true indomitable spirit taking proper hold. I just hope that it is not so fleeting. I hope that I won’t merely think this way when near to death. I don’t want to fight my way out of eye contact for the fear of something real, but I think I do so because I’m afraid of what I see in myself when I see the humanity in others.

A sort of silence

This is a video from my ride home after open house.

If you’re up for it, play this quietly in the background as you read.  This is what my evenings often sound like.

Silent is not a word used to describe Mumbai.

This is not a silent city. Nor is it still.  However, as I mark my first month here, silence and stillness define my time.

Maybe it is because of the never ending sound and movement.  I think it is me instead.

At night, sitting in the strange corner of my 3rd story kitchen counter, window open, I can watch the fruit bats awkwardly maneuvering on branches 20 feet away.  It’s like watching turkeys try to fly.  Below them is a small building.  And old woman lives there with her husband.  She sits outside on a plastic chair and watches the fruit bats too. We’ve only made eye contact once.  She looked up and caught my eye.  We both startled, awkward.  Now we carefully watch the night and the fruit bats, instead of each other.  I close my window quietly, so as not to disturb her.

Much of my non-school time is spent like this, in silent spaces within the noise of a city that never, ever stops.  I take great pleasure in the balance.  Yesterday I walked the streets in the evening, stopping to browse a bookstore called Title Waves, and buying 100 rupees of sunset coral gladiolas.  I smiled at the stares and giggles of small children and ignored other, less friendly, looks.  When I got home I poured a glass of wine, sorted the flowers into a water bottle, resolved to purchase a vase, and set about rearranging my living room.  Alone with the faint honking of rickshaws on Hill Road.

These silent personal spaces are what I recall from moving to Kanazawa.  Afternoons walking my new neighborhood, marveling at discoveries, getting lost, going days without real conversations.  Evenings spent dripping with sweat as I stood watching ducks in the rice paddy out my window.  I didn’t think about it as a choice, just accepted it as inevitable.

Now I notice that there is a choice to be made, to reach out and make plans and fill my time with people.

And I will.  Eventually.  But for now I am moving slowly, enjoying my silent period like a child thrown into a new language.  I am watching.  I am listening.  I am enjoying the freedom of choosing silence.  And though I am solitary, I am not alone.    The grandfather on the balcony across from mine waved good morning today.  I smiled, waved, and we went about our rituals.  Later the grandson giggled at me as his grandmother brushed his teeth.  We exchanged the smiles women share over the heads of children (and men).

I have the entire city for company.

Touch/Feel

When one sweats in a mild environment you can feel the tingle, the accumulation of perspiration, before it overfills, spills and drips down. Those few drops build and pop up across your body. In Hong Kong during the summer, sweating is head to toe and feels like walking through the sprinklers of my suburban summer youth. Just imagine sprinklers set to warm and you get a clearer sense of the sensation. You sweat even if you will your body not to. It’s not unpleasant always, in fact there is something cleansing and accomplishing about your body being able to completely drench your clothes. The constant shift from the moist heat to the cool conditioning draws out the moisture in your body full force. It’s physical and visceral, reminding you, your body, and everyone’s sweaty backs, does things that you don’t want it to.

The environment of Hog Kong has other elements of extreme sensations. Drops of moisture, fabricated by the air con, drop on to your head and body.It causes you to prepare for rain when it’s only a drop. There are moments when I feel cold and hot at the same time a truly foreign and jarring sensation. When your sweat becomes a clammy blanket. Buses lurch past you engulfing you in heat from their exhaust.

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Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places in the world but I never really touch others or feel claustrophobic. This has to be partly because I’m about the same height and build as most people. In other countries people’s mass made me feel vulnerable but here I feel more normal. When I watch masses of people transitioning I’m reminded of the collectivist studies describing movement in these places acting like school of fish.

Touch is important when you make a lonesome journey. You crave it because connection is so close yet so far when you are surrounded by people you don’t know yet. This week I had a moment of touch. I joined a rugby team, by accident and to meet people. We had a drill to wrestle for a ball, sweaty and exhausted we wrestled for an overgrown oblong shape our bodies slipped past one another making contact.

Touch turns to a feeling, alerting our emotions, fired from external stimuli. What I always search for is a feeling of comfort and acceptance. I’ve gotten an apartment in Hong Kong, I’ve chosen a place to live. It was a struggle, forcing me to be an adult with responsibilities, the decision a weight that I usually run away from. But once I signed the papers for my home for the next two years that weight lifted. After the first official day of work I needed to do something for myself. I wandered around my new neighborhood and felt so complete. Maybe it was because I knew this was my neighborhood, or maybe it was because I knew this was my home, but now I feel I own my decisions and with it my comfort. I feel more confident than I ever have in my life. I feel confident because I feel competent. Hong kong’s public transport, tiny size, and isolated costal development means I haven’t felt lost yet. I feel stressed, I feel bored, I feel happy, I feel confused, I feel frustrated, I feel proud, I feel curious, I feel like an adult.

Brief Musings on the Island of the Twin Cities

The Twin Cities is a curious place. It is filled with culture. Not the kind of culture of a collective ethos, look, or specific type of food in which we specialize, but culture that of art, plays and music. While we certainly have the midwest comfort food built on hot dish and potato-based everything and there is always something to do or see, which can be equally tantalizing and easy to ignore. There may be a show you want to see tonight, but you can always talk yourself out of it to go to the show tomorrow. The Twin Cities are second only to New York for most exhilitable art per capita. Whatever the hell that means. I gather that essentially, we have a lot of places to look at art and see actors or musicians perform. It had to happen, really. Or rather, it was bound to.

The Cities, as it is more colloquially referred to by anyone in a smaller Minnesotan town, is an island. Every other single metropolis has a back-up city nearby, an escape plan. That, or the city in question is simply big enough not to warrant the need and it is the back-up plan. The coasts are riddled with options for day trips to another burg, some less than an hour. Each of which are unique opportunities for the traveller. Even other parts of the Midwest have their options: Denver to Boulder, Omaha to Kansas City, St. Louis to Indianapolis, Detroit to Columbus etc. We may have expansive scenic vantage points and more shoreline than the entire state of California, but not a single damnable city within less than a 5 hour drive. Not here. Not in The Cities. Minneapolis has St. Paul and St. Paul has Minneapolis. Most won’t even cross the Mississippi to venture to it’s sibling city anyhow. Milwaukee is our only viable option with that five-hour journey to boot. At that point why not go to Chicago? At that rate, why not make a bigger trip out of it? Why not stay a while? This can be daunting and it may be easier to stay in, which most do.

Because of this metropolitan island in which we live, art was bound to grow. A cultural scene must be developed and curated. This is why we have so much exhibitable art. Which perhaps means anyone with a loft in Northeast Minneapolis has to have it double as a makeshift art studio or you get ostracized and evicted. Why, what would happen on the the bi-annual art crawl if you just lived in your living space? Or the Art-A-Whirl? Or Art Crank? Or what ever momentary art movement is going on? We’ll never know. We cling to it. We need it. We are the penguins of our beloved tundra clinging together for warmth and camaraderie.

Everyone is an artist, was an artist, friends with an artist, is related to an artist, dated or is dating an artist. (I’ve lost count of my art-based relationships.) It’s just that no one buys the art. It’s just a place to be seen at the scene. We go to all of these yearly, mostly with friends to see friends. We are a part of the problem and yet part of the preservation of exhibitable art without buying more than $25 print here and there. No one gets famous; you get known. “You are known in The Cities for…” You are only anointed true fame. Fame, by which you get by earning your chops in another city that we can’t get to, so you have to truly leave. But they all come back to show the scene just how big their britches have gotten. And good for them, truly. No cynicism. It’s good for the Twin Cities. We need it in this island. 

I love the Twin Cities. I love Minneapolis. I love Saint Paul. I enjoy the solitude of forests and the expansive calm of the lakes provided. I bike everywhere and we are noted worldwide for this very enthusiasm. I have now become that guy that bikes in the all winter. I soak up all the art shows I can, every open street, every farmer’s market, go to a lake twice a week in the summer, I camp, I canoe, I go to the state fair multiple times a year, and I smile at folks when I walk by them like The Cities’ legend implies. With all this, I still wish for a sister city that we weren’t touching. One with a noticeably different vibe. If not for anything else, those living here to be able to say with true affirmation that they’ve chosen this place rather than those outside feeling that we are merely stuck on this island. We’re all penguins in this together.

Galapagos

Some have said “we have nice kids.”

As though that differentiates them from the other kids?

It does.

And it doesn’t.

Four days of school and I was floored.

Floored by how obviously phenomenal these kids’ educational experiences had been.  By how quickly they trusted.  By my full pencil basket at the end of the day.

Scarcity is not a problem here.

I feel foolish as I hoard school supplies.  Habits of necessity are hard to break.

Someone mentioned the Galapagos.

THIS, I think.

They are Galapagos students.

Actively learning, harmoniously engaging because their educational experiences have been specifically and successfully designed for THIS.

And why not?  When THIS is what you know… why not?

They are nice kids.  And so are the ones who used to walk out the door with my pencils.

photo credit: Mangrove arch 02 via photopin (license)