10. Books (2)
Though I’m not living in Paris with a group of expatriate writers and traveling Europe as an apprentice, the fact that Hemingway incorporates a lot of specific addresses, places, cafes, and bars makes it a much more relatable experience. By the time I read this book, I had been to some of the places he talks about and had my own experience and it was interesting to compare these experiences with the ones that he had. It’s interesting to see how an American living in Paris years ago had some overlapping experiences and overlapping themes when discussing Paris. I think Hemmingway experienced Paris more like my friends and I did because he really had to live in Paris, unlike Gershman who kind of just seemed to vacation here for a long time.
Part of what makes this book rally interesting and relatable is that it is based on notebooks he had kept while he lived in Paris and wasn’t written as a book. In that respect, the stories and memories are more real. This book made me realize that Americans have been coming to Paris and living here, having somewhat similar experiences, for years. And it’s comforting to know that while living here. The “Lost Generation” is often interesting to read about and although this book could be seen as a self-justification for Hemmingway, the Paris aspect of it is very relatable.
The Premise of Pitt's "Walks Through Lost Paris" is to expose the old Paris by recounting walks (4 specific ones) that he takes through neighborhoods in the city, and comparing them to not-so-long-ago (and some long ago) Paris. He includes pictures, details, and historical facts to do so. He goes about his historical excavation and unveiling with a few goals (I mean, at least this is what I gathered from reading it) in mind.
1) To educate people on the fact that Paris was not always the Paris that one thinks of today, or the paris they see when they stroll down l'avenue de l'opéra or look up at notre dame in the square on l'ïle de la cîté. More specifically that the old muddled, crowded, dirty, Paris was replaced (with the visions on Haussmann and Napoleon III, and a small army of architects and builders) by a more modern, pretty, straight, and regal one.
2) To wage a scientific excavation on the quarters, and compare them to what they used to be: essentially transposing the imagined old architecture of the city onto the current map.
I could talk for a while on my opinions of this book, but reading it has put me into a scientific-esque mode where I feel as though I need to number my arguments and draw a map or a blueprint or something. So, channeling Leonard Pitt, I’ve broken down my arguments about his arguments into two generalized points (utilizing specific examples).
Things It Taught Me: We often do not know everything about a place, and places evolve more than we may think…Layers upon layers upon layers of history exist, and something like a city can be dissected to reveal the past in a very scientific way. For instance, I learned about the history of the Rue de Seine(in the 3rd walk), which was home to George Sand, Housed Isadora Duncan’s Brother’s Academy, was where Oscar Wilde died in a hotel, and housed Queen Margot’s estate. It’s incredible to look at a city as a now and then and physically discuss the details that have changed from then to now, as well and how significant they are. Evolution happens.
My Main Qualms: My emotional side wanted more. Facts are cool, and maybe I’m less ignorant now….but unless you give me some first hand accounts of people experiencing this different Paris, then I’m not going feel a whole bunch about it. It’s interesting, yes, but I wasn’t inspired to keep reading a lot of the time. It is not without its extracts from famous books, astounding facts, or famous quotes, but they seemed to only support the thesis that “Paris is really different now--” or that “the History of Paris is crazy and complex.” The romantic inside of me cried a little craving an elaboration of the first-hand accounts of rue St. Julien le Pauvre (Walk 1, p. 54) where Pitt mentions how the cellars of one of the houses were used to hold overflows of prisoners at the end of the 18th century. An interesting fact, but how were they converted into prisons? What were they like? When did that stop? —I want to be able to understand what each period of time was like for a place, and how each was different more through the eyes of the people that inhabited it. Buildings and places may hold history, but it is the people who create that history (and the buildings, and the places for that matter).
Whether I enjoyed the book or not, I don’t know. On second look, though, I guess this book with a new tone that lead me to realize something about myself—that a scientific look at the facts of a situation are more interesting to me as supporting players in a book, second to first-hand accounts. For that realization, and a look at a new way to see Paris, I believe I owe Mr. Pitt a thank you.
To Read More About the Book Visit THIS SITE.
In the book, the husband is cheating on his wife with another woman. The wife finds out, warns him, threatens him, but he doesn’t stop. We find out from the husband’s thoughts that he feels bad, but he hates being anchored down.
I cannot generalize and say that having extramarital affairs is a very “Czech” thing to do. It definitely is a universal sin. However, it is true that the Czechs tend to take relationships very lightly, affairs are common and they apparently do it very openly. According to one of my Czech professors, it is unusual for a Czech in their late 20’s to be single, and they are expected to be married in their 30’s even if the relationship is not very strong. Affairs and divorces aren’t as frowned upon apparently.
In the book, Tereza (the wife) feels as if there is a communication barrier between her and her husband, Tomas. This is definitely something I have experienced with Czech men.
If you think that it is hard to understand a man, you have yet to encounter a Czech man. Being Czech and male in one form takes complicated and mysterious to a whole new level. As a people, Czechs are very reserved, to the point where it comes off as rude, but being here for so many months has taught me not to take it personally. I don’t call it breaking the ice here, it’s breaking glaciers before they warm up to you. And the men, even if they are interested in you, they will be more aloof than any other man one may have come across. Hard to believe, I know.
According to my Czech friend, (who will remain anonymous because I do not want to ruin her chances with any Czech man!) it is almost next to impossible to know if a Czech man is interested in you. They will give off small hints, and then it almost becomes the girl’s job to try and break the glacier and take the relationship to the next level. Needless to say, many girls here at NYU in Prague aren’t really getting the complete Czech experience!
Virginia Woolf wrote numerous short stories and essays in her lifetime, and she is an author we get to know her pretty well in Gallatin. So, I only saw it fitting that I read The London Scene while abroad (who doesn’t love some good Virginia Woolf?) In one of her essays on London, she writes about an elderly, local woman Mrs. Crowe, who more so than anyone else has a vast understanding of the city. In one part Woolf writes that, “…as she spoke it seemed as if all the pages of London life for 50 years past were being lightly shuffled for one's amusement. There were many; and the pictures on them were bright and brilliant and of famous people; but Mrs. Crowe by no means dwelt on the past - she by no means exalted it above the present” (Woolf). Here was a woman who knew the ins and outs of the city like the back of her hand, but she was always looking to the present and always exciting spirit of the city to find enjoyment in life. Woolf goes on that “Indeed, it was always the last page, the present moment, that mattered most. The delightful thing about London was that it was always giving one something new to look at, something fresh to talk about” (Woolf).
That passage made me think, kind of stop, and ponder over the meaning of travel and my time spent in London. It is important to always look to the present and see it as an opportunity – and this past year, that has meant being able to travel and take advantage of the time I have left at NYU. What a better place to do that than in London as Woolf suggests. Part of the beauty of studying here, is that there are many historical landmarks and places that have withstood the test of time, and remain in place today as they did in the days of Virginia Woolf. At the same time however, London also presents itself as a major, metropolitan city that is continually developing and progressing, especially with the Olympics coming next summer-- every one is busy preparing and renovating the city. Perhaps that’s one of the things Virginia Woolf was getting at... that I can take in and absorb the past that is still very much alive in London, but I also can take advantage of the present moment and the vibrant spirit of the city because “that’s what matters the most”.
“Spain is but Spain, and belongs nowhere but where it is. It is neither Catholic nor European but a structure of its own, forged from an African-Iberian past which exists in its own austere reality and rejects all short-cuts to a smoother life.” It is utterly unique and wholly timeless. What does it represent to me? Here are some of my raw thoughts…
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, flamenco, paella, gazpacho andaluz, Don Quixote (or Quijote, the unique spelling that Spaniards prefer to use), the unique ‘sabor’ of that thoroughly Spanish sheep cheese: Manchego, pilgrims making the long journey to Santiago de Compostela, the art of guitar, drawing in the likes of Orwell and Hemingway, the Alhambra’s majesty, ciestas (and the face that all houses have metal blinds to block out lights), dictatorship, tapas, Generalísimo Franco, the late afternoon snack of bocadillos, a brutal civil war and ongoing legacies, renfe (the national rail system), holidays for Santa this and Santo that creating many-an-unexpected ‘puente’ (break), Moorish architecture, la Conquista, the whimsical architectural and urban legacy of Gaudí, bull rings and the suits of matadors, mountains in the countryside ablaze each summer, the sound of the Spaniard’s ‘c’ as in Barcelona or Andalucía or Galicía (my favorite region of the country), mosques and synagogues and cathedrals, churros and chocolate as the sun rises in Spanish squares, café con leche, special laws of “those remote volcanic blips” that are Las Islas Canarias, olive oil with everything – everything, and art at the Prado or Thyssen or Reina Sofia, Picasso and Velazquez. And can I add Penelope Cruz and Javier Barden to those lists? There are my travelers’ tales, what I feel and share with others.
Yes, Spain is filled with contradictions in recent history: a strong tie to the church, a socialist government, a royal family, a party place, a free economy based on the Euro. But the country’s unique essence rises from this tension and diversity of narratives.
I am here now – and have visited Spain multiple times before – but had I never experienced this country in the flesh, this book would make me book a flight as soon as possible. And then, as it says in one chapter of the book, “stay.”
‘"Stay," it said. "Just stay and see what happens." For a person who loves to be on the move, it seemed an odd proposition. But the voice inside sounded so certain, so totally clear. "Stay. Stay and let things happen." And so that's what I did. And once I allowed myself to let go, things literally arranged themselves and I stood around watching like a delighted spectator as my life…was fashioned gently before my eyes.”
You can read amazing tales (like the remarkable ones in this book), you can hear stories from friends or visitors or residents, you can even see images on TV or in magazines, but one must experience Spain up close and in person to really “get” it.
In their book, Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong, Jean- Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow investigate why so many people love France, but not the French. Living in Paris for almost three months now, I found myself relating to almost every aspect of inconceivable French culture that they pointed out. The French, Parisians even more so, are a one of a kind breed of people. They have a certain air of superiority that is imaginable to a lot of other cultures.
The authors preface their book with an explanation of France’s way of operating. After listing a bunch of French terms they say, “We’ve done out best to explain them, but many don’t translate well, if at all. And that, in itself, is a sign that France really runs on a distinct model. The country can only be explained in its own terms” (31). In French class, the teacher often gets stumped in ways to translate terms and sayings. So many things that the French say are completely unique to their culture and are truly unable to be translated.
“Other mind-boggling customs left us scratching our heads as we were impatiently tapping our toes. Our baker individually wrapped every pastry she sold no matter how many people were waiting behind us to place their orders. Our dry cleaner meticulously (and slowly) wrapped each article in paper, gingerly, as if our shirts were St-Honore cakes. At the grocery store in our neighborhood, people still paid by check, even for five-dollar purchases” (40). My mind is constantly boggled by all these same things. There really is no such thing as “popping in” quickly somewhere to grab anything. Picking up developed photos, buying a quick snack, and refilling credit on my pay as you go cell phone should all take five minutes. In Paris, however, these minute daily tasks drag on because everyone here does everything painfully slowly and meticulously.
Sometimes it feels like France has been unfazed by the “need for speed” that is so prevalent in the United States. Especially in New York, we are all so hurried and have the mindset of “on to the next thing”. Here, they all seem very in the moment, and overly dedicated to every task that is in front of them. This is both a blessing and a curse. It is endearing and impressive that they have such dedication, but at the same time it can become very frustrating to feel like people are unaware of their surroundings, and therefore take all the time in the world.
I’m no expert when it comes to development, but the model that Ghana is following seems to contradict its goals. Too much emphasis is placed on participation in the global community rather than infrastructural development. The need for progress is recognized, yet the definition of progress appears internationally oriented. But I’ll leave that side of the conversation to my peers who have articulated it brilliantly in their book postings.
What I want to consider is Kapucinski’s style of writing: magical realism. Kapucinski was the first Polish journalist to be stationed in Africa and travelled around the continent during the mid to late 1900s. His book is a compilation of anecdotes about his time there and written in a way that describes his experiences with a dream-like quality. There is something unbelievable about his time in Africa, something that has characterized my time here as well. Everything feels surreal. It’s hard to realize its happening. It’s hard to believe I’m really here.
Once in a while, I have to tell someone, “We’re in Africa!,” just to remember that, well, we’re in Africa. I really am seeing palm trees and sunlight everyday I wake up. I really have stood in the prison cells where slaves were kept until they boarded ships that took them to the Americas. I really have seen a monkey tied to a tree in the middle of a road surrounded by zipping motorbikes and jumped into an ocean with questionable contents, both in francophone West African countries two weekends ago. I really did just travel twelve hours north this weekend to see baobab trees dotting picture-perfect savannas and cross into no-man’s land where Ghana meets Burkina Faso.
While I could say this whole experience feels like summer camp, that doesn’t quite capture it. What it feels like is wandering around in a dream. One of the ways Kapucinski convey this feeling is by throwing in short anecdotes, such as the location of elephant graves and how, for years, Africans guarded this secret from Europeans who couldn’t find any dead elephants when searching for their tusks (61). Similarly, I often feel like I’m just minding my own business when I’ll suddenly be blind sighted by some occurrence Ghana throws at me. I once was having lunch with a Ghanaian friend when some spicy soup squirted into her eye. She clasped her eye in pain, asking for water, but when she finally got water, she put it on her big toe. She appeared completely fine after that, like nothing had happened at all.
Even stranger is when I have dreams. They take place at home, in the US, sometimes in New York City. But then I wake up and I’m in Ghana, where everyday life feels so surreal.
Yes, the word Africa carries ridiculous stereotypes. It conjures war, famine, poverty, and disease. It is associated with wild animals, yellow grasses, and mud huts, ignoring the toilets, the suavely dressed, and the cities that spread and sprawl. But to some extent, the stereotype is not completely inaccurate. What it fails to capture in image it captures a bit in atmosphere. Because living here now, I feel timeless. Like I'm watching some kind of movie, I'm drifting through some wonderful dream.
(Photo is my own of Northern Ghana)
When one thinks of the foremost Argentine writer they most likely think of Jorge Luis Borges, the intellectual, the metaphysical, however when reading Borges' work it is clear his writing is not limited to those topics of Argentina, or South American or even the Spanish-speaking world for that matter as his words are now translated around the world in dozens of languages. So what makes his work Argentine? Well it would seem the very fact he is from Argentina makes it Argentine. His collection of stories titled Labyrinths is broken into three categories, fictions, essays, and Parables. The fact is that, on the surface, the majority of his stories have little or nothing to do with his country Argentina. He writes about Greeks, Europeans, and abstract universal ideas, only the occasional word left in Spanish, untranslatable, is the readers reminder he is a Spanish thinker. However in his essay titled The Argentine Writer and Tradition he provides the reader with a new insight onto the very idea of an Argentine writer and how it can at times be hindering.
Borges uses the another culture as an extremely effective tool for explaining the dangers of being a writer bound by nationalist thinking and cultural predispositions. “[The Koran] was written by Mohammed, and Mohammed, as an Arab, had no reason to know that camels were especially Arabian for him they were a part of reality, he had no reason to emphasize them; on the other hand, the first thing a falsifier, a tourist, an Arab nationalist would do is have a surfeit of camels, caravans of camels, on every page; but Mohammed, as an Arab, was unconcerned: he knew he could be an Arab with out camels. (181)” For the same reasons the Argentine poetry and prose should not be bound by Argentine traits and local Argentine color. This is a death trap. This seems to resonate though with the boundaries when being a travel writer. If you were born in the United States but wrote a book while traveling through Mongolia on horseback and that book is about the wanderings of the mind and abstract universal philosophical thinkings, you will still most likely be grouped and labeled a travel writer. This is the same way in which Borges must feel he can't escape being an Argentine writer. But he is an Argentine writer that won't talk about mate, dulce de leche, and gauchos but will talk about Greek philosophy, God, Kafka, and Bernard Shaw. Borges says his words are inherently Argentine, since he is an Argentine, and he does not have to decorate them with local color to remind people of that. He also wants to be regarded as an intellectual, and a force in the thinking of metaphysics separate from the fact that he is Argentine which proves difficult.
Once again this applies the travel writer but in another aspect. When writing about an exotic place with a culture different than your own it is difficult to pull away all the veils that are the obvious local colors and blatant cultural and or language differences and get down to the more metaphysical differences in a foreign cultures world view or thinking. These differences in thinking seem impossible to find because you will unavoidably bring biases of your own every time you try to examine them. In the position of the foreigner looking onto cultures its difficult to to note everything that seems to make up the local cultural color and noting that as significant. Sometimes it is interesting trying to distance a people from their culture and just look at them as human beings. “I do not know if it is necessary to say that the idea that a literature must define itself in terms of its national traits. (180)”
Borges close friend Xul Solar thought in a way similar to this as his art should have been considered more of an art of the world than just limited by the title of Argentina. Borges' store The Library of Babel reminds me of my visit to Solar's museum in two ways. First the story is written in a way that spiral staircases are leading you around a maze of the world library, or universe, and this reminds me of the Solar museum and some of Solars paintings. Its fascinating to so closely observe their influence on one another. And second ,is just the idea of Babel, and the universal language suggested in the title is like Solars imaginary language that he created for everyone in the world to communicate. The two thinkers both seem to constantly be stressing this importance of a universal understanding of one another in order to have a balanced world. He seems to be very interested in linguistics and how language can make shape our thinking. He says we mis-interpret each other, things are lost in translation. Which is ironic seeing how I am sitting here reading his translated stories. He uses a metaphor of a library of books in which every word is present but we still can't come up with the most basic answers to the questions who are we and where are we from. We search for this book of God that will make us omnipotent. It seems he is saying sometimes its better if things are left unwritten.
I was informed by a librarian at the UL’s Senate House Library that Virginia Woolf’s, The London Scene, had mysteriously disappeared within the abyss of the closed stacks. I then proceeded to unsuccessfully rummage through five different bookstores in the Bloomsbury area. Apparently no bookstore in Bloomsbury, Virginias Woolf’s own neighborhood, had a copy of her essay collection on London.
I finally located the only store in London with the text in stock and ventured down to the dreaded Oxford Street.
I hate crowds; therefore I do not like Oxford Street. I hate being corralled amongst herds of human cattle, tripping over rolling suitcases and bumping into people who think it is an excellent idea to stop, without warning, in the middle of the sidewalk in order to take a picture.
In the end, I managed to escape the madness of Oxford Street without injury and with a copy of The London Scene in hand. Though this small collection of essays is comparable to the size of a children’s book, it was well worth the price of 9 pounds and a half-day spent scurrying about London.
What was most striking to me about the collection, was not just how accurate Virginia Woolf’s witty depiction of this city is, but how it has managed to maintain an eccentric sense of timelessness. Virginia Woolf wrote these essays in 1931 for Good Housekeeping magazine, yet she may have been writing them last week. It seems that she had an astonishing foresight when she composed these essays. Or perhaps such correlation speaks of the timelessness of the city itself.
Woolf describes St. Paul’s Cathedral as a place where, “death and corruption of death are forbidden to enter. Here civic virtue and civic greatness are ensconced securely” (53). The echo of these worlds still reverberates, as St. Paul’s currently serves as the base of the Occupy London movement. Throughout the protests, St. Paul’s has refused to take any forceful action to remove the protestors, at the cost of lost tourist revenue. Many high figures of the church have even expressed support and sympathy towards the movement, ensuring that, as Woolf expressed, “civic virtue and civic greatness are ensconced securely.”
Even Woolf’s opinion on the members of Parliament is strikingly similar to how some may view today’s MPs. Woolf explains, “with their chatter and laughter, their high spirits, and impatience and irreverence, they are not a wit more judicious, or more dignified, or more respectable-looking than any other assembly of citizens met to debate parish business or give prizes for fat oxen” (65). I suppose politicians are always the same, no matter what era they serve.
But what Woolf seems to do best is capture the true spirit of London (the “Genius Loci”, if you will). She harnesses the energy of the city by gauging the ebb and flow of society. She understands London to be an ever-transient place, one of excitement and sensation. She says, “The delightful thing about London was that it was always giving one something new to look at, something fresh to talk about” (82). I cannot make an argument against this case. I have been here for almost three months. While I feel comfortably at home in this town, I am constantly jolted by some new sensation or happening. I knew I was in love with London, but I didn’t quite understand why until after I careened down the “ribbon of Oxford Street” to find Virginia’s answer.
“I had her watch how Romero took the bull away from a fallen horse with his cape, and how he held him with the cape and turned him, smoothly and suavely, never wasting the bull. [...] Romero had the old thing, the holding of his purity of line through the maximum of exposure, while he dominated the bull by making him realize he was unattainable, while he prepared him for the killing” (The Sun Also Rises, pg. 171-2).
I have had the good fortunate of watching a bullfight while in Madrid. I must say though, as much as it is a cruel and unusual sport, it is quite magnificently beautiful too. I didn’t really know much about the technicality of the sport. Even after I don’t understand half of the things that I saw.
At first, I was shocked. I never actually believed it to be so gruesome. There are about 6 toreros and one bull. The odds are completely against this animal. It seems like a taunting game, when the toreros are stabbing it. A game that eventually makes the bull weaker, not because it has spend minutes chasing around these small men but because it is losing a lot of blood. The crowd and I seem to be at opposite ends at first, they are completely amazed while I am horrified at the scene. Like many sport spectators, these people are knowledgeable in the art of bullfighting and can tell when the matador and torero are lazy. They scream and shout insults I cannot even understand.
Not until we get to the third bull do I begin to see the beauty of it. I am captivated by the matadors cape and his ability to be agile and free around the beast. Unlike the previous matadors, the young one in purple seems to be full of life and discipline. Like the matador in Hemingway’s book, he knows the beautiful balance of seduction. The crowd and I have our eyes on him and cannot look away. I cannot even wince when it seems like the bull’s horns might crush him.
He moves his cape swiftly around the bull, allowing the beast to grace his side. The bull and the matador become one at the some point where they are so close it’s unimaginable how he will kill it. By this point the bull is captivated by the matador. He is slowly losing blood, but cannot help but follow the seductive cape of the matador. We are all in a trance.
Once the matador realizes his opportunity, there seems to be a climax in which he and the bull stare off. It’s this absurd notion where the bull probably knows he is going to die and he’s ok with it. The matador masterfully plunges his sword into the bull. And it’s over.
The crowd and I cheer. Cheer because as much as we all knew the bull was going to die, he died more honorably than the bulls before and after him. Like Jake in The Sun Also Rises, I leave the stadium with conflicting emotions: horrified of the cruelty I have just witnessed, and mystified by the beauty of it.
Then that is all. The season is over. And the bulls live another day.
(Photo credit: My fantabulous roommate Tatum B. Gormley took this pic)
Troost examines every aspect of Chinese life both on a local and national level through his humorous personal stories – everything from pollution to cat-burgers to mountain climbing to standing on the edge of the North Korean border. He starts out the book with an idea of China being the future but along the way forms new opinions – he develops China fatigue – something that I seem to sometimes brush away as culture shock. China has a way of both over and underwhelming at the same time. He discusses the controlling nature of the Chinese Communist party and finds a way (even with more limited Chinese than I have) to talk to locals in every city and town that he visits. In the final chapter Troost discusses China’s future, “If you ignore the environment – an you can’t because the damage is utterly overwhelming - the future of China looks sunny –okay, smoggy—and I suspect that China would find a way to manage all its fissures and problems and perhaps Chinese society would indeed become harmonious – barring a complete societal collapse as the environment degradation undergoes devastating feedback loops. It’s a complex country, not easily summed up” (Troost, 376). And it is this idea- that the country of “Planet” China is in fact as complex as planet earth that is Troost’s concluding thought. This is not a book about what to do in China or what China is “really” all about. This book is China –the good, the bad, the fake stuff, the pollution, the governmental control, the the squatty potties, the dog meat and everything in between. Troost tells it like it is and isn’t trying to please anyone. His honesty and willingness to go everywhere, do anything makes this more of a story than any “travel” book that I’ve ever read – but I promise that it will teach you more about the real China than all the other books combined.
My initial thought upon completing this book was a bit hopeless. The book was written in 1984 and yet it seems as though absolutely nothing has progressed. While I know this is probably a bit of an overstatement, it’s upsetting to think about West Africa’s flailing attempts at change over the last 30 years. I’ve heard it said here that traveling 20 minutes outside the city transports you back 500 years. All the evidence I have seen easily supports this idea. Villages function in another world, with a different set of priorities, beliefs and concerns. As Packer explains “Day after day, men under trees, women in yards…Babies were born squalling, the old shrank up and died; time wasn’t going forward, it rehearsed the same small circle.” (150) This is the waiting that is alluded to in the title and throughout the entire book. Speaking about the people of his village, Laive (which roughly translated means “wait a little longer”) he continues: “[They] put up with drought, bad food, no money, and a litany of disease; but what awed and intimidated a Westerner more than this was the feat of doing the same thing, or nothing, day after day, without the hope of anything ever changing.” I’ve seen it first hand in Ghana too; the woman who has sold plantains out of the same shipping container for 45 years or the young boys in the village of our rural home-stay who start farming when they reach adolescence and finish farming when they die. One of the daughters that lived in the same household as Packard summed up this sentiment with a simplicity only a 5 year old could conclude: “You get up, you work, you sleep.” (148) Packer describes the dark expression on the 3-year-old daughter’s face as she is sweeping the yard at dawn: “She already knew in her bones what drudgery her life was going to be.”
It’s exceedingly frustrating (not to mention depressing) to be exposed to this type of monotony on a daily basis. Even before coming to Ghana I would not have considered myself to be an idealist, but I was genuinely hopeful that change was possible. Before Ghana I had the naïve belief that West Africa was slowly dragging itself out of misery. Now I’m not so sure.I have seen myself fall further and further down the path of discouragement, and then I remember yet another disheartening fact: Ghana is West Africa’s golden child. It only gets worse. You want so badly to be able to do something, to help in some way, but it’s like where do you even begin? It seems as though the continent is stuck in a perpetual cycle, the cycle of poverty.
A description of the book considers that “those who fastened their hopes on “development” find themselves trapped between the familiar repetitions of rural life and the chafing monotony of waiting for change.” While the problems of Africa are obviously more complex than what I can get into in this 700 word post, I need to be clear that I still believe that good things are happening and that some progress is being made, even if it is disproportionately small. I continue to struggle with the fact that because the issues are so vast and complex, are doing small things really going to make anything better? So we painted a school, great. But that doesn’t solve the ridiculous education disparities. We constantly hear how aid does more bad than it does good, but then how do you solve that… Do you get rid of foreign aid altogether? A friend told me tonight that 50% of Ghana’s national revenue is foreign aid… you can’t just cut that off in hopes of implementing self-sustainability.
At what point do you throw up your hands and just give in to the idea that these places are beyond help?
Packer seemed to reach this moment during a trip to Europe when he impulsively (or desperately or unintentionally?) ended up on a plane back to New York, cutting his service short by 6 months. The villagers had assumed that he died.
The photo is a PSA for the Millenium Development Goals from http://kivafellows.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/img_millenium-goals-hdr.gif?w=445&h=234
When I picked up the book I expected the stories to be very mythical and unlike anything that I had ever read before. But as I began reading through them they became recognizable. At first I thought it was because they resembled the Aesop Fables of my childhood, but then I realized it was more than that. The stories seemed familiar because the majority of the morals, and values that were told were ones that are so engrained in Ghanaian culture, even today.
For example, living in Ghana you realize pretty quickly how important having a family is. There is a heavy emphasis placed on kinship and the lineage you come from. Familial roles are also very strong. As it says in one story, “what terrible sin has been committed in one of their families that they should not have children” (138). While this idea is told in a story and slightly exaggerated it is not uncommon in reality either. Often when a woman does not have any children, it is thought that she is cursed or perhaps has upset the ancestors. Traditionally, the husband could divorce her because of this reason or his family could demand an end to the marriage. Having lived in the western world for my entire life, it baffles me that such a heavy importance, and therefore burden and expectation is placed on having children. The fact that a woman has pretty much no choice in her conception habits seems a breech of human rights in my western eyes, accentuated by my lack of desire to have children myself.
But the ideas are beginning to change. In modern, urban areas of Ghana there are many people who do not live in complete compliance with these expectations. As globalization increases and Ghana becomes more apart of the global sphere, there are many woman who are beginning to focus more on their career and have less children on their own terms. In the rural areas, however, this is the not majority. Perhaps that is why the art of storytelling is beginning to fade in urbanized Ghana but remains in the rural.
I understand now why the anthology was compiled- as an attempt to hold on to a bit of tradition in a modernizing world. As one of the editors wrote of the stories: “Do not relegate and restrict them to ‘once upon a time’. Let this time-honored phrase, known and beloved to us all everywhere, retain its magic as the password that opens the door to an enchanted and enthralling world” (xxviii).
Sex and love in Prague are completely separate. Sex does not equal love, and although love usually equals sex, it’s not necessary. In Prague making love is not a synonym for sex. Prostitution is legal, and women don’t walk the streets, instead catalogs are dispersed so one merely has to call. During my orientation they told us that one in five women at Charles University (the prestigious Prague University) has posed naked for money. Sex is casual and a way of life here. In fact, what we consider loyalty in marriage is not the same here. Men cheat on their wives, not because they don’t love them, but because they would like to have sex with another woman. And it’s acceptable.
On the flip side, I’m not sure if the life-is-short-and-has-minimal-affect-on-others mentality has sunk in to the Czechs yet. Although the beer drinking, sexing locals can get unruly late at night, there seems to be a somber attitude amongst the lot of them. Many lived in the Communist regime and under the thumb of oppression so the Czechs seem nervous, almost paranoid. I have not seen this “unbearable lightness of being” amongst my companions walking through the streets and it isn’t until meeting someone multiple times they will actually open up and have a conversation with you. No, the Czechs are not light in this sense. They are not able to live life “without a mission” as Kundera so aptly puts it.
From my perspective The Unbearable Lightness of Being, although historically accurate, showed me a Prague I was unfamiliar with. As Kundera followed the lives of his fictional characters I only recognized the sexual aspect of the story, not the deeper meaning. Maybe the author attempts to show the reader how life should be, using Communist tumult as a setting. Or maybe Kundera knew a different Prague than I.
In In Search of Africa, Manthia Diawara, a Guinean born NYU professor writes about these problems. At one point, a cab driver in Dakar tells him that “African leaders are not real presidents—they are mere ambassadors, who do what the “real presidents” in France and the United States tell them to do” (157). Diawara goes on to explain: “African governments should not be run according to the needs and concerns of Europe and America” (157). Though Diawara wrote this in the 1998, the statement is sadly still true over ten years later. Just a few days ago, England announced it would reduce its aid to African countries that had anti-gay policies. This has provoked a number of reactions in Ghana. Some people take the stance of “we don’t need your aid if you’re going to tell us how to behave” while others recognize the acute problems of a sudden aid cut. Nevertheless, England’s announcement is forcing African rulers to discuss their stance on homosexuality. England wants Africa to have more tolerant policies, but isn’t this measure just pushing Africans to follow European beliefs?
One of the problems with this approach to development is that it doesn’t give African nations the freedom to develop in their own manner. As Diawara articulates, other countries like Japan or China “did not wait for the advice of the white man to devise their own style of modernity” (158). One of the reasons that development has largely failed in Africa is that leaders are applying Western models that do not work outside of the Western world. Take, for instance, even the concept of the nation-state. It does not make sense to draw arbitrary lines in Africa when Africans divide themselves among their own groups and clans. Yet these divisions create situations where half of a person’s relatives live in Ghana while the other half live in Togo. These people are supposed to identify via nationalism, supporting Ghana or Togo, but older, tribe-based structures have more signifigance. Even today, a number of people from Togo will cross the border to vote for a Ghanaian president if he is from the same group as them.
I’ve also found that this model applies to everyday aspects of life in Ghana. Ghanaians try to take on elements of Western lifestyles, as they are regarded as modern, but it ends up not making sense here. People will wear jeans or high heels, somehow ignoring the oppressive heat or the muddy dirt roads. Perhaps the best example is the electronic key we use to get in and out of our houses. To unlock the door, you simply tap the card to the sensor and the door clicks open. Seems modern, less annoying than regular keys, but it doesn’t work so well when the power regularly goes out. We just end up getting either locked in or out of our houses until the power switches back on. We’ve quickly learned a more old-fashioned (but far more effective!) method—stick a rock in the door so it never completely closes and locks. Sounds silly, but the rock is an example of using local resources and methods instead of relying on foreign models that don’t function in this environment. Like Diawara, I believe that “Africans must find their own way in the modern world” instead of listening to Europe, Asia, or America.