6. Books (1)
Last year about this time in November I was sitting in Nolita trying to decide which shearling-lined jacket to buy for my trip to Patagonia. The icelandic guy helping me in the store told me he had been to Patagonia for a few weeks once and he said I had to pick up a copy of Bruce Chatwin's, In Patagonia before I set off. So I stopped by the Barnes and Noble on the way home to grab one. I went to Chilean Patagonia to a national park called Torres del Paine. While I got started on the book last year I hadn't been able to finish it until this past weekend when I took another trip to Patagonia, this time, to the Argentine coast at Peninsula Valdez. It was a pretty remarkable place where the orcas would swim up on to the beach to grab a sun-bathing seal. But what really struck me was on the third day we went to a small Welsh village where they still speak Welsh. That was the Patagonia Chatwin describes. It reminded me of the way he constantly and meticulously is obsessed with the people of Patagonia and their stories and not just describing the vast humbling landscapes. It is not the kind of travel piece that takes the reader through the authors discovery of physical places as a parallel and effective self-discovery takes place. The book is unlike other travel writing in that it is comprised of the stories of the people and the myths that arise from them rather than the story of the author, Chatwin, himself. Which is suprising because I was in Patagonia I found it is such the humbling environment that sparks those kind of rambling thoughts seem to come from deeper and deeper in your sub-conscious. It truly has the capacity to change your outlook on the world around you. If I were not reading Chatwin I imagine would think very little of the people in Patagonia but would rather think about the lack of people hence his approach is very unique and unexpected. Though his physical wandering and wandering through the lives of those he finds would mirror the wandering of the mind while in Patagonia.
The book came up in a creative writing class discussion in Buenos Aires. Though I can't find any actually articles about the subject online my professor said Chatwin was accused of falsely representing the real characters he found along the way in his travels but when they went back to investigate they used his extremely detailed descriptions of their belongings and the places they lived to walk them through the characters lives. Everything was in its place as described. This is just yet another example of the intense detail with which he describes and observes the environment around him which makes it seem all the more interesting he would not lose himself in describing the natural environment around him. He does this very little as he would rather describe a family heirloom from Wales (a distant and removed place) than the mountains surrounding them. In a sense it makes you question the ideas of being present. Were the Welsh out of place or since they have been their since 1865 are they exactly where they are supposed to be and every much apart of the experience as the glaciers, orca whales, penguins, and towering Andes beyond the steppe. This brings us back to the idea that we are constantly comparing our travels to expectations. When something seems out of place it seems to lose its authenticity but really we must remember, as Chatwin shows us, these are the things that can contain the most interesting stories and unique unforgettable experiences of them all.
In one passage, Gershman complains about how hard it is to find nice bedding for a reasonable price in Paris. This took up a whole chapter. She then enlists her good friend in Paris to drive her up to the designer outlets, where she miraculously finds Christian Lacroix sheets for a reasonable price. I think what made it most difficult for me to relate to this book was probably the age difference, and passages like this. I never found myself struggling to look for designer sheets, or the perfect chicken to cook. She talks about how she spent her nights being taken out by friends and friends of friends to fancy restaurants, whereas I spend my nights eating anywhere that has cheap food and alcohol.
“In America,” says Gershman, “I did as little as possible on Sundays. That’s why football was invented, right? Life in America seemed all too hectic… I needed to give myself a day of rest each Sunday. But Sundays in Paris were different,” she recounts (Gershman, 58). She then goes on to give the reader a bullet-point list of her Sunday activities, which include walking to the market to find the most incredible roast chicken and potato’s. For me, Sundays in Paris are meant for rest even more so than they are in America, especially in New York. On top of the fact that after a week of school and a weekend of going to sleep late I’m simply tired on Sunday, everything is also closed. Literally, nothing is open on Sunday. So, even if I wanted to do something – anything – I don’t have that option. In Paris, I feel as though the day of rest is more forced. This is just another example of how I felt that my experience in Paris is nothing like Gershmans. The only person I would recommend this book to is my mom.
The “color of our skin as correct and normal” seems to be loaded with all sorts of things I wasn’t expecting when I signed up to come to this beautiful, surprising, strange country. For me, the most vivid moment of identity-clarity in Traveling Shoes occurs when Angelou travels to Berlin to take part in the play Dies Negers with her black American theater colleagues. Removed from Ghana for a few weeks, she is thrown right back into a situation where to have Black skin is to be, once again, incorrect.
This semester, our week-long Fall break fell on the second week of October. Feeling the travel bug, people in the Accra program traveled to all sorts of wonderful cities across the African continent: Lomé, Cape Town, Casablanca, Cairo. I, on the other hand, went to Paris and London. My parents were a little confused by my decision to run to Western Europe: "Don't you want to stay in-country? Maybe go to Burkina Faso?" And I did want to stay. And I do. But there is a lot about life in Ghana that can get very intense very quickly: spending most of your time living in close quarters with the same 32 people, among other things.
As I was preparing to take my week-long vacation in Europe, I thought again of Maya Angelo in Berlin, “Berlin, with its cold temperature, its high-rises, wide, clean avenues and White, White people was exactly what I wanted to see and where I needed to be.” (155) I felt a very visceral connection to this need to see white people, because all I’ve ever seen is white people; this need for cold air and scarves, because it was October and leaving the house without fingerless gloves felt very blank.
Firstly, Hemingway's book's structure corresponds to my experience, I think. Before I started reading this book, I decided that I was going to try to journal (one of the professors at NYU Paris told us all about how he journaled all through South America when he went to teach english and travel there for a year, and he relayed his experience with it as being as extremely rewarding). So, I bought a notebook, sat down at a café, then tried to think of how to write about my experience in Paris...I contemplated for a while before I put pen to paper- should I write it like an article? Should I write how I'm feeling? What I'm seeing? Should I write it for an audience? Should I pretend that my great granddaughter will read this if she ever comes to Paris? That sort of thing.
While I was trying to decide how to go about it, I watched an interaction between a little girl with her non-french family, and a man trying to do some law reading for a class. She kept waving at him through a window, while her family was too busy looking at a map to pay attention to her. He'd look up, smile a toothy grin revealing uneven teeth and crinkling eyes, and wave back occasionally- flattered that this little girl was so enamored with him. When her family was ready to go they finally noticed that she'd been staring at the man through the window, upon which they made faces of regret assuming she had been bothering him. He shook his head slightly to indicate that that was not the case. The mother then took the little girl by her hand so as to lead her along their path to their hotel, friends home, next monument or whatnot. The little girl then turned around, stuck her lips to her palm, and blew the reading man a kiss. He blew one in return, and she waddled away, her pudgy hand in that of her mother's.
I then realized that that moment was just part of my life here, and that documenting things like that simple, darling interaction was how I should go about documenting my time in Paris. For me, Paris had been (before reading this book) and has been my experiencing things like those simple moments. In this sense, the way Hemingway writes about Paris makes sense to me...In snippets of his life. While yes, there is continuity from one petit chapter (if you would call them that) to another, Hemingway's book is like reading a bunch of his own little moveable feasts, his collection of memories. From a chapter about the first time he met Gertrude Stein, to a chapter about Fitzgerald, to a chapter about horse racing, to a short chapter about Shakespeare & Co...Hemingway shows us his Paris through his snippets of his moments in time.
Lastly, Hemingway's idea of "A Moveable Feast" Although, as the introduction tells me, Hemingway never actually named his book about his time in Paris "A Moveable Feast," it was taken from a quote of his referring to books as being moveable feasts...That sentiment is something I find appealing- an amassment of memories, all your own. While he writes about Hadley Richardson (his first wife), and how they were essentially poor, but so in love, that was from a time before he did this writing (he eludes to how he should have knocked on wood when she said something like "we always have good luck, Tatie"...foreshadowing their future end). Even so, he is able to write about her in that time in Paris- in that moment- in those moments when she was essential to him, and they were living their lives amongst the monuments (Hemingway has a tendency of describing exactly where he is/what paths he takes in Paris, which I like) and well-known writers, and painters. He is able to capture his memories, his moveable feasts, and put them to paper. We all have them, our memories/sentiments/knowledge of how we felt about someone or something at some time in our pasts...and those are ours to carry with us forever. I think that can be good or bad, but it's kind of reassuring to know that no matter where we go we'll always have some sort of access to the things that make us us, our memories, our moveable feasts.
Bargaining, though, is a daily life skill in Ghana. Prices usually aren’t fixed; if they are, it’s at a place that expats frequent, sells high-end novelties, or imports goods (a pint of Haagen-Dazs ice cream is about 30 cedis, roughly the equivalent of 20 US dollars!). Even when I tried to bargain at Kumasi central market, the prices of some goods were easier to negotiate than others. When I was buying cloth from a seller in the marketplace, she declared that one yard was five cedis. I asked if I could get three yards for 12 cedis instead 15 cedis total. She refused. In Onions Are My Husband: Survival and Accumulation by West African Market Women, Gracia Clark exposes two systems of bargaining: price and quantity. While you negotiate the price of a set amount of goods in price bargaining, you negotiate the quantity of goods received for a set price in quantity bargaining (129-130). Cloth, since it comes in bulk and has the potential to be expensive, falls under the price bargaining category. I was correct in asking for a lower price; if I had asked for more cloth for the offered price, I could have offended the seller since using an inappropriate bargaining system results in hostility and derision (129). So why was I still unsuccessful? Clark recounts that among market women, “One clear sign of domination…is that one side can impose a bargaining style unfamiliar or unwelcome to the other” (129). Because I was familiar with neither styles of bargaining, I had no idea how to play the game. The seller could impose whatever method of transaction she wanted, and I had to go along with it since I wanted something she had.
With the exception of taxis, I find that I frequently give into the seller’s way of doing things. For instance, I’ve never bargained at the food stalls along the street. I’m not even sure if I can. My assumption is that their prices are fixed, but I’ve never bothered to ask anyone if that’s true or not. In the Kumasi central market, “The uniformity of prices traders call out creates the illusion of price fixing, and is often used as evidence of it” (130). Likewise, the food stalls I’ve been to in Accra all seem to have similarly priced items. It could be true that prices are actually fixed, but my never asking seems to be connected to the uniformity of prices among the various stalls.
At the same time, I know I don’t bargain since I frequent some stalls almost every day. Bargaining then feels inappropriate, like I’m infringing on the process of coming to know a seller as a person. There is one stall owner—whom I will affectionately refer to as the fruit lady—whom I would never try to bargain with. It just doesn’t feel right. And yet she dashes me gifts of extra fruits or veggies when I buy my week’s worth of groceries. Clark calls this sort of gift an add-on, a present of additional items for a large purchase (131). Although I know part of the fruit lady’s motivation in dashing me food is to strengthen business relations and to discard ripe produce, I also think that she does intend to give sincere gifts (132-3). Once, I stopped by her stall with a friend. My friend bought food. I didn’t buy anything. The fruit lady insisted on dashing us oranges. Maybe there is no such thing as a free gift, but an orange in exchange for the debt of friendship? Of course.
For example, “Zhang Yue is no more representative of today’s China than a fur merchant like John Jacob Astor or a press baron like William Randolph Hearst was representative of the America of his time. But certain prominent characters are interesting because they are so clearly of their culture’s moment in history… He suggests an answer to one fundamental question about the China of the era to come” (Fallows, 39). In this chapter “Mr. Zhang Builds his Dream Town,” Fallows discusses one of China’s newest millionaires who has not only been extraordinarily successful but has done so with a green, efficient air conditioning system which saves the customer money and is overall better for the environment than traditional systems. On the surface such an article might seem simple but the reality is that it is amazingly complex. It not only deals with China’s new wealthy class but the workers who work for them who are, “arguably better off economically than an American in Chicago living on minimum wage” (Fallows, 93). It deals with problems associated with China’s growing population, its less than desirable food production areas, its pollution and its desire to be both successful and sustainable in the future. Each chapter in Fallows’ book works in this interconnected way that keeps the reader interested from cover to cover and prevents a collection of articles from seeming like just that.
After living in Madrid for 6 weeks, it is still intimidating living in a city that has seen so much history. Nonetheless, Spain is a country that is full of mystery which is hidden in its magnificent cities. Walking around Madrid or any European country, you’ll certainly find monuments and statues dedicated to an important event or historical person. To be honest, it’s daunting.
Day in and day out, living amongst these monuments that recall this unforgettable story of Spain’s past. How could I, a lonely foreigner, possibly understand all of these stories and complexities in a measly three months?
Kate Field shares my anguish. In the collection of stories of Spain In Mind by Alice Leccese Powers, the author Kate Field shares her short story “Ten Days in Spain.” In the short story, Field relinquishes on the agony of traveling through Spain and trying to process and retain all of it’s amazing history. She writes, “He had given me such an among that I ached from head to foot. I knew so much as to hope never to know anything again” (45). I think we can all relate with Field. Personally, I am always drained after participating in any sort of tour. There’s just so much information that it is exhausting trying to understand it all.
Field continues to describe her journey. She concludes that at the end of her guide she can relay that:
I was introduced to the town with much ceremony, and have and indefinite idea of its features, which are such a mixture of Goth, Moor, Jew and Christian that, at the end of six hours, I suffered from as acute an indigestion as though I had swallowed an architectural mince-pie (47).
Living in Madrid and experiencing all that it has too offer is overwhelming, to say the least. Like Field, I too feel like all the information that these tours give us is too much to ‘digest.’ I must say, though, through this information the city is that much more magnificent. How would I ever know that the buildings I pass by or statues I see are full of historical significance that makes Madrid the beautiful city it is today?
Suzy Gershman’s book C’est La Vie chronicles numerous ups and downs that she experienced when she moved to Paris. She always fantasized about movie there, and when her husband dies, she finally takes the leap. Reading the light and fun memoir, I found myself relating to a lot of the Suzy’s experiences. Obviously I am not a middle-aged widow, but I am going through a lot of the same struggles, simply by being an American in France.
Gershman and myself had similar frustrations when trying to rent an apartment. In the first chapter she explains how she finally finds the perfect apartment. “It never occurred to me that anything could go wrong. I was naïve. The following day, the broker called back to ask me numerous financial questions. Did I work in France? No. Did I have a carte de sejour (permit to stay or to work in France)? No. Would someone in France sign the lease to guarantee it for me? No” (page 26).
My quest for a Parisian apartment was anything but fun. My two roommates and I were basically homeless until a week before arriving. We had scavenged the Internet through and through to find a reasonably priced and sized place in a good location all summer. Almost every site we came across had a handful of options, allegedly. But then we would email the companies asking for further information on specific places and days, sometimes weeks, later they would respond explaining that the apartments we were interested in were not available for the duration of our stay. We had to rent the places for either shorter, or longer. The struggles continued as we realized that the French, unlike Americans, are not addicted to working. They do not sleep with their blackberries and respond at all hours of the day. If you are lucky, you can get a response once every 24 hours, if you are lucky.
Once you get past all of these obstacles, you realize that no one wants to rent to Americans, and no one wants to rent to students. The amount of paperwork that had to be done (via fax and email mind you) was really uncanny. About a week before arriving in Paris it all fell into place, but the agonizing and stressful process is something I now associate with moving to Paris and trying to become a Parisian.
Ghosts of Spain is precisely that: an in depth chronicling of the Spain’s past and present, exploring the nation’s changing times with far more intimacy and critical perspective than many other books. From the introduction and opening chapter, Giles Tremlett’s tales and literary style grab the reader and leave you wanting, even needing to know more.
“Spain has a wealth of stories to tell… the story does not go stale either, for Spain changes at breakneck speed.” Tremlett’s words ring so true. The history of this country and its people is teeming with a multitude of narratives, distinct eras, and changing ways of life. Religion, origin, political or philosophical approaches, languages or vernaculars, and culture, among other factors, have proved highly influential. Royalty, nobility, and powerful civilians – revolutionaries, artists, liberals, conservatives, socialists, soldiers, workers even – have led various segments of the population (of differing size, for differing lengths of time) in new and unique directions, some successful and others short-lived. Marked by wars, monarchies, military demonstrations, popular movements, economic and industrial development, social hardship, and perhaps most prominently, the Civil War and dictatorship of Franco, Spain has slowly emerged in the modern era.
Why do I offer you this laundry list of influences on Spain? Because this is exactly what Spaniards do, as Tremlett addresses in the book. I too have experienced this phenomenon, on previous visits to Spain and how while living here. Spaniards love to talk, to share, to rant, but this chatter often lacks weight or significant meaning. As Tremlett writes, “Spanish noise is fun, but it is also distraction. ‘Mucho ruido y pocas nueces’ – a lot of noise but few walnuts – is what Spaniards say when something is all show and no substance.”
Despite the jovial and talkative exterior, there are topics which Spaniards do not like to discuss, whether because it makes them uneasy or because they simply feel is not worthy of attention. Tremlett discovered one of these, a very powerful one: the mass graves from the country’s brutal civil war.
He embarked on a journey to unearth these stories – to go beyond the sangria, sun, and flamenco – and was met, in large part, with this public disconnect from, even denial of, the past. I see this sentiment as quite unhealthy; one must know his or her origins to be able to truly progress. Knowing the truth of the past is the sole way to understand the present.
This is especially interesting in contrast to something else that Diawara notes. He says that “walking down the streets of Greenwich Village, where I now live, I feel as if I do not exist, because I am a man whose past no one knows” (12). I immediately both recognized and was confused by the statement. On the one hand, this feeling would not happen in West Africa. There is such a sense of comradery that after being here for only a short while, one feels they belong. But Diawara has lived in the United States for many years and still feels as if he not only doesn’t belong-does not even exist because no one knows his past. What perpetuates his problem is how closed off from strangers Americans are. We learn at a young age, “stranger danger” and that seems to continue on to adult hood, not necessarily manifested in fear but in indifference to those around us.
Timing was on my side this week as Manthia Diawara was in Accra for a film festival and came to our staff meeting to speak with us. He said that “in America two individuals would not even sit next to each other, but in traveling, you become brothers.” I can attest to this statement as in America I would not even look many people in the eye on the street, let alone engage in conversations, exchange names and histories. The vibe of the West African market place extends beyond its borders to where Ghana in its entirety has an order of inclusion. I stand out, but I am included. And while they may not know my past, the opportunity to learn about it and validate my existence is there, and arises far more often than it ever has in New York. The markets here are where people connect unlike they would anywhere else. For Americans, it takes traveling for us to be brothers, but in West Africa, it requires only a visit to the market. As they say in West Africa, “Visit the market and see the world” (152).
Well, it is a wonderful place and certainly crazy as fuck. Not crazy in the offensive or frightening sense, but crazy in a whimsical, capricious, nonsensical kind of way. In Notes from a Small Island, Bryson defines Britain by its unique, eccentric quirks and foibles. He calls these, “congenial small things” or “incidental civilities” (50). One does not go looking for these incidental civilities, but rather they present themselves to you in the most curious and surprising ways. Like tripping over a loosened paving stone on one of London’s furrowed side walks (which I have done countless times), you may stumble over the most unassuming pleasures at the most accidental moments.
Just this week I was enjoying a casual stroll through Hyde Park when, in accordance with the fickleness that is British weather, the gorgeously crisp and sunny autumn day was dampened by a short lived monsoon. In a scramble to find a bit a cover, I darted behind some shrubbery that abutted the path I was meandering on and stumbled over one of those “congenial small things.” I found myself in a picturesque rose garden, one that would be likely to grace the pages of Better Home and Gardens. Then, just as swiftly the monsoon conditions materialized, the rain let up and the sun came back to reclaim the day. I then spent a blissful afternoon in the garden, reading of the “incidental civilities” Bryson stumbled over himself.
Sometimes the things we stumble upon lead us on a trail of pleasant happenings. A few weeks ago I was out with some friends for “Fashion’s Night Out.” If you are not familiar with this event that is also staged in New York (but on a much larger scale), it is an evening where designers, department stores, and boutiques throw open their doors for an evening of fashion, music, and most alluringly, free alcohol. While wandering off Regent Street, we found a welcoming little art gallery. After exploring its collection, we struck up a conversation with the gallery’s director. We were then invited to an opening for an Italian artist, which we were told we could not miss. So this week, we returned to the gallery for what became an evening of unforgettable happenings. We met the artist, Alessandro Algardi (not the be confused with the Baroque sculpture), who graciously thanked us for attending by signing our programs with the beautiful script he incorporates into his unique artwork. Through the course of the evening, we had met so many interesting people who shared their own unique stories. We met a husband and wife, who were accomplished artists themselves. They spoke of how they fell in love in the 70’s and worked together to become who they are today. The husband had imparted us with one piece of advice that cannot soon be forgotten. He said, “Never be comfortable in life. Surround yourself with dynamic people. You will then be inspired.”
This is the lovely craziness of the UK and this is why I’m falling in love with London. A content moment will be taken over by another moment of friendly tumult, leaving you with a pleasant surprise. I have had so many pleasant surprises here: happening upon whimsical gardens, meeting the most interesting people, discovering a wonderful bookshop in a quaint alleyway. These eccentric happenings and everyday amazements are constantly shaping and reshaping my experience here. No matter how I plan my day, I always find myself thrown out of kilter in some way or another. But that’s the magic of this “Small Island.” It’s unpredictable, unconventional, and “crazy as fuck.”
Many Ghanaians have an equally stereotypical image of America. I’ve heard one man tell an American girl that everyone in the U.S. is rich, so she must be lazy if she isn’t wealthy. It’s hard to break these preconceived notions, especially as most Ghanaians get their ideas from television or movies, not from real interactions. Maya Angelou, author of All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, faced a similar situation while living in Ghana in the 1960s. At one point in the book, a receptionist tells Angelou that “American Negroes are always crude” (34). Angelou writes that the woman’s “knowledge of my people could only have been garnered from hearsay, and the few old American movies which tacked on Black characters as awkwardly as the blinded attach paper tails to donkey caricatures.” (34) Instead of saying something, Angelou ends up just leaving the office. Though she knows she needs to challenge the receptionist’s assumptions, it is too overwhelming.
Even though I do not have to deal with such racial stereotypes, I still understand Angelou’s sentiments. Explaining American culture can feel like a hassle, especially when a person rudely generalizes about my background. The natural inclination is to just ignore the comment, dismiss the person, and move on. At the same time, I realize that educating people is important. A few weeks ago, we had a Peace Corps representative come speak to us about the program and its intentions. He articulated that one of the primary goals is to educate people about Americans, as people in rural villages are unlikely to otherwise meet and interact with someone from the United States. The Peace Corps, he explained, tries to dissolve myths about Americans and enhance intercultural understanding for both parties.
Before hearing this, I had thought of study abroad in Ghana in a more selfish light, thinking I was primarily educating myself about Africa and using the semester as a growing experience. Yet whether I want to or not, I’m representing America. As someone who has a number of qualms with American culture and society, I feel conflicted about my role. Part of me wants to defend the United States, explain that we’re not all rich and spoiled, but I also don’t want to slip into the “America is the greatest” mentality. I end up questioning and thinking about my own relationship with the United States. In her book, Angelou goes through a similar process, learning about her identity as an African-American. She writes: “If the heart of Africa still remained allusive, my search for it had brought me closer to understanding myself and other human beings.” (196) Though Angelou initially went to Ghana to experience Africa, in the end, it was more a journey of self-discovery. Living abroad is more than adapting to another culture; it’s also a process of reevaluating oneself and background.
The book, The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink, is set in Prague in the early 20th century. More specifically, the setting of the book never seems to leave the boundaries of the Jewish ghetto.
The Jewish ghetto of Prague, back in the day was grimy, over populated, and a dismal environment to live in. The inhabitants were not integrated into the society; they were not considered Czechs, but simply as Jews.
Unlike most works of fiction where the Golem is depicted as a monster, in this book he usually takes a metaphoric form, embodying the fears and concerns of the Jewish society, which were many and of an unbelievable variety.
When I went on the NYU Jewish ghetto tour, I expected to be taken to the outskirts of the city. Imagine my surprise when we stopped after a 3 minute walk from the NYU building, which is located in the heart of the city. The street has been completely revamped, and the descriptions of the squalid conditions, which I was to read in The Golem much later, were absent. Today, the area has been converted into a tourist haven.
I went back there after reading Meyrink’s novel and contemplated the forgotten streets. I wondered how the margins of society, as the Jewish community at that time was, managed to live so close to the main town square. That was a question I had asked the tour guide that day but he was unable to answer.
Today the streets look as wide as any other in Prague, which initially made me think that it couldn’t have been all that bad living here. But reading the novel made me see the reality of it. There had been thousands of Jews packed on to this one street, living in dilapidated houses with poor sanitation and little privacy. There were no jobs and no schools. Children got into mischief, in the form of prostitution and theft.
Today, you can take pictures of quaint buildings with a façade that hides their true history, and buy an overpriced Star of David souvenir and a bottle of Absinth.
The only part of the area that truly represents its history is the Jewish cemetery. Squashed in between a beautifully cobbled street and some modern buildings, I thought it was the most macabre sight.
Gravestones were scattered in a haphazard manner all over the hilly terrain. I had never seen a cemetery like it! Our tour guide explained that there could be up to 11 graves one on top of the other here, hence the hills and scattered gravestones.
He then said something that will always stick with me when I walk by that refurbished and deceitful area.
“Just like they had no space to live when alive, they had no space to rest when dead.”
That was the Prague Meyrink and Kafka wrote about and got recognition for. The Prague of today hides its history well, behind a fairytale-like atmosphere. If it weren’t for immortal masterpieces of literature, the true essence of the city would have been lost
I have always considered myself fairly adaptable, I’m not a picky eater and I can deal without creature comforts. These were just some of the reasons why I began to get extremely frustrated with myself the first few weeks I was here, as I still felt like I was in a funk. I couldn’t figure it out; I had always been good at showing up in new places before and fitting in. Slowly I began to realize that maybe it wasn’t the obvious things that were making me uncomfortable, but instead the difficult social nuances that I hadn’t yet grasped. Maya Angelou felt this too. I read her book “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes” at a critical time in my stay. What I couldn’t quite figure out how to put into words, Angelou had already established on the page.
To put it simply, she explained how “Ghana was beginning to tug at me and make me uncomfortable, like an ill fitting coat.” (147) Now while I wouldn’t openly admit that I was unhappy (because then it would be real) I knew that I hadn’t yet found my place. I was adapted to the first string of Ghanaian differences but not yet comfortable in my life. This was an awkward place to be, as I was desperately attempting to fix a not yet describable problem. Angelou continued saying “I had to admit that I had begun to feel that I was not in my right place. Every moment in Ghana called attention to itself.” While I wasn’t able to come to that conclusion on my own, this felt like something I was going through.
Something about being constantly looked at and watched, the object of endless attention. There are certain things I can’t do here, certain streets I can’t walk down, and that frustrates me. But coming into this experience I knew I was going to stand out, so that wasn’t what was bothering me. What was bothering me was the constant reminder of just how much I don’t belong in everything I do.
While Angelou struggled with this, she also eventually found her place. It helps that she was able to master a local language. While I feel secure in my own neighborhood and gain confidence in my interactions with Ghanaians, it does not hinder the attention I receive one bit. To be honest, I don’t really think anything will.
The most difficult thing is that I really want Ghanaian friends, but it is so challenging to meet Ghanaians who do not have an agenda for meeting you. Men and women can never be “just friends” and you can’t hang out with a guy without giving the wrong impression. Dating white women is considered by some to be a status symbol, while many people in the back of their mind see me as a walking Visa or ticket to the States. College age Ghanaians also do not go out regularly as the society is much more conservative. This fact alone has dwindled my potential Ghanaian friends down considerably. I am still working on meeting people through classes and mutual acquaintances, but have almost resigned to the idea that I will have lasting and important relationships with my fellow NYU students, and casual friendly relationships with the lady who sells me fruit and egg sandwiches.
Although I’m even a little reluctant to resign myself to that just yet, I am still optimistic that I’ll find my place. I hope Angelou is right when she says it will just take some time.
Throughout the story, although a majority of the days took place in Prague, I could not recognize their locations. Klíma biked all over the city, so everything was reasonably close, yet unfamiliar to my rookie experience. There were some locations that I recognized, but those places are no longer rolling, green fields; now they mostly consist of apartment complexes and business offices. Klíma lived in a different Prague than I did, not just in the political sense but also in an environmental sense. While old buildings and statues remain from lack of war, many have been added and restored while new buildings crop up in nearby places.
During the chapter entitled “Sunday Morning” the author discusses his relationship with Charter 77, the original document appealing to the Communist regime on the topic of human rights. “My friends had drafted a charter for the defence of human rights. Although I had not signed it myself — I felt that I had written enough texts of my own showing what I thought about the state of the world and about human rights— I couldn’t escape responsibility for it.” (pg. 133) When I read this it excited me. During our two-credit grueling orientation course we learned all about Charter 77; what it started, it’s repercussions, and how the people who were associated with it were treated. Not only did I learn about this during orientation, but also my renowned professor, Jan Urban, has first hand knowledge of the document. The gray fox professor told us, his students, how his father was actually one of the original drafters of the Charter. Klíma eventually disappears to a cottage to escape persecution, which, after Urban dictated, was all too real. Families were separated, prisoners were taken, and the Communists were not torture-shy.
Not only was Klíma’s work interesting to read, but also with the knowledge I had previously received from my professor it made the book all the more credible.