Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Looking at someone in a photograph

It's easier to really look at someone in a photograph than in real life - no discomfort at meeting the other person's eye, no fear of being caught staring.
A.M. Homes: The Mistress's Daughter

Monday, 29 December 2008

North American Exceptionalism (2)

"We still have the most creative, diverse, innovative culture and open society — in a world where the ability to imagine and generate new ideas with speed and to implement them through global collaboration is the most important competitive advantage" Thomas L. Friedman wrote in The New York Times of 25 December 2008 ("Time to reboot America"). Needless to say, Friedman must be a US citizen (he thinks in superlatives) and by "we" he does of course mean the US. Well, North Americans are known the world over for having a slightly distorted view of themselves. In fact, we all have but not all of us are spreading it all over the place. By the way, how would one measure "the most creative" I wonder?

Saturday, 27 December 2008

On Reading Photographs (2)

The photograph showed four women. "This one's Roberta" the lady from the hotel told me. I looked at the woman she had indicated. "And here, this one is her too." Again I looked but to my eyes Roberta in picture number one looked entirely different from Roberta in picture number two. I mentioned it. "No, no, this is the same person; look she is wearing the same clothes." Indeed but ... I now focussed on the three other ladies. Their facial expressions in photo number one and photo number two were totally different. Had they not worn the same clothes (hardly a reliable indicator!) I would probably have not believed that these were the same women. "The photos were taken on the same day, just minutes apart" I was informed.

Never had it been more obvious to me that one moment can be totally different from the next. This is one of the things that photography can teach us.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Look to this day

Look to this day,
For it is life,
The very life of life.

In its brief course lie all
The realities and verities of existence,
The bliss of growth,
The splendour of action,
The glory of power

For yesterday is but a dream,
And tomorrow is only a vision,
But today, well lived,
Makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.

Look well, therefore, to this day.
Sanskrit Proverb

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Question of Travel

... must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
Elizabeth Bishop: Question of Travel

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Reading Tom Clancy in Valparaíso

I guess it is human nature to have opinions about a lot of things one really knows nothing about. I, for instance, know - without ever having read one - that the books of Tom Clancy are trash. I'm not a hundred percent sure why I think that but I suppose it has mainly to do with the fact that these books sell well. In other words, I do not bother reading them. But then, while spending several weeks in Valparaíso, the Chilenian port city, one of my favourite places on this planet, I came across a copy of "The Teeth of the Tiger" in my B&B (which I highly recommend: I read it and - contrary to quite some excellent literature - I still remember the story. Here are some excerpts that I liked:

By this time, all of America was watching TV, with reporters in New York and Atlanta telling America what they knew, which was little, and trying to explain the events of the day, which they did with the accuracy of grammar school children. They endlessly repeated the hard facts they had managed to gather, and hauled in “experts” who knew little but said a lot. It was good for filling airtime, at least, if not to inform the public.

The trouble with thinking deep thoughts is that you still have to cut the grass, and put food on the table.

These (European) people were so self-destructively open, so afraid to offend those who would just as soon see them and their children dead and their entire culture destroyed.

Those who denied God could be every bit as dangerous as those worked in His Name.

The problem is that no matter what you do, there’s somebody who won’t like it much. Like a joke. No matter how funny it is, somebody will be offended by it.

There’s an old saying: “If you’re not confused, you’re misinformed.”

Thursday, 18 December 2008

On the road in Rio Grande do Sul

Cidreira, three hours by bus from Porto Alegre, is windy, very windy, and not my idea of a week at the beach. And so I decided to go to Torres instead.

On the spur of the moment I ask the taxi driver on the way to the bus station how much the trip to Tramandaí by taxi would be. I thought his fare reasonable but nevertheless asked for a ten percent discount. He agreed, and so we took off.

Sérgio was 58 and had not always been a taxi driver. Most of his life he had worked as a musician. He played contrabass, first classical ("There are too few people in Brazil interested in it; you can't really make a living") then more popular tunes, and finally gaúcho-music. His music took him all over Brazil, and also to Uruguay, Argentina, and Bolivia. "What about Paraguay? I thought every Brazilian here in the South has been to Paraguay ...". "Well, I do not count shopping trips as visiting a country" he said.

At the bus station in Tramandaí I learned that there was no bus to Torres for several hours. I decided to continue my trip with Sérgio (again ten percent discount on his regular fare). Just outside of Imbé we almost collided with two horses that ran across the highway (had I not shouted ... !?) - they had broken free from wherever they were strapped to (they still had their cords around their necks).

From time to time, Sérgio slowed down because of monitoring cameras or because of traffic police. For the latter he put his glasses on. I looked at him in bewilderment. "My driving licence says I need to wear glasses" he explained. "However, I need only glasses to read, this is why I do not put them on. Except for the police for, well, you know, they check my driver's licence and there it says that I need to wear glasses and so I do, for them." He added: "Um jeitinho brasileiro, tudo é um jeitinho no Brasil." A "jeitinho" stands for Brazil's creative way of dealing with life's various challenges and includes breaking the law and feel virtuous about it.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008


Identity is not only how we choose to see ourselves, it is also how others choose to see us.

Recently, while waiting for my bags at the bus station in Porto Alegre, I was, in the course of about ten minutes, three times approached by fellow passengers with questions regarding their bags. Why do they ask me? I wondered. How come they assume I work for the bus company? I mean, I do not even remotely look like a bus driver or a ticket controller. I know, I know, not all of them look the same. But still: I simply do not look like a bus driver. Brazilians seem to see this differently though. Some Brazilians that is. And so I thought about it. And suddenly I knew. It was because of my light-blue shirt and because of my dark-blue pants. Every bus driver in Southern Brazil wears this combination, and every ticket controller. And it is like that in Thailand (at least in Bangkok), and in Switzerland (at least in Zurich), and in ...

The combination black pants/white shirt can likewise be fatal. Not when travelling but when going to Italian restaurants. In a Pizzeria in Basel I tried to get the attention of the waiter who hurried once again past our table ("Hey, you, sorry, but could we please order !?" I shouted impatiently). "I'm a guest here", the guy retorted, not very pleased. I could easily see why: Contrary to the waiters who all sported some red flower bouquet around their neck he actually wore a black tie.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

O Tempo Brasileiro

Dura duas horas a viagem para Porto Alegre, verdade?
Eh, duas horas. Sai daqui as onze e vai chegar em Porto Alegre a uma e meia.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Having a ball in Santa Cruz do Sul

Two days ago, Reinaldo attended his last conversational English class in Santa Cruz do Sul. As usual, we talked about anything and everything, from corruption to the ways of perception, from travels to how best live your life. He enjoyed my classes a lot and thought them interesting, stimulating, and helpful, he said. He wasn't however too sure whether his English had improved, he laughed. Well, to be honest, it hasn't, I laughed back.

Reinaldo is in his fifties (I suppose - I've never asked him) and works in tourism. He's been around, from Bariloche to China, and often missed his private class with me. Whenever he managed to attend, we had a ball. Among other things, I learned what a truly special place Easter Island is and that I really need to visit this fabulous hotel in the jungle near Manaus.

One day, he told me of a trip to Ireland, Wales, and England, that he had organised. "How was it?" I inquired. "Very good" he said. "We (a group of Brazilian males) went to see the Guinness Brewery in Dublin." "Any other places that you visited?" "Yes, Wales was fantastic, beautiful mountains and snow". "Snowdonia?" "Yes, and Liverpool, the Cavern Club, where the Beatles played. Unfortunately, I do not remember much of the rest of the trip. We had a lot of beer at that brewery" he laughed.

Reinaldo likes dogs. When the labrador at the school gave birth ("dar a luz" is the wonderfully poetic Portuguese expression for "giving birth"), he inquired whether it was possible to have one of them. "I once had a labrador, you know. At least I thought so. And the one who sold it to me thought so too. Although I was repeatedly told over the years that this dog was by no means a labrador but some bastard I insisted that it was a labrador for I had payed 300 Reais. One day, however, the guy, who had sold the dog to me came to visit and asked after the labrador. When I proudly pointed to the dog sitting next to me, the guy said: "This is not a labrador". Well, I wasn't exactly happy about that."

"In what language do you dream?" I asked him one day. "Women", he laughed.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

North American Exceptionalism

From time to time, an email from Trevor, a PhD-candidate at La Trobe University in Melbourne, reaches me. In a recent one he wrote:
"A few books I will have to get are described here:" which made me go to the Bruce Bawer site that quoted the American writer Anne Applebaum who, according to Bawer, "spells out an important point for British readers:"

"Here is something that may be hard for foreigners to understand: Americans desperately want to believe that their country stands for fairness, for equality, for democracy. They especially want to believe this at times like the present, when there is a good deal of evidence to the contrary. After the disasters and embarrassments of the past few years - the mistakes made in Iraq and Guantánamo, the terrible financial crisis, the embarrassment of Hurricane Katrina - a vote for Obama allowed Americans to believe, once again, that the United States is still a virtuous nation. It's not just about being liked abroad, though being liked is nice: it's about being certain that we still are, as we have often told ourselves, an example to other nations, a "city on a hill"."

I wrote to Trevor:
"This is exactly what I can't stand about Americans: their exceptionalism. Why should they be an example anyway? Terrible thinking."

Trevor's answer:
"Ha ha, yes, American exceptionalism is a key to understanding American identity. It also explains why they voted for Obama (one of many reasons). A man who promised, or made the best promises to repair and buff up their exceptionalism. Also merging it with the campaign, 'look how great we are, we voted for a black man'. You can feel the message of aren't we exceptional radiating from their blogs."

Monday, 8 December 2008

The Gaucho

On the floor under his feet
Fodor's Guide lay open.
Anne Carson: Autobiography of Red

Saturday, 6 December 2008

On Reading Photographs

When, some weeks ago, I came across (on photographs of Kashmir by Daichi Koda, whose aesthetics I've found impressive, I let others know about my discovery. And I got responses. One pointed out that her impression was that quite some work on the light seemed to have been done by using "some virtual laboratory technique". Reading that (thank you, Elsa) made me have another look at the images. And I felt the same: that this light was somehow too good to be true, that it must have been tampered with. Elsa had made me see that. How come I hadn't realised it myself?

Yet a few days later, doubts started creeping in. And I wondered: Why would a young Japanese photographer embark on a journey to far away Kashmir and upon returning to Japan make quite substantial alterations to the photos he had taken there? Now I wanted to know how it had really been. And so I emailed Daichi who let me know that although these were digital pics, and although he did use photoshop, he didn't "change the light drastically."

I now look at these photos ( with different eyes and do wonder at times whether by using only natural light the effect could have been the same. Yet most of the time I do not ask myself this question for I've decided to trust the photographer to convey to me what he had found in the places he visited. What he had done afterwards was, in the words of Elsa, to add a bit of salt to the food but not to turn it into processed junk food. That sums it up very nicely, I find.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

The average distance between stars

Space, let me repeat, is enormous. The average distance between stars out there is over 30 million million kilometres. Even at speeds approaching those of light (300,000 kilometres per second), these are fantastically challenging distances for any travelling individual. Of course, it is possible that alien beings travel billions of miles to amuse themselves by planting crop circles in Wiltshire or frightening the daylights out of some poor guy in a pickup truck on a lonely road in Arizona (they must have teenagers, after all), but it does seem unlikely.
Bill Bryson: A Short History of Nearly Everything

Tuesday, 2 December 2008


De vez em quando, um legume, uma disposição de sementes silvestres ou o couro de uma vaca parece uma face humana. Houve uma famosa berinjela que se parecia muitíssimo com Richard Nixon.
Carl Sagan: O mundo assombrado pelos demônios