Wednesday, 30 December 2009

On the road (3)

Where you from? asked the lady in charge of the internet at the bus station in Itajaí. When I told her she said that she was familiar with my accent, she had heard it from missionaries.

How do I get to the Niemeyer museum? The lady at the tourist information in Curitiba made it sound like a long and rather complicated undertaking. I decided to walk into the direction she had indicated. At the Praça Tiradentes (surrounded by quite some signs advertising the services of dentists) I was supposed to find a city sightseeing bus but it had just left and so I asked an elderly man how far the Niemeyer Museum was? On foot about fifteen minutes from here, he said, at a leisurely pace. I knew by then that this probably meant a good thirty minutes at a rather brisk pace - and I was right. Unfortunately, the Niemeyer Museum happened to be closed from 25 December to 31 December!?

Standing in front of the museum, I could see the sightseeing bus speeding by - I have so far never seen a sightseeing bus at such speed, the tourists on the open top deck appeared to desperately cling to their seats, I was glad I had not joined them.

A shopping mall near the Praça Tiradentes had toilets for men, women, and families.

The back pocket buttons of my pants are loose, my shoes are falling apart. I walk into a tailor shop, the lady in there puts herself immediately to work and asks for one real after she´s done ("para um cafezinho", she says). The shoemaker thinks that my shoes were made in Italy. Zimbabwe, I tell him. Good work, he comments. We chat for another couple of minutes. He says they will be ready by two o`clock. He didn´t recognise me when I showed up at twenty past two but the shoes were ready.

Curitiba also meant: a quarter pounder at McDonalds, a Subway sandwich, Chinese food, sushi (twice), mousse de maracuja in the Confeitaria Neuchatel (the waiter said it was a complicated story how the confeitaria got its name; the waitress said, well, the owner had once been to Neuchâtel) and visits to bookstores. Books are expensive in Brazil, in one store they had a table with special offers for 9.90. I leafed through some of them, on the front page of one the original price was mentioned as 5.90. I asked whether it cost 5.90 ot 9.90. Everything on that table is 9.90, the lady said. I did not buy it.

Monday, 28 December 2009

On the road (2)

I am aware that quite some men seem to love making contact in public toilets at train and bus stations yet it eludes me what kind of kick these guys at the bus stations in Lages and Florianópolis expected by trying to get a glimpse of my dick while I was standing at the urinal trying (unsucessfully, of course) to pee ...

When I got to the beach in Bombinhas, I suffered a shock: I had so far seen photos of over-crowded beaches but had never experienced such a scene in reality where one could hardly put one foot in front of the other. I decided to leave the place immediately that however was not an easy task for buses on Christmas day do not run frequently from Bombinhas to Itapema and when they eventually run then they move a few meters every couple of minutes. Once in Itapema I found the hotels considerably more expensive than in Florianópolis and decided to move on to Itajaí which, I was told, was not a tourist place. The first night my room cost 85 Reais, the second 119 Reais. The reason given was "temporada alta".

The next day, I went to see the famous Balneario Camborio. The man in his fifties sitting next to me on the bus introduced himself by saying that he worked as a mechanic at Brinks, a company originally from Chicago, he explained (he was suprised that "Brinkis", as he pronounced it, was unknown to me), and showed me his card to prove it. Where should I get off for the beach? I asked. He would show me where, he said. And so together we got off. He mentioned that he lived around the corner. When we reached his home, a five story apartment block, he asked if I wanted to come up for a juice? Was he gay? I wondered. Was this a trap? I was just about to excuse myself when he rang the bell, stepped back to the pavement and conversed with a woman on the second floor. Your wife? I asked. He nodded. I followed him up to the second floor where I was introduced to Sueli, who hailed from Mato Grosso and told me to be careful in the border region of Paraguay, and their two-year old daughter. João prepared the juice (a tasty carrot-orange-lime mix), I exchanged a few words with Sueli and played with their daughter. When the juice was ready, João turned on the TV, we sipped our drinks and chatted for a while. Did I want another one? No, thank you, I now feel like exploring the beach. "Vai com Deus", he said. The beach was almost as crowded as the one in Bombinhas (I later learned that there are many beaches in Bombinhas but all of them "bem lotadas" during the festive season) and full of colorful umbrellas. Not my idea of a beach.

On Fox news, a passenger of the Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit that a young Nigerian had tried to blow up said that while the whole thing happened (he sat three rows away from the Nigerian) he did not really feel scared but later, at home, it really hit him. It was worse to imagine what happened than actually experiencing it, he said.
A security expert on the same program: we spent billions of dollars and we could not stop this guy. It seemed beyond his imagination that money could not be the solution.

How long do I walk to the beach from here? Ten minutes? Fifteen, the guy from the hotel said. After I had walked for fifteen minutes in the direction indicated, I asked again. Ten minutes? The two guys smiled, twenty are more likely. They were right. In the end, the original fifteen minutes had turned into close to forty-five.

The most used words in Brazil are probably "talvez" (maybe), "pode ser" (can be) and "legal" (cool). Given the fact that when Brazilians are confronted with a law their natural impulse is to find a way around it, it seems rather peculiar to use "legal" for "cool".

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Through different eyes

I wrote on the board one of my favourite lines from the German thinker Theodor Adorno: "The highest form of morality is not to feel home in one's own home." I explained that most great works of the imagination were meant to make you feel like a stranger in your own home. The best fiction always forced us to question what we took for granted. It questioned traditions and expectations when they seemed too immutable. I told my students I wanted them in their readings to consider in what ways these works unsettled them, made them a little uneasy, made them look around and consider the world, like Alice in Wonderland, through different eyes.
Azar Nafisi: Reading Lolita in Tehran

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

On the road

Since Friday, 18 December, I`m on a bus trip through Southern Brazil.

The time table said that the trip from Santa Cruz to Caxias do Sul would take 2 hours and 50 minutes. Well, it took 4 hours and 15 minutes.

Sitting on a bench on the main square of Caxias, I was approached by a young woman who asked me to participate in a survey for a chain of drugstores. That is probably not for me, I said, I am a tourist. Ah, where from? Switzerland. She smiled and said she was from Torres. Did I know Torres? I said I did. Where will you spend the New Year? I don`t know yet. Well, Torres is the place to be, she said, it has the third biggest firework in Brazil. By the way, Caxias is great. I am here with my husband. Just the two of us. His daughter from another woman is with her mother. So it is just him and me here. Fantastic. We both work. Here it is easy to find work, in Torres it is very difficult ... Okay, gotta go, see you. And off she went. Such chatting - that may seem somewhat personal to a European - is fairly common in this country for Brazilians simply love to chat, with whom is secondary.

I walked around the center of town, got hungry and had a not very good "pastel". I returned to my hotel, asked for a place where they served good "pastéis" and then had a good one. Later, again on a bench on the main square, I watched the world walk by. Caxias has a center that I instinctively liked, it has a big city flair but is still not too big and that makes for good vibes. At 18 hours sharp, it was sunny and warm, loudspeakers in front of the cathedral filled the air with "Ave Maria" - it felt terrific.

A guy in the Internet Cafe was convinced I was from Uruguay. When I told him I was from Switzerland, he just laughed and said for him I was from Uruguay. I assume this has to do with my Portuñol, a mix of Spanish and Portuguese mainly spoken at the border of Brazil and Uruguay. No, I have not picked it up there, I have developed it myself and added a Swiss German accent.

Brazilian men, when saying hello or good bye, often tap other men on the shoulder, Brazilian women often kiss you on the cheek. In a bookstore, a woman in her thirties suddenly turned around and bumped into me. "Desculpe", she smiled, tapped me on the shoulder and left the store. She was beautiful, I would have preferred a kiss.

On the bus to Lages, my neighbour explained that he had lived for 30 years in Porto Alegre but was originally from Santa Catarina. People in Rio Grande do Sul are arrogant, he whispered.

In Lages, a gentleman in the hotel elevator, after he learned where I was from, told me he was from Santa Cruz and started to speak German to me.

In the bus from Florianópolis to the island, a young man behind me threw up - I was lucky that his vomit was all over the floor and not on me.

At the island junction, people were standing in line for the bus to the South of the island. When it finally arrived, many young men literally stormed it. One youngster pushed me, I got hit on the head, lost my sun glasses, stumbled. A young women with her son on her knees shouted at them ("são terríveis, são mal educados") and offered me the seat next to her.

After my first night at the Praia da Armaçaõ, my arms were covered with mosquito bites. The dona of my pousada said that only yesterday the government had anounced that there was no dengue on the island. Until then I had not worried.

Monday, 21 December 2009


"Petropolis" ist ein ganz tolles Buch: flüssig geschrieben, anschaulich erzählt und spannend geschildert. Es verschafft einem Einsichten in teils groteske und sehr menschliche russische und amerikanische Befindlichkeiten, die einen immer mal wieder – es ist dies nämlich ein ungemein witziges Werk – laut auflachen lassen.

"Petropolis" beginnt so: "Im Herbst 1992 hatte Ljubow Alexandrowna Goldberg beschlossen, ihrer vierzehnjährigen Tochter ein ausserschulisches Betätigungsfeld zu schaffen. ‚Kinder der Intelligenzija hocken nicht nachmittags zu Hause und frönen der Idiotie’, erklärte sie. Am liebsten hätte sie Sascha am Klavier gesehen, aber Goldbergs hatten kein Klavier, und in den beiden vollgestopften Zimmern, die Sascha und ihre Mutter bewohnten, war nicht mal genug Platz für den Gedanken an ein Klavier."

In der Folge wird Sascha, die mit ihrer Mutter im sibirischen Gulag-Aussenposten Asbest 2 lebt, ungewollt schwanger, dann als Kunststudentin in Moskau aufgenommen (es geht dabei zwar nicht mit rechten Dingen, doch sehr lebensecht zu und her) und kommt schliesslich als Mailorder-Braut nach Phoenix, Arizona, entflieht ihrem Amerikavisum-Aufenthaltsbeschaffer nach Chicago, wo sie in privilegierten Umständen als Quasi-Sklavin gehalten wird und schliesslich für ein angemessen glückliches Ende der Geschichte in Brooklyn landet, wo sie auch ihren nach Amerika abgehauenen Vater aufstöbert.

Soweit die Rahmenhandlung, die natürlich nicht allzu viel darüber aussagt, weshalb sich dieses Buch zu lesen lohnt. Warum sich die Lektüre aber ganz unbedingt lohnt, mögen ein paar willkürlich ausgewählte Textausschnitte illustrieren:

An diesem Morgen hatte ihre Mutter ihr sogar schon ihren kostbaren Kaffee spendiert, allerdings im Gegenzug verlangt, sie solle während des Vorstellungsgesprächs auf keinen Fall:
mit offenem Mund wie ein Karpfen an die Wand glotzen
an den Haaren herumzwirbeln
Fingernägel knabbern
sondern vielmehr:
die Knie zusammenhalten
die Zunge im Mund lassen

Zu den Nationalfeiertagen brachten die Eltern Geschenke, meistens Wodka und Pralinenschachteln, die entweder so angeschimmelt oder so zerdätscht waren, dass sie für Ärzte oder Klempner nicht mehr taugten.

Den ganzen Sommer lang hing die Sonne jeden Abend bis elf am Himmel über der Stadt und zahlte ihre Winterschulden ab.

Die Wohnung ist russisch eingerichtet, Tapeten mit Blümchenmuster, an einer Wand hängt ein roter Perserteppich und vor den Fenstern viel Tüll und Spitze, in einer Ecke steht eine schwarze Porzellanvitrine. Rita wirkt wie ein Insekt in einem Käfig aus düsterer Opulenz.

"Und wo bist du her?", fragt Lika.
"Asbest 2. Das ist in Sibirien, bei Prostuda."
"Irrer Name."
"Tja, na ja, der ist einfach eindeutig. Mehr als Asbest ist da nicht."

"Kennst du das Gebet von früher?", fragte Alyssa.
"Nein, Liebes, sie kommt doch aus der Sowjetunion! Ist das nicht toll?" Mrs. Tarakan klang wie eine Naturwissenschaftlerin, die soeben herausgefunden hatte, dass Saschas Hirn grösser als erwartet war.

"Ich hab keine Fragen", flüsterte Sascha.
"Doch, hast du."
"Ach, kannst du Gedanken lesen?"
"Die ganz primitiven schon", sagte Jake und rollte an ihr vorbei aus dem Raum.

Heidi schüttelt den Kopf. "Victor, das geht so nicht", kommt sie Sascha zu Hilfe. "Du kannst nicht einfach dein altes Leben verlassen und ein neues anfangen. Du bist nicht Buddha. Menschen haben Bindungen. Menschen kümmern sich um die Dinge."

Anya Ulinich
Die große Reise der Mailorder-Braut Sascha Goldberg
dtv, 2008

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Tao Te Ching

I open it at number five on page five. I let my eyes run across the words. I let my brain process them. I let my heart feel them. Number five is like the rest. There is no good or evil, no Sinner or Saint. There simply is what is and that is it. You can use that to be and that is enough. Don't talk about it or question it. Just let it be. Just be.
It still affects me and it still makes sense. It still moves me and it still rings true. That is all that matters. The truth. Does it ring true it does. I can feel it.
Number six. The Tao is the Great Mother the Great Father the Great Nothing. It is empty and inexhaustible. It is always present you can use it or not. Does it ring true it does.
Seven. Infinite and eternal. It was never born and will never die. It is just there. It wants nothing and it needs nothing, it is just there. Stay behind and get ahead. Detach and become. Let go of all and you will be full. Let go of all and you will be full.
Eight and nine say the good is like water that nourishes without trying. They say in thinking keep to simple, in conflict be fair. They say don't compare or compete simply be yourself. They say fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill, keep sharpening your knife and it will dull. They say chase after money and your heart will never unclench. Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.
These things, these poems, these words, these meanings, they make sense to me. They do not tell me to do anything or be anything or believe in anything or become anything. They don't judge me or try to convince me. There is no righteousness or pretension. They don't fight me or insult me or tell me I'm wrong. There is no Authority and there are no Rules. They are just words strung together on a page sitting and waiting patiently for me to accept or reject them. They don't care if I do either or bother nothing at all. They will never tell me I'm wrong. They will never tell me I'm right either. They just sit there.
James Frey: A Million Little Pieces

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Brazilian Cemeteries

It has been mostly raining since I arrived in mid-August in Southern Brazil. One of the few exceptions was the very hot Sunday of 1 November (36° Celsius) when Ricardo, a native of Santa Cruz do Sul, drove John (from Bakersfield) and me to the "interior" which in our case meant a ride on dirt roads into the middle of nowhere where we also came across two cemeteries - one showed a very colourful mix of styles, the other was more of the traditional European kind with one tombstone already displaying the date of birth and the photograph of a woman who however is seemingly not yet buried there. Extraordinary planning, I'd say.

Copyright @ Hans Durrer

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Santa Cruz do Sul

This is how I decided to frame the top of the Cathedral of São João Batista in Santa Cruz do Sul on 12 December 2009.

Copyright @ Hans Durrer

Sunday, 13 December 2009

On children's books

You enjoy good writing? Try Janet Malcolm. It does not matter what she writes about, I will read it. Not least because I always come away with new insights. Here's how her article "Advanced Placement, The wicked joy of the 'Gossip Girl' novels" begins (The New Yorker, 10 March 2008):

As Lolita and Humbert drive past a horrible accident, which has left a shoe lying in the ditch beside a blood-spattered car, the nymphet remarks, “That was the exact type of moccasin I was trying to describe to that jerk in the store.” This is the exact type of black comedy that Cecily von Ziegesar, the author of the best-selling “Gossip Girl” novels for teen-age girls, excels in. Von Ziegesar writes in the language of contemporary youth—things are cool or hot or they so totally suck. But the language is a decoy. The heartlessness of youth is von Ziegesar’s double-edged theme, the object of her mockery—and sympathy. She understands that children are a pleasure-seeking species, and that adolescence is a delicious last gasp (the light is most golden just before the shadows fall) of rightful selfishness and cluelessness. She also knows—as the authors of the best children’s books have known—that children like to read what they don’t entirely understand. Von Ziegesar pulls off the tour de force of wickedly satirizing the young while amusing them. Her designated reader is an adolescent girl, but the reader she seems to have firmly in mind as she writes is a literate, even literary, adult.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Beautiful Pictures

Daichi Koda's pictures are beautiful.
To show beauty is what he is aiming for.
Even when confronted with terrible situations he looks for beauty.
For beauty, he believes, can be found in every situation.
This is not to diminish pain and sorrow.
This is to say that pain and sorrow and beauty may be present in the same situation.
To find this beauty, he pays attention, and he takes his time
For to photograph, he believes, is to meditate.

See for yourself:

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Drinking Laws & Culture

In the course of our work we obtained a certain amount of information about the law and practice relative to liquor licensing law in other countries. A number of our consultees drew our attention to the fact that in some countries, such as those in southern Europe, there appear to be very liberal regimes but with few obvious signs of public drunkenness or disorder among local residents. We have given careful consideration to such evidence as we have about the law and practice in such countries. However, we are of the view that great care must be taken before one can safely proceed on the basis that a system which appears to operate successfully in one country can simply be replicated here with the same results. In our opinion cultural backgrounds and norms probably play a much larger part in determining social behaviour than any laws regulating the sale and consumption of alcohol, and we therefore doubt whether it can safely be assumed that what works in, for example, Italy or Spain will necessarily work here.

On the other hand, we have obtained some assistance from an examination of current, and proposed, law and practice in countries where, so far as we can determine, cultural and other considerations are not significantly different from those in Scotland. We have already made reference to the Republic of Ireland and to the Isle of Man. We have also had regard to current proposals for reform of licensing law in England and Wales. For some time those proposals were to be found only in a White Paper issued by the Home Office.

However, in November 2002 legislation which builds on the proposals in the White Paper was announced in The Queen’s Speech, and since then we have been following the progress of the Licensing Bill with interest. In addition, we have become aware of certain practices which are followed in the Province of British Columbia in Canada.

Source: The Nicholson Report

Monday, 7 December 2009

Press Photography & Magic

On 7 December 2008, Spiegel Online published this shot here:

Copyright @ AP

The caption said: „GM-Boss Wagoner, Chrysler-Boss Nardelli, Ford-Boss Mullay and Union-Boss Gettelfinger (from left) at the hearing in the Capitol: "Problems structurally caused".“
The context that the article provides is this: the American automobil industry is in trouble. It demands money from the government, Nobel Prize Laureate Paul Krugmann does however not believe in a recovery. The problems of these corporations, he argues, are structurally caused and cannot be solved by injecting money. Barack Obama however wants to help the automobile industry.

Now, what does the photo show? Four men who present themselves as attentive listeners: Interested, pensive, considerate. They act like this for the photographer. It is of course possible that they do not simply act but actually feel that way - yet the photo cannot show it. Are they so attentive because they had been publicly berated for coming to Washington by private jet? Or are they so attentive because they are impressed by what the senatores have to say? We cannot know that, we can only speculate. What we however know is this: what the context insinuates (the willingness to listen, concern, unassumingness etc.), the photo cannot show, it can only be ascribed to the photo.

In order to not fall into the traps laid out by press photos, we need to become visually educated. No, I'm not arguing for yet another training that helps the trainer to make a living. I'm simply saying that we should pause and look and think when we are shown a photo. In this case, what we see is this: four attentive looking men facing a camera. That's it.

It is useful to keep in mind that a photo is a photo is a photo: a two-dimensional reduction of a three-dimensional physical reality that neither smells nor sounds and that has always been only as real as a picture on a page can be. At the same time however - and that is what makes them so intriguing and special - photos radiate something magical. As Maureen Dowd penned in the New York Times: "…in Hollywood, couples who have chemistry on screen often don't like each other off screen, and ones who are involved off screen often don't have any chemistry on screen."

In order to become visually literate, we shouldn't strip photos off their magic for this would mean to strip them off their essence. Instead, we need to acknowledge their magic. For being aware of the photo's magic allows us to take an informed decision: whether or not we want to succumb to it.

PS: Not everybody believes in (or is impressed by) the magic of photographs: While conducting a workshop on "Thinking Photography" in Nykarleby, Finland, I used William Mitchell's famous example (take a photo of your mother and try to cut out her eyes) in order to demonstrate that we think of photos as having a life of their own. "Impossible, isn't it?" I said when one of the female students replied: "No problem for me. Everyone in this room knows that I'm presently having quite some problems with my parents. Only last week I cut up photos of them in order to make a collage."

Saturday, 5 December 2009

In Pakistan

Damals versuchte die pakistanische Regierung die Stämme zu überreden, Angehörige der Taliban nicht mehr aufzunehmen. Wir gingen zu einem Haus, das der Clan als Jagdpavillon benutzte. Ungefähr ein Dutzend Männer, alle in grauen Gewändern und mit der unvermeidlichen AK-47 bewaffnet, sassen im Kreis auf dem Boden eines leeren Zimmers. Der Häuptling trug einen weissen Turban. Als wir ihn fragten, ob er die Absicht habe, Musharraf zu gehorchen, reagierte er amüsiert, als ob wir ihm einen Witz erzählt hätten.
Mariane Pearl: Ein mutiges Herz

Thursday, 3 December 2009

In Afghanistan

Tutti dicono che gli stranieri sono oggi benvenuti in Afghanistan. Non è vero: l'ostilità degli afghani verso tutti quelli che, specie non invitati, passano dal loro paese è vecchia e profonda.
Tiziano Terzani: Lettere contro la guerra

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The British Way

We are told that Blair made war because he wanted not to look as weak as Michael Foot. Did none of his close circle feel they had a duty to warn him that to kill and maim over a million people was extravagant ambition? Therein was enacted what the right wing political philosopher Leo Strauss calls 'the noble lie', the right of leaders to lie to the masses, aided and abetted by a small elite of the chosen ones privy to the truth.

The Iraqi academic Sami Ramadhani says his countrymen have no interest in this inquiry. They have felt and seen what happened. Ordinary Britons too have a clearer view than assumed by these people in high places. We should have had ordinary Iraqi and British citizens on the panel and sharp lawyers too. They might have disarmed the slip sliders and pushed collective responsibility.

L'etat was never just Blair. But that isn't how Albion does things. The British way is to suppress any incipient social rebellions by making sure something is seen to be done, and also that nothing really changes.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: I'm beginning to feel some sympathy for Tony Blair. We should have had ordinary Iraqi and British citizens on the inquiry panel, The Independent, 30 November 2009