Chronicles of a writer abroad

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Book Discussion: Cloud Atlas

We are riding a heat wave here in Zürich. It’s our third day of temperatures above 30. My brain is a little scrambled, it feels as though an oven door is being opened in your face whenever you step out into the sun, and — horror of horrors — the chocolate is melting! I cannot abide chocolate-melting weather.

On the upside, though, our city has a lake that is clean enough to swim in (what a concept!), and this provides some relief. We were in it yesterday, and will probably be in it again soon. Today (she said with a grimace), we run instead.

But…I came here to talk about something else, didn’t I? Oh, right — Cloud Atlas. Notice I didn’t call this post a book recommendation, but instead a book discussion. The fact is, I do recommend this book, but only if you answer “yes” to the following criteria:

– you’re willing to invest a significant chunk of time in reading a sprawling, 526-page novel

– you’re not bothered by a novel containing six different stories told by six different narrators

-you think it’s worth reading a work that occasionally rambles if the author is an incomparable stylist (i.e., he can write like nobody’s business)

Intrigued? Then I’ll tell you a little more. Cloud Atlas, written by British author David Mitchell and published in 2004, is a Russian doll of sorts. It begins in the mid-19th century, with a young man embarking on a journey from the South Pacific to Hawaii by ship. Just as Adam Ewing’s story starts to gain momentum, it cuts off literally in mid-sentence, and we are launched into an epistolary tale — another young man named Robert Frobisher has come to Belgium in the 1930s, fleeing a previous life in which he ran into some kind of money trouble and was disowned by his father. A fledgling composer, he manages to obtain work as an amanuensis for an ailing idol of his; he writes letters to his lover, a man named Sixsmith, describing his experience working and living in the composer’s chateau. Interrupting Frobisher’s story is one about a reporter named Luisa Rey who works to expose the danger of a new nuclear facility in the U.S. circa 1970. Her tale is then occluded by that of Timothy Cavendish, who lives in present-day Britain, and has been consigned to a nursing home, he feels, as a result of a joke. He battles to convince the staff and fellow patients of this; when he cannot, his mind becomes fixed on escape. Cavendish’s ordeal is then  overlapped by the testimony of Sonmi~451, a “server fabricant,” or  humanlike but “soulless” organism genomed to fit the precise needs of a fast-food corporation in a dystopic future Korea. Finally, before we can hear all that Sonmi has to say, her story is cut off by Zachry, who is one of several surviving human tribes living in post-apocalyptic Hawaii. We get to hear his whole story at once, before the dolls are nestled back in again…the reader is led back to Sonmi, Timothy, Luisa, Robert, and finally, Adam, the seafarer, as each of their stories is put to bed in turn.

This book reminded me very much of a workout I used to do on the treadmill. I realize this is a strange thing to say, but it’s true. My former workout consisted of increasing the treadmill’s speed from 7.0 to 8.0 — every 2 minutes, I would increase by an increment of 0.1 (to 7.1, 7.2, etc.), and after running 8.0 for 2 minutes, I’d start reversing back to 7.0 using the same increments of 0.1. I’d get up and back down in 42 minutes. I hated it and loved it.

This book has the same structure, and I hated and loved it in the same ways. In the first half, I was annoyed whenever the level changed — it seemed like I was just getting comfortable where I was. And what I hated most were the minutes spent at the top — Zachry’s story, in this case, which was the only one presented in complete form (this character, who narrates in some kind of futuristic yokel language, is singlehandedly responsible for causing me to spend a month reading this book — I kept putting it down during his part). But then, when the other stories started to close up, I felt like I was flying through them — each seemed almost more enjoyable than the last.

So, the book drags in places — at least it did for me. I did not love all of the characters equally, though I think the book is worth a read purely for the two that I really fell in love with (Frobisher and Cavendish). What is to be admired is how the author creates so many different “main” characters with such distinct voices. See if these don’t hook you:

Adam Ewing: “Occasionally, I glimpse a truer Truth, hiding in imperfect simulacrums of itself, but as I approach, it bestirs itself & moves deeper into the thorny swamp of dissent.”

Robert Frobisher: “One can spot a fellow musician in any context, even among policemen. The craziest-eyed, unruliest-haired  one, either hungry-skinny or jovial portly.”

Timothy Cavendish: “You can see it, can’t you, dear Reader? I was a man in a horror B-movie asylum. The more I ranted and raged, the more I proved that I was exactly where I should be.”

Luisa Rey: “Where there’s bluster, thinks Luisa, there’s duplicity.”

Sonmi~451: “I have no earliest memories, Archivist. Every day of my life in Papa Song’s was as uniform as the fries that we vended.”

Zachry: “I creeped slywise’n’speedy but late I was, yay, way too late.”

I also enjoyed the author’s cleverness in mirroring his own story within his story (a meta-narrative of sorts). Frobisher, for example, describes his grand idea for a symphony, which sounds eerily familiar, thusly:

“In the 1st set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the 2nd, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished…”

I think I’ve now said enough about the book to either have turned you onto or put you off of the idea of it. The one question you may still be asking is whether the sundry characters of the novel are linked in some way. The answer: of course. But you’ll have to read it to find out how.

Have you read Cloud Atlas? If so, I’d love to hear your impressions! And, as always, please feel free to make your own book recommendations below.



Running from shame

There’s been a lot of talk, since the Vancouver riots, about the ethics of public shaming. Some claim that the desire to shame offenders publicly stems from the same kind of mob-mentality that may have fuelled the riots themselves; others insist that it is a natural progression for a society in which people are fed up with the court system due to its perceived leniency and lack of efficacy.

I’m not going to go into these issues, but I am going to do a little experiment in self-shaming. Here, I’m going to show you something that I am embarrassed by:

I said I was going to run a half-marathon, not a marathon, in Amsterdam this fall, but then I signed up for the longer distance. One of the reasons I decided to is because I’m running quite slowly, so I rationalized that I might as well run farther. The figure that I highlighted in red above is my average pace across all my training runs so far (I started training last month), and it is about a full minute per kilometer slower than what I was training at last year. In case anyone is wondering how information about my runs gets transmitted to my computer in this way, I wear a Garmin GPS watch while running. It is hands-down the best investment I ever made in my running — I am a data geek, and I really get motivated by seeing numbers on the screen.

But in this case, the numbers are not so encouraging. Possible reasons that I am moving slowly include the fact that I am 8-10 pounds heavier than I was during my last training season; the fact that Zürich is very hilly, and I’m bad at hills; and the fact that I allowed my fitness to slip a lot during our overseas move this winter.

But now I’m determined to get at least most of the way back to where I was before the Vancouver marathon. I have nearly four months until October 16, 2011, when I will (barring any unforeseen injuries) run the Amsterdam marathon. I will do an honest report about my training every month between now and then. Let’s hope to see that number in the red box decrease! And hey, if my talking about this motivates anyone to go running — even for a short distance — then my public shaming will have accomplished another worthy goal.



Things I’m Learning


I feel a little like a child re-entering the room, sheepishly, after having thrown a hissy fit and stormed off.

I think I’ve said enough about the Vancouver riots, and I apologize if any of my (admittedly untempered) views offended you. It’s just that I care deeply about these issues — I’m well-intentioned, if occasionally hot-headed and acid-tongued.

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming. Here are some things that I’ve learned lately:

The deliciousness of haloumi. Have you met this salty, fatty, grillable cheese? I hadn’t, until someone brought it to a friend’s barbeque a few weeks ago. In German it’s called Grillkäse, and it immediately blew my mind. Cheese that can go on the barbeque? But how? I cannot explain it, but this cheese manages to grill on the outside while melting on the inside, but not to the extent that it falls between the grill bars.

I wasn’t able to get this stuff out of my mind, so even though we don’t have a grill, I wanted to find a way to eat it. I happened upon this recipe, which I highly recommend. And happily, it turned out really well, despite the fact that I had to grill my asparagus and haloumi on the stove.

A perfect summer salad

Ask and ye shall receive. Actually, I don’t even have to ask, and I still receive — I am one spoiled expat. Back in April, I blogged about how a friend sent me some chocolate chips, and I was agonizing over not having the perfect recipe to deploy them in. Since then, Stelian’s family came to visit, bringing me a massive bag of milk chocolate chips which I’m slowly working my way through — they are amazing in banana muffins. And just today, I was pleasantly surprised by a postal package containing this 2 kilogram (!) bag of semi-sweet chips from other family members.

I cannot explain my paleness. I go outside, I swear I do.

So now I’m crying Uncle. Thank you, I am supplied through this year and the next! Just in case any others were hatching plans to send me massive quantities of chocolate..

You cannot eat Swiss food (chocolate, cheese, etc.) with impunity from the weight gods. Especially when your family is supplying you with foreign chocolate as well! But race training season has begun, so things will hopefully come back into balance.

The benefit of a writing group. I’m generally a happy loner. I’ve talked before about the parallels between running and writing. Well, I’ve always enjoyed running alone. I never could fathom training with a clinic, as so many people do, because all those hours spent alone in my head are precious to me. Similarly, I like the fact that writing is by nature a very solitary avocation, where I work alone and don’t rely on others to get the job done. I’m learning, however, that you do need to let others in at the point where you’ve finished a piece and you no longer have any perspective on it.

Enter my writing group — five women whom I met at the writer’s workshop I attended in May. We’ve made a commitment to meet once a month and gripe about writing issues and critique each other’s work. So far, it’s been very helpful, and I’m so grateful for it.

I’m a slow reader. I can be, anyway. I’m trying to heed one reader’s request for “more book recommendations!” but I’ve been stuck on this one book for a solid month now. I’ll try to finish it soon, because I do want to talk about it.

Hope you are making the most of the Solstice. Happy Summer!

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News Media, Stay Away from Meme

I can understand when someone becomes famous because they have an original idea. Or because they care about a cause, and are fighting for it (or against it). Because they have a talent that causes us to marvel at the range of human ability. Because they have done something selfless or courageous or inspiring.

But not because they were the subjects of a photo that happened to go viral.

Rich Lam/Getty Images

I’ll admit it — I enjoyed this photo when I first saw it. A few different friends posted it on facebook; on one of the postings, I quipped, “Lovers in a dangerous time!” As most other people did, I found it funny that two people could be so absorbed in kissing each other when there are riot police all around them. I chalked it up to young love and/or alcohol. It was the only picture from the evening of the riot that made me smile.

I didn’t expect it to become a news fixture, but unfortunately this is what has happened. The CBC is now congratulating itself for having revealed the “truth” about the couple – after they launched a hunt and located them, the couple explained that “it wasn’t what it looked like” — in fact, they claimed, he was merely comforting her after she was knocked down. The CBC did an “exclusive” write-up and a 13-minute video interview with these new celebrities — it was also the leading item on the evening news. We are encouraged by them to care about the details of these people’s lives – and oh, we should watch the boyfriend’s standup comedy video on youtube.

It’s time to acknowledge that we are being encouraged to be lazy. In the midst of a time when we should be asking ourselves hard questions, the media seizes the one thing that we’re laughing at, and runs with it. The media suggests that it’s okay not to ask hard questions; in fact, it keeps us diverted from them with this kind of reporting. As one commenter on the CBC article titled “Vancouver riot’s ‘kissing couple’ tell their story” put it:

“Fabulous. Glad we got that figured out. Now, about the rioters…”

My sentiments exactly. Actually, my sentiments while scanning the article were a little less politically correct (“ah, so they’re not street sluts, they’re just media whores. Important distinction. Let’s get back to the real issues”).

In the aftermath of Wednesday night, Vancouverites, and Canadians more broadly, need to answer some hard questions. Questions like…

Why did so many people decide to engage in criminal behaviour at the drop of a hat (or, in this case, after the drop of a puck?)

What could police and the city have done to prevent the situation from getting so out of control?

Why is everyone so obsessed with filming everything?

Wait:  I know the answer to the last one. Everyone is so obsessed with filming everything because our society has come to place extraordinary value on memes. If you create an internet meme, you become  youtube and facebook royalty, and CBC or other media outlets might pay you or give you 15 minutes in the bright lights.

Normally, I don’t see much wrong with these things that go viral – they’re generally easy to ignore, if you don’t care about them. And some of them can brighten your day (the sneezing panda, for instance, is a quick and fun diversion). But I see something seriously wrong with the media invoking memes at a time like this. People who stood around taking pictures and video of the Vancouver riots blocked emergency personnel, like police and paramedics and firefighters. They endangered themselves and others. They provided an audience for those who were acting stupid – indeed, they probably provided an inducement for some to act stupid.  I don’t think we should celebrate any of this.

I think that perhaps this “Kissing Couple” rigmarole was a misguided attempt by the CBC to emulate the success that the British media had in identifying the two nuns at this spring’s Royal wedding. But there are key differences between that situation and this one. In that case, comic relief was not inappropriate – it was a wedding, a happy occasion, and the press had been covering every angle of it ad nauseam.  So the story about who the nuns were, how they came to enjoy excellent seats in Westminster Abbey, and why they were wearing Reeboks (some speculated that they could be ninja nuns who were providing security of some sort) did not leave a bad taste in my mouth. It was welcome comic relief for people who think weddings – even when they involve royalty – can be a bit of a snoozefest. This item spiced up the news in a fun way, and in my estimation, the identity of the nuns was no more trivial than other details being reported on in earnestness, such as the fabric blend of Kate’s dress, the details of her sister, Pippa, or the food that would be served at the dinner following the wedding.

The CBC and other Canadian news outlets should have realized that, unlike the above situation, the aftermath of violence is not a time to engage with the trivial, especially when it appears that our excessive focus on things that are briefly cute or funny is causing us to become a nation of dangerously vacuous videoing sheep. And when we know that we have much bigger issues to grapple with.

So as much as I’m disappointed in the people who burned and smashed Vancouver and/or posed in front of Vancouver burning and smashed, I’m also disappointed in the Canadian media’s handling of the aftermath.  And I have this message for the CBC:  Please stop diverting Canadians from what should be their real interests. Stop publishing fluff, and start engaging with issues that matter. Start encouraging meaningful dialogue.  Otherwise, I might as well make youtube my homepage, since they have the “news” sooner than you do.


The strange anatomy of a riot

Remember that city I’m most recently from — the one that I told you was so beautiful, such a peaceful gem on Canada’s West Coast?

Yeah, well…

Vancouver Sun image

There you have it.

When I awoke on Thursday morning, it was still before midnight in Vancouver, and the post-Stanley-Cup-loss rioting was still in progress. I was soon glued to footage of Vancouverites burning, smashing, and looting my beloved city. And standing around those doing the smashing, burning, and looting were thousands more taking pictures and video, no doubt thinking of the facebook comments or the high number of youtube views that they might earn later.

This is utterly stupid behaviour, and it makes me depressed to see how many were engaging in it. During and in the aftermath of the riots, it was suggested that (1) those responsible were just a small group of determined troublemakers (this was the mayor’s take); or (2) those participating were not Canucks fans, but criminals who seized an opportunity to be violent. However, I find that neither of these things is borne out when you watch the footage and examine the photos…there are many expensive Canucks jerseys being sported by those trashing the city. And there were enough people involved in the mayhem that multiple cars were flipped over, the streets were littered with glass, multiple storefronts were compromised, and VPD officers as well as RCMP called in to assist had their hands completely full for the evening. I find that the rioting cannot be blamed on an elite group of criminals. Those responsible and involved were dumb Canadians — it’s that simple.

There’s something about hockey that arouses in some of my countrymen a need to riot. If you look into Stanley Cup-related riots, you’ll find that there are 3 on record: one in 1994, when Vancouver lost the Cup in Game 7, just as they did two days ago; the one that happened two days ago; and one that happened in Montreal in 1993, when the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup. That’s right: all in Canada. And yes, we riot when we win and when we lose. At the moment, the Vancouver media is reporting on the fact that more than 100 individuals were arrested after Wednesday’s riots. But more than 100 people were also arrested on the evening after Canada’s gold medal hockey win during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics — it’s a fact that most people either don’t know or have forgotten. It wasn’t a riot exactly on that evening, but there was a lot of similarly stupid, disorderly behaviour in the city streets.

This leads me to believe that for some people, sitting and drinking and watching as other people engage in exercise and violence is a dangerous thing. Especially when those people begin to cast their lot with that of a team who has, if we’re being honest, not much in common with them except geography. It seems that the tension and the stakes, mounting for weeks before the final game, may be what contributes to the resultant violence, since it can erupt in victory or in loss.

I’m not at all saying that hockey is evil or should be banned. Like movies, video-games, rap music or countless other things that have been blamed for acts of violence, the sport is something that is harmlessly enjoyed by most, and that provokes reprehensible behaviour in a few. I only wish that all able-bodied persons who watch sports would participate in them, or some kind of exercise, on a regular basis as well. Something tells me that could help to prevent a lot of these problems. Of course, the alcohol is also a major factor — as a city, Vancouver has a drinking problem (in addition to its hard-drug problem). Its Granville strip, on any given Friday or Saturday night, becomes a pedestrian-only zone, as well as a nightmarish freakshow, due to the large number of young people who converge there for the sole purpose of getting wasted. Walking through there sober (as I have done multiple times, on my way home) can be scarring on any night. On key hockey game nights, more testosterone and adrenaline is mixed into the alcohol-fuelled chaos and stupidity, and…well, it’s scary what can happen.

So I guess I haven’t told you the whole truth yet: Vancouver is beautiful, yes. But like many a beautiful person, the city has an ugly, troubled side — as well as an obsession with documenting it.


Neuchâtel’s Creux de Van

Of Switzerland’s 26 cantons, the one whose name sounds the most romantic to me is Neuchâtel. On paper, it has several things going for it: they speak French there (this is a pretty big advantage in my book), there are a number of castles and a large lake (Lac Neuchâtel), and it is the birthplace of absinthe. I was excited, therefore, when we ventured into this canton to hike this past Sunday.

We had to take two trains to get there — one ride was comparatively long (an hour and fifteen minutes) and the next comparatively short (20 minutes). The first train’s “next stop” signs switched partway through the journey from Nächste halt to Prochain arrêt and we knew then that we had crossed into Romandie, or French-speaking Switzerland. We disembarked in Neuchâtel (which like Zürich is a city as well as a canton name), and boarded the second train to Noiraigue. On this train everyone was speaking French, and my brain was momentarily overloaded, since I’m so used to not listening to what people around me are saying. Here I couldn’t help it — my poor brain, starved of eavesdropping!

We and our friends were the only ones speaking English, it seemed. A friendly older lady leaned across the aisle and inquired as to whether we spoke French. “Un peu,” I said cautiously, remembering last week’s debacle with the French-speaking Nespresso representative (besides, the Swiss way is to say that you speak a language “only a little” even when you are essentially fluent). “Regardez cette montagne,” she told me a little while later, “c’est tres beau. Connaissez-vous le Creux de Van?” I told her that this was where we were headed that day, and she was very pleased. As we left the train, she wished us a beautiful day. Several other people smiled and waved at us, echoing her wishes, and I realized how accustomed I’ve become to the silent German-speaking Swiss character (and how I could live in French Switzerland in a heartbeat!).

Anyway, the lady was right: the Creux de Van is exceptionally beautiful. The name refers to a large (1400 meter-wide) horseshoe-shaped, glacier-carved rock formation. And because its top (from which you get amazing views across the semicircle and, if you’re brave enough to stand near the edge, down the steep rock faces) sits at 1470 meters above sea level, and we began at 740, we had to undertake a real hike on this day. Of course, this area is also accessible by car, so as we triumphantly and sweatily summited the mountain, we once again saw kids playing and people drinking cafe-au-lait like it was no big deal.     

Le sigh.

Here are some pictures:

Le Creux de Van


More view

Our friend scrambling onto a rock ledge

These cows were hanging out in a wooded area

And there were more dotting the landscape

We finished our hike in the village of Môtiers, which boasts an absinthe bar every two paces

Oh, and Rousseau hung out here for a few years with his mistress

We came across these fake tombstones displaying typically French dark humour

And this very cool building

French Switzerland, I miss you already.


Google-translating my way through expat life

I think we can all acknowledge how vastly the internet has changed our lives. Though I didn’t have an internet connection until I was at least halfway through high school, it’s difficult for me to remember what life was life before the All-Knowing Internet appeared. Imagine, or recall: we used to have to find the appropriate book when we wanted to look up a piece of information, which meant that factual disputes could have to wait hours or days to be resolved — today, you run to your computer, or someone whips out their iphone, and the answer is revealed almost instantly. The world really is at our fingertips.

And online tools continue to evolve and make our lives easier, all the time. One tool that has proved immensely useful to me as a person living abroad and possessing a, um, language deficit, is Google Translate. It translates German webpages for me; it helps me read German novels (yes, I try) and newspaper articles; it is the reason that my landlady thinks I’m capable of calling workers to arrange to have them fix things.

Of course, I could do these things without Google Translate — they would just be so much more painstaking. In fact, last week I had a nice reminder of this. Sadly, it began when I broke my little friend. It was one of those this-could-only-happen-to-klutzy-me moments: I was reaching for something on top of a cupboard, and knocked over something which caused a domino effect which culminated in the water tank for the espresso machine, which was on the counter to dry, falling to the floor and sustaining a very large crack. The tank was kaputt, as a German speaker would say.

I did nothing for a few days (we are not regular coffee drinkers, after all) and then I plucked up my courage and called Nespresso. A recorded voice came on, asking me to choose between the German, French, and Italian languages. After a moment’s deliberation, I chose French. I used to be fluent, and I figured I could hack my way through his conversation more easily in French than in Deutsch.

A lady came on the line, and I was able to explain my problem with the reservoir d’eau. It seemed that things were going swimmingly, until she asked me to provide her with a number. After that it went something like this:

Me: “OK, il est uehn…” (my rendition of the French number “1”)

Her: “Dites-vous eueh?” (as in the French letter “e”)

Me: “Non — uehn

And so it went for a short while — we kept making nasal vowel sounds at each other, and she was insisting that I should be giving her only numbers, not letters, and I was insisting that I was telling her a number. And then she broke the impasse by ascertaining that I was an English speaker and offering to transfer me to an English-speaking representative. I spoke to this person briefly, explaining the reason for my call, and they said, “oh, well you’ll have to speak to this other department.” I was transferred again, and hello, Swiss-German language bomb. But eventually I understood that I would have to sign up for something on the internet in order to receive  a specific code, and call back.

I obtained the code, and then I prepared for the second call using Google-translate: in less than two minutes, I had created this one-sided script for myself:

You can see that it contained some very elementary things — of course, at this point, I know how to say “Good afternoon,” but it’s amazing how much I can freeze up in the immediacy of a phone call, and it’s comforting to know that all the words are there in front of me. The script also plans for the case that I won’t understand what the person is saying, or that I will have to abandon the call entirely. But happily, neither of these things happened — I was able to “fake” my way through the conversation, and the new Wassertank was delivered and is now snugly installed in the machine.

Don’t worry: I know that Google Translate does not always provide top-notch translations. I don’t plan to use it in lieu of learning the language (after all, there are still a lot of real-life interactions where it can’t be used).  At this point in my language learning, though, I’m so happy to have it at my disposal. I don’t want to think about how much time it would have taken me to create a script the old-fashioned way, with a two-way dictionary — but then again, I guess I also shouldn’t think about how I probably just squandered the time I saved on Facebook and other inane internet content. I just want to thank Google Translate for making expat life a little bit easier.