Chronicles of a writer abroad



I’ve had no words, this week. Extraordinary things have been happening to people other than me — things that make you grateful for helicopters and surgeons. In the midst of this drama, I haven’t wanted to prattle on about my everyday life, but I’m aware that some people check the site regularly and that I’ve been quiet for a while now.

So, instead of words, I’d like to offer a few pictures today. These are ones that either I or Stelian have taken during the past week or so.

Snow leopard at the Zurich zoo

Swiss cow in pasture

A high-altitude hike

A truly urban park

The last two photos are of one of my favourite spots in Zurich-Nord. We may not have the lake at our end of the city, but we have this very cool area called the MFO Park. It’s a sizable open space inside of a large steel structure draped with vines. The interior boasts trees, benches and a pool set into a square of different-coloured glass pebbles. During the day, it is a peaceful green oasis where people read and take their lunches. At night, spotlights come on, making the glass sparkle and turning MFO into a haven for teenagers and a spot for adults who want to get lost in conversation. You can climb onto the structure – there are balconies and benches offering different views from the different levels.

Apparently, this park won some sort of architecture competition a few years ago. As I was reading more about it on the internet, I came across a letter by artist Jürg Altherr to the planners of the park, in which he terms it “A public hall as big as the biggest industrial halls; a park as a walk-on sculpture; the green opera!”

The green opera, indeed. Now those are words I would not have thought of.



Remembering Liz

I’d like to dedicate this post to something other than the 9/11 anniversary or yesterday’s city holiday in Zürich — something that’s been occupying my mind for a few days now.

You see, the world lost a truly great human being last Friday.

Liz was assigned to be my initial supervisor when I started my graduate program at SFU. When I met her, realized how much I liked her and how much I felt that my thinking was aligned with hers, I knew that the “initial” part of the label would be eventually dropped, subject to her agreeing to take me on permanently (in the sense of until my degree’s completion, and not in the sense that I would hang around forever) as a student. When we had the talk and signed the papers that made our relationship official, I was very happy.

In the spring of 2008, I had finished my coursework and was getting ready to dive into my thesis research. I was also working as a Teaching Assistant for Liz’s Restorative Justice course. It was a great course — students loved taking it, TAs loved leading the tutorial activities (most of which were games that Liz had designed), and Liz loved teaching it. As someone who was very connected in (and, indeed, a pioneering member of) the Restorative Justice movement, Liz was able to bring in guest speakers who were involved in RJ from different angles — those who provided mediation or reconciliation services, victims who had benefitted from these processes, and offenders who had been involved in them too.

The offenders, naturally, were always very popular with the students – the lecture hall seemed unusually packed when word got around that “bad guys” were coming in as guest speakers. Liz would have discussions with these people, many of whom had spent a significant chunk of time in prison, in front of the class of two hundred or so students.  It was clear that she wasn’t acting as a professor who was working to draw concepts out of a discussion. She was simply having a conversation with a friend of hers, and the important points came out naturally. I remember how scandalized some of the students were when one of these former-offender guest speakers said, “You know, Liz, like the way you let me stay at your house that time. That kind of trust and respect that shows a person they really have been accepted and given a second chance.”

Midway through the semester, Liz received a diagnosis. It was a serious one, and her doctors told her that she would have to go on medical leave and begin receiving treatment immediately. The other teaching assistant and I, with help from Liz, lined up lectures (including ones we delivered ourselves) and guest speakers to see us through the end of the term without her. During that planning session, Liz said to us, “Obviously this means that I can no longer supervise your theses, either.”

The other student and I were sad, but we understood. I went on to have another great supervisor, who was himself very fond of Liz and her work, and I graduated from the program in 2009. Before I did, Liz (who was still on medical leave, but on campus intermittently) gave me a gift of stained-glass art that had been made by inmates at a B.C. prison where she did a lot of work, as well as a card saying, “The sky’s the limit for you, [Dr.] Howard.” While I was her student, she had made repeated allusions to me doing a Ph.D., though it was never an idea that I took seriously.

I have so many fond memories of this woman that I could go on and on, but I’ll share just two more. Liz had been a social worker before going back to school, as a mother of two young children, to get her Ph.D. Once I told her that I thought social work might be something that I’d like to pursue after graduate school, and she said, “Okay, then I should tell you what it was like for me.” And she proceeded to share stories, both heartbreaking and uplifting, that gave a view into her experience. I remember thinking how rare and refreshing it was to be spoken to so honestly, so intimately, by a professor when you were a student. It was because she spoke to me like I was her equal. No, more than that; she spoke to me like she did to everyone — like I was her friend.

Secondly, Liz was somewhat famous around the Department of Criminology for her theory of “Viagra politics.” I remember clearly when she said to me, in one of our meetings, “Have you ever noticed how when it comes to criminal justice policy, the government’s all ‘stronger’, ‘longer’, ‘harder’? What are they really trying to sell me here?” Amazingly, you can see Liz talking about this on youtube.

After I finished my degree we didn’t have much more contact, as is normally the case when students move on. In 2010, another professor contacted me to ask if I would write a letter of recommendation for a national Restorative Justice award that Liz was being nominated for. I was honoured to be asked, and in my letter I wrote about how Liz had adopted Ghandi’s mantra “be the change that you wish to see in the world”; how she was one of those people who really was being the change. I sent the letter back to the professor who had requested it, saying I hoped it was okay. She wrote back that it was great, and that she also was sorry to tell me that Liz’s health was deteriorating further.

Liz went on to receive the Ron Wiebe Restorative Justice Award in December of 2010, and she made it this far through 2011. Now that she is gone, a number of memorials and ceremonies are being held in Vancouver, and I wish I could be there to honour her. I wish I could stand in her office, which is being kept open as a memorial to her for a period of time, to remember all the hope and wisdom she shared with me there.

Why do so many good people, people who really do change the world and the lives of others, die so young? I can’t answer this, but I know some things that I can do in response.  I can try to carry Liz’s spirit forward — her honesty, her generosity, her kindness. I can remind myself of how simple and effective it is to speak to any person as though they are on your level, as though they are your friend. I can pull that stained glass out of its storage place, and let the light shine through it.


Recent adventures in reading

It hit me that I haven’t bored you to tears blogged about books in a while. And since I went through quite a few this summer, here are my thoughts on a few of them…

First up: Moby Dick, by Herman Melville.

When I discussed David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, I cautioned that reading it entailed an investment of time and effort. Well, this is true of Moby Dick to a further degree. This novel numbers 822 pages – it’s the kind of book that begins to cut off the circulation to your hands as you’re holding it up while reading in bed (can anyone else relate to this problem?).

To be fair, though, the version of Moby Dick that I checked out of the library is, as I mentioned once before, replete with delightful illustrations. The last books that I can recall having elements illustrated for me were in the (much beloved by me) Nancy Drew mystery series.

However, even with the illustrations, the book could stand to lose some weight. I can only imagine what a modern day literary agent or editor would tell Melville: “Love the story, but you’ve got to trim the fat!” I feel for Melville; editing down words eked out over weeks and months is painful. But revisions would have done it some good, I think. The book’s architecture often differs from that of a novel – Melville is too methodical sometimes, as if he’s writing a manual rather than a story. For example, chapter 21 is spent not at all advancing the plot, but merely introducing a character and telling you all about him. Chapter 22 is devoted to a second character, and Chapter 23 to a third. Modern-day authors can’t get away with this – they have to weave character development and action together.

Melville, thinly disguised as Ishmael, his protagonist, also gives a 27-page treatise on whale classification, which made me forget I was reading a novel and begin to wonder why I was spending my evening poring over the minutiae of cetology.

Confession: I didn’t finish the book. But I had fun wading around in it, and I may try it again someday, so that I can absorb more beautiful and true sentences like this one: “In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without a passport, whereas virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.”

Next, I read Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. This, too, is a tome — five hundred and some pages, but I lapped it all up eagerly. Franzen is an author that not everyone enjoys; some find him too preachy, others think him too cruel, still others are annoyed by the fact that he always writes about the American midwest.

But I adore him. I love hearing his biting and sarcastic voice in my head as I read. He does pick things and people apart pretty brutally, but he so often gives me that click of recognition. “Her drawers were unopenably stuffed,” he writes, and I feel as though he might be one of the people who lives across the street and is able to see into my apartment. He’s writing about me! I think. Or someone very real and flawed like me, anyway.

And check out these powers of description as he paints a scene in New York:

“A pair of fur-coated ladies ballsily appropriating a cab that Casey had hailed outside Bloomingdale’s. Tres hot middle-school girls wearing jeans under their miniskirts and slouching on the subway with their legs wide open. Cornrowed ghetto kids in ominous jumbo parkas, National Guard troops patrolling Grand Central with highly advanced weapons. And the Chinese grandmother hawking DVDs of films that hadn’t even opened yet, the break-dancer who ripped a muscle or a tendon and sat rocking in pain on the floor of the 6 train, the insistent saxophone player to whom Joey gave five dollars to help him get to his gig, despite Casey’s warning that he was being conned: each encounter was like a poem he instantly memorized.”

But back to the preachy thing — Freedom is, at its core, an argument about overpopulation and its effects on the environment. Some will find it too dogmatic. It was okay for me – I enjoyed the pull of the polemic and the need to keep my intellectual defences up as I read. If you haven’t read Franzen previously, though, may I suggest that you begin with The Corrections — it is equally long, but its theme of family life in the late-20th century is more universally relatable and probably not so divisive. But you still might find him mean-spirited and insulting, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

And one more: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, by Michael Chabon

This is Chabon’s first book, written in 1988 (he’s since gone on to win a Pulitzer and a number of other prestigious awards for his later works). I read an interview in which he said that Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was a strong influence on the book. And it is apparent: as in Gatsby, the book also takes place over the course of the summer, and it deals with the way in which people are mythologized in the eyes of their friends and enemies. It also seems something of a love letter to Pittsburgh, a city I once contemplated living in, and I love books that make me feel almost as though I’ve been to the city. On the whole, though, I suggest you read or re-read Gatsby before reading this.

What have you been reading lately?


A grocery store gamble

One of my favourite things about living in a foreign country is that when you go to the grocery store, you are faced with things like this.

This would be a seasonal food item — one that is so well-known that the company producing it can sell it in an opaque sac with no description of what it is (except the “mit honig” or “with honey”). I knew that it was bread of some kind (this is what “Brot” means, and I was also in the bread section), but I couldn’t remember “Magen” (which will be revealed below), and the general sense of being excluded from something that everyone else is familiar with niggled at me. I decided to risk a few francs and gain some culinary education.

So, what was inside the bag?

Imagine, if you will, a gingerbread-flavoured and slightly dry Timbit with a honey glaze. Mmm.

So, score one for experimentation. I’m glad I didn’t realize beforehand that the literal translation of Magenbrot is “stomach bread” (since it is believed in this part of the world that spices like ginger and cloves are good for your stomach). The name doesn’t do much to entice. But I suppose it is, in the end, as irrelevant as the opaque bag — these things fly off the shelves, despite bad packaging or bad names, in a country with strong traditions.

On another food-related note: if you’re in the mood for a laugh, read the reviews/comments on this recipe for Salted Water. This is perfect satire, encapsulating all of the types of annoying comments one normally sees on recipe sites.

P.S. My blogs now come to you from my shiny new Mac. That’s right, I’ve crossed over. Still taking in how pretty everything is!