18.2.12

ACROSS THE POND - volume VIII



volume VIII: souvenirs

Table of Contents VIII


editor's note - caitlin vernon


the ephemeral memento - cayley james




Editor's Note VIII

By Caitlin Vernon

Across the Pond began two years ago as my first collaborative literary venture (if you don't count the days when I used to dictate short stories to my Dad before I knew how to spell). I sat in Robarts Library at University of Toronto and tried to think of a way to put my proposed summer travels to some creative use. I wanted to write about my time in Scotland and France, but I wasn't sure how interesting my story would be if it was told by just me.

I started frantically emailing around to see if anyone was interested in getting involved, and was surprised by the positive response. Throughout the eight issues that I have collected, I have always been surprised by the number of people who want to share their stories. Even people who claim they don't travel or don't "know how to write" have ended up submitting articles, for which I am so, so thankful. Cheesy as it may sound, I believe everyone has stories to tell and I made it my unquestionable policy to use every piece of writing that was ever sent in.

I've decided to stop putting out new issues for a few reasons: 1) I've started a postgrad degree in Tourism Management as well as French lessons which keep me pretty busy. 2) My postgrad course has inspired me to explore a new area of travel and writing: literary tourism. 3) I want to focus on new writing projects unrelated to travel (let me know if you'd like to join forces!)

So, thank you very much for reading and thank you so very much to all of our 37 contributors (especially those old faithfuls who contributed to many, if not all of our issues). Thank you to my group of proofreaders and to Michael Tuck for designing our logo.

Thank you for indulging in me as I bumbled somewhat successfully through the use of computer technology and whined incessantly about my cross-cultural frustrations (I've adapted to Scottish culture now so there's nothing left to say).

Now, without further ado, please enjoy the articles from our last issue, SOUVENIRS.


Family Vacations: A Few Minor Catastrophes

By Chris McGarry

[Editor's note: This was meant to be for our Family Vacations issue, but I think it also works quite well for Souvenirs]

I've been abroad a few times as a child, mainly to Spain. I can't genuinely pick apart any of the holidays accurately but there were always a few minor catastrophes that have stayed fresh in my memory.

Beaches:

They are a classic part of any family holiday. One time we were on holiday, I almost drowned, mainly by not paying attention to a strong under current that had been quite successfully dragging me out to sea, like some invisible kraken slowly reeling its victim in to swallow whole. Luckily my brother had enough sense to swim out and drag me back. He was the only one that had noticed I'd been shouting and I still thank him for that. I seem to remember a comic he drew of the event, days later. It wasn't flattering.

Aqua / swimming / water parks:

The artificial beach, except you have to pay for it and there's no sand. Water parks were a good place to get lost. I remember one park where the lost children station was at the top of what seemed like an Aztec pyramid. This might've been the work of my over active imagination.

Volcanoes:

There is an active volcano on the island of Tenerife known as Teide. We traveled to the peak with the help of our hired car, a cable car and then a guide. The way back down was slightly more arduous. After seeing a sign post that said something in Spanish, I became convinced that there was a shortcut back to the cable car which would allow us to see more of the volcano. I was wrong in every way. After realising we had missed the last cable car of the day, we walked for three to four hours down the side of the mountain. My brother was absolutely furious with me and my parents were resigned. I quite enjoyed the experience as we saw a few lizards and volcanic rocks. It fared better than the actual attraction. Despite being 'active', I did not see one lick of magma. As a child it was a very disappointing matter.

The Parrot Park:

Almost every time we traveled to Tenerife, we would stop by the parrot park ("Loro Parque"). It was a place of wonder, full of exotic animals, over-sized goldfish and odd semi-theme park attractions. There is a photo, still in my family's house, of my brother and me holding parrots. The one on my brother is confidently perched on his shoulder, showing its wings defiantly. The one that sat on me snoozed in my arms, not at all concerned that a special moment was being captured.

The Hotel:

We didn't strictly stay in a hotel as it was actually some washy time share resort. But it still had a bloody big swimming pool that I loved with all my heart. We swam almost every day when we stayed at places that had pools. I remember seeing a home video that my parents had taken one time while we were away. I was standing proud at the side of the pool with my armbands on. I had been in for a while and had just climbed out. I saw that my mother was filming and must've felt as if I should show off my best moves in front of the camera. I pulled off the armbands and gave my mum a massive grin. She called over to me, "Christopher, are you sure you'll be alright without your armbands on...?" I nodded vigorously and jumped out of shot and into the pool. Moments passed. The next thing you see is me pulling myself out of the pool and meekly putting the armbands back on. Can't be too proud.

Kids Clubs:

These resorts always tended to have "kids clubs", where stressed out parents would drop their kids off so they could actually chill out. I remember there was a disco once where they played that Star Trek novelty song: "Klingons on the starboard bow!" etc. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FCARADb9asE if you don't believe me). That song is permanently burned into my skull.

Heading Home:

The end of every holiday is the same: you arrive at the front of your homestead, transported back to your reality and daily life. Every holiday, I would fall asleep as soon as we got into our car and began the final stretch home. Funnily enough, the recurring experience of waking up in front of our house is the fondest memory I have of any of my family holidays.

The Ephemeral Memento

By Cayley James


Souvenirs are very idiosyncratic. My sister and her friends buy tacky shot glasses for one another. I was recently in New York with my family and my sister was racing about a souvenir shop in Greenwich Village fretting over whether to buy one glass emblazoned with a cartoon skyline or one with a loud red apple. "Which one do you think Sophie would like more?!" I wasn't much help because I don't share her same zest for ironic kitsch. At least not when it comes to paying $12 bucks for it.


But I digress.


I've started to buy books in places I go that are specific to their location. When I went to New Orleans back in 2009, I picked up a collection of beautiful essays on the city called New Orleans, Mon Amour. during my fascination with American expats in Paris I bought The Great Gatsby from Shakespeare and Company. My passion when traveling though, is the collection of ephemera. Boarding passes, ticket stubs, museum maps, napkins, menus…hairnets. I have shoe boxes, bulletin boards, journals full of the paraphernalia of my trips.


I'm shit at keeping a journal while I'm travelling, despite having kept the habit of daily jottings alive since I was 9 years old. My photos never do my voyage a lick of justice. I tend to forget that I even have a camera strapped to my side. Besides, my portraits of friends and family are atrocious. Give me a cemetery and I'm good to go.

I love collecting the random and inane. My philosophy is that any object can hold emotional weight and the more banal the object, the more you need to remember why the you picked it up in the first place. The stories become inherently ingrained. It's also way cheaper than shot glasses.


One of my favourite things that I've held on to is a paper hat from a Waffle House in central Ohio. I was on a road-trip, and it was probably around 11 o'clock, and we stopped to get something to eat. We were driving through the night and this was the only thing that seemed the least bit exotic. In the flat Ohio night the seven of us stumbled out of the van, having driven for too many hours already. The Waffle House is a mysterious place, open twenty four hours. And we discovered on this particular drive that fly-over country is filthy with them. There is nothing special about Waffle House, except that the woman who took our order must have been no older then 25. She had chipped sea-foam nail polish, her demeanour was too peppy for someone who was working a night shift and she was very amused by our appreciation for the paper hats. The dining room was full of old timers and truckers and for a late late dinner, verging on midnight snack, I got "Hashbrowns All the Way". A bizarre amalgam of textures and flavours that sat like a rock in my stomach all the way south to the Gulf of Mexico. I remember all of it because I kept that jaunty paper hat.


I have ticket stubs to almost all the shows I've seen. Coral from Hawaii. Rocks from the North West Territories. Memontos of the life I've lived and the lands I've seen. It's sentimental and perhaps I'm giving myself too much credit. But the ephemera from the corners of our lives is the most important. We don't seek it out, it's not what we necessarily wanted … it's what happened and it's what you want to remember.

Souvenir-Ankenden-'Edelweiss Forever'...

By Geoffrey Vernon

Very early in a most memorable trip (one I keep talking and writing about) I picked an Edelweiss blossom at the side of a mountain road in Austria. I must have been bicycling up hill at the time. There is no way I would have wasted momentum on a downhill run to pick flowers! Cycling up a mountain pass near the glaciers at Schladming was no easy task, even for a 17 year old. My bike was loaded down with pannier bags full of gear. I picked the edelweiss blossom while resting in a steep Alpine meadow on a sunny August afternoon. 'Edelweiss', the song, was an inspiration during this segment of my six week bike tour of Europe. Remember the von Trapp family singers? The Sound of Music was filmed in Austria only about seven years before the trip. I hope Christopher Plummer gets his Oscar this year.

Edelweiss is a symbol of Austria and reminds me of the purity and beauty of both the Alps and the glacier skiing I experienced while touring that summer.

The flower is pressed into my travel journal; an evocative souvenir.

The other surviving reminder of the trip is Peugeot, serial #000565, which I assembled near the Vienna Woods in Austria. (The bike doesn't run as well as it once did because I flattened a jay walker while riding on Bloor Street in Toronto Canada 30 years ago and bent the frame. C'est la vie! You can view a picture of the bike in pristine condition in an earlier issue of Across the Pond). GV


7.12.11

Topic for the next issue!

The topic for volume VIII is

SOUVENIRS


Keepsake - Remembrance - Token - Memory

Verb: To take as a memento.

Please send along all stories, articles, photos and illustrations to
acrossthepondzine@gmail.com

Submission deadline: 21 January 2012  now 4 February 2012

25.10.11

Editor's Note VII

By Caitlin Vernon

My idea for the theme for this issue (culture shock) came to me while I was researching culture shock and depression one lonely night in Glasgow several months ago. I came upon the website for the UK Council for International Student Affairs, which has a webpage addressing the issue of international students and culture shock. On this website, they have a model for culture shock with 5 distinct stages. Even though I wasn’t a student at the time, I found this model extremely helpful in understanding my experience living abroad.


The 5 Stages of Culture Shock


(This model has apparently been adapted from Orientated for Success edited by M Barker, Australian International Development Assistance Bureau, 1990).


The “honeymoon” stage – When you first arrive in a new culture, the differences are intriguing and you may feel excited, stimulated and curious. At this stage you are still protected by the close memory of your home culture.


The “distress” stage – A little later, differences create an impact and you may feel confused, isolated or inadequate as cultural differences intrude and familiar supports (family and friends from home) are not immediately available.


The “re-integration” stage – Next, you may reject the differences you encounter. You may feel angry or frustrated, or hostile towards the new culture. At this stage you may be conscious mainly of how much you dislike it compared to home.


The “autonomy” stage – Differences and similarities are accepted. You may feel relaxed, confident and more like an old hand as you become more familiar with situations and feel well able to cope with new situations based on your growing experience.


The “independence” stage – Differences and similarities are valued and important. You may feel full of potential and able to trust yourself in all kinds of situations. Most situations become enjoyable and you are able to make choices according to your preferences and values.


This process of culture shock can be illustrated by a model known as the “W” curve.

 (From UK Council for International Student Affairs - http://www.ukcisa.org.uk/student/info_sheets/culture_shock.php)


The stages of culture shock that stand out most clearly for me are the distress stage and the re-integration stage. While in these stages, I felt as though every aspect of Scottish culture was out to get me. Scottish accents were difficult to understand because I wasn't supposed to understand them. Scottish refrigerators, supermarkets and cars were smaller in order to make me feel like a clumsy North American oaf. Scottish humour was dry and quick-witted for the sole purpose of making me feel like a numpty. 


Scotland’s rejection of me (or rather, my rejection of Scotland) made me want to sit alone in my flat, watch American sit-coms and scroll through old Facebook photos of my Canadian friends  (ok I still do that a lot). My prolonged culture shock made me idolize Canadian culture and wish that I could move home almost daily. 


One thing that helped me move on from this “distress” stage was having friends and family visit from home. I was very lucky and in my first year living abroad, I received 9 visitors. Apart from the obvious fact that visitors are a comforting reminder of home, they can also help you to realize how much you have adapted. Even if I only knew where I was going half the time, my guests never knew where they were going. It gave me a perverse sense of pleasure to realize that I was more adapted to Scottish culture than they were. A few moments that stand out in particular are translating a Glaswegian taxi driver's accent for my mom and whispering to my Dad that he didn't need to tip the bartender at a music venue. 


Another way to beat culture shock is to completely submerge yourself in the new culture, so that you adapt out of necessity. 


One rainy night in Toronto in 2008, long before I ever set foot in Scotland, Rory and I watched a film called Ratcatcher. It was about a garbage collection strike in Glasgow in 1973 and even though the film was in English, it had English subtitles. 


"Wot???" He exclaimed as he often does when he finds something unfathomably ridiculous. "It has subtitles? It's in English."


I needed to read them. I couldn't understand the Glaswegian accents. 


Two years later, I got a job at a deli in Glasgow's trendy West End. For the first few weeks, I suffered from a complete inability to communicate with at least half the customers. 


When people ordered pickle I gave them gherkins. I thought tuna salad was tuna mayonnaise, not tuna mayonnaise plus salad vegetables. (Not British? Confused? Good.)  


I was forever grateful when a coworker explained to me that when a customer asked for a bap, he was asking for a roll. I hadn't misheard him and he didn't want ham and salad in a wrap. 


I learned to say two pounds ninety and started to pronounce lahh-tay like laa-tay just for the hell of it. 


It took me a few more weeks to realize that I should pronounce bag more like bahhhg and less like bayyyg, so that a customer would know what I was talking about when I asked if they wanted one. 


(How could they not understand me? I had a North American accent, just like the cast of Friends and the characters on The Simpsons)


But, the characters on Friends and The Simpsons never had to work a food service industry job in Glasgow. 


I've heard that the best way to learn a new language is to immerse yourself in it, so that you learn to speak it out of necessity. That's probably why I understood more French when I went to visit my relatives in France for a weekend than I did after years of studying French at school. And so, when you have a queue of 30 hungry patrons shooting sandwich orders at you, it's a sink or swim situation. I was forced to learn to understand Glaswegian English or look for another job. 


I can now understand about 95% of customers on my first try, which means I must be entering into the "autonomy" stage. I no longer view every daily task as a source of cross-cultural frustration. In fact, I recently served two customers from Vancouver who told me I no longer have a Canadian accent (!) and many of my Canadian friends and family can attest to my newly acquired Scottish lilt (though I'm not sure if any Scots believe them).


Some customers still look at me like they have no idea what the hell I'm talking about when I ask them if they want a bayyyg. But this is mostly a source of amusement for my coworkers and me, and no longer makes me feel like a freak.


I want to watch Ratcatcher again and see if I still need to read the subtitles. I reckon I won’t.

Culture Shock In The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Papua New Guinea and Toronto, Canada

(A Filipino’s Comments on Working Abroad)

Answered By Gabriel Rayan 

Q: Where did you get your start in life?

A: I was born and raised in Balanga, Bataan Province in Philippines a couple of hours from the capitol city, Manila. I attended University in Baguio, in the mountains of Luzon.

Q: What was your first posting abroad?

A: In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia I worked for four years as a health care professional. I had close contact with the people, observing their culture first hand. I found that the cultural differences could be both fascinating and shocking!

Q: Examples?

A: Family dynamics and relationships appeared quite different from what I was used to at home. I found weddings and celebrations to be fascinating events, usually held within the confines of private homes. The extreme wealth of some Saudis was quite apparent. I found the gold market bedazzling. You could almost smell the money generated by oil.

The most shocking event I witnessed was a public beheading. Swift justice. We don't do that in Philippines or Canada.

Q: What were some other cultural differences?

A: Well, there was a strict and conservative code of behavior, not just the clothing, but also very strict prayer times throughout the day.

(Dawn, noon, dusk and evening).

Q: Were there some things you enjoyed about the culture?

A: Yes I enjoyed the culinary delights, especially the spices...

Q: Please share your experiences in Papua New Guinea, (PNG).

A: In PNG I was given the task of staffing, supplying and opening 18 new businesses, again in the health care field. This involved a lot of travel by light plane, which could be terrifying, and also by car. PNG gained independent status from Australia in 1975 so it is a young country with an old culture.

Q: Was PNG a bit more like home?

A: Yes. The first similarity I noticed were strong family ties. Extended families were close knit, just like in Philippines. Also there are many local dialects. This is also true back home. My parents have different dialects, even though they were born on the same island.

Q: Did anything shock you, or make you feel uncomfortable in PNG?

A: One time we had to barricade ourselves at the back of a store while a tribal fight broke out in our business place. People hacked each other with long knives. I had nightmares for years afterward. On another occasion our car was delayed by tribal warfare in the highlands. When combatants saw that we were ex-pats, they stopped fighting to let our car pass through. In the rear view mirror I saw the fighting begin again with bush knives, bows and arrows. This is rarely seen elsewhere.

Q: What about personal security?

A: This could be a problem. We lived in a very secure compound with guard dogs, barred windows and doors. Still I was burgled once at night while I slept. Another time I was robbed at gunpoint right outside my house. Both the car and the clothes I wore were stolen. 

Q: Eventually you followed relatives to Toronto, Canada, where you now live and work. Does your new home match its nickname, Toronto-the-Good?

A: Yes, and sometimes no!

Q: What was your culture shock in Toronto?

A: Well I understood I was now living in a first world country but I soon discovered that some Canadians lacked courtesy. I was shocked to learn that one woman refused to be served by an Asian in 21st century Toronto. This was most upsetting to me although these things seem to occur less often now. I have been in Toronto nines years and am now a Canadian citizen. In Philippines we embrace differences and welcome newcomers. Most Canadians do as well.

Q: Are there any thoughts you wish to leave with us about your experiences in the three cultures?

A: Travelling across-the-pond has probably made me a more understanding, adaptable, and flexible person. Some cultural differences hurt, while others can be illuminating.

In Saudi I collected some fine gold jewels. In PNG I collected hand-made baskets, wooden carvings and textiles. In Toronto I collect mutual funds for retirement. That must say something about cultural experience!

Photo by Geoffrey Vernon

24.10.11

When Two Cultures Collide

By Antonia Bruce 

“Hell, this is our first time out of the States!”

My neighbours for my flight out of New York came in the shape of Patty and Patrick from Arizona. Pepped up with giddy anticipation of their first venture away from home, the two fired into me with questions about ‘European life’ and if they, as Americans, would be liked. At a later point Patty whipped out a video camera and preceded to film a panoramic sweep of the cabin, ending the frame by focusing in on Patrick and I having a conversation about pasta. They were on their way to spend two weeks travelling around Italy, and I could see the excitement bouncing back and forth between them. After a length of time I deemed appropriate to be available for conversation I jammed in some earphones and settled down to watch something on my tiny screen.

Then came the big one.

A nasty flash of turbulence hit the plane, resulting in a two second free fall and an audible gasp of fear from around the cabin. Two seconds doesn’t seem much, but it was enough for my thoughts to race primarily towards death, and to see what the oxygen masks looked like in real life. When normality resumed, and the cabin crew began racing down the aisles with faces set to ‘reassuring’ mode, I looked over to my neighbours. This wonderfully happy couple that had never experienced a world outside the states. My sliver of insight into my own mortality realised with in me the value I give to experiencing other cultures. Patty and Patrick simply had to get to Italy.

My neighbours highlighted to me how important it is to experience cultures different from your own. We should view travelling as a longing to explore new worlds, and a desire to confirm that different places are not merely one indecipherable string of airports, hotels and gift shops. My particular experience presented itself in such a serendipitous way that it couldn’t be ignored.


This experience I refer to is the radical mash up of visiting two polar opposite places in quick succession. As a final year Anthropology student, a small part of my summer was dedicated to research for my dissertation, entitled “Ethical living: How does life in a sustainable community affect attitudes towards consumerism?” I travelled up to a small town in Inverness called Forres, where I was to spend a week in the community of Newbold house. I was also scheduled to fly out to New York immediately afterwards for the final grasp of my summer holiday. I assumed I would leave my student cap at the airport and embark on a fairly inane trip with no academic hoopla. Instead I was hit by so many remarkable scenarios I couldn’t help but to study them in light of my recent ethical living trip, of which the main focus was consumerism.

Having initially panicked my time away before my fieldwork, I lost sight of the place I was travelling to. My first taste of cultural quaintness in the tiny town of Forres came when I was pointed towards the taxi office, where I was told to take a seat and wait for one of only two taxis to come and pick me up. My slightly arrogant taxi-calling wave remained firmly in my pocket.

My stay at Newbold house was spectacular. As a working guest I spent half the day working and the rest of the time was mine. Working involved helping out in their garden, the kitchen or doing household maintenance. When thinking about these tasks, my default setting would be to avoid them, especially the last one, but the ideologies that these community members held were injected into each field which served to put my current preconceptions on very shaky ground. For example, household maintenance stuck to its title and was comprised of pretty mundane tasks such as making beds and vacuuming floors. Yet after we prepared a room, the community member in charge would take a quiet moment to draw the negative and old energies out of the corners of the room, throw them away then click his fingers to ‘snap’ in a fresh energy. I watched him quietly, my head cocked and wishing that sort of thing happened everywhere.


My week in this environment was always slightly but nicely alien to my usual surroundings, but a night at a dance class called Biodanze was a terrifying tumble out of the top deck of a bunk bed. A member of the community going through a pretty hefty spiritual awakening process encouraged me to go, eagerly alluding to the fact that things ‘could get quite sexual’. Why did I go? He followed this horrific concept with the promise that I would always regret it if I didn’t try it. This seemingly innocuous statement is personal blackmail at its worst. This is why I found myself, a day later, in the middle of a ballroom being swung around by a hoard of the recently self-actualised mimicking the life cycle of a lotus flower. I was actually getting quite into it until our fervent teacher invited us to closely compact ourselves into one, unified super-flower and act out naturally occurring ‘intimacies’. Basically I found myself trapped in a swarm of people who proceeded to roughly fondle my hair, neck and shoulders.

Fortunately, the rest of the week did not carry on in such a disturbing manner. I biked everywhere, lost myself at the tops of apple trees, ate homemade yoghurt and made my own wine. My favourite part of the day was the morning meeting straight after breakfast. Before the daily tasks and jobs were doled out, a small pewter egg would be passed around the group. Whoever was holding the egg could share how they were feeling. Initially I felt embarrassed and self-conscious telling a group of strangers about how I felt. But it’s surprising how willing you are to share when people around you look at the speaker with compassionate eyes, and the speaker feels no judgement. They are honest with their emotions and current troubles, in a way that a group of strangers in conventional settings would be hard pressed to demonstrate.

After a week of living in this fashion, I packed up my things and took away with me a good number of interviews and a fresh way of looking at the world. Staying in a house with people who had complete contentment and remarkably light pockets forced me to re-evaluate my spending habits and slow my frivolous skip. I smiled at the sunshine, and giddily thought up plans to make soup, juice things and meditate every evening. ‘My new life’. Then New York happened.

We started things off in style, ordering far too many Heinekens on the plane (who knew this could be done?!) and lining up our single serving booze bottles, pretending to be drunk giants. A word of warning - going through customs on the wrong end of tipsy isn’t very fun. Other than the slight mistake of getting pissed on the plane, I was still very much in my spend-wise mindset. However, over the next few days the city locked me in a tempestuous love affair-shining fog lights in my eyes and slapping me around the face with shiny, individually packaged goods. I wanted everything. Times Square billboards leered down at me, perky make-up artists exquisitely painted my face then rattled off the used products, men in bars played beautiful songs then waggled their CDs under my nose (I was drunk, they played acoustic with a soulful expression-how could I not buy it?). Even on holiday, I came out of a bookstore laden with anthropology books. Where had this anti-consumerist, ethically minded girl gone? Bombarded with sensory experiences, this thought only occurred to me five days in, taking a pit-stop in a Starbucks. My friend had gone to wait in a long bathroom queue and I was alone with my coffee and the morning’s purchases. Looking around the room, I noticed clip-art style pictures of jazz objects on the wall, fake burlap sacks of coffee beans and the rows of gleaming mugs, in case I wanted to take home the Starbucks experience. I listened to the soft jazz and carefully selected alt rock. I was being fed a showcase of packaged happiness, a branded lifestyle that Starbucks thought I wanted. They did their market research homework and piped it back to me. I was essentially sitting in the HQ of ‘We know what consumers want’, department coffee. I wondered why my simple living mentality lovingly cultivated at Newbold had been booted out so easily. Trapped in Manhattan by four towering walls of consumer culture, visions of modest living were simply blocked out. My views had changed so quickly because of my extreme culture hopping. My underestimation of the impact a place can have on a person’s identity became horribly clear.


Two extreme scenarios I dealt with during my stay further highlighted this jarring realisation. The first was a guest spot on the help for an exorbitantly huge Bar Mitzvah in the Hampton’s. This party was for triplets, so it was aptly called ‘The Tri-mitzvah’ and was said to have cost the parents into the six figures. Looking around the place, this sum of money seemed right- the evening included but was not limited to: a hat and jewellery making station, an inbuilt laser-quest zone, a professional graffiti artist, an enormous hedge clipped into the initials of the three boys, a full length feature movie of the boys played at intermittent points, a private beach and most importantly, two full sized free bars. The only thing missing was a small zoo of exotic animals.  To keep us going through the bizarreness of it all, the family friend who I was helping out (who happens to be an ex-clown turned real estate agent) kept plying us with tall glasses of ‘water’. In my nervous state I fully believed this until I took a large swig of what was clearly pure vodka. My job was to crimp plastic feathers into the younger guests hair (as tacky as it sounds), which seemed quite easy to do in the morning, sitting comfy on a sofa watching an online tutorial and mocking the tutor and her ‘totally awesome’ feathers. Bring in the actual situation and everything changed. A stampede of young girls cornered us, clamouring all over the feathers and desperately trying to secure anything pink. In thirty seconds flat our painstakingly done neat rows of feathers had turned into one hairy rainbow ball. Actually applying the feathers was even more stressful, especially considering most of the mothers came to inspect the process, narrowing their eyes if their daughter (or son, it was deemed hilarious at the end of the night) made one peep of discomfort. During my break I wordlessly stumbled around the party, taking in the life of the New York elite. My shift lasted for four hours, and even though I was on the serving end of things I still felt disassociated from myself. I had witnessed a window of life so different from my own, a sort of dream life that was made even more vibrant with my several fake waters.

My second important experience occurred when I managed to get into an extremely exclusive nightclub in the meatpacking district. A male friend of mine who happened to be in New York at the time dragged me out on the premise that he knew one of the DJs. I stood in the line, awkward and shivering in my $20 dress. There was no way. A group of hopefuls that got turned away passed by us. “I just offered the doorman $3,000! Hope you folks got that kind of money.” My experiences of nightclubs could not have been more different. Here in Glasgow, all you have to do is make sure your drunken swaying stays under wraps and that you answer the question “Where have you been tonight?” with a confident nod and a “just the flat” response.

To add to my fear of inevitable rejection, neither of us was 21. I held a friend’s drivers licence, my friend a fake ID printed on paper. There was no way. When our turn came, he confidently strode up to the barrier and assured them that he knew ‘Nicko”. They eyed our paltry excuses for identification and quietly conferred between themselves. Then the velvet rope was unhooked and we were ushered in. I have yet to come to terms with the fact that that single instance has made it to the short-list of the best moments of my life. I looked around with wide eyes, and then sneaked a wrongly earned look back at the queue of hopefuls, smugly relishing in my triumph. The club was on the roof, and all throughout the elevator journey I exposed my friend to my lunatic ramblings-“But I’m not cool! I never learned!” and so forth. Being effortlessly Parisian and looking as if he had just crawled out of the pages of Vogue, he laughed and took me on his arm and promised he would ‘teach’ me.


I spent the evening rubbing shoulders with the young and talented, stealing fat olives and gawping at the view. At some point in the night, after far too many epicurean cocktails I met two men who claimed to be on the board of admissions for Columbia, and insisted that I accompany them to the even more exclusive area of the club. How ridiculous, I thought, but armed with a jewellery designer I had made drunk friends with, we went with them into this inner ring of exclusivity. And of course it was no different from the rest of the club, but the heady air of this private party reeled me in and led me to believe no one could possibly have more fun then I was having.

The next day (post frequent journeys to the toilet) I scolded myself for being so superficial. My best nights were those spent in grotty bars drinking low-quality wine, so why was I so enamoured with this airbrushed, idealistic way of life? Situations project themselves onto you. Unless I had been bagged up in the middle of that nightclub and thrown into the corner with the empty bottles, the situation I was in made me feel good, like I was part of it. Like the missing jigsaw piece, we spend our lives searching for places that will make us feel wanted. So when presented with a new and exciting situation, more often than not we will let it project itself onto us and imbibe its culture. That’s what I did at Newbold, and what I did in New York. I was simply searching for what felt right, and both place’s ideologies had their strong points. The trick is to continue travelling, keep learning, and explore different cultures to find out what really fits. My mind wanders to visions of Patty howling with laughter on the back of a vespa, and Patrick chowing down on a pile of tortellini. It still makes me happy to know that they made that journey.


Photos via Antonia Bruce.

21.10.11

Nihon, the Country of All Contrasts


By Aline Roch

This summer, an amazing professional opportunity allowed me to be immersed in the capital of the Land of the Rising Sun for 2 months. With 13 million inhabitants, Tokyo is a world in itself. A heart beating at an incredible pace day and night, a city like no other. Tokyo is actually not one city but many small centers each with its own specificity. As a result, you keep discovering new places and constantly find yourself in the unknown.

Encountering the Japanese world is truly a culture shock. The way their life is organized, the way they interact with each other, they way they work, and the way they have fun is so different. Japan also has extremely advanced technologies, making it world-leader in many different fields. Nevertheless it strongly holds onto its identity, and definitely doesn’t aim to resemble western developed societies.  

One striking example of this is the language. Getting around Japan without speaking Japanese is very difficult. In my experience, Japanese researchers write papers in English with extremely good skills but do not like speaking English, which makes it extremely difficult to have a proper discussion. This difficulty to communicate reflects a deep sense of honor. It seems that many do not want to risk speaking a language that they have not perfectly mastered.



Nevertheless, this language barrier does not prevent many of the local people from being extremely helpful and having a great sense of hospitality. It seems as though you cannot stand in a street looking at a map without someone directly addressing you to offer help. Not only will a person help, they will even go as far as to walk you to the place where you are going.   

The Japanese culture seems to be largely based on respect. This respect goes so far that people usually don’t use the word iie, which means no in Japanese. Saying no to someone is seen as a lack of respect. People will often try to find a more polite way of refusing something. And when being asked something they usually make every effort to satisfy the request. As a foreigner, you often find yourself abusing this politeness without being conscious of it.

Although Tokyo is often seen as a large and overwhelming city, it can also be quite quiet. The Tokyo metro is probably the busiest in the world, but the silence in the trains is striking. Cell phones are actually forbidden. Walking through the famous Shibuya crossing is truly an experience considering how busy it is at any time of the day, but the crowd is organized in such a way that you never feel oppressed.

On the other hand, Tokyo can sometimes be the loudest place you could ever imagine. Just enter one of the pachinko gaming centers and you will find yourself surrounded by a noise you can barely stand. Even walking in a park in the summer can become extremely loud because of the simple sound of the crickets that invade the city in August.
 
 


Another striking contrast between Japan and the west is the huge emphasis on tradition. Whenever you lose yourself onto a small side street you get the chance to find some small temples, consisting of a wooden edifice surrounded by greenery, where sometimes an old man will come and show you the prayer ceremony. These places are so peaceful that it is difficult to believe you are in the middle of such an overwhelming city.

Tradition is also very well preserved when it comes to festivals. There are tons of festivals in summer and they are an occasion for young girls to wear their beautiful yukatas. Hanabi (summer fireworks) in particular are very special moments for Japanese people. At these occasions you are surrounded by millions of people displaying magnificent colors and patterns, which is extremely fascinating.



All of these aspects of Japanese culture make you want to discover more of it. Some sort of mystery remains about this country, which is apparently difficult to uncover, even after years. But what is for sure is that each day spent in this country brings a lot of surprises and wonders, and the beauty of its landscapes, as well as the delicacy of its food, make it an unforgettable journey.