Tag Archives: culture

The Politics of Sharing

You might have noticed that my blog seems to be lacking substance. It doesn’t feature a lot of the standard Peace Corps Porn of one white person surrounded by Africans in traditional clothes, I think twice before adding photos of me holding Cameroonian babies.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrequently, I am in the throes, experiencing a high or low, because of the relationships I have built here. My friends and coworkers share their triumphs, struggles and daily annoyances. The juxtaposition that is life in Cameroon would fit neatly into countless narratives. Often, I sit down to write about my frustrations of getting two children to rejoin their classmates in school, the realities of corruption or my thoughts on the food here but I end up just saving a draft of it on my desktop. I have a whole folder full of the nitty gritty.

Why do I stop? Because I feel that to write about my friends, my village automatically patronizes them—as if I understand things more than them. I don’t. For instance, I hate the unending carb festival that is Cameroonian food, but later I came to understand that all that energy is traditionally used on the farm. Cassava has its place I suppose. The idea of my friend stumbling upon my blog to read about her own child marriage and subsequent ending to her education would make her feel scrutinized and used.

It is easiest to pass judgement on groups of people we never interact with, and for many people Cameroon is very far away.

A few months ago, I was sitting with a few other volunteers talking about middle America, in terms that make Kansas seem more foreign than Cameroon. My friend told me how she drove through small towns that were basically a cluster of houses along a road with no running water or electricity. I felt embarrassed because I didn’t know that places like that still exist in the United States. I never considered that a person in the first world could have a domicile with and address along a highway but no lights or water. Sure, I knew about homeless people, but this was news. This story is important because we all fall into the same category: human. Life in America and Cameroon may seem worlds apart, but at times the only difference seems to be the distribution of the types of experiences we have; America has extreme poverty and extreme wealth, it goes the same for Cameroon.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMedia, independent and corporate, is so often searching for the exception to the rule to speak for the value of a larger system; octomom, to display why sperm banks are immoral and Dr. Kevorkian, the de facto representative of assisted suicide.  I want people to know that Cameroon just isn’t that different, when it comes to the human experience. To write about them feels like I have to objectify and separate myself from them. We don’t exotic pierogi, and we don’t need one more “Cameroonians need help story”. To write about my story here means that I will be writing about their story, and I haven’t quite figured out how to do that yet. For the record, I have two friends who write very well about their Peace Corps experience in a way that honors the culture (you can find their blogs here and here). For now, I am very careful about how much I divulge on the internet.

A Sensory Tour of Kiev

Happy Friday! To wrap up my thoughts on Kiev, I wanted to share Kiev as experienced by the senses. Sometimes, months after an adventure, you will suddenly be reminded of a moment in time just by the smell of fresh baking bread or the texture of a dress. As you read, leave a comment on what you think I might be missing! Did I forget to add the taste dried fish or the smell of cigarettes?

 

Sight: Well, frankly, a lot of gray. Many of the Soviet Era buildings are aging, some of them not so gracefully. But if you look closely, there are brilliant patches in the cement city. Kiev locals can dress very colorfully. Orthodox churches traditionally have a gold roof, which can be seen from far away, shining in the sun. I also really enjoy the green canopy of the parks in the city.

Taste: Dill and Sour Cream. Every Day. If we want to take it beyond toppings, then cabbage comes to mind.

Touch: Metals. A lot of the doors in Kiev are metal. So are the handles on the metro. Also, people in Kiev touch other people. Ukrainians are more affectionate; I loved being able to watch people of all ages get swept up in the moment.

Hear: Techno music, mostly when in transit. Choirs singing from the churches in every neighborhood. Children playing, the kindergarten used to play outside my window every morning.

Smell: Diesel and Sweat. Whenever you walking anywhere in Kiev, you will have an exhaust pipe overtake your senses. Once you get to your metro stop and step into your train car  you will inevitably smell the odors of everyone around you–sans air condition. During the summer, in the heat of the day you also might find yourself overwhelmed by the scent of hot garbage. After you step out of your sweaty train car, you will walk past street vendors and smell the fresh perogi, inducing hunger into unsuspecting people.

Next…I am going to head back to the States. To Baltimore, Bmore or Charm City. Whatever you call it, it is my temporary home for now.

A City by the Sea: Odessa

This park lights up at night.

My trip to Odessa was a rambling adventure. We took a night bus which was nearly impossible to sleep on due to the heat and crowds. Arriving in Odessa around 4am, we took a cab to the shoreline and spread out our towels on the beach and tried to grab an hour or so of sleep.

In the daylight hours, we found a place to eat some breakfast. At the next table was a Frenchman who worked at the world famous Ritz Carlton in Paris. Since the hotel was closed for renovations (I can thank Vogue for knowing this) he was in Odessa to learn Russian for a few months to increase his tips among Russian customers. After breakfast, we walked around looking at some of the statues, the one pictured at left shows that the gold parts of the engraving are rubbed clean. The superstition is that if you touch it, you will have money in your life. The image that comes to mind for me is the similarity to the Alice in Wonderland statue in New York City’s Central Park, with her finger rubbed clean.

Odessa is a gorgeous city on the Black Sea. With that, comes the “let your hair down and kick your feet up” attitude of a seaside town. Odessa locals are known for being happy and having an unusual sense of humor. In the photo below, two teenagers were practicing swing dancing as we walked by. Sometimes, being surrounded by joyous people can be contagious. The city has about one million residents, but there is no subway! The public transit options are these tiny, crowded buses. To get down to the beach, we took this contraption that looks kind of like a ski lift, it provided a great view of the city and the shoreline. The city itself is absolutely beautiful. It has a festive nature with an array of restaurants tucked into courtyards. Mostly, I feel that Odessa has something for both beach goers and city folks. Most of the restaurants had ample outdoors seating. Being able to walk through the streets and preview live versions of the food choices made picking only one place to eat difficult. Though part of me wonders if Odessa was so great to me because the busier streets looked more American,  I hope it’s not the familiarity that is so appealing.

Religion in Kiev

Today, the vast majority of the country is Eastern Orthodox. A big difference (compared to traditional American holidays) is the calendar. For the Eastern Orthodox religion, Christmas falls on January 7. Once you move past the language barrier, the services feel very similar to a traditional Catholic mass.

The pictures posted are memories of how religion interacts with Ukrainian public. The first picture, is in a public park, where the presidential palace is housed. Finding something that is so lovingly taken care of and tended to by the public is a gentle reminder of the role religion has in most citizens lives. The second photo is one that I had to sneak to take, but it really shows the humanity of the priests, how they are real, approachable people.

One morning as I woke up (on the ninth floor of a building), I heard a choir singing because it was a holiday. They carried on for hours; I was told this is not unique to our building and I could only imagine choirs all over the country swirling through the air as the whole city woke up. It’s definitely one of my favorite memories of morning. You can always know a holiday is on the way because the women who sell things on the street add specialty items to their regular rotations.

The Park with no Maintenance Budget: Kiev Edition

When you look at this picture would you know that you are in downtown Kiev? Some of the city parks have trees that are so mature it’s like you are instantly shielded from the city. Do the photos show a park that looks a little shabby and overgrown? The city seems to not care for upkeep of the park in the some of the more expected ways (Weeds! Overgrown Shrubs! Entire patches of grass missing!) but once you get over this, the park is a great place to steal 10 minutes to yourself. This park, pictured above, is part of the city botanical gardens, but I was never able to get inside because (As I was told) you must have the right credentials. A botanist I am not. This park is so busy most days that you must look to find a bench that is not being used.

I used to spend a fair amount of time on these benches reading or eaves dropping on tourists. The number of pigeons in the city can be alarming but if you don’t sit next to one of the people feeding them, you can at least pretend not to hear the sounds of the city here. Reality will set in when you realize an exit to a major metro stop is just up the stairs. There is also a great shops just up the block that sells macaroons.

Yes, that water in the “pond” is more like a science experiment or algae smoothie. One of the acute differences between America and Ukraine is that the grass does not look like it was off a golf course–and sometimes it’s not there at all. Having a picnic on these grounds might be better enjoyed with a yoga mat between you and your tush.

The Kiev Biennial of Contemporary Art (Part 2 of 2)

Is Kiev what comes to mind when you think of an incubator for artists? Probably not, but that might slowly change. The Kiev Biennial was the first of it’s kind for the capitol and largest city in Ukraine. The massive Biennial had almost 100 exhibitors. An article in The Independent explains that the exhibits featured 22 artists from Ukraine, giving the Biennial a bit of a nationalist flavor.The international variety also gave voice to artists who are not from the traditionally saturated Western European art circuit.  The Biennial brought 13 artists from China into the spotlight; the political nature of an exhibit might hit close to home for Ukrainians who share a common history with Communism.

The Mystetskyi Arsenal welcomed David Elliott as the curator for the Kiev Biennial, an art world superstar. Blouin Art Info mentions that some of his credentials include director/founder of the Mori Art Museum and curator of the Sydney Biennial in 2010. Elliott was attracted to Kiev, in part, due to the building it was being hosted in, which is an old weapon and military center. The Biennial really had a distinct flavor, making references to Communism and the Soviet era, issues that still profoundly affect Ukrainian life. Some of my favorite exhibits made commentary on ecological issues and consumption, which can speak to people of any culture. The Biennial really had a distinct flavor, making references to Communism and the Soviet era, issues that still profoundly affect Ukrainian life.

One of the local artists to be featured is Boris Mikhailov, who might be most well known for his social documentary photography. He is famous for his “Red Series”, which are both political and graphic in content. But that is the point of a Biennial, to stimulate discussions of politics and culture at present. His lense is not focusing on people at the Biennial, instead it depicts the urban decay and industrial grit of Ukraine. Mikhailov is truly something to brag about, as he is home grown with the silver lining of international fame.

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An artist to be featured who has been a recent part of the news is Ai Weiwei. Weiwei is quite a force to be reckoned with–from China, who as of late, has been making his name criticizing the Chinese political regime. Weiwei is an internationally acclaimed artist who spent more than 10 years in New York City, studying at Parson’s. He has been instrumental in establishing the Beijing East Village and setting up a Chinese artists network. Weiwei has used blogging as one of his platforms to express his distaste for Chinese Human Rights policy and government procedure. The guts it takes to use one’s power to criticize a powerhouse like China for the betterment of a billion people is makes his art so powerful.

Ukraine has an image problem among the European Nations (among other more tanglible issues). It is always striving for admission into the European Union, but faces serious setbacks almost every time there is new press. Most people hear about government corruption more than advancements for the common good. This summer certainly seems to be dedicated to showing the world it’s cultural contributions. Florence Waters wrote in The Telegraph “The nationalistic incentive behind this event is no secret. Twenty-two of the 99 artists who are being represented in the main exhibition are Ukrainian born. Many of Ukraine’s successful artists – like their writers, among them ‘The Master and Marguerita’ author Mikhail Bulgakov who was born in Kiev – are perceived by the world at large as being Russian. By presenting these artists alongside international giants like American Paul McCarthy and Japanese Yayoi Kusama, the Ukraine can hope to re-claim their lost identity.” I would recommend readers to venture over to Waters’ full length article, it was one of my favorite perspectives of the Biennial. Some pictures from the exhibit are featured in my earlier post, Part 1. Cheers!

The Euro 2012: Is that a United Nations Convention?

Good Morning! It has been one of those weeks that someone pushed the fast forward button on time and forgot to tell me. Lesson learned, planning ahead simply isn’t enough anymore, the new standard is plan for the unexpected (but still in advance).

Today has a more frenetic focus. First, an explanation for the title of this post is in order; before becoming so intertwined with Ukrainian culture I had absolutely no idea what the Euro Cup was. I also thought Kiev would be a cozy little city with a “tourist” district and maybe some rolling hills, I was not aware it was such a behemoth city of around 5 million. I know that people use the world “eurocentric” to describe people who are unable to think outside the cultural box, but I think that eurocentric would be inappropriate to describe this sort of misunderstanding because the Europe they are talking about apparently does not include any of Eastern Europe. Instead I will admit to a case of full blown americentrism. I think this is probably not a real word, but it describes how little I knew about cultures that are not American or beloved by American Mainstream Media until recently.

For some reason, I took comfort in the existence of a Chanel store in Kiev. It validated the city as “real” to me. In addition to Chanel, there is every kind of high end and couture shop I am not able to afford in Kiev.

The photo to the left could be a perfect analogy for Kiev. Slava pointed out to me that there are essentially two buildings pictured here: one, you need to look at the top to see clearly and realize that it does not match the americanized business park look that is the majority of the exterior; two, that americanized exterior was literally built around the older part of the building. Lord have Mercy! That is unheard of at home. What would possibly cause Ukrainians to do such a thing? The Euro Cup 2012.

I had no concept of the sheer size of Kiev. It has around 5 million residents. You are reminded of this any time that you ride the metro. It is also home to lots of shiny, new sky scrapers. It is amazing what a city can achieve a mere 20-ish years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The Euro Cup is one of the biggest soccer (or football, whichever you choose) events, taking place each year in a chosen host city. I arrived for the final festivities. The host of the Euro Cup benefits by having every kind of football fan pour into their city to watch the matches. What follows is a very passionate kind of tourist, flowing alcohol and lots of public urination.

This is a view of the entrance to the metro. It is probably the best way to get around the city. I would consider you suicidal if you volunteered to drive. Plus driving tends to take so much time. The metro has some beautiful stations. They are historic and artistic. Better than Paris or London. Also, Kiev has notoriously long and fast escalators.

As a final point, many Americans do not know how cheap having a cell phone is in most other countries. It is so cheap, in fact, that quite a few people have a phone for each major carrier to get free minutes by talking to people with mutual cell phone providers.