Friday, July 31, 2009

Stuck in committee in the capitol city
(but better than on a plane)

Other than politicians and real estate agents, is there anyone easier to vilify than the airline people? It's doubtful. I'm not one to kick a man while he's down, but I have some bad feelings about how some airlines do business, i.e., dubiously, and I shan't decorously stifle them any longer. (Wait, what is this feeling? Is it concern? Political concern? Is some dormant interest awakening in this prematurely disaffected political curmudgeon? Also doubtful.)

In any case, I don't plan for this to be a rant. I won't even belabor how annoying it is that you have to pay for a bit of water on most flights. There are real irritations and injustices to complain about – people stuck on airplanes for hours and hours, overbooking, unfair bumping, deceptive "on time" techniques, route cancellations.... I'm pretty sure the personal anecdotes on this topic are infinite. Not to mention the price-fixing, trust-like actions we may or may not ever hear about.

Some may continue to give airline companies the benefit of the doubt – blame it on weather, costs, regulations, etc. I think I understand it is difficult to work with so many restrictions. But at some point one must wonder why policies that lead to such vexing and at times inhumane situations have continued. Such terrible service is unamerican! Seriously.

The EU's provision for Air Passenger's Rights has been functioning for years now. The market has not imploded. You can still fly very cheaply between most cities. Bathrooms are still free. And sometimes you still get sandwiches. Dignity intact.

HR915, a bill that just passed the House this spring and is in a Senate committee at the moment, is attempt to rectify some of these problems (though focuses more the inhumanity and inconvenience than the lack of sandwiches). Because I am so fair and balanced, I provide also for your review the GOP cheat sheet, which suggests some good reasons to be disagreeable.

In case you didn't do an internship for Dick Durbin, you should know it's a long, long wait while it's sitting in committee (more on that process here). The committee here would be the Senate Committee for Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The showdown between John D. Rockefeller IV and Kay Bailey Hutchinson should be thrilling. It's not actually clear to me when or if this bill will actually be debated in committee, but it's good to know it's come so far.

My favorite part of the bill, by the way, is Section 41724, which outlaws "voice communications using mobile communication devices" on the plane. Perhaps there is some humanity left out there. Perhaps the political system does work. We'll see.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

BY style

At first the ladies were like a collective mirage. Just as soon as I spotted one, she would disappear over the horizon, around the corner, down a side street. But they were there. I swore it up and down to Swiss Mr. They were everywhere – carefully dressed, with shopping bags swinging. It took a while for my brain to assemble the data – yellow sundress lady with yellow polka dot shopping bag, pink shirt lady with pink flowered bag, even brown suit lady with a brown one – into a conclusion, but then I was convinced of it: in Minsk the shopping bag had become a fashion accessory.

Monday, July 27, 2009


The Swiss rapper Stress is not very amused by the antics of the Swiss SVP/UDC party (that's the right-wing party that brought us the infamous sheep ad, the crow ad, and the eminently tasteful grabby hands ad). Upon discovering his music, I was initially just entertained by the idea of Swiss rap. But after watching a few videos, I stopped thinking of Weird Al and wondering about the wardrobe, and began to contemplate his anger. Its apparent earnestness helped me realize how seriously un-funny the SVP's political positions really are. It occurs to me now that I would editorialize much differently if I had to live with this party prominent in my own country. After much consideration, then, I hereby declare, in homage to Stress, the SVP to be a bunch of dirty rotten bastards.


(A warning that, if you watch and/or listen carefully, you may be offended by Stress's - um -indelicacy. Pardon his French.)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Bronze Horsemen

On a shore by the desolate waves
He stood, with lofty thoughts,
And gazed into the distance . . .

–Pushkin, The Bronze Horseman

St. Petersburg has almost mythical origins; out of a swamp Peter the Great personally willed a fantastic city into being. It's like a story you read in a museum next to some antiquated city blueprints: Quasi-delusional military leader envisions an ideal European city over a swamp but dies tragically dies before realizing his vision. Except that Peter the Great didn't die early, and didn't really have to convince anyone that his proposal was good or reasonable – he just said the word and his fantastical plans became reality.

The Bronze Horseman statue, commissioned well after Peter's death by Catherine the Great, became, with Pushkin's help, a symbol of Russian progress. Peter urges his horse ahead - or is he trying to stop? "A city hewn in stone is never wholly safe from the incursions of the watery chaos from which was claimed," Orlando Figes points out, "and this sense of living on the edge was wonderfully conveyed by [its sculptor] Falconet." He tells a great story – almost too good to seem true – about how a commission inspected the giant statue in 1909. They drilled holes in it and collected 1500 liters of water from the inside. Its history, its origins are inescapable.

Though you can't exactly tell from the picture, the statue is just gigantic. According to Figes, the granite base for the statue weighed 660,000 kilos and took 1000 men 18 months to transport 13 kilometers from a nearby forest. Peter and his horse are about 12 meters tall and 30 meters around. Though not generally an expensive statue enthusiast, after walking around STP (or, in local parlance, just "Peter") for a few days, I'm pretty convinced this was well-deserved.

*Most of what I currently know about Russia and all of what I have quoted above comes from Orlando Figes's really great cultural history of Russia, Natasha's Dance (Picador, 2002).

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Next stop, toilet!

We were filled with both fear and admiration upon seeing this traveling WC in St. Petersburg. I guess we would have had to go on board to find out if it was really genius or not, but at the time neither of us was adventuresome enough to do so; we admired from afar. Now that I am thinking about it, though, I really want to know what the inside looks like.

I so love that they changed the route to WC.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Those Whirling Dervishes

One of the things that I was in spite of myself excited to see on our trip was a whirling dervish ceremony. Before I learned anything about it, it was in the same general category as belly dancing. But whirling is more than a dance the tourist board resurrected to attract suckers for folk dance to their country. It is a religious practice with mystic, philosophical roots – and though it is hard to tell out of context – a symbolic ritual.

Dervish is the name given to Sufi seekers following the spiritual practices maintained from the time of the Prophet Mohammed. Whirling dervishes belong to the Mevlevi Order, a Sufi order founded by the followers of Rumi, a 13th century poet and mystic who inspired the use of poetry and dancing to open people to the presence of God.

Like meditation, whirling is a metaphysical journey to the interior of self. The dancer pursues truth, abandons his ego, ecstatically whirls toward Perfection. "When the dervishes turn, they are focusing their attention on their inner centre and they turn around and around their own centre in this way, and there should be nothing else in their hearts except remembrance of God" (Sufism Journal).

Interestingly, this sect was banned by Turkish law in 1925 out of fear that it would cause problems with the new secular government. Thankfully, these restrictions have been relaxed in recent years, so we were able to enjoy some whirling dervish with our dinner one night in Istanbul.

Thinking too much as usual, I found it hard to enjoy the performance (if indeed that is what we were supposed to do). It's a bit perplexing, this performing of sacred rituals for tourists. It would seem like a convenient exchange – they get our patronage at their restaurant and we don't have to travel all the way to Rumi's shrine – but I somehow felt we had all cheapened something intimate and sacred. It was a bit like walking into a Russian Orthodox service with squeaky shoes. Also, though it is not very enlightened of me to say, it became a bit boring in such a mundane context (like watching someone pray on stage for an hour). It's hard to decide what to think about experiences like these. I really wish I were the kind of person who could just drink my tea and be amazed he didn't get dizzy.

Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times.
Come, yet again, come, come.

–Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273)
from his collected writings, FIHI MA FIHI (literally "It Is What It Is")

Friday, July 17, 2009

Only saw three flute bands on our trip. Poor us.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The last taboo?

So: Is it okay to put human remains on display in a museum? Based on the number of mummies, skeletons, and burial artifacts we've seen on display, the answer among most curators seems to be a definitive yes. I'm not sure if this is even a debate in the museum community. Museologists – comments?

Surely there are many good and pragmatic reasons for studying remains, even displaying them for the public to see. But does that mean that we should do it? I've only recently started thinking about this, but I have doubts.

There are all kinds of taboos surrounding death, particularly in my own culture, so maybe this is just another and I am desperately clinging to it. But still I can't help thinking that's just the point. Especially among ancient cultures, we can't know what taboos existed, what the wishes of the deceased might have been, what beliefs they may have had. Who are we to trample over these things?

Some suggest that the scientific value of studying and displaying cultural remains is so great that when there is no one left to advocate on behalf of them, to represent their wishes, religious beliefs, etc., that we have the right, maybe even the responsibility, to study and understand them, then communicate findings and make the artifacts accessible to the public. Though I clearly see the point, the utter pragmatism of this argument disturbs me.

Such arguments are easily made about remote ancient peoples – but what about the recently dead cultures and people who have no advocates because they have been oppressed and overpowered? Who gives voice to the conquered? Have we come to a consensus that they deserve nothing? Or that our scientific need trumps any sort of individual wish? I'm not sure we've stopped to consider it.

The Body Worlds exhibit is a perfect case in point. Does it matter if the consent given by the subjects was highly questionable? Do these people stop having rights when their bodies die? If one were someone I loved, I would think these things would matter a great deal to me, as it would likely to most of us. So why is our concern not generalized? Maybe death is just not very real unless it is close to us.

Or maybe I am just simple and sentimental and have been in too many museums lately.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Virtual postcard

In case you are not getting a real postcard from me from our trip (hint: most of you), here is a virtual one (photo compliments of the Library of Congress), likely more interesting than anything I would jot out to you in a tired vacation haze anyway (read: if you do get a postcard, please remember it is the thought not the content that counts). 

Interestingly, this early 20th century photo of Ayasofya (Hagia Sofia in English) is labeled the "Mosque of St. Sophia." This strikes me as a clever way for the probably Western person who labeled it to remind everyone that this mosque used to be a basilica, but I could be wrong. St. Sophia is actually an abbreviation of the Latin version, Sancta Sophia, of the original Greek name (meaning Holy Wisdom). So the name still worked when it became a mosque. 

Most of the church/mosque combo buildings that I have seen are in Spain, churches built on Moorish foundations after the Reconquista. These buildings (such as the Mezquita in C√≥rdoba) always left me feeling vaguely sad and, the good condition of Moorish forms notwithstanding, like something important had been lost in a probably violent way. Its antipode in Istanbul, Ayasofya, on the other hand, left me with no such feeling – a testament to my Western/Christian guilt, I suppose. 

Not long after this picture was taken, Ayasofya was converted into a museum. I suppose one of the reasons for this was to uncover many of the Byzantine mosaics from the basilica. The most famous of these is the Deesis (a mosaic of Christ which for some reason I had always thought was Justinian - ??). Uncovering them is apparently tricky work, sometimes requiring them to destroy paintings that were added when it became a mosque. (Some variant of the robbing Peter to pay Paul joke seems appropriate here but I can't think of one that isn't possibly offensive, so insert one of your own (that doesn't offend you).) There may be a huge mosaic remaining under the dome, but uncovering it would involve more destruction. Certainly there were and are many delicate decisions to be made.

Small grace, I suppose, that such terrible conflicts leave in their wake such diverse and fascinating cultural artifacts. To me, there is nothing more interesting than discovering signs of some extinct or dying culture hiding out under or even integrated into the dominant one; some of the most troubled places are the most interesting. But all this really doesn't make it less sad that in the end, one side usually loses almost everything. 

Missing you all more than ever! 

Sunday, July 12, 2009


Our last remaining wild oats heartily having been sown, we have returned to the wonderfully efficient, arid, nearly-queue-proficient and quiet alpine lands that these days we call home. We are not as tired as we thought we might be. But it is time for a reflective rest to contemplate the vast quantity of information and experiences we have collected. Most things seem to make more sense at home – something for which I know I shall be grateful these days.

So: oat-sowing photos (with our new, not very impressive camera) and maybe even some contemplation in short order.

Have a nice sigh to yourself this Sunday; it's good for you.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Places untouched by Google

Just had the thought that we should find out where our hotel in Bucharest is before we jump on the train, but it appears that Google has not made it to Romania?

When we were looking for a guidebook the other day (our trusty Lonely Planet having been left on a train several countries ago) some Hungarian overheard us and said "Bucharest? Does anyone even go there?" Well, yes, trying to, at least.

Is Romania such a remote place? It didn't seem remote until we got within a country of it. Hopefully we find a serviceable map at some point or else we may have to throw ourselves at the mercy of a Bucuresti cab driver. Which may or may not be recommended by the guidebooks, we don't know.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

king of pop everywhere

Swiss mr is asleep, in a deep, pierogi-induced stupor. I should maybe wake him up, as it's 8:30 pm, but since we can't seem to sleep enough these days I think i'm okay to sneak in a quick blogpost.
can I say how lucky we are to have added some MJ hits to our iPod before leavin for this trip? otherwise I'm not sure how we could pass this time of mourning appropriately. I'm sure cable news is doing a good job for everyone in the us but the BBC has stopped its 24 hour coverage. wait, did i say appropriately? anyway, we are so tempted to see if we can start a spontaneous group moonwalK or if that's only in paris. there were some heartfelt memorials at the us embassy in Moscow. interesting time to be away. I wonder what made us decide we needed billy jean with us on this trip?