On Society, On Travel

Found in translation and footsteps

while back I wrote about the negative psychological externalities of city life: the paradoxical feeling of isolation in claustrophobic environs; dissatisfaction caused by too much choice; and fear of missing out (which has even become a popular acronym, FOMO). If I were re-writing the piece today, I would add ‘busyness one-upmanship’ to the list – another urban pet peeve.

What struck me recently is that the English language doesn’t cater to those trying to convey the need to get away from city life from time to time, for a certain kind of respite. The German word Waldeinsamkeit denotes the feeling of being alone in the woods – a very specific sense of solitude that I believe urbanites crave on occasion. Fernweh describes the need for distance, a kind of homesickness for a place unknown. Staid surroundings can make one feel lethargic.

We can’t express it, and a lot of the time it seems like we can’t experience it either. How does one capture woodland solitude or satisfy the travel bug when in full-time employment in London? The answer may just be found in the wisdom of walking advocates.

Adam Gopnik is a New Yorker writer with a flair for dissecting the banal. In his article Why We Walk, he summarises what other writers have opined on writing as something more than merely a mode of transport. Walking as a sport seems a little far-fetched; however walking to spur contemplative thought is pretty compelling. Recalling briefly his own experience:

“For a long time in the nineteen-eighties, I seemed to do nothing but walk around the city. I was blessed by several bits of new technology: by the first great age of the modern sneaker, for one, which allowed even the flat-footed to stride on what felt like cushioned air. And then the Walkman made every block your own movie. Just as the period of the first flâneurs falls between the rise of gas street lighting, which opened the city to twenty-four-hour circulation, and the onset of the automobile, which made cities loud again, so walking in the nineteen-eighties lay between the invention of the Walkman, which suddenly neutralised the noise of the automobile, and the onset of the iPhone, which replaced isolation-booth serenity with our now frantic forever-on-guardness.”

This side of the Atlantic, Will Self champions the city walk. His articles on the subject argue for reconnecting with the physical environment and people, and not falling prey to the constraints of corporate culture. Similar to Gopnik, he laments how mobile devices have – ironically – disconnected us from the world.

“Her responses to her fellow city dwellers, to the road traffic, to the business of finding her way using a handheld GPS system while listening to music on her MP3 player are all quite normal, and yet, set down like this they seem to me to be indisputably analogous to a clinically defined psychotic state. Like a sufferer from psychosis, our young woman’s conception of reality radically diverges from her environment: she is surrounded by actual buildings, with a defined and apprehensible nomenclature; the people she passes are neither clones nor individually known to her but a mass of strangers; neither these people, nor their vehicles are moving in sync with the music she listens to; and finally: her perception of distance is distorted, while her ability to negotiate her environment is dependent on systems external to her own mind that, for all their technical efficacy, are as opaque to her as the magical rituals of a shaman.”

For me, walking is a joy. Sometimes an adventure. A time for reflection. For new ideas to germinate. Walking can also be a great comfort, helping to alleviate all sorts of emotional stresses and strains.

So naturally, I concur with Gopnik and Self and would offer the following advice to others. Wander aimlessly. Look around you and tune out of the podcast. Put your phone somewhere hard to reach (and don’t buy an Apple Watch!). Indulge in the moment, rather than focusing on where you’ve got to get to or fogging over with nostalgia. Do as the French do, and flâner.

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On Travel

Birthright and Me

Just two weeks ago I was still exploring Israel with my adoptive mishpacha: 35 Brits, eight Israelis, two UJIA group leaders, our loveable kibbutznik guide with a limitless supply of Israel-related factoids, our security/medic who would look as though butter wouldn’t melt — if not for the gun on her person — and our bus driver with seemingly ambivalent views about keeping eyes on the road.

We crossed deserts together, shared our personal views about Jewish identity, the history of Israel and Middle Eastern current affairs, met some extraordinary people, consumed our collective weight in hummus, and learnt how to survive on little sleep and in 40-degree heat.

Now I’m in my kitchen, sipping lukewarm tea, with the only noise coming from my flatmate’s Coronation Street-fest in the adjoining room. The contrast is stark.

Honestly, prior to my trip the staunch cynic in me wanted to avoid Birthright having too great an impact. My studying of the Arab-Israeli conflict as part of my politics degree gave me a somewhat — although by no means entirely – unfavourable view of the “homeland”. As a secular, atheistic Jew, I didn’t really want to be fed religion. I’m not typically one for beaches. And I was terrified of falling off a camel.

I applied for Birthright out of curiosity. I was hungry to learn more about the politics of the region, including how the various Israelis I’d be meeting would portray events, and what they’d have to say about the Palestinians. I love to travel anyway. I was perhaps a little interested in learning more on the subject of “what it means to be Jewish”, but this wasn’t a big deal to me.

So how did the experience match up to expectations? We talked politics from the vantage point of the Golan Heights as bombs could be heard going off in Damascus, and by the security fence next to the West Bank just as the Palestinian villages not far away rang with the Muslim call to prayer.

I didn’t feel that there was any Orwellian indoctrination when it came to discussing the conflict – we were encouraged to ask questions and be aware that there were many sides to every issue (although disappointingly we didn’t hear much on the Palestinian point of view).

We saw sunrise at Masada. It was really nice to learn about the traditions of Shabbat, even though we all lasted about 20 minutes after sundown on Friday before tinkering with our phones (WiFi was, after all, a precious commodity on Birthright). In spite of myself, I actually enjoyed beach time. And I managed to hold steady on the camel.

But beyond this, Birthright has had a more profound effect on me. It’s left me feeling a bit – dare I say it – more “Jewish”. Having actively avoided “Jew Crew” at school, I’ve now made some great Jewish friends. It’s hard not to get intimately acquainted with people when you’re in each other’s company for ten days straight. It sounds clichéd, but it’s true – we laughed together (on the bus, rafting in the Jordan River, playing games), and we cried together (mostly while watching a Holocaust survivor’s video testimonial at Yad Vashem).

And I did feel an affinity with the other people in my group, who were predominantly, like me, “cultural” rather than “religious” Jews, their Jewish identity defined more by a shared history and family values than religious observance. I’d say it’s almost impossible in a Birthright environment not to feel more linked as Jews; even those with zero knowledge had a story about how a relative had survived the Holocaust, or about anti-semitic bullying endured at school.

For a few participants especially, I felt the trip was about exploring the idea of belonging to the wider Jewish community, whether this meant visiting Israeli relatives for the first time, or simply being around others who implicitly accept you because you share something – even if it’s hard to pin down what exactly. I guess this intangible, somewhat mystical sense of one big Jewish mishpacha is what Zionism is about, and getting Jews in the diaspora on board with this is the Birthright agenda.

Birthright achieves what it sets out to do pretty effectively. Not only does it bring together a diverse bunch of Jews and give them a hell of an experience; it also exposes them to natural salespeople of Israel along the way, people whose fervent pride in their country is infectious.

It is one thing reading about Zionism from an academic standpoint, and another sitting in the Hall of Independence, listening to a young Israeli talk passionately about how in 1947 Holocaust survivors fresh from the camps fought for somewhere to call home.

We were told that Birthright is not a holiday, but rather a gift. That sounded a bit hokey to me at the time, but now I get it. It’s a gift for which I am hugely thankful: but I won’t be making aliyah anytime soon!

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On Travel

Unity in diversity – the view from an Indian IT hub

The basis of independent India post-1948 was, to a large extent, the nurturing and maintaining of ‘unity in diversity’ – seen as the only conceivable blueprint for governing a people divided along regional, linguistic, religious and (far less so now) caste lines by the ruling Congress Party. While in New Delhi on business a week ago, I caught a glimpse of how this works in practice.

Getting a feel for how printer hardware and supplies are sold at Nehru Place, one of the major IT hubs of South Asia, I saw both sellers and consumers from all walks of life represented in its sizeable courtyard and surrounding maze of commercial units. One particularly amenable store manager told me over a cup of chai about the relatively peaceful coexistence of the hundreds of sellers in the complex, contrary to my assumption that competition would be fierce and perhaps even overwhelming in such a concentrated area. Further, he assigned one of his salesmen to take me on a whistle-stop tour, so that I could truly witness the variety on offer.

HP cartridge for saleAs we snaked in and out of passageways lined with tightly packed stores and circled the courtyard of makeshift stalls, I was pretty amazed by what I saw: shops dedicated to selling original merchandise from one of the major IT brands, next to cupboard-sized shops selling all sorts, stacked up to the ceiling like giant Jenga, and sole traders perched on the pavement curb carrying out ink cartridge refills.

There was no ‘one-stop shop’ to be found; each seller in the complex offered something different. The collective seemed more important than the individual businesses.

So my impression of Nehru Place in New Delhi was of a microcosm of India: highly populated, hugely diverse and above all, chaotic – but somehow (!), it works as a cohesive unit.

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On Travel

Four Short Days in Berlin

I’m pretty ashamed at how long it has taken me to write up my Berlin trip (8-11 July) – horrendously poor effort on my part! I’ve reached dizzying new heights of procrastination these past couple of months. Anyway, here it is…

My pre-trip impression of Berlin can be summarised as follows: it’s a bit of a playground for the young and bohemian, with myriad café-bars, a vibrant contemporary art scene and crazy nightlife. My fellow travellers and I did have a number of experiences that supported this characterisation; however I have to stress that the city is so much more than that, with its diversity of neighbourhoods and its powerful sense of history – palpable when you walk through certain areas and past particular buildings. It is by no means a ‘pretty city’, having to a large extent been reduced to rubble during the Second World War and rapidly rebuilt, and moreover according to two divergent ideological designs (‘Westen’ vs. ‘Osten’). Yet this adds to, rather than detracts from, its character in many ways.

Another thing I appreciated about Berlin was how unpretentious its inhabitants are compared to say, Londoners, Parisiens or the Milanese. In bars and clubs there seemed to be no great impetus to dress or act a certain way; Berliners were far more preoccupied with having fun than posing – an admirable quality to possess!

But enough flattery – here’s my run-down of the trip.

On our first full day we started out at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe: a concrete maze comprising over 2,700 slabs. Engulfed by cold, grey concrete and losing your sense of place – not to mention your friends, who may sneak off and try to scare the shit out of you! – can be quite a chilling and alienating experience. Strolling through the Tiergarten, which is a park that is to Berlin what Central Park is to NYC, we marvelled at an art installation that paid homage to the homosexual community: a tiny screen playing various man-on-man embraces on loop, encased by a comparably large concrete cube. Past the Brandenburg Gate, we paused in front of the Reichstag and took stock of this impressively imposing building. We continued on, tracing the River Spree for much of the way, until another great building gave us cause to stop and linger for a little while: the Berliner Dom.

Berliner Dom

Berliner Dom

Nifty art installation

Nifty art installation

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Late afternoon found us at the somewhat elusively-located C/O Berlin, a modern art gallery housed in Berlin’s former Royal Post Office. A poster for Larry Clark’s Teenage Lust exhibition depicting a woman’s ‘lady garden’ hung incongruously above the entrance of the grandiose, traditional-looking building. Still, we weren’t adequately prepared for the shock factor of Clark’s photography collection, which sought to capture and, in a sense, reinvigorate the spirit of teen exploit, with drug-fuelled youths indulging in sexual exploration while allowing a photographer to witness and consign their memory to future generations. Clark openly admitted that part of the raison d’etre of creating the collection was so that he could revive his own care-free teen days, vicariously living through his subjects.

Enter via the giant muff

Enter via the giant muff

Bathtime

Bathtime

A friend pointed out something to me that made her deeply uncomfortable about the entire exhibition, which I too found hard to swallow: were the girls high on narcotics consenting parties to the orgies captured so matter-of-factly on film, or was there something more sinister at play? Was Clark an impartial witness to borderline rape? The photos of youths shooting up on heroin were also disturbing, and pretty difficult to actually look at without turning quickly away (although this is partly due to my fear of needles…).

Moving swiftly on – without dwelling too much on the most unsavoury aspects of the ‘Teenage Lust’ exhibition – Rafal Milach’s ‘Seven Rooms’ transported us to another ‘dark place’ – this time the suburbs of Moscow. The Polish photographer’s series of intimate portraits showed the tension between the old Soviet mentality and the new ways of thinking engendered by Putin’s Russia. Taken as a collective, the seven subjects of the exhibition appeared to be a microcosm of their conflicted nation: in video diaries, they revealed their fervour for their newly-found freedoms, their cynicism about how Russia is governed, their desire for the pre-’89 sense of comfort and community. One particularly poignant quote summed up the general sentiment of the exhibition for me: ‘The difference is that once upon a time people knew what they had to say, but they couldn’t say it. Now you can say anything, but no one knows what to say.’

After dinner, a few of us wound up in a bar where the clientelle sported a total disregard for the smoking ban – something I noticed a fair bit in Germany and was not all that surprised by, having learnt about the efficacy of the tobacco lobby there (one of the more interesting articles I had to read for a Public Policy class back at uni focused on the German tobacco industry’s use of the Nazi past to equate anti-smoking legislation with fascism…).

Another day, another facet of Berlin to explore. With the mid-afternoon sun beating on us with considerable intensity, we explored the Topography of Terror outdoor exhibition. Annotated photos, newspaper clippings and signage from the 1933-145 period laid bare the Nazi-driven horrors of totalitarianism and extreme racialism, against the backdrop of a segment of the Berlin Wall. As a Jew I have heard so much already about the atrocities committed against those of the ‘alien’/ ‘intruder’ religion, so it was particularly interesting to find out about humanitarian crimes committed against other minority groups, most notably homosexuals.

Remnants of the Wall

Remnants of the Wall

Being a travel nerd paid off when it came to deciding what to do for the Big Last Night Out: my online research had thrown up a couple of options, including a techno night at a club named Cookies. Tuesday night in Berlin is apparently as buzzing as Friday night in London, with the majority of the clubbers there partying until five or six in the morning. Without going into too much (incriminating) detail about the night/ morning, we arrived back at the hostel at 10.30am the next day a little dazed but in high spirits after a pretty surreal – but thoroughly enjoyable – ‘last hurrah’ in Berlin.

No rest for the wicked – after showering and a quick nap, we had to vacate our room, leaving us to wander round the Bauhaus Museum and then the Tiergarten in a state of delirium! Luckily the museum was compelling enough to keep me awake; the former Bauhaus school’s novel framework for approaching design and the progress its students made in diverse fields of design, from architecture to stage design, are truly inspiring. The museum also stood as a reminder of the liberal hotspot that Berlin was in the early twentieth century and how creativity thrived there, until Nazism extinguished it so brutally and systematically.

Bauhaus Museum

Bauhaus Museum

John F. Kennedy is famed (and shamed) for remarking, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ – translated as, ‘I am a jelly doughnut.’ Maybe that really was the sentiment he wished to express, and history has wrongly judged him. In any case, four short days in Germany’s capital city left me feeling a little like a wannabe ‘Berliner’. There are many great things I love about the sprawling metropolis that I call home, but I think Berlin could teach it a thing or two.

Stunning sight by the Tiergarten. Goodbye, Berlin

Stunning sight by the Tiergarten

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On Travel

A Clash of Cultures in Seville

Recently I was in the south of Spain – Seville, to be more precise – wandering the postcard-perfect cobbled streets, chowing down on tapas, exploring opulent – erring on the side of vulgar – Catholic churches, and observing with affection the spirited locals. As I write this, my mind drifts to thoughts of the sound of the city, consisting of the music of street performers, the clip-clop of horses’ hooves and the not-so-discreet conversations and laughter of convivial Spaniards sustained day and well into the night. I also think back to the taste of the heart attack-inducing fried meat that looked deceptively innocuous when served on those little plates.

We landed hungry and, on my part at least, pretty knackered, but the draw of unexplored and gloriously sunny Sevilla was too strong; hotel check-in complete and suitcase dumped in the room, we headed out and wandered in the surrounding areas of Santa Cruz and Centro. The Maria Luisa Park was the first major landmark we hit, which led on to Plaza de Espana, an impressive piece of neo-Mudéjar architecture (the revival of a Muslim-inspired Spanish style) apparently built for the Ibero-American Exposition World’s Fair of 1929. This event actually governed the redevelopment of the entire southern art of the city at the time, which goes a long way to explaining why everything looked so lovely along the trail of that first-day stroll.
The breathtaking Plaza de Espana

The breathtaking Plaza de Espana

We finally succumbed to hunger, and sought out our first tapas bar of the trip. Word to the wise: ordering tapas when you speak no Spanish whatsoever and one of you doesn’t eat pork is not something I would recommend trying without a guidebook to aid you. We were ill-equipped. It didn’t help, either, that I don’t eat much fish outside of the shellfish family. Yet somehow, with some decent guesswork, a little understanding of English on the part of the waiter, and much gesticulating from all parties involved (a running theme of the trip), we managed to successfully order lunch.

Next on the first-day agenda was Seville Cathedral – third largest in the world but with a great deal more to commend it than just size. Once inside, we marvelled at the massive organ and eavesdropped on a tour group long enough to learn that about 15% of Christopher Columbus can be found in the cathedral’s Tomb of Christopher Columbus. Also interesting was the permitted sit-in protest by jobless young teachers. We then climbed the many ramps spiralling up the tower for great views of Seville.
Atop the cathedral
The following day we wandered, hoping to stumble upon the cultural hot spots without being chained to the map. We didn’t find much of note until we crossed the river to an area clearly on the periphery, but well worth the journey: there was a random American botanical garden running parallel to the river, which was pretty much deserted. So we happily strolled past fountains and cacti, until we hit road (and civilisation). Luckily for us, the area had something more ‘substantial’ to offer us, in the form of the Andalusian Centre for Contemporary Arts. The epicentre of this compound of buildings and gardens was a monastery-cum-ceramic factory-cum-exhibition space. We spent the rest of the afternoon here, enjoying a variety of exhibitions on the urban landscape and lifestyle.
The Andalusian Centre for Contemporary Arts at sunset
After an evening consisting of uber rich hot chocolate and my first ever orchestral experience – complete with Spanish guitar! – we retired to our room embarrassingly early in preparation for our big day out in Cordoba. The main draw of the little city an hour away by train was the Mosque Cathedral – truly one of the most spectacular buildings I’ve ever seen. As suggested by the name, the cathedral was formerly a mosque (for a potted history of Muslim rule in Spain, please look to Wikipedia, for I am lazy) and retains the original features. Most impressive was where mosque met cathedral, the white walls of the central chapel blending into the Muslim-style arches surrounding it.
Inside the Mosque Cathedral in Cordoba
On our last full day, we visited the Alcazar, a royal palace exemplifying Mudejar architecture. We went from room to room, marvelling in each at the intricate detailing on the ceiling, walls and windows.
A fine slice of Mudejar architecture
And another
Being Londoners, we’re not really accustomed to restrictive Sunday opening hours, and thus did not factor early closing into our planning for the last day; we arrived at the modern art gallery just as the staff were clearing people out. There seemed nothing left for us to do, except eat more tapas and cake (the burdens we have to bear sometimes…). The tapas bar of choice in our vicinity was what I can only describe as Seville’s answer to the New  York deli. It was manically busy, with locals barking orders for Cruzcampo beer, montaditos (mini sandwiches), and fried bread topped with pork or fish. It took me ten minutes, four guys behind the counter (two with the patience of saints) and record levels of gesticulating to order our food. For dessert, we picked up some kind of multi-layered cake from a café we went to on the first evening, and returned to the Plaza de Espana for eating accompanied by people watching. One final tapas dinner a few hours later brought the holiday to an end. So that was our Seville trip: a voyage of discovery that I thoroughly enjoyed but still believe would have benefited from a guidebook listing food-related vocab.
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